The campaign to enfranchise women is in the news at present so this is a good time to remember the suffragettes and the suffragette pipers, in particular the youngest, Bessie Watson of Edinburgh. Her autobiography was serialised in the Piping Times in 1993 but this extract is well worth repeating.
Bessie, pictured right aged 10, was born in 1900 and was a sickly child so to strengthen her legs she started Highland dancing aged four. From her first lessons onwards she liked the piping accompaniment better than the dancing. When she was seven her aunt who lived with them died of tuberculosis so their doctor suggested that learning to play the bagpipe would help Bessie’s lungs. So, Bessie became a piper.
Bessie takes up the story in 1909: “We were walking down Queensferry Street and we stopped at a shop window. It was the window of the Women’s Social and Political Union [WSPU]. I don’t think any of the three of us realised what the Union was all about. It seemed that the Union intended putting on a historical Scottish Pageant on a Saturday afternoon in October and was asking for helpers. My parents deliberated for some time and then went into the shop.
“They were there for quite a while. When we came out my mother and I were members of the WSPU and I was booked to play in the Historical Pageant. I do not remember the Pageant very clearly. We met as far as I recollect in St David Street. It was a typical Edinburgh October afternoon, dull and drizzly. There were about six other girl pipers, including Miss May Watson from Leith and Miss Sarah MacDougall and four others whose names I do not Recall, all from Broxburn. They were all considerably older than I was. They played together in a band somewhere along the procession line, and all wore the kilt. I wore a white dress with a purple, white and green sash bearing the words ‘Votes for Women’ and a glengarry cap. I rode on a float beside the Countess of Buchan in her cage, and I played at intervals along the way. It was an exciting day for a nine year old, but a more exciting one was to follow.
“A few weeks later Christabel Pankhurst came to Edinburgh to address a meeting in the King’s Theatre and I was invited to attend. During the evening I was presented with a brooch representing Queen Boadicea in her chariot as a token of gratitude for my help in the pageant. I still have my mental picture of Christabel as I saw her then with the eyes of a little child, tall, bright, wearing a floor length green pinafore style frock, and with a strong pleasant voice. I had fallen in love with her and she was to be one of my idols in the years to follow. I felt I was now a real suffragette.
“I followed the newspaper reports and attended meetings with my mother. Then came the greatest honour of all. When I was ten I was invited along with the other lady pipers with whom I had played in Edinburgh in 1909, to lead the Scottish contingent in the great pageant of women in London on 17th June 1911. I had never been to London and looked forward to my visit with great excitement. My mother could not go so another member of the WSPU offered to look after me. She was very strict but we got on well together. My life during that wonderful week was very strictly disciplined.
“My contact with the WSPU did not stop there. In the years that followed there were larger meetings at which I acted as a steward and smaller ones such as little supper parties to welcome prisoners released under the Cat and Mouse Act at which I played. On one occasion at least I went with the returning prisoners and local members to Waverley Station and played on the platform as the train drove off. The prisoners were not always imprisoned away from home, and then they were imprisoned in Calton Jail in Edinburgh. I would race home from school and play outside the jail at intervals for about half an hour on certain days until the sentence had been completed or until the prisoners were released again under the Cat and Mouse Act.
“It was a most exciting period of my life, playing at the parties, in the station and on the street. I remember being wakened up in the late evening and hurriedly dressed and conveyed to the Oak Cafe to greet a prisoner who had been released unexpectedly. Strangely enough I cannot recollect any serious trouble from the authorities, either in the station or in the streets. The Education Authority was also very co-operative and granted me leave of absence to play at street meetings during the school day. That did not happen very often however. With the outbreak of war every member of the WSPU received a letter from Mrs Pankhurst suspending the activities of the Union until the ending of hostilities and urging them to support the war effort to their utmost.”
During the war Bessie did her bit by playing at concerts to entertain the troops or raise funds for comforts and also by playing on the Edinburgh recruiting car, sometimes six times a week, until voluntary recruiting came to an end.
During the Second World War she served with the ATS. Afterwards, as Mrs Elizabeth Somerville, she was a teacher at Broughton Secondary in Edinburgh where in 1947 she started the first pipe band in a state school.
When she died in 1992 she left her autobiography, her practice chanter and her pipes to the College of Piping.