DAY TEN: Gender-based violence in the archives: Curating the past without perpetuating harm

Kirsty Stewart writes about the role of the archivist and the problems of taking a neutral voice in curation when many stories are underpinned by gendered violence and silencing womens’ voices.

Kirsty M Stewart

Featured image: “The old style archives” by ʎɔ. is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

It has long been a part of archival training that archivists bear a neutral voice in describing records in catalogues for their users. Recently, that notion has been actively dispelled as the predominantly white, middle-class profession realises that it brings to bear a white, middle-class perspective on describing, arranging and even collecting archives.

Two examples of this are the following accounts relating to the Gaelic community in the Outer Hebrides in the 1800s in which gender-based violence has been perpetuated or altered, perhaps even sanitised, as they make their way through history. Women have had their names erased (sometimes thankfully) but also their voices – their dissent or distress ignored in favour of a good story or song.

The accounts come from the notebooks of the nineteenth-century Scottish folklorist and antiquarian Dr Alexander Archibald Carmichael (1832 – 1912), which are inscribed in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. Held at the University of Edinburgh, this archive contains priceless pieces of Scottish folklore and oral tradition. Perhaps even more precious are the accompanying notes detailing the individuals who recounted or were recounted in charms, songs and stories.

“Màiri Bhòidheach” [Beautiful Mary]: ‘…she could never bear to hear the song’ One jarring example concerns the song “Màiri Bhoidheach”, a highly regarded example of a Gaelic song about unrequited love between a man and a woman. In a notebook from 1877, Carmichael reveals the real story behind the song, which heard in North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. It was written by the local schoolmaster, Alexander Stewart (1764-1821), in the 1890s about Mary MacQueen (1783-1860), the minister’s daughter.

(Archives reference GB 237 Coll-97/CW108/47)

“Mairi Bhoidheach”
was the daught[er] of Rev. Alan MacCuinn
son of Rev. Donul MacCuinn, Taigh
earry. Song composed by Alexander
Stewart a schoolmaster. Kept the
school at Baileanloch – the only one
in N. Uist at the time. Stewart was
alleged to have used some familiarity
with some of his female pupils which
whether founded or unfounded caused
a feeling against him & he left. The
children of the best people in N. Uist at-
tended his school Miss Mary MacCuinn
(Nic Cuinn) was one in his school, and she
took sl such a dislike to the man that
she could never bear to hear the song. She
died some some [sic] 15 years ago or so – aged
She was a very tall handsome portly
woman of mild benevolent disposition.
   Stewart left Uist about the year 1800.

Stewart had a reputation for ‘familiarity with some of his female pupils’. He had moved on because of ill-feeling against him, ‘whether founded or unfounded’, Carmichael’s informant had added. Mary’s physical appearance and character are noted as if to validate the song. It had entered local lore that Mary ‘took such a dislike to the man that she could never bear to hear the song’. Yet this did not stop the performance of Màiri Bhòidheach in her own community and many others for decades to come. How many other pupils might have squirmed or felt relieved that the song was not about them?

This example raises uncomfortable questions for those of us who curate records. Songs and stories about the abuse of vulnerable girls can be preserved as entertainment but to erase them might falsify history.

Alexander Stewart has been remembered as the composer of a beautiful love-song. Mary MacQueen’s story, her hatred of the song and what it truly meant, is little more than a quiet note in the archives.[1]

 “…with much quiet humour”

In another entry ‘Eòlas na Budha’ (charm for jaundice), this time from 1883, another young woman’s distress became the object of derision.

Carmichael noted down a long-standing story from South Uist. Angus MacEachen (c.1810-1890), a  herd, was called to treat the daughter of Roderick MacMillan ([fl. c.1850]), a neighbouring farmer. Aged 18 or 19, the girl in this story was, Carmichael noted, ‘a stout portly good looking girl’. Angus made a great show of heating a red hot poker, asked her mother to bare the girl’s back and then had everyone leave the girl’s room. He led her to believe that he was going to put the hot poker on her bare back. But at the moment she expected it, he placed a cold piece of iron on her back instead, to her great distress. ‘She roared and roared and screamed causing her mother and all the people in the house to rush into the room’.[2] (Archives reference GB 237 Coll-97/CW87/11)

In the published version[3], Carmichael writes that the young woman’s “mother and sisters burst open the door, calling on Mary Mother to rescue the maltreated girl, and on Calumcille[4] to redress her wrongs”. Yet the last word belonged to Angus MacEachen himself, who “told of this and similar cases with much humour, but without a smile on his lips, though his eyes sparked, and his countenance glowed with evident appreciation of the scenes.”

Once again, this young woman is identifiable, if not by name in either the notebook or publication by her relatives. That this is how she was ‘cured’ would be known in the community and with Angus’s reputation for curing may have been used as a dramatic example of his abilities. It also has the air of a cautionary tale for other girls/women. This young woman’s lack of choice or control, the indignity and cruel humour embedded in the tale (‘the cure’) would probably have been felt by her for many years.


So, what can the archivist do about these stories and the ways they have been preserved?

We cannot shy away from the wrongs perpetrated on Mary MacQueen or on Nic Ille Mhaoil [MacMillan’s daughter] but we can bear witness to them and change how they are represented.

In addressing concerns regarding bias or material which could be upsetting to others, we are starting to develop trigger warnings for catalogued material. We are trying to identify the unnamed if it seems possible –in the case of the young woman from South Uist, through her relations. We are trying to use language which is less biased and more empowering, whether it is through using the language the people represented would use themselves or whether it is considering what, as in this instance, the young women involved would think. The perpetuation of acts of violence on women and girls through their re-telling can be de-sanitised by less ‘neutral’ catalogue descriptions giving these women and girls a voice their history should have had all along.

Author’s Bio

Kirsty M Stewart is the New College Collections Curator and School of Scottish Studies Archivist, Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh. Her undergraduate degrees is in Gaelic Studies from the University of Aberdeen and her postgraduate qualification is in Archival Studies from University College Dublin. She has been an archivist for nearly 25 years.

[1] Read the original notebook entry: ; catalogue entry (ref. Coll-97/CW108/47, University of Edinburgh):

[2]Read the original notebook entry: and ; Catalogue entry reference:

[3] Carmichael, Alexander Archibald, Carmina Gadelica Ortha nan Gàidheal, volume II, Edinburgh (1900), pp 12-13.

[4] Calumcille is also known as Colm Cille or St Columba: