Christian Maclagan (1811–1901), arguably Scotland’s first female archaeologist, was born at Underwood, near Denny, Stirlingshire, in 1811. She was the daughter of George Maclagan (d. 1818), distiller and chemist, and his wife Janet, herself the daughter of Thomas Colville, printer, of Dundee.
Her family’s wealth ensured she had independent means to pursue her own interests and transcend society’s barriers. She spent much of her life engaged in researching and recording the prehistoric archaeology of Scotland. In later life she resided at Ravenscroft, near Denny, and devoted much time and money to the removal of slums in Stirling, providing houses for the working-classes outside the burgh.
Her archaeological researches into prehistoric Scotland remain important to this day, although she tended to over-domesticise sites, arguing, for example, that stone circles were robbed out brochs. However, she was amongst the first archaeologists to consider archaeological stratigraphy, with her section drawings of Coldoch broch being published five years before Pitt Rivers – generally credited with the introduction of this field method to British archaeology – began his excavations at Cranborne Chase.
She was also amongst the first to argue for a domestic, native origin for brochs. However, her chief claim to fame was to develop new methods for recording sculptured stones. Despite these accomplishments, she failed get due recognition. For example, her role in the excavation of Coldoch broch was ignored and she lamented that:
“He* is chronicled by the Society as the discoverer, while the writer of these notes was completely ignored.” (Maclagan 1884, 22).
In what seems an incredible act of discrimination, she was denied full membership of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and complained with bitter sarcasm that she was:
” … a woman, and therefore unworthy of being a member of any Antiquarian Society…”, (Maclagan 1894, 38).
As a result of being snubbed for her sex by the Scottish archaeological establishment as represented by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland –she was only allowed in as a Lady Associate– she sent all her rubbings from stones to the British Museum rather than Edinburgh. This may be, in part, why she is so little known today. However, this is beginning to change and there is a small permanent exhibition to her in the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum as well as plans for a carving dedicated to her in Stirling’s Back Walk sculpture trail which welcomes any support from the TrowelBlazers audience!
It should, of course, be stressed that times are very different now, and much of this is because women like Maclagan pushed for female inclusion in the Society of Antiquaries as full Fellows. Females have been welcome since 1901, sadly the year of Maclagan’s death, but her legacy remains: all are currently welcome to join.
Christian’s personal life is slightly more difficult to unravel. She was a self-taught archaeologist, and a member of the literalist Free Church of Scotland, which seems to have heavily influenced her interpretation of archaeology. She lived with a companion, Jessie Hunter Colvin, another antiquary, until the latter’s death; but even at the age of 80 Christian was still touring the United Kingdom lecturing on her findings.
Elizabeth L. Ewan, Sue Innes, Sian Reynolds, Rose Pipes. 2006. The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Unversity Press
Images from: Maclagan, C. 1875 The Hill Forts, Stone Circles and Other Structural Remains of Ancient Scotland. Edmonston and Douglas, Edinburgh.