Scotland's Women at Work

Explore the wide range of women’s working lives with these highlights from the National Library of Scotland's archival collections

Bartholomew Colourists (1960/1969) by Edmund Elas/Collins BartholomewNational Library of Scotland

Women's Work

From popular authors and creative artists to botanists, social justice campaigners, and nurses on the front lines -  explore the wide range of women’s working lives with these highlights from the National Library of Scotland’s archives & manuscript collections. 

17th-18th century recipe for a ‘Syrup for colds’National Library of Scotland

Domestic Work

Recipe books allow glimpses into the domestic work of women and the range of tasks they undertook in the home. Many of the Library’s manuscript recipes give instructions for medicinal cures and ways to make household items such as ink, as well as for food and drink. 

Photograph of women waulking tweed (1895) by Allan McDonald of Waternish, SkyeNational Library of Scotland

Collecting folklore

Women have often played an important role in the work of collecting stories and preserving archives. The folklorist Frances Tolmie (1840-1926) recorded ‘waulking songs’ (rhythmic songs sung by women in Gaelic while softening woollen cloth) on the Isle of Skye during the 1860s.

Dinner invitation from George Washington to Henrietta and Robert Liston (1797) by George WashingtonNational Library of Scotland

Soft Power

Henrietta Liston (1751-1828) was a diarist and botanist. She married the diplomat Robert Liston aged 44. During his posting to the USA, Henrietta won the trust of Presidents George Washington and John Adams, declaring herself ‘perfectly easy and familiar with both Great Men’. 

Caroline Norton papers (2022)National Library of Scotland

Women's Rights

For a woman like Caroline Norton (1808-1877) writing provided important income to support her family. She used her work to highlight the injustices of society, including the issue of child labour. After the breakdown of her marriage, she became an advocate for married women’s rights.

Helen Crawfurd (1910)National Library of Scotland

Social Justice

Helen Crawfurd (1877-1954) was a left-wing political activist, suffragette and peace campaigner. Together with other working-class women, she helped establish the Glasgow Women's Housing Association to oppose rent increases by profiteering landlords during the First World War.

Isobel Wylie Hutchison passport (1933) by Foreign Office?National Library of Scotland


Isobel Wylie Hutchison (1889-1982) was a botanist and writer who was particularly known for her visits to Greenland and Alaska. She wrote diaries and photographed the people and scenery. Hutchison collected specimens of plants and published works about her travels. 

Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker by Ambulance (1917)National Library of Scotland

Saving Lives

Mairi Chisholm (1896-1981) spent the First World War at the Belgian front, at a first aid post she established with Elsie Knocker. Catching the attention of the British press, the women used their celebrity to raise funds for equipment for their work, including an ambulance. 

Mary Lee Milne papersNational Library of Scotland

War Diaries

Scottish Women’s Hospitals was formed during WW1 by Dr Elsie Inglis. Mary Lee Milne (c.1873-1948) served as a cook with the unit on the Russian and Romanian fronts. Her diaries describe her experiences, including the unit’s arduous escape alongside the retreating Serbian army.

Edith McMunagle, Colourist (1960/1969) by Edmund Elas/Collins BartholomewNational Library of Scotland

Skilled Work

The ‘colourists’ department of Scottish map maker Bartholomew was staffed entirely by women. Colourists were highly skilled, helping to build up the coloured areas of a map during the printing process. Bartholomew began to employ women from the 1860s to do this work. 


Sonnets from the Portuguese (1897) by Phoebe Anna TraquairNational Library of Scotland

Arts & Crafts

Several of the Library’s artists’ archives feature work by women. The leading artist of the Scottish Arts & Crafts movement, Phoebe Anna Traquair (1852-1936) achieved international acclaim for her mural painting, embroidery, enamelling, bookbinding, and manuscript illumination.

STUC Women Delegates (1911)National Library of Scotland

Discover more about working women's lives in Scotland

We hope you have enjoyed this glimpse into some of the remarkable work women in Scotland have been involved in. Discover the wide variety of Scottish women’s working lives over the centuries with the National Library of Scotland's collections

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