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international women's day

The Pirate and the Marmalade Maker: Great British and Irish Women

Posted on 8 Mar 2024

There’s a great quote by Eleanor Roosevelt that goes: “A woman is like a tea bag – you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.” Or there’s Coco Chanel’s lovely sentiment: “A girl should be two things: who and what she wants.” And for a new generation, there’s Emma Watson’s “I don’t want other people to decide who I am. I want to decide that for myself.” 

I believe that every day we should celebrate people’s achievements, no matter who that person is. But sometimes it’s nice to set aside specific time to acknowledge how far some have come. And every year on March 8th we celebrate International Women’s Day.  

Since moving to Scotland, I’ve heard about some of these brave and passionate Scottish women that the locals so love. There’s Mary, Queen of Scots, who – throughout her tumultuous and tragic reign – managed to maintain a level of grace and intelligence. There’s Flora MacDonald, a loyal Jacobite who aided Bonnie Prince Charlie’s escape. There’s Isabella Elder who passionately supported women’s education.  

This got me thinking about this little lot of land I now call home. From England to Wales, Ireland to Northern Ireland, and - of course – Scotland, there are endless women to look up today on International Women’s Day. And of course, there are the ones you know already – Joan of Arc, Lady Godiva, Jane Austen. But I’m more interested in the ladies who may have slipped past your radar.  

So, sit back and enjoy the read as I recount the tales of some of the great British and Irish women who I would personally love to write stories about. These ladies might be the ones you talk about today – on your social media, to your friends and family, to your daughters who are only hearing about International Women’s Day for the first time. Let these stories be your inspiration today, as they were for me.  

Coming up in this blog: 

  • Gráinne Mhaol (Grace O’Malley) 
  • Mary, Queen of Scots 
  • Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd 
  • Janet Keillor 
  • Beatrix Potter 
  • Saint Queen Margaret 

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Gráinne Mhaol/Grace O’Malley (Ireland, 1530 – 1603)  

I really debated who should start off this blog and it came down to two choices: a queen or a pirate. And while queens are pretty cool... there’s just something about a good pirate that you can’t beat (sorry Mary). So, without further ado, I’d like you to meet Gráinne Mhaol, also known as Grace O’Malley.  

Known herself as a queen of sorts, Grace became a renowned pirate queen in the 16th century. Born into the legendary seafaring Ó Máille family, she inherited her father’s ships as well as his maritime skills (lucky, that).  

With her own fleet of ships under her command, Grace conducted raids against the English up and down the west coast of Ireland. And anyone who opposed the English rule in Ireland at that time was bound to gain favour.  

Like every good pirate, she was savvy, developing strong alliances with powerful Irish chieftains and Scottish clans. I can imagine the English being a touch afraid of confronting such a force *gulp*.  

And, as with any good pirate, there are plenty of legends surrounding her too. History tells us that she met with Queen Elizabeth I to negotiate on behalf of her clan. But legend has it that she refused to bow before the queen. Why? Well, she herself was an Irish chieftain and had no loyalty or obligation to bow to a British queen. Bad. Ass.  

Another story goes that she rescued her imprisoned son by scaling the walls of a castle using nothing but a rope ladder and her grit. What’s the male equivalent of ‘damsel in distress’?  

But it’s more than just loving a good pirate story. This pirate queen has become a symbol of Irish resistance, female empowerment, and Irish identity.  

Mary, Queen of Scots (Scotland 1542 – 1587) 

There’s something so enticing about that title. Mary (dramatic pause), Queen of Scots. Just saying her names sends a wee shiver or two down the spine. You know you’re in for a good story when someone mentions Mary. How could stories about a girl who became queen at the age of six... days old... not be amazing?  

Alas, her life and reign were both controversial and tragic. I wish I had better news for you, but sadly Mary’s story isn’t the most cheerful. But that’s Scotland for you. 

At six years old, she was sent to France for safety where she became close with the French Dauphin, Francis. Monarchs love a good alliance, so they were wed... but at the tender age of eighteen, Mary became a widow. When her reign in Scotland officially took off, it was characterized by tragedy, political intrigue, and much conflict.  

I could go on. And on. And tell you the details of how Mary ended up imprisoned by her cousin, Elizabeth I, and spent 19 years in captivity before she was executed at the age of 44... but I'm not sure I have the heart to break yours.  

Instead, I’m going to tell you about why the Scottish people love her. She is a symbol of resilience, for one. Despite her tragic life and fate, she is championed as a queen who fought tooth and nail against adversity and who fought to establish her authority in a male-dominated world.  

Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd (Wales, 1097 – 1136)  

You know what’s better than a pirate and a queen? A warrior princess, that’s who. Not as much is known about Gwenllian, but I’ll do my best to rave about her. Born in 1097 to the King of Gwynedd, much of Gwenllian’s life and legacy has been told through legends and folklore but she affectionately known as Wales’ Joan of Arc. 

But one thing we do know is that she was a warrior, known for her bravery and leadership in defending Wales against Norman invaders back in 1136. Born into royalty, that didn’t stop Gwenllian from leading an army into battle to Normans at the Battle of Kidwelly in Carmarthenshire. 

She and her army fought valiantly but unfortunately defeated, and Gwenllian was killed in action. 

As for those legends? It’s said that Gwenllian's infant son was snatched from her very arms during the battle and was then raised in England by a Norman lord. This boy then became a man determined to reclaim his rightful inheritance and avenge his mother’s death.  

Today, Gwenllian’s courage and legacy have been immortalized in Welsh history, as she continues to inspire the people of Wales. A memorial statue now stands, and Gwenllian Day is celebrated on 17th July. 


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Janet Keillor (Scotland, 1735 – 1813) 

I knew I had to include Janet Keillor because of my dad. This rather stoic man who grew up in Seven Oaks in England, with a guitar in hand, and a cheeky remark poised on his lips... well, he adores marmalade. And while I’m not the biggest fan, I appreciate that the Brits do love their marmalade.  

The story goes that Janet was married to a man called James, who owned a grocer’s shop in Dundee, Scotland. One night there was a terrible storm, so a Spanish cargo ship sought refuge in the port of Dundee (sounds more dramatic than it probably was). And James – for some reason – thought it was a good idea to buy a shipment of bitter Seville oranges from this cargo ship. Why not? 

But the people of Dundee weren’t having it. Due to their horrible bitter taste, he was unable to sell the oranges. And what’s that saying... waste not? Well, Jane believed that. So, she decided to take the oranges and make them into a preserve by boiling them with sugar.  

And the first batch of ‘Dundee marmalade’ was born.  

They’d struck orange-marmalade-gold and began producing and selling the marmalade even beyond the borders of Dundee. With a distinct flavour and notable texture, their product became iconic. The business grew and grew. A factory was established. The Keiller brand became synonymous with excellence.  

And on behalf of people like my father, who cannot get enough marmalade, we thank you Janet. And maybe a little bit James. And perhaps the storm.  

Beatrix Potter (England, 1866 – 1943) 

I’m going to assume most of you have heard of Beatrix Potter. If not, you’ll likely know her famous children’s book series The Tale of Peter Rabbit. It's one thing to be a talented writer and illustrator... like that’s not already enough. But our dear Ms. Potter was also a passionate conservationist.  

During her youth, Beatrix spent much time in England’s beautiful Lake District. Day after day, she stared at the lovely landscapes that were partly the inspiration for her famous books. But it was more than that for Beatrix. She was oddly drawn to mycology (the study of fungi) and became an authority on the subject, supporting its conservation in the Lake District region. 

Today, her books continue to delight and inspire, and her conservation efforts continue to influence the Lake District's approach to preservation. 

Saint Queen Margaret (Scotland, 1045 - 1093)

I’m not a religious woman myself, but anyone who is supposedly known for introducing the tradition of Easter eggs to Scotland is kind of woman.  

Saint Queen Margaret was born in 1045 in Hungary to Edward the Exile, son of King Edmund Ironside of England, and Hungarian princess Agatha. Not a great start to life when your father has ‘exile’ in his title. It’s no great surprise that she spent her early years in exile in Hungary alongside father dearest.  

But eventually they were able to return to England, and Margaret did pretty well for herself. She married King Malcolm III of Scotland in 1070 and became Queen Consort of Scotland. Her main goal, it seemed, was to promote religious reform and grow the bond between the Scottish monarchy and the Catholic Church. 

Her efforts led to many new establishments across the country including monasteries, churches, and charitable institutions. On top of that, she was a big advocate for education and the arts, which means she is known for her contributions to the cultural and intellectual development of Scotland.  

And in 1250, she was dubbed a saint by Pope Innocent IV as recognition for her holiness and charitable works. If you’re looking for a celebration to fill your November calendar, you could do so on Margaret’s feast day: November 16th. To this day, she is admired for her kindness, generosity, and commitment to serving others.  

So, on this International Women’s Day... who are you going to celebrate? There’s room to celebrate them all. Those around you included. Who knows, maybe one day you or one of your close friends will be celebrated on International Women’s Day. I’m not sure I can do anything as important as introducing the tradition of Easter eggs... but I’ll do my best.  

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