The National:

IN 2018 I was commissioned to remap Scotland according to female history for Historic Environment Scotland. The resulting book, Where are the Women? was chosen for the David Hume First Minister’s Summer Reading List 2019 and changed my political views.

I had been a liberal equality activist, but the more I researched the more I became radicalised. Choosing more than 1200 stories of amazing Scottish women was a fraught task. While women’s achievements are underrepresented in our built heritage by a factor of several hundred to one, I was well aware that for women who weren’t white, Christian, middle/upper class, heteronormative and able, that factor increased. Finding the stories of these people became a special mission for me long before crowds began toppling statues of old, white slave traders.

READ MORE: Sara Sheridan: Women have been written out of our history

One group that stood out were disabled women, many of whom had contributed to their communities and had been all but forgotten. In fact the only disabled woman I found who was properly memorialised was Christina Miller (1899–2001), who overcame disability and sexism to become a respected analytical chemist. In 1928 she produced the first sample of pure phosphorus trioxide for which she received the Keith Prize, awarded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh for a scientific paper containing a discovery in mathematics or earth sciences. In 1949 Miller became one of the first five women – and the only chemist – to be elected to the Royal Society.

With impaired hearing from childhood, she had also lost her sight in one eye in a lab explosion in the 1930s. Beyond her traditional biographical details I was delighted to discover that as a research assistant she had left a window open in the lab so she could climb in at night to keep working. Such dedication paid off and today there is a building at the University of Edinburgh named after her.

Contemporary with Miller, other 20th-century women who had militated to enable disabled people included Dr Margaret Blackwood and Angela Booth Dobbie. Both were instrumental to the founding of organisations that continue to provide vital services to the disabled community today. Blackwell (1924–1994), set up Disability Income Group Scotland and was dubbed a "warrior in a wheelchair" for doing so. In 1972, she also founded a housing association to provide homes designed for people with disabilities and Blackwood Homes continues that work today. Dobbie (1937–2012) founded and led Artlink, which champions access to the arts for people with a range of disabilities. Dobbie loved to travel and despite being wheelchair-bound enjoyed paragliding. "I like to feel the wind on my face," she said.

While these women left a tangible campaigning legacy, Murdina Macdermid (1925–1996), a community activist from Harris who was voted Disabled Scot of the Year in 1987, bequeathed, as independent councillor Morag Munro put it "Cuimhne ’s iomradh math a chaoidh bidh air an fhìrean chòir" ("Memory is a good account of the truth") – a community memory. Macdermid ran the Harris Disabled Group shop and alongside other local campaigners was key to the creation of a tapestry that depicts 1000 years of Harris history.

Another disabled woman with a creative legacy from an earlier generation is Christian Gray (1772–c1830), known as the "blind poet", who worked in Scots and English. From Aberdalgie, Gray lost her eyesight through smallpox and wrote feisty and beautiful poems on a range of subjects including her own blindness.

Lastly but not least, the plight of a key group of women with disabilities who were victimised still remains largely uncommemorated. Among the victims of the Scottish witchcraft trials were several women who had physical and mental disabilities and were targeted for that reason. Claire Mitchell QC is currently pioneering a campaign to pardon all the accused witches and memorialise them.

Writing Where are the Women? was a shocking experience. I found it hard to believe that with my range of interests there were so many sheroes I had never heard of. Modelling achievement is so important – if people don’t see people like themselves on plinths and street plaques then it’s much more difficult to imagine doing something to deserve one. We need to reform our city centres to be more inclusive. If we don’t it makes it far more difficult to understand the diversity we come from and steer a clear path to where we’d like to go.