Dead Interesting Women

Introduction by Liz Beevers, WEA Tutor

In the chilly early summer evenings of 2010 twenty members of the Workers' Educational Association's Women's Forum went seeking some Dead Interesting Women! Some of their discoveries are brought to life in this booklet.

The course was the brainchild of one member who wanted to combine exploring Edinburgh's graveyards with some research into women's history. So together we walked Greyfriars' Graveyard, the Canongate Kirkyard, the Quaker Cemetery and the municipal one at the Grange, noting the changing fashions in gravestone design and cemetery layout. But what really intrigued us was how women (the relicts, spouses, widows and daughters) were so little mentioned except as "grieving" or "devoted" wives and mothers. No doubt in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries these were the main roles open to them but even a major talent like Susan Ferrier, the novelist, only appears collected onto her father's memorial in St Cuthbert's as "daughter of......".

So, we discovered the exceptional gravestones of Mary Erskine in Greyfriars, Jane Whigham née Smeal and Priscilla Bright McLaren, (Quaker anti-slavery and suffrage campaigners), Clarinda(muse) and Mary Brunton (writer), in Canongate Kirkyard and Marjorie Kennedy Fraser (musician) in the Grange. And as we did so we were inspired to go off and explore other graveyards to see what dead, interesting women lay there and then go away to research and record their lives. A helpful session in the Edinburgh Room in the Central library gave us pointers on how to carry out this research and a final meeting in late summer gave us the chance to share our findings with one another before Elizabeth Bryan collated them into this booklet.

Our research prompted us to think about how our own lives could, or would, be summarised by those who come after us and indeed to consider which of our own achievements we value most. "Today me, tomorrow it's you!" admonished one Latin memorial in Greyfriars! We were also aware there is much more to know about our research subjects and would be delighted if anyone could add to our knowledge of these “Dead Interesting Women”.