Profile: Marguerite Wood and Margaret Simpson

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Search the internet for Marguerite Wood (1888-1954) and Margaret Simpson (1906-1994) and you will not find much – an unusual occurrence these days, when everything seems to be recorded on the web. Their names are little known today, despite the impact of their work on Scotland’s heritage – and despite Margaret having a claim to being Scotland’s first female professional archaeologist. David Breeze, Rosalind Marshall, and Ian Ralston explore some recent research that is set to change this picture.

Black and white photograph from around 1930, showing two women standing within/at the edge of an archaeological trench, while four other people stand in the trench base. The caption reads "Margaret Simpson (on the far right of the picture) at Gordon Childe’s excavations at Skara Brae in about 1930."
Margaret Simpson (on the far right of the picture) at Gordon Childe’s excavations at Skara Brae in about 1930.

In the period between the two World Wars, a pioneering generation began to mould the heritage movement into what it is today. Among this largely male-dominated cohort of historians and archaeologists were Marguerite Wood and Margaret Simpson. This year, as we commemorate not only the end of the First World War, but the Representation of the People Act 1918 giving some women in Britain the vote, details of their lives have come to light again.

It was during this formative era in archaeology that the first authoritative guidebooks to state-owned properties in Scotland began to be published, under James Richardson, Scotland’s first Inspector of Ancient Monuments (serving from 1914 to 1948). He started with Edinburgh Castle in 1929, and at the time one of the leading experts on the castle’s history was Marguerite Wood. In an unusual move for the period, Richardson decided to co-author the guidebook with her and, following the success of this first volume, they then went on to publish guidebooks on Dryburgh and Melrose Abbeys together in 1932.

The style of each guidebook was to separate the history of the monument from the guided tour, with a centrefold of black-and-white photographs and a large plan at the end. Richardson penned the description of the monument and Marguerite (or another one of his collaborators) would write about the history of the site. It was a process that worked well, setting the standard for many future guidebooks.

An expert on Edinburgh

How did Marguerite come to be an expert on Scottish history? Coming from a distinguished family of lawyers, Marguerite graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 1913, before serving in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in France towards the end of the First World War – probably inspired by the death of her only brother at the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917. She retained her academic passions, though, and after the war she became the Keeper of the Burgh Records of Edinburgh, a position in which she published several major volumes on these papers.

She was not primarily an author, but rather a skilled archivist and expert editor of historical documents who was highly respected by her scholarly contemporaries. Her early papers in the 1920s focused on the time of Mary Queen of Scots, and she edited two volumes of the foreign correspondence of Mary’s mother, Marie de Lorraine, which were published by the Scottish History Society. These were submitted to the University of Edinburgh in 1925 for a PhD, which was duly awarded.

The title page of Marguerite Wood’s book, 'Foreign Correspondence with Marie de Lorraine, Queen of Scotland', submitted for her PhD.
The title page of Marguerite Wood’s book, Foreign Correspondence with Marie de Lorraine, Queen of Scotland, submitted for her PhD.

In 1937, her History of the High Constables and Guard of Honour of the Palace of Holyroodhouse was presented to King George VI, and in the 1940s she was the only female member of the Scottish Records Advisory Council. For someone with such accolades, and with such a prolific and successful career, it is surprising that she is not better remembered.

Pushing boundaries

Like Marguerite, Margaret Eleanor Barbour Simpson collaborated with Richardson on several guidebooks. In 1936, they co-wrote guides to Stirling and Balvenie Castles, followed the next year by one on Inchmahome Priory. The previous year, Margaret had also been the sole author of the Dunkeld Cathedral guidebook.

She too was a citizen of Edinburgh, though in her case her family followed the medical rather than the legal profession. This included her great-great-uncle, Sir James Young Simpson (1811-1870), the first person to demonstrate the anaesthetic effects of chloroform on humans; he was also a gifted archaeologist. He joined the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1849, later serving as a Vice President, and contributed several papers to its Proceedings. It is possible that his work served as an inspiration to Margaret. In any case, in 1925 she matriculated at the University of Edinburgh, and in 1928-1929 attended the First Ordinary Archaeology Class under Gordon Childe (who had just become the first Abercromby Professor of Archaeology), graduating in 1930.

From there, her career in archaeology progressed rapidly: Margaret served as the first secretary of the Edinburgh League of Prehistorians (1929-1930), remaining on the committee over the next three years, and in 1930 she was elected as a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. By August of that year, she had become an assistant Inspector of Ancient Monuments, and in attaining that position she seems to have been the first of Gordon Childe’s students to obtain employment in archaeology – indeed, she appears to be the first female professional archaeologist in Scotland.

Photograph of Margaret Simpson in about 1945.
Margaret Simpson in about 1945.

Her daughter, Marilyn Ainslie, remembers her mother reminiscing about her travels around Scotland in a Hillman car to carry out her inspectorate duties. Yet this was a period in which most women could not have both a family and a career, and Margaret’s professional life also came up against this choice. In 1941, she married Frederick Root, private secretary to the First Commissioner of Works, and, like so many women of her generation (and later), marriage saw the end of her career.

Although archaeology has come a long way since the days of Marguerite and Margaret, gender equality is still a key topic within the discipline. These two women were part of a trailblazing generation who contributed much to our understanding of the history and archaeology of Scotland between the Wars, and, in this particular year, their stories deserve to be remembered.

This article was published in issue 341 (August 2018) of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

Further reading
– M Ash (1981) ‘“A fine, genial, hearty band”: David Laing, Daniel Wilson and Scottish Archaeology’, in A S Bell (ed.), The Scottish Antiquarian Tradition, Edinburgh, pp.86-113.
– I B M Ralston (2009) ‘Gordon Childe and Scottish Archaeology: the Edinburgh years 1927-1946’, European Journal of Archaeology 12(1-3): 47-90.
– Brenda Swinbank was another influential archaeologist in a male-dominated field; Recollections of a Female Archaeologist: a life of Brenda Swinbank was recently published by Suzanne Heywood (reviewed in CA 338).
– The stories of other female heritage professionals and archaeologists have been highlighted by the Trowelblazers project: see CA 324 and their website:

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