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Bringing ‘the monstrous regiment’ into line: gender trouble in the Highlands and Islands

arc_108a_89A recent conspiracy at the Crofting Commission may be another instance of Scotland’s unhealthy sexual politics…

When Nicola Sturgeon became First Minister of Scotland she emphasised that gender equality and the rights of women would be one of her key priorities. Of her appointment, she said:

“I hope that it sends a strong, positive message to girls and young women, indeed to all women, across our land – there should be no limit to your ambition for what you can achieve.”

These words were followed up with a statement far more powerful as Sturgeon announced a gender equal cabinet comprising five women and five men, and promoted a number of talented younger women to ministerial positions.

The strength of her action perhaps testifies to the centuries long suppression and exclusion of women in Scottish public life. Sadly, the country can be regarded as a pioneer in this regard.

A key historical moment in Scotland’s suppression of women in public life was the publication in 1558 of ‘First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women’ written in 1558 by John Knox, the hugely influential theologian who brought the Protestant Reformation to Scotland. The work fiercely attacks the legitimacy of female rule, claiming that to “promote a woman to beare rule, superiouritie or dominion, or empire above any Realme, nation or Citie is repugnant unto Nature…it is the subversion of good order, of all equitie and justice…abominable, odious, and detestable”. Knox held that to promote the rule of a woman is to “pollute” authority and justice and that in such circumstances men “must studie to repress her inordinate pride and tyrannie to the uttermost of their power”.

The scholar Patricia Ann Lee has commented that in Knox’ time “male superiority and female subordination, generally accepted as natural and proper in all private relationship, was thought to have been ordained by God”.

We have moved on and, thankfully, such attitudes no longer control the conduct of public life in Scotland. However, we cannot say that Knox and the influence of his attitudes have been left behind us. His trumpet can still be heard sounding in the contemporary Scottish church and, I believe, in other areas of public life.

In 2013 the woman convener of the Church of Scotland spoke out against the discrimination of women in the church which, she said, is still “a huge issue”. With specific reference to the west Highlands and Islands one person quoted on the issue in the press said: “There are still some members out there who would rather hit the nuclear destruct button than have a woman on a Kirk session.”

It is in the west Highlands and Islands that the residue of these late medieval ideas appear most entrenched. The leading Hebridean theologian, Professor Donald Macleod, former principal of the Free Church College (sometimes called ‘The Highland Church’), considers Knox a ‘hero’ and has called for islanders to build on his works with a pride and energy that might be considered ‘fanatical’.

Recent events in the politics of crofting suggest that certain Highland men may still be adhering to Knox’s old belief that “to place a woman in authority” pollutes society.

In 2012 Susan Walker was appointed convener of the Crofting Commission. In over 125 years of crofting law she was the first woman to take charge of responsibility for crofting regulation. In May 2015 she resigned from that position after information was leaked to the press about a proposed motion of no-confidence in her. This was accompanied by anonymous allegations by one or more of her colleagues about her leadership of the Commission.

This assertion of her failings was somewhat undermined by the subsequent praise heaped on her leadership of the Commission by the crofting representative organisation, crofting lawyers, cross-party MSPs and crofters themselves.

The circumstances of Susan Walker’s removal from authority have been made yet more obscure by the fact that in the two months since her departure not one of the five commissioners who are said to have proposed the motion of no-confidence against her has come forward to substantiate the vague allegations that were made against her in the press. The Commission is now refusing to even make public the names of those commissioners who requested a meeting to discuss her future. After two months no credible information has emerged from the Commission or from Government about why she had to leave. A crofting law blog this week said that Walker’s treatment is now being called ‘a witch hunt’.

In gender terms, this may be a pertinent description. One senior crofting administrator that I asked about the case simply replied: “Susan Walker had two problems. Firstly, she was competent; second, she was a woman.” This claim that it was a male cabal acting against her is strengthened by a note in Freedom of Information files on the issue which I obtained from the Commission last week. An e-mail exchange in these files indicates that two commissioners (one of them disclosed to be male – the gender of the other is not disclosed) had been phoning colleagues in the days before the press leak in an effort to ‘undermine’ (in the words of one of those involved) Susan Walker’s position.

If two men were instigating the proceedings against Susan Walker in this way, then suspicion must fall on them as the most likely sources of the subsequent leak to the press. This leak is a clear breach of the Commission’s Code of Conduct and the Ethical Standards in Public Life Act 2000. The Commission are presently refusing to release the names of these two people although I am appealing this decision.

Incidentally, the FoI files show that every journalist who enquired to the Commission about this story was male. This is certainly not to argue that these men were somehow influenced by gender issues; but it does, I think, suggest that male domination may still be entrenched in some areas of public life in the Highlands and Islands.

The FoI files show that the Government have effectively ‘gagged’ Susan Walker from defending herself or from speaking publicly about what has taken place. On 13th May a note to the chief executive of the Commission discloses that the Government ‘Greener Comms’ team were advising Walker not to speak to the press as they wanted to avoid “prolonging” the issue and close it down.

Thus we are left with a situation in which one anonymous sort of person – most likely a man – is able to remain in public office despite having broken the elementary standards of ethical conduct expected from those in public life, while at the same time a highly talented woman, anonymously accused of allegations which have never been substantiated, has been removed from office and told to keep her mouth shut.

This treatment of women is in perfect accord with the late medieval view of John Knox, who quoted the apostle Paul to affirm it: “Let women keep silence in the congregation, for it is not permitted to them to speak, but to be subject as the law saith.” Knox adds Paul’s conviction that he would “suffer not a woman to teach nor to usurp authority above man”.

The theologian concluded that these “two testimonies of the Holy Ghost” proved his point to “repress the inordinate pride of women” and “correct the foolishness of those that have studied to exalt women in authority above man”.

Thus far the Scottish Government Crofting Minister, Aileen McLeod, has evinced little concern about the manner in which authority was ‘usurped’ from Susan Walker at the Crofting Commission. No investigation has been announced into who broke the Commission’s code of conduct; there has not even been an authoritative statement about what the former convener had done wrong. On Wednesday last week (25th June) Dr McLeod congratulated Susan Walker’s – male – replacement. The words she used suggest she regards the matter as over.

I hope this is not the case as it seems a great shame that this talented young woman, who has benefitted from Nicola Sturgeon’s progressive gender politics, is currently presiding over the most disgraceful and inhumane treatment of a woman in public life in Scotland in the 21st century.

It sounds as if Knox’ trumpet against the ‘monstrous regiment’ is still resounding through our Highland glens. Dr McLeod can earn a little place in our history if she has the courage to play her part in silencing it.

Iain MacKinnon is a postdoctoral research fellow into the Governance of Land and Natural Resources at the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience at Coventry University. He is also a former colleague and neighbour of Susan Walker, the ex-convener of the Crofting Commission mentioned in this article. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect those of CAWR.


Knox. 2004. On Rebellion – Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought (Mason, R.A. (ed.)). Cambridge University Press.
For quotes used in this article, see page 14.

Macleod, D. 2009. ‘Footnotes’ column in West Highland Free Press 17th July 2009. West Highland Publishing Company.
For quotes used in this article, see page 14.

Comments (18)

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  1. Jim Bennett says:

    She “…had two problems. Firstly, she was competent; second, she was a woman.”

    To be honest, I think that would sum up many of the campaigns to undermine female leaders in many fields throughout the country.

    In many crofting communities, residual male dominance/entitlement is clear and so is the substitution of crofters for “community”. Crofters have a financial interest in maintaining their grazing and other rights in many cases where they are a small minority. This often mitigates against attempts at genuine democratic community ownership. The issue of a crofter small minority is often counterposed to “community” meaning incomers/white settlers.

    Small, male dominated cliques often dominate small crofting communities. It’s no wonder that this is replicated at higher levels.

    Remind me, how many female MSPs/MPs do we have in the Highlands and Islands?

    1. Iain MacKinnon says:

      Hello Jim,

      thanks for your comments, and in particular for opening the comment section with a quote that I think gets to the heart of the matter as regards the present debacle at the Crofting Commission:

      She “…had two problems. Firstly, she was competent; second, she was a woman.”

      You wrote:

      ‘Small, male dominated cliques often dominate small crofting communities. It’s no wonder that this is replicated at higher levels.’

      I don’t believe it is as straightforward as that. I’m not taking issue with the first part of your statement: there may be areas where that is the case. However, at ‘higher levels’ I believe that gender relations in the Highlands and Islands, and in crofting, are more complex than your position allows for.

      For instance, it is my understanding that the (Highlands and Islands based) Scottish Crofting Federation – the ‘higher level’ representative body for crofters – has had four women chairs since the year 2000. I strongly suspect this is more than either the National Farmers Union (Scotland wide) or Scottish Land and Estates (Scotland wide) – it might even be more than both the NFU and SLaE put together.

      The fact that the grassroots organisation (led by people who are actively supporting crofting) seems more gender aware than the government regulator for crofting might correspond to the distinction drawn by DR between the strong role of women in ‘traditional practice’ and the ‘male domination’ of ‘legally compliant custom’.

      My own criticisms in the article are specifically focussed on events at the Crofting Commission. Although there have been moves recently towards democracy within the Commission, the organisation is still an arm of the Scottish Government, and the conduct of its representatives governed by the rules of the Ethical Standards in Public Life Act.

      This is why I repeatedly emphasise ‘public life’ in the article: does the Commission as an organisation currently contain members who are in breach of the ethical standards of public life?

  2. Graeme McCormick says:

    Don’t be too hard on John Knox. Thanks to the Reformation women had the right to own property and divorce abusive husbands some four hundred years before their English cousins.

    1. David S. Briggs says:

      Pretty much everybody had the same prejudices at that time so it really is stretching it to point the finger at solely at JK. Remembering of course that JK was a priest in the ‘Mother Church’ prior to seeing the light, as it were. Anyway sod all theists.

      1. Iain MacKinnon says:

        I don’t believe it’s stretching it at all David. The problem with your assertion is that “pretty much everybody” from the 16th century is nobody today, whereas, and as I pointed out in my article, Knox’ work is being promoted with a zeal that might be described as ‘fanatical’ in the ministry of some churches with great influence in crofting areas and in which male domination is structurally enshrined. In my view this makes it quite justified to draw attention to his work in this matter. Incidentally, I am interested that Graeme McCormick, David S Briggs and Edward Andrews are concerned about my treatment of a 16th century male theologian but have literally nothing to say about the treatment of the 21st century female former convener, and I wonder why that is?

        1. Edward Andrews says:

          The reason why I commented about a 16th Century male theologian is because I know about theologians in the 16th Century, but I don’t know enough about 21st Century conveners.
          However as you have raised the topic. I still think that you are missing the point with Knox, who was a man of his time living within a particular culture.
          You actually are being intellectually lazy in having your go at Knox, who is the catch all for a particular point of view. The people who deserve the criticism are people who follow Knox. The problem is that they also claim to follow the teachings of the Bible, and a particularly restrictive understanding of the role of Women. It would have been a far better article if you had left Knox out of it and concentrated you ire on where it really should be pushed, on the Misogynistic Church, and social culture in some places in the Highlands where women are looked down upon.

          1. Iain MacKinnon says:


            You suggest I am missing the point and imply I am being intellectually lazy because I fail to acknowledge in the article that Knox “was a man of his time living within a particular culture”

            Please note that in the article I quote a scholar who said that in Knox’ time “male superiority and female subordination, generally accepted as natural and proper in all private relationship, was thought to have been ordained by God”.

            I follow this up with the very point that you claim I have not made. “We have moved on and, thankfully, such attitudes no longer control the conduct of public life in Scotland”.

            Did you read this part of the article? Do you still maintain that I did not acknowledge that Knox was a man of his time living within a particular culture?

            You also assert that I was ‘having a go’ at Knox but you fail to provide any evidence for this claim.

            In the article, I note that he wrote the ‘Monstrous Regiment’ in an effort to suppress the role of women in public life in his own period (which you acknowledge to be the case). I quote his views on women – which are abhorrent to contemporary eyes (I presume you agree). I then say that, thankfully, these abhorrent views don’t control the way in which public life is conducted in Scotland today (I presume you would also agree with this).

            However, I say that such views as Knox promulgated about the role of women in public life may still have some influence on public life in Scotland today, and I quote the woman convener of the Church of Scotland on the discrimination against women that she believes exists in the church throughout Scotland today.

            Then, later in the article, I point out that the recent treatment of Susan Walker is in accord with Knox’ late medieval view about the subjection of women. (Incidentally, how do you feel about the treatment of Susan Walker? I notice you’ve still not commented on that.)

            And that’s it as far as I can see. Nowhere in the article do I ‘have a go’ at Knox as you suggest. Indeed my comments on him seem to be affirmed by your own opinions, and nowhere do I offer a criticism as strong as your criticism when you say of ‘The Monstrous Regiment’ that “of course he shouldn’t have written it”.

          2. Edward Andrews says:

            Ian, first of all she wasn’t the Convenor, she was the Moderator of the General Assembly. Do you know something? I agree totally with her. Have you read the new Biography of Knox by Professor Jane Dawson. In it Dawson, though by no means uncritical of Knox comes over as much more sympathetic to where Knox was. I still am uncomfortable with the characterisation of Knox as Bad on the continuum of “Good MQS through romantic “Bonnie Prince Charlie” to Evil Knox and that is behind my Comments. Knox was a European figure who really only ended up back in Scotland because he couldn’t go to England.
            Where I do disagree is when DR says that they don’t find anything particularly sexist about Highland and Island socio-culture.
            Lorna Hood said “There are parts of the country where women are still denied a place on Kirk Sessions; elders who having moved from one part of the country to another find their ordination is called into question. We talk of the great advances made since women were ordained in 1966, but in some areas that is still a huge issue.”
            This comes out of the culture of the Highlands and Islands, which is still doing ill. I’m sorry, but I don’t know anything about the Crofting Commission, and can’t comment about what they get up to, but if what is being alleged is true, I am not surprised.

  3. Edward Andrews says:

    Don’t blame Knox. When he wrote it Scotland was ruled by Mary of Guise as Regent. Mary Queen of Scots had become queen of France, and Mary Tudor who was Queen of England and who was causing distress by her persecution of the Protestants. It was this triumvirate that Knox was attacking. Unfortunately for him Mary Tudor died soon after and Elizabeth who took over the English throne took a dim view of the book (as did most of Knox’s friends). Then Mary’s husband died and then and then so did her Mother. Mary returned to Scotland where she was not a success. However the First Blast has been used as a stick to beat Knox, and at times Scotland.
    Of course he shouldn’t have written it and it was to be the start of a series of three, but as Scotland has moved away even from the positive legacy of Knox, it is a pity to thump him with a blame for misogynistic Scotland.

  4. DR says:

    I wish the personalising defense of a dead white man dominating comments on an article about a living woman subject to contemporary discrimination was a surprise (no-one knows ‘more’ about Knox than about living women or contemporary discrimination, not even 21st century conveners). If you read what’s written, there is no ‘blame’ of Knox: the *text* has been, and remains, influential, as it was written to be. Acknowledging this does not somehow ‘blame’ the author, or exonerate its current adherents. It simply points out the ‘appeal to authority’ topos of misogyny, as replicated in comments themselves. This appeal is *contemporary* (as comments’ superficial attempts to contextualise the author instead of engaging with the current use of the text illustrate) and so relevant. It is not relevant that a perspective was (obviously) common at one time, when the point is that it remains common now.

    Myself, I don’t find anything particularly sexist about Highland and Island socio-culture (btw, the overall % of female MSPs is UK standard at 20%, of list MSPs Scotland standard at 43%) but that is not what the article argues. Crofting is – among other things – a profession, particularly as it interacts with law and authority. Like many other professions, it has gender issues: unlike many others, it is also a way of life (requiring all genders) but also a pattern of functional ownership and an externally imposed system of inheritance, both (globally) tending to exclude women. Ideological division of genders is a well-acknowledged form of social control, particularly when internalised: for crofting, the division between legally-compliant custom (male dominance; Scotland still has succession) and traditional practice (female reliance) has been consistently problematised, in ways that have demonstrably undercut the sustainability of communities, and were almost certainly intended to do so.

    For this reason, as well as natural justice, crofting’s gender issues need to be brought into the light. The positive discrimination towards men Knox advocated (which we see also advocated today in candidate selection) was explicitly a response to the entry of women into public life then, as his adherents also respond now. (And that entry, Graeme, was no gift or principle, just a normal vital way to increase support for Reform.) The gordian knot of fear and pride about the competence of Scotland’s women may be drawn particularly tight here in the Highlands and Islands – because of the specific and extreme historical, colonial, class and contemporary economic contexts – but it is by no means unique to us. Reservation systems function to marginalise the men they ‘benefit’, though justified in theory (and voluntarily self-perpetuated) by misogyny – the damage they do to women’s lives, and to whole communities, is only collateral.

    This appeal (essentially, to stop hitting yourselves) is timely: any population that believes in reform must enlist its women. The first step in that is to drop the figleaf of misogynist ideology that fails to cover the naked knowledge of good and evil: exogamous societies where women are excluded from inheritance inevitably suffer a lack of inheritors; restricting paid work to women/women to paid work but keeping pay radically unequal is a poisonous socio-economic chalice; saying land is not for women and expecting to find children growing up on it is stupid.

    The ‘power’ to exclude women does not confer the ability to address the inequalities of class, attitude, and economic/social/cultural opportunity that actually create fear and harm. (Pride in the competence of women is no longer shameful, our conspicuous ‘leisure’ no longer a relevant form of social assertion.) Everything old is new again: Knox was a contrarian then, as male dominance of crofting – and politics – contradicts socio-economic reality now. Don’t be a Knut about it, is a reasonable suggestion.

    1. jimbennett says:

      Hi Dr. Just to take up your points about elected women inthe Highlands and Islands.
      In the H&I, there are:
      – no women MPs
      – no women constituency MSPs, and
      – only 3 from 7 List MSPs.

      Contrary to your view, there is no “UK Standard” for list MSPs.

      I don’t know how many women councillors there are but I don’t imagine that they’re a majority.

      I do not think that H&I is necessarily more mysogynist than the rest of Scotland but there is obviously a mountain yet to climb.

  5. Morag says:

    Point of information. The monstrous REGIMEN of women. Makes a lot more sense when you use the right word.

    1. jimbennett says:

      Hey Morag. That’s you put the academic in his place! Gave me a good laugh given some of the pomposity demonstrated in this discussion. Thank you!

    2. Alastair McIntosh says:

      There’s interesting discussion of that point, Morag, and of whether or not the distinction between the two words matters, at: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/monstrous-regiment-of-women.html.

      I knew that Iain was working on the crofters’ issue – he had a letter about it in last week’s West Highland Free Press – but not that he was linking it in with church history. I’d make two comments.

      One is that if you take Paul at face value, he appears to be schizophrenic towards women. However, contemporary liberal scholars argue that we need to differentiate between different voices attributed to Paul. Specifically, the authenticity of some of the Pastoral Letters is questioned. In the HarperCollins Study Bible, Jouette M Bassler’s introduction to First Timothy says: “The Letters to Timothy and Titus form a discrete corpus within the collection of Pauline letters…. The Letters purport to be from Paul, but several of their features seem incompatible with that claim…. An unknown author used Paul’s name to give authority to his attempt to address problems in some post-Pauline churches…. Though there are clear echoes of Paul’s thought, the Letters often use the language of Hellenistic philosophy to define the Christian life and that of the imperial cult to describe God’s actions…. [T]he Letters assume a problem with false teachers … [whose] influence threatened the theological and social fabric of the church, especially regarding the role of women (2 Tim 3:6-7; Titus 1:11).”

      The misogyny there and elsewhere in the Letters (e.g. the notorious passage about feminine submission around 1 Tim. 2: 12) is echoed in the undisputed Pauline Letter that Iain cites Knox as quoting, namely 1 Corinthians 14:34. However, there we hit on the problem of post-Pauline interpolations (additions or tweaks to the text by later editors). Different ancient manuscripts of 1 Corinthians differ, and the spirit of what is written in 14:34-35 echoes Timothy, rather than what Paul has written elsewhere or the spirit of Christ.

      My second comment is that female leadership within the Highland Church continues to be hotly contested; so much so, that it is little discussed in polite society. It may seem strange to many as to why Iain has linked religion to contemporary crofting politics, but as a man from Skye crofting stock, Iain has experienced that the two are historically inseparable – for both good and bad.

      On the upside, certain clergy played key roles in crofter emancipation and the Free Church itself was established to circumvent landed patronage. Profs Donald Meek and Donald Macleod have both written of how crofter liberation theology had political impact in the 19th century. On the downside, how many women clergy or elders are in the Highland church on the islands today, including the Church of Scotland as “by law established”?

      I know one female clergywoman from a non-Presbyterian denomination who left her charge in the isles in part because she found that colleagues did not take her seriously. Within the Highland and Hebridean psyche, what manifests in church leadership still has some impact on the mores of secular society too. These things are changing, but slowly. Clergy are sometimes the ones most open to change. Ironically, some of those I know who are most resistant to change are otherwise empowered indigenous women who say they don’t want female preachers.

      There is still a long way to go in conservative evangelical areas to see women treated in the same radical emancipatory manner as Christ treated them (especially, as in Luke’s gospel). Questionable passages from Paul remain the bulwark of this as they were in Knox’s day. Whether we are talking of regiments or regimens, the issue is a spiritual one. How did Jesus treat women given the context of his times, that is the question, not what did Paul arguably write. The oldest book in the New Testament canon is reckoned to be Paul’s First Thessalonians. “Quench not the Spirit,” he wrote there (5:19), or as a modern translation unpacks it: “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire.”

    3. Lindsey says:

      Ah – you beat me to it Morag – irritating but very common misquote!

    4. Iain MacKinnon says:

      Morag, the trouble is that for most people today the word ‘regimen’ doesn’t make a lot more sense. For today’s reader it is archaic (unless Knox was thinking about dietary habits). ‘Regiment’ is still in use and one of its definitions is as a strict system of order. It is derived from the same etymological root as ‘regimen’, relates closely and meaningfully to the archaic sense of ‘regimen’ that Knox was using, and it has more relevant meaning to more people today than ‘regimen’ does.

      In modern editions of historical texts, it is common practice to modernise archaisms into more accessible language, and ‘regimen’ to ‘regiment’ is one of those. So, for instance, the recent version of Knox’ work in the Cambridge University Press history of political thought series abides by the same convention as I have.

  6. Graham Ennis says:

    Yet another reactionary act by the SNP hierarchy. The progressive claims of the SNP to be a force for change, are now crumbling fast.

  7. Jaggy says:

    After being accepted onto the New Entrant Crofting Scheme in 1999 and working as a Cottar on my work shy ex partners land ( it had nit house at the time and I wanted to build ine) I was removed for showing him up to be a workshy arsehole and he wasn’t even from this country but he had a crofting lease and I didn’t. There was nowhere for me to go I was in an ancient mobile caravan before but he crushed it. I applied for vacant and intestate crofting leases from 2003 until 2020 without any success. I had property stolen from me and given to a man by the police . The whole area wants women either serving behind the counter of a shop or at home wi bairns and cooking for practicing alcoholics . It is not a community and there are no openings into crofting for progressive minded anybody unless you can afford to buy in and as that is used to just get a holiday home errected then the cost of a piece of shite land is the samr as a building plot.
    Women are not even accepted to communities wanting to expand unless you have already dropped some children already. PRESCRIPTIVE COMMUNITIES ARE NOT HEALTHY and all because of sexism.

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