Re-imagining Mary, Queen of Scots in contemporary Scottish women’s writing

To celebrate Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day 2021, Nia Clark, doctoral researcher in Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow, explores how Mary, Queen of Scots has been re-imagined in contemporary Scottish women’s writing and discusses the portrayal of Mary as both a queen and a woman.

There have been many re-imaginings of Mary, Queen of Scots by historians, authors and artists, and the Scottish poet and playwright Liz Lochhead is acutely aware of myths surrounding Mary. Many re-imagined narratives reveal the religious priorities of the storyteller first and foremost. As Lochhead has noted, she and director Gerry Mulgrew ‘had been brought up with totally different versions of the myth. The Catholic Mary is certainly a martyr and almost a saint.’1 Meanwhile the Protestant version of Mary ‘veers between limp victim and politically inept nymphomaniac devil-woman who almost scuppered Our Glorious Reformation.’2 In her 1987 play, Mary Queen of Scots got her head chopped off, Lochhead rejects one-dimensional portraits of Mary and presents her as a woman first and foremost.   

Cover image for the programme of Liz Lochhead’s Mary, Queen of Scots got her head chopped off, Royal Lyceum Theatre Company production (in association with the Brunton Theatre). Photo: University of Glasgow Library Archives and Special Collections, Programme: STA TP 55/7a https://www.flickr.com/photos/uofglibrary/4545793786/in/album-72157623915689260/

Central to understanding both Mary and her cousin Elizabeth I as queens and as women, is Lochhead’s recognition that what they have in common is their battle to maintain power. However, Lochhead suggests that despite her apparent position of power, Mary has no autonomy. Writing in the context of the failed Scottish devolution referendum in 1979 and the re-election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1987, Lochhead revisits sixteenth-century power struggles in order to reflect on contemporary issues of nationhood, sectarianism and limitations on female autonomy. For Lochhead, the story of Mary, Queen of Scots becomes a tension between the two queens and a patriarchal society that is embodied by the characters of James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell and Mary’s third husband, and John Knox, Protestant opponent and antagonist to Mary. Linda McLean’s 2017 play, Glory on Earth focuses on the contrast between Mary and the misogyny of Knox, an approach shared by Lochhead who self-consciously asserts Knox’s prejudices as her starting point for the 1987 play in her introduction to the 2009 edition of Mary Queen of Scots got her head chopped off.  

The frontispiece of ”The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women” by John Knox (1558), Reprint by Andrew Steward, Philadelphia, with modernised spelling of the title. Photo: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_First_Blast_of_the_Trumpet_Against_the_Monstruous_Regiment_of_Women#/media/File:Firstblast.jpg 
Interview with Linda McLean on Glory on Earth.

In Lochhead’s play, events are narrated by the talking crow, La Corbie, ‘An interesting, ragged, ambiguous creature’.3 La Corbie’s speech in Act One, Scene Three, ‘Queens and Maids’ reveals what is arguably the play’s central message:  

Ony queen has an army o ladies and maids  

That she juist snaps her fingers tae summon.  

And yet… I ask you, when’s a queen a queen 

And when’s a queen juist a wummin?4 

La Corbie’s question, ‘when’s a queen a queen / And when’s a queen juist a wummin?’, is key to Lochhead’s representation of Mary and Elizabeth as human beings and as women who struggle to reconcile their political power with their personal desires.  

Liz Lochhead reciting La Corbie’s opening speech in the play.
Interview with La Corbie and other cast members from the National Theatre of Scotland’s 2009 production.

In her decision not to place Mary and Elizabeth in direct opposition to one another, Lochhead’s play departs from traditional portrayals of the relationship between the two queens. Writing retrospectively about the play, Lochhead states that:  

When I look at it now it is clearly fundamentally about Mary and Elizabeth, the passion of these women to have sex and love and marriage – or not – for can they, without losing power? How do you have a full life as a woman and your full independence? All these things women are still struggling with.5  

Lochhead’s main emphasis is on female experience from the sixteenth century to the present, and the struggle for women to lead a ‘full life’ with equal rights. In Act One, Scene Two, titled ‘The Suitors’ Lochhead’s stage directions instruct the reader that Mary and Elizabeth, ‘come together on stage but without seeing the other, each in her own separate and different world’,6 therefore highlighting their loneliness. Rather than pitting the two queens against each other – indeed, Elizabeth muses, ‘Methinks they do try to play me and my Scotch cousin off against each other’7 – Lochhead invites us to see their common humanity.  

Image of page of a draft script from Scene Two, ‘The Suitors’, Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off. Photo: University of Glasgow Library Archives and Special Collections, Scripts: SAC 4. https://www.flickr.com/photos/uofglibrary/4545793652/in/album-72157623915689260/
Image of page of a draft script from Scene Two, ‘The Suitors’, Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off. Photo: University of Glasgow Library Archives and Special Collections, Scripts: SAC 4. https://www.flickr.com/photos/uofglibrary/4545793594/in/album-72157623915689260/

One of the techniques that Lochhead uses to reject one-dimensional depictions of Mary is character doubling, which allows for the role-shifting of women in the play. Lochhead emphasises the universality of these female experiences and the multiple public and private roles that women carry out by using names that are variations of ‘Mary’ and ‘Elizabeth’. The actor playing Mary also plays other female characters: Elizabeth’s handmaid, Marion; Mairn, a ‘wee poor Scottish beggar lass’;8 and Maree, one of the present-day children who feature in the final scene. Elizabeth also plays Mary’s handmaid, Bessie; Mairn’s ‘tarty wee companion’,9 Leezie; and Wee Betty, another of the present-day children.  

In the final scene of the play, titled ‘Jock Tamson’s Bairns’, Lochhead returns to the roots of contemporary sectarianism in a playground setting in an attempt to understand how the past dictates the future. The scene’s title refers to the phrase, ‘We’re all Jock Tamson’s Bairns’, which is often used to say that ‘we’re all the same’. Lochhead suggests that the phrase can be used as a way of diminishing prejudices, and in this scene, she invokes the phrase to highlight sectarianism in Scotland. Lochhead’s bairns’ rhyming games and language-use (‘You a Fenian?’ ‘Are you a Pape?’10) to draw attention to the Protestant-Catholic divide exacerbated by toxic masculinity, which still pervades Scottish society today.  

Mairn and Leezie are employed in Act One, Scene Seven, titled ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ Progress, The Bairns, and John Knox’s Shame’, to expose Knox’s hypocrisy. He looks down on the beggar girls with disgust when they ask him to buy ‘wir denner’.11 Yet Knox is the one who displays morally repugnant behaviour when he is overcome with rage and lust that he blames the girls for: ‘Lukk at ye! Wi yir lang hair lik a flag in the wind, an advertisement o lust tae honest men.’12  

Lochhead’s use of character doubling blurs the women’s clear differences in class and status, but it also means that Mary and Elizabeth are visually, and nominally, compared and contrasted on stage. In this way, Lochhead facilitates the meeting of the two queens on stage (as dramatists have done since the nineteenth century), but instead of highlighting their rivalry, it is their shared humanity that shines through. 

Photographs of the National Theatre of Scotland performance taken by Douglas McBride.

Since Lochhead’s 1987 play, other Scottish women writers have used Mary to approach contemporary feminist issues. In her 2016 poem, ‘Mary Stuart’, the Scottish poet Marion McCready follows Lochhead’s project of feminist revision in her multifaceted consideration of Mary when she writes:  

She is a woman  

of many names –  

she has woven a self  

to match each name –13  

There is more to Mary than the popular image of the Catholic martyr, who died by order of her cousin Elizabeth. Lochhead’s and McCready’s refusal to present Mary the martyr or Mary the victim contributes to their dispelling of the myth surrounding Mary. Although Lochhead foregrounds Mary’s death in the title of her play, highlighting our shared knowledge of Mary’s beheading, she chooses not to deal with the execution in the play and instead focuses on Mary’s life.  

Similarly, the writer and poet Gerda Stevenson is equally keen to reject the fetishisation of Mary’s death. In 2014, Stevenson responded to the painting The Abdication of Mary Queen of Scots (1773) by the eighteenth-century painter Gavin Hamilton in her poem of the same title first published in The Hunterian Poems anthology (2015) and later in Quines: Poems in tribute to women of Scotland (2018). 

Gavin Hamilton’s The Abdication of Mary Queen of Scots (1765-73), The Hunterian. http://collections.gla.ac.uk/#/details/ecatalogue/35149

The painting depicts the moment that twenty-four-year-old Mary is imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle in 1567 and forced to give up her crown, after reigning for only six years. Stevenson writes:  

Tak ma croon, an dinna fash […]  

dinna waste yer tears 

oan gien up a bittie gowd an glister; haud ma airm 

if it helps, but dinna, dinna greet fur this.14 

Stevenson informs us in a biographical note that Mary miscarried twins while imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle. In the above lines, Stevenson intimates that Mary’s real sense of loss comes from her miscarriage, not the loss of her crown which is a mere ‘bittie gowd an glister’, or a bit of gold and glitter. Here, the moment in which Mary loses her political power is re-imagined against the trauma and the loss of her unborn children.  

These Scottish women writers show Mary’s humanity. They reinterpret Mary in order to depict her as a woman as well as a monarch. Their poetic and dramatic responses to the Marian myth encourage twenty-first century Scotland to reconsider its past and its future. By considering Mary through a feminist lens, these writers bring Mary and the divisions of the sixteenth century to a contemporary audience and, in doing so, they highlight the continued need to fight for gender equality in Scotland today.  

Nia Clark is a researcher at the University of Glasgow. She has recently submitted her doctoral research on Liz Lochhead titled, ‘Commemorating and elevating the commerce of everyday life in Liz Lochhead’s poetry and drama (1972–2016)’. You can follow Nia on Twitter at @nia_alexandra_c.

[1] Liz Lochhead, ‘Introduction’, Mary Queen of Scots got her head chopped off, (London: Nick Hern Books, 2009), p. vii. 

[2] Ibid. 

[3] Liz Lochhead, Mary Queen of Scots got her head chopped off, (London: Nick Hern Books, 2009), p. 5. 

[4] Ibid. p. 11. 

[5] Lochhead, ‘Introduction’, Mary Queen of Scots got her head chopped off, p. xi.

[6] Lochhead, Mary Queen of Scots got her head chopped off, p. 11.

[7] Ibid. p. 7

[8] Ibid. p. 31. 

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid. p. 74. 

[11] Ibid. p. 32. 

[12] Ibid. p. 33. 

[13] Marion McCready, ‘Mary Stuart’, Poetry Foundation <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/89360/mary-stuart> [Accessed March 2021]. 

[14] Gerda Stevenson, ‘The Abdication of Mary Queen of Scots’, (ed.) Alan Riach, The Hunterian Poems: An Anthology of Poems to Paintings from the collection of The Hunterian at the University of Glasgow, (Glasgow: Freight Books, 2015), p. 75.

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