On International Women’s Day, I thought it would be appropriate to honour some of the notable women of Gourock.
Catherine Mary Barr
While I’ve written on Catherine previously, I cannot allow the day to pass without acknowledging her life & work. I’m still searching for information about her, including photographs.
Mairi Crawford Lindsay has deep ties to Gourock. Her grandfather, Dan “Konga Vantu” Crawford, was a Plymouth Brethren missionary who travelled to central Africa to aid refugees of imperial predation. She attended Gourock Primary, and later St. Columba’s School for Girls in Kilmacolm. Yet from her home she could see the great Cowal Hills beyond Kirn and Dunoon, a sight everyone in Gourock will be familiar with. These memories would inspire her famous Katie Morag stories.
Mairi travelled throughout Scotland, attended Edinburgh College of Art, living in Argyll, the Scottish Borders, and the Highlands, before settling on Coll. The Katie Morag stories were adapted to television:
Louise Hunter grew up in Gourock, and attended Gourock High School. From this wee toun on the West of Scotland, Louise embarked upon a true globetrotting adventure. For 18 years, she worked at the Financial Times as Regional Director for Africa, Middle East, and Indian Sub-Continent, meeting with ministers, leaders, advisors, and all sorts of folk, from Angola to Bengal and everywhere in-between. Following her tenure at the Financial Times, she directed conferences for Thomson Financial, and then became Managing Director for Summerhouse Media. Some of the stories Louise could tell you would make your hair stand on end, from incredible moments in history to harrowing life-and-death situations, organising conferences for the likes of The World Bank and The International Finance Corporation, meeting some of history’s greatest leaders as well as brushing with tyrants (seriously, she should write a book about her experiences).
Louise is one of the driving forces behind Creative Inverclyde, a new initiative aimed at developing Inverclyde’s rich creative potential for the benefit of all its residents.
Jenifer Johnston is a journalist from Gourock. After achieving a BA in History from the University of Strathclyde in 2000, she joined the Sunday Herald, where she became Deputy Foreign Editor. Her investigations, from the exposure of child prostitution to the discovery that most British Army deaths in Iraq were accidental or suicides, led to Parliamentary working groups and great public interest. During her tenure, she was nominated for the Scottish Press Award’s Young Journalist of the Year prize three times. By 2007, she won a politics MSc (Merit), China in the International Arena, from the University of Glasgow.
Since then, Jenifer has expanded her horizons exponentially: in 2007, she led Glasgow’s successful bid for the 2014 Commonwealth Games as Public Relations & Press Officer, later Media Manager. After 6 months as Senior Press Officer for the newly-named Scottish Government in 2008, she worked as Communications and Outreach Manager for the Scottish Human Rights Commission (2008-2017). In 2016, Jenifer took on the role as Stakeholder Manager in Scotland for the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign: every constituency in Scotland voted Remain, with several constituencies returning the largest Remain percentages in the whole UK (Inverclyde was 30th). Jenifer also contributed freelance work for The National.
The story of Mary Lamont is one of the sadder and bleaker tales in Gourock’s history, but it is no less important than any others. While born in either Gourock or Greenock in 1646, Mary’s tale focuses on the nearby village of Inverkip, where she lived until her death in 1662. This was right in the middle of the “Witch Mania” which gripped Scotland in the second half of the 17th Century.
Sir Archibald Stewart of Blackhall, Laird of Ardgowan, was responsible for instigating a Royal Enquiry into witchcraft in Inverkip. While prerequisites for accusation were much more precise than when the hunts began following the Witchcraft Act of 1563 – that confessions must be voluntary & not obtained under torture, that the accused must be an adult, and that they must be of sound mind – the power of the Kirk in local areas meant that a zealous investigator could afford to appeal to the “old ways.”
Mary’s trial lasted a single day. She was tried alongside Margaret Duff, Jonet Hynman, Margret Letch, Margret Rankin, and Kathrin Scott. According to the trial, Mary freely admited her induction into witchcraft at the age of 13, her Satanic baptism, and the many supernatural activities she partook in. Among the accusations made were transforming into a cat, magical milk theft, and attempting to push the Kempock Stone into the sea in order to wreck ships in the Firth of Clyde. Mary was found guilty of witchcraft, and burned at the stake. The Auldkirk at Inverkip is believed to be the site of her death.
The tragedy of Mary was adapted into a television series, starring Shirley Henderson and Alan Cumming. The series was shot and set in Gourock, where the Kempock Stone now resides.
Low was born in 1924 in Gourock, a town at the mouth of the River Clyde. In 1942, she enrolled at the Glasgow School of Art. Here, whilst training under teachers like David Donaldson and Benno Schotz, she befriended contemporaries including Joan Eardley and Ian Hamilton Finlay, as well as influential émigré artists Josef Herman and Jankel Adler, whose studio she eventually took on. Like Eardley, Low followed up her diploma with a formative residency under James Cowie at Hospitalfields, Arbroath.
Also in common with these peers, Low possessed a single-minded focus towards her art practise that meant she only briefly entertained the idea, as many artists do, of becoming an art teacher. Instead she resolutely pursued an independent artistic career, starting by immersing herself in the creative community of Glasgow’s Unity Theatre. Here she painted and designed sets, illustrated periodicals and depicted the theatre’s characterful members of cast and crew, some of whom are featured in the portraiture shown here. The theatre shared the same building at the Refugee Centre, which proved influential on Low’s developing socialist ideologies. Though quite literally freezing in the proverbial bohemian garret during this time, the single-minded Low was in her element.
Over these formative years, Low fostered an enduring love of philosophy, politics and progressive discussion. In 1946 she joined the Clyde Group of Writers and Artists, whose manifesto sought to bring art and poetry to the masses, via a proactive series of exhibitions and events.
It was during this period that Low produced the bold, expressionistic ink drawings and linocuts of a Glasgow that has since disappeared. They remain remarkable snapshots of social history; depicting markets, street protesters and sooty tenement backcourts.
Joan McAlpine is nowadays most well known as MSP for the South Scotland Region since 2011, but she started life as a journalist. She attended St. Ninian’s Primary School in Gourock, and remained in Inverclyde for her High School education at St. Columba’s. After achieving her MA (Hons) in Scottish History and Economic History at the University of of Glasgow, she embarked on a career in journalism. She worked at the Greenock Telegraph, The Scotsman, The Sunday Times, and The Herald, winning 1999’s Scottish Journalist of the Year award.
There are many names commemorated on the Gourock War Memorial. Only one of them belongs to a woman: Alice Murdoch, V.A.D. She died in Perth War Hospital on 10th December 1916 at 28 years of age, after contracting an illness from treating wounded soldiers returning from the war front. Alice is also commemorated on the Murdoch family gravestone at Gourock Cemetary, and in the stained glass war memorial in St. John’s Church in Gourock.
Lynne Quinn, elected in 2017, is the first woman to represent Gourock as a councillor since Margaret Young in 1935, and was recently appointed the first ever Female Champion for Inverclyde. Having served on Gourock’s Community Council as secretary for more years than she’d probably like to remember, as well as years of activism on multiple issues, moving into a Council role seemed the next logical step for her.
Fiona Ritchie was born in Greenock, but spent her childhood in Gourock. It was here that she developed her love of Celtic music and radio, listening to the BBC’s Home Service, her mother singing Robert Burns songs, and joining a youth choir. After studying Scottish and English literature and psychology at the University of Stirling, Fiona moved to the United States in the 1980s, where her radio series The Thistle & Shamrock played on WFAE-FM. While her show went nationwide in America, she always retained a base in Scotland, eventually finding her way onto the BBC in the 1990s. She currently curates ThistleRadio, an all-day webservice dedicated to classic and contemporary Celtic music.
Melissa Stribling Smith was born in Gourock in 1926. Little is known of her time in Gourock except that it was short: she moved with her family to England by the time she was in her teens. She worked as a cutting-room assistant at the famous Ealing Studios: here she met her future husband, director Basil Dearden. It wasn’t long before the photogenic Melissa made the jump from behind-the-scenes to on the screen: she trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and was soon starring in films and television starting with 1952’s The Locked Room. However, Melissa is probably most famous for her role as Mina Holmwood in 1958’s Dracula, the first of the legendary Hammer Horrors featuring Christopher Lee as Dracula and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing. The film was notorious for its shockingly violent & sexual content, with Melissa’s performance as Mina a particular focus for moral indignation (and, in later years, praise for accomplished acting).
Melissa continued to work as a character actress over the course of 30 years, but she was very proud of the role which immortalised her career, as her son Torquil related in 2008:
“She was certainly very proud of having done Dracula. She used to tell fantastic stories about Christopher Lee throwing her into this big open grave in the Pinewood back lot. She opened her mouth to scream and he took great delight in throwing a whole sod all over her face, and she always thought that was incredibly funny.”
A curious quirk of fate happened when the Royal Mail commemorated the 50th anniversary of Horror of Dracula with a stamp: it meant that Melissa was the first Scottish woman to be depicted on a Royal Mail stamp, and only the fourth Scot – after none other than Robert the Bruce, Robert Burns, and David Livingstone. Not bad for a lass from Gourock!
Scottish artist Ann Wegmuller RSW RWS (b. 1941) is known for her bold use of colour and evocative compositions, often of the Scottish countryside. These always use a skilful degree of abstraction, helping in her quest to convey the feelings and memories of place, and letting us see a deeper magic that is always there within the land.
“Colour is very important to me. It is probably the subject of my paintings. The painting itself starts from my feeling for a place and the colour is the mood. It is like music: different sounds are like different colours.
Each colour has its own beauty and strength but can be enhanced or toned down by another colour. The excitement for me comes from doing the unexpected with this.
To put down a loaded brush of cadmium red, then sharpen it with shapes of pale magenta, or paint some cool dark yellow and put beside it some warm pale blue instead of the other way around.”
Ann Wegmuller was born in Gourock, near Glasgow. She was based in Zurich during the 1960s and now lives and works in Perthshire.
Margaret Young was the first woman Provost not only of Gourock, but of the Lower Clyde as a whole. Margaret was born in Helensburgh, but was a Gourockian for many years, living on Binnie Street for most of her life. Before she was elected, she joined the Gourock branch of the Soldiers’, Sailors’, and Airmen’s Families’ Association during the First World War, and was promoted to chairman for the Western Division. Her work was recognised by Queen Mary, who sent her a certificate of merit. when she was elected to the position in 1932.
There are many more women I could mention, but the list’d be as long as my arm. If there are any women of Gourock you’re thinking of this International Women’s Day, I’d love to hear about them.