In March 2019 I looked at the history of Dumbarton Castle from 1500 to 1700 for Historic Environment Scotland, highlighting events and people. It was interesting to read of one of the keepers in 1620, Sir John Stewart of Methven who built a castle on his estate Ireland at Mongavlin, while neglecting his duties at Dumbarton.

When he lived at Dumbarton, he was cruel to his wife, and had an adulterous relationship with two servants, Isobel Beaton and Margaret Kilmaurs, who were from families in Dumbarton town, and who had already been admonished by the Kirk Session.

From this, among other inferences, we can see that women were servants in the castle, in the absence of other records of their employment, and they were local people, not brought by the keeper’s family from their own homes and localities. The ordinary soldiers of the garrison were also mostly Dumbarton people

In the same decades in the early seventeenth-century, there were repair works at the castle, in 1617, 1629 and 1633, and these records were published in 1982 as part of John Imrie & John G. Dunbar’s Accounts of the Masters of Work for building and repairing Royal Palaces and Castles: 1616-1649, and researchers regularly plough through them, trying to understand the references to rebuilding the Wallace Tower and other structures, and the supply of lime from sites on the Clyde, and slate boated down from Loch Lomond.

For reasons of space the printed version suppresses the lists of worker’s names, some names are relegated to the index, obscuring the regular weekly pesence of a team of women who carried bags of sand or lime to the building site, women known as poke-bearers. This role and women as manual labourers are almost completely absent from early modern Scottish building records.

On other well-documented sites like Stirling Castle, Holyroodhouse or Falkland, there are only barrowmen and pioneers, who were apparently all male. These teams of labourers were specialists too, and apparently not local men. At Dumbarton there were also barrowmen, but it seems the site also needed materials carried where wheelbarrows could not go. Two men were paid slightly more, as bag fillers, poke-fillers. This was also the case on Inchkeith island in 1555 where for several weeks around twenty-five women carried small stones in baskets, working with the regular ‘manouevriers’ to build an artillery fort designed by Lorenzo Pomarelli for Mary of Guise. Inchkeith, I imagine, like Dumbarton, has steep paths where bag carrying work could be usefully done by women, women paid slightly less than male labourers.

This was peacetime. In the crisis of 1639, news reached England that the Covenanters were re-fortifying Leith. Apparently, to emphasise the outlandish behaviours north of the border, it was noted that women were working, women of various social classes, not only the lowest, “they work hard at their new fortification at Leith, where the ladies and women of all sorts serve with wheelbarrows and baskets”.  (Manuscripts of His Grace the Duke of Rutland preserved at Belvoir castle, vol. 1 (London, 1905), p. 503.)

At Leith, women were working with the same wheelbarrows and baskets as at Dumbarton and Inchkeith, but on a level building site, their employment driven by the crisis of the Bishop’s War.

There was more work at Leith in 1650, initially in the cause of Charles I, and records survives for that work, which I think, mention the female force. There aren’t many Scottish building accounts, but it seems safe to assume that female labourers were not usually seen on building sites. At Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire, there were female workers in 1613, and this is usually regarded as exceptional. The 1639 Leith correspondent thought female workers unusual and remarkable, and the involvement of upper class Scottish ladies even more so.

How were the women at Dumbarton usually employed? How old were they? These questions may be interlinked. It seems likely that they worked in agriculture or in textile production; in their own homes, as servants for others, or in casual seasonal employment.

P5220120 Dumb 9v 15.JPG
Women’s names in the Dumbarton accounts: National Records of Scotland.

Detail however, may be rather sketchy, because any record of this kind of employment, especially for women, is vanishingly rare. At Dumbarton, up to 20 women were available to work in the summer season carrying bags, so the wages offered by the master of work must have been tempting, and they must have been free of other commitments or servitude. Incredibly, the Dumbarton records tell us that the women argued and negotiated for their wage, with the overseer Thomas Fallusdale, a local man.

Christene Buchanan was given twelve shillings for her role in the pay talks, as she had caused;  “the rest agrie als guid chaip as she did quyetlie”. We’re more used to hearing of wage rates fixed by town councils and guilds. A Janet Buchanan carrying sand was probably her sister. In 1632 Janet’s father attacked one Margaret Campbell for calling Janet, “a wood thief and a wood loon”, roughly meaning, “a mad thief and a mad whore”. For men, “loon” meant only unemployed, primarily we can take this as a snippet of authentic dialogue at the sharp end of banter among the working women.

The same names turn up in 1617, 1628 and 1633, so for instance, not all these women were teenagers. For the most part the surnames seem to be Dumbarton names, similar to those found in published extracts from the town and kirk records.

As a reminder of women’s work elsewhere, at Inchkeith in 1555;  at Leith in 1639 and 1650; and slightly off-topic, gold-panning at Crawford Moor in the 1560s was done by women, said to otherwise unemployed, and a sample of sand from a “maid of Scotland” sparked a gold rush in 1566. In 1574 women in Perth carried water for mortar mixing for the Laird of Glenorchy’s lodging. There is little evidence for women being manual workers at other building sites, but records of construction, outside of the royal works are incredibly rare, so please make the most of the Dumbarton names.

Here is an opportunity perhaps, to return to manuscripts (which are quite legible), to collate the names, and to locate them in Dunbartonshire records. The seventeenth-century records of Dumbarton place the building of the castle within the community, especially by the employment of local women.





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