Florence Marian McNeill

Florence McNeill
  • Born:

    Free Church Manse, Holm 26 March 1885

  • Died:

    31 St Albans Road, Edinburgh 22 February 1973

  • Father:

    Rev Dr Daniel McNeill

  • Mother:

    Janet Dewar

  • Siblings:

      David, John, Daniel (Fred), James, William, Patrick, Isabella, Margaret, Eliza (Leila), Mary, Charlotte, Duncan

Orkney is justly proud of its output of professors, particularly around the turn of the century: John Bews, James Drever, John Oman, Sutherland Simpson, Thomas Stewart Traill to name but a few. These were, of course, all men. In the list of winners of the Orkney and Zetland Association School Bursary 1878-1946, almost half are girls but there were few avenues open to them, other than teaching. A few did forge another path for themselves and one was Florence Marian MacNeill, known as Floss to her friends and family.


She deserves a much more detailed biography than this. What can be gleaned from online sources, the introductions to some of her books, letters in the Orkney Archives and a short article about her childhood gives a picture of an admirable woman whom Orkney should be proud of nurturing.


Floss was the eighth of twelve children of the Free Church minister in Holm, Daniel McNeill from Argyll, and Jessie Dewar from Fochabers who had met in Orkney when Jessie was visiting her brother James, the doctor in St Margaret's Hope. Rev McNeill was minister in Holm for almost fifty years. Like many other ministers of the period, he provided medical services as well. Before his ministerial course, he had studied medicine with a view to becoming a missionary.


In An Orkney Childhood, written for The Scottish Companion 1955, Floss wrote,


"Although separated from the old life by two world wars, we still speak of the Manse as home, for there my father spent the whole of his long ministry; thither he brought his young bride; there we were all born and, in our early years, bred; and in later years we looked forward eagerly to our home-comings from school and University and from wanderings in all the airts."


She gave lyrical descriptions of her childhood home,


"There could hardly have been a lovelier prospect in the whole archipelago than that which our windows framed. To the south, the sea was studded with low green islands - Lambholm, Glimsholm, Hunda, Burray, South Ronaldsay and the rest..


Dominated by a great arch of sky, surrounded by wide seas and looking out to far horizons (to whose lure we were later to succumb), we could not but be awed by the sense of illimitable space...


To feed his ever-growing family, my father farmed twenty acres that grew oats for the porridge-pot and the girdle and vegetables for the kail-pot; and he kept a few beasts and birds that supplied us with milk and butter and eggs, as well as wool for blankets and tweeds. Then there was a gig for trips on land and a dinghy for trips on the sea. A grand life for children!


On a fine summer day, how good it was to lie on the grass all starred with daisies and buttercups and watch the snow-white clouds drifting across the sky and forming themselves into ever-changing pictures, or to meander through meadows filled with dewy clover round which the bees hummed!


Tea with one or other of our little school-friends was a special treat. I can still recall vividly the moorland path leading to a certain snug little croft, the clumps of foxgloves and purple thistles, the scent of heather and bog myrtle, the singing of the hill birds, the sparkling of the sun on the distant sea, the barking of the collie, the warm greeting at the door, the pungent odour of peats burning on the wide, open hearth, the delectable nutty smell of oatcakes toasting on the girdle, the singing of the kettle, the straw-backed Orkney chairs, the home-made wooden creepies, the table spread with homely cottage fare."


Their mother saved hard to provide her daughters with further education.


"In our early years, we attended the excellent parish school but meanwhile my mother denied herself in all sorts of ways, in order to send her daughters (after high school) to schools on the Continent (which after all cost no more, fares apart, than schools in Edinburgh or Glasgow), and, if they so wished, to accompany their brothers to the university she herself had longed for, but, being in advance of her times, had been denied."


The brief biographies available online say that Floss attended schools in Glasgow, Paris and the Rhineland but few details seem to be available. Her pocket diaries in the National Library of Scotland show that she was studying in Paris in 1902, when she would have been seventeen, and in Germany in 1903. She went to Glasgow University in 1904 and graduated with an MA in 1912. Her entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says that during that period she worked as an assistante anglaise at the Lycée des Jeunes Filles, Marseilles and at the Kottbus Madchenschule in Germany.


According to her biography on the University of Glasgow website,


"She became organiser of the Scottish Federation of Women's Suffrage Societies and Secretary of the Association for Moral and Social Hygiene, and worked in social research in London, publishing (with F J Wakefield) An Inquiry in Ten Towns in England and Wales into the Protection of Minor Girls in 1916."


The National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies was formed in 1897 and the Scottish Federation of the NUWSS toured the Highlands in September 1913, visiting Dingwall, Invergordon, Tain, Dornoch, Golspie and Helmsdale. It seems likely that Floss was involved in organising this tour. The meeting in Dingwall was attended by 500 people. The Federation was on the less militant side of the suffragette movement, believing more could be gained by agitating within the political system.


It isn't clear when she left the Federation but on 5 November 1915 Miss FM McNeill was the Organising Secretary on the Executive Committee of the Association for Moral and Social Hygiene, which had just been formed by the amalgamation of the Ladies National Association and the British Continental and General Federation for Abolition of Government Regulation of Prostitution.


The National Archives website describes the Association as a gender equality pressure group independent of any political party, philosophical school or religious creed. Its basic principles were social justice, equality of all citizens before the law and a single moral standard for men and women.


In 1916 an official report was published by the Association. "An Inquiry in Ten Towns in England and Wales into Subjects Connected with Public Morality a) The Care and Protection of Minor Girls b) Facilities for the Treatment of Venereal Disease", it was co-authored by Marian McNeill and FJ Wakefield.


After the War, Floss went abroad again, going back to France and Germany and spending time in Greece, Palestine and Egypt. According to the National Library of Scotland's catalogue, letters and pocket diaries show that she was in Greece and Palestine 1920-21.


She was evidently still in Greece in 1924 because in March of that year the Orkney Herald reprinted an article from the Glasgow Herald titled, A Modern Maid in Athens.


"The modern Greek, like the ancient, is a highly gregarious animal. The Greek spring is an entrancing season of orange blossom and asphodel and nightingales and cloudless skies but your Athenian frankly prefers asphalt to asphodel and whiles away the golden hours discussing politics at his favourite café, though the Elysian fields are within a two-penny tram ride of the city.


There is a widespread idea that heating is unhygienic and though the winters are as beautiful as a fine English summer, when one gets out of the sun it is always chilly and sometimes exceedingly cold. Yet people prefer to sit around in their outdoor coats and sneeze rather than endure any other heating than the sun! Apollo worship if you will."


F Marian McNeill's first book, "Iona, an Island Community" was published in 1925. The following year she went to South Wales to organise a Peacemakers Pilgrimage.


The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, as part of their campaign for universal disarmament, had set up a council of 28 women's and peace organisations, to organise a nationwide peace pilgrimage under the slogan 'Law not War'.


The Peacemakers' Pilgrimage through Scotland, England and Wales to London, May - June 1926 was intended to "bring home to the minds and hearts of the British people in a vivid and stirring manner, not merely the ideal of World Peace, but the need for definite action in order to attain that ideal"


All the routes converged on London: the South Wales route setting off from Swansea and Merthyr and going through Cardiff, Bristol, Bath, Chippenham, Marlborough, Hungerford, Newbury, Reading and Staines.


A report described the meeting in Marlborough of the South Wales and West Country pilgrims.


"It is doubtful if the fine old High Street, with its timbered houses, ever saw a more beautiful and more significant sight than the crowds of young men and women, the pageant of music and colour - why should the devil have all the good tunes and all the gay colours? - our scarlet-coated band, our many impressive banners, our blue tabards, our blur-and-gold pennons and our galaxy of brilliant and convincing speakers who declaimed from the steps of the old Town Hall."


After assembling in Hyde Park, the pilgrims went in procession through London. With the benefit of hindsight, one paragraph is particularly poignant. A young woman is asked why she is in the procession. "My brother was blinded and my husband killed. I've got a little boy of ten. They said it was a war to end all wars. I'm taking no chances. That's why I'm in it."


In 1928, at the age of forty-three Floss moved from London to Edinburgh, to live with two of her sisters. Work had just begun on The Scottish National Dictionary and she worked as a researcher there for a short time. The first of her better known books was published in the following year.


'The Scots Kitchen' is still regarded as the definitive book on Scottish Cookery. In the introduction Marian McNeill described the object of the book as, "to preserve the recipes of our old national dishes, many of which are in danger of falling into undeserved oblivion." Food writer Derek Cooper described it as the best book ever written about Scots food.


A new edition, with an interesting introduction by Catherine Brown, was published in 2010 so the book is readily available but it seems unlikely that anyone will copy Julie Powell's idea of cooking and blogging her way through Julia Child's book on French cooking.


The second recipe in 'The Scots Kitchen' is Meg Dodd's Powsowdie or Sheep's Head Broth and begins:-


"Choose a large, fat, young head. When carefully singed by the blacksmith, soak it and the singed trotters for a night, if you please, in lukewarm water. Take out the glassy part of the eyes, scrape the head and trotters, and brush till perfectly clean and white; then split the head with a cleaver."


A note after the recipe tells the reader how to singe the head at home and remarks that the decay of the smiddy (blacksmith's forge) has sadly reduced the popularity of this excellent soup.


In the section on baking, Marian MacNeill remembers collecting her first recipe, for Broonie.


"This was the first recipe I ever collected - at the age of five or six. One of my small companions at the island school I first attended gave me a slice of the 'broonie' which she sometimes brought as her midday 'piece'. I begged to know what was 'intill't' and the little lass replied, 'A peerie grain o' flo'or, a peerie grain o' mayle (oatmeal), a peerie grain o' butter, a peerie grain o' shuggar, a peerie grain o' trekkle, and so forth. Years later, I managed to work out the proportions.


[Orcadians now use 'peedie' for small and 'peerie' is regarded as the Shetland version but, according to my grandmother, 'peerie' was once commonly used here. 'Grain' is still quite commonly used for a small amount of something, which can just as easily be liquid as solid: "Wid ye like a grain more milk in yer tea."]


Brooonie I always assumed to mean a brown cake until I discovered that it was one of the many Norn words that have survived in our Orkney dialect."


Broonie (Orkney Oatmeal Gingerbread)


Oatmeal, flour, brown sugar, butter, ground ginger, baking-soda, treacle, egg, buttermilk


Mix in a basin six ounces of oatmeal and six of flour. Rub in two ounces of butter. Add four ounces of sugar, a teaspoonful of ground ginger and barely three-quarters of a teaspoonful of baking-soda, free from lumps. Melt two tablespoonfuls of treacle, and add, together with a beaten egg and enough buttermilk to make the mixture sufficiently soft to drop from the spoon. Mix thoroughly. Turn into a buttered tin and bake for from one to one and a half hours in a moderate oven till well risen and firm in the centre.


Two more books on Scottish cookery followed: The Book of Breakfasts (1932) and Recommended Recipes (1948)


The Scots Cellar, Its Traditions and Lore, a companion book to The Scots Kitchen, was published in 1956. It is a wonderful compendium of anecdotes, quotes, songs and recipes relating to Scottish drinking and hospitality. The recipes include heather ale, cocktails, punches and all sort of wine, including whin (gorse) and primrose.


Marian McNeill is best known for The Silver Bough, which she described as 'a four volume study of the National and Local Festivals of Scotland'. Volume I, published in 1957, was Scottish Folk-Lore and Folk-Belief and it contained chapters on the old faiths, the coming of Christianity, magic, fairies and witches. Her examples of beliefs and superstitions cover all of Scotland and, of course, there are examples from Orkney.


"In Orkney, sea-water was used in a rite to bring butter. The skeely woman, or charmer, went to the shore with a pail and waited until nine waves had rolled in. At the reflux of the last, she took three gowpens of water (a gowpen is as much as can be held in cupped hands) and carried them home in their pail. The water was put into the churn with the milk, and ensured a good supply of butter."


In the chapter on fairies, there is a section on the brownies, said to be found chiefly in the Lowlands and Northern Isles. They were handy to have around: 'a friendly domesticated spirit which frequented the houses and farm steadings and helped both farmers and housewives.'


"In Orkney, stacks of corn, called Brownie's stacks, were always safe from molestation. A portion of food used to be set apart in the home for Brownie, and a libation of milk poured into a stone, known as Brownie's stone, to secure his favour and protection"


The trolls, called trows in Orkney, aren't nearly as useful to have around: described by Sir Walter Scott as spirits of a coarser sort and more malignant temper.


"In Orkney and Shetland, the fairy hours were noon to midnight, when the trows rode through the air on bulrushes. If a trow chanced to be above the grass when the sun rose, he was day-bound, and was obliged to remain upon the earth in sight of man until sunset.


In the writer's childhood, a mound called Dingishowe, at the narrow isthmus dividing the parishes of St Andrews and Deerness, was the reputed gathering-place, on Midsummer Eve, of the trows of the East Mainland of Orkney."


The second volume of The Silver Bough, published in 1959, was A Calendar of Scottish National Festivals, Candlemas to Harvest Home. A large part of the chapter about Midsummer Eve was about Orkney. Magnus Spence's account of his boyhood memories of Johnsmas bonfires was quoted at length.

"A fortnight before Johnsmas, all the boys and girls of the district between the ages of twelve and sixteen set out for the hill after sunset and came back at one or two in the morning carrying on their backs great bundles of heather - the longest they could find - tied into faggots. This was repeated for five or six nights until they had filled a little hut in the neighbourhood. Johnsmas fire was all the talk for days. On Johnsmas Eve, horses, cattle, sheep, and geese were all housed earlier than usual, and about eight o'clock, two of the strongest youths yoked themselves in a wheel-barrow, tandem fashion, and set off on a round of the farms. At each farm, they were allowed to take from the peat-stack as many peats as could be built on to the barrow, and from five or six farms they would collect nearly two cart-loads. These were carried to the traditional site on some hill-top - in the parish of Birsay it was Greeny Hill - and built in a heap. In some places, a bone was inserted; in others, it was thrown in when the fire was at its height. An old woman said that the bone represented the bones of the man who killed the martyr, but she could not say who the martyr was. It is more likely, however, that it was symbolic of the animal that was sacrificed and offered to the sun-god as he approached the horizon.


The bonfire was lit with an ember carried from a neighbouring homestead. As soon as the fire was ablaze, each youth seized one of the prepared faggots, set fire to it, and ran about brandishing it aloft, so that in the gremlins (last gleams of day) of midnight the face of the hill was aglow with fiery haloes.


A farmer who wanted to ensure a bountiful crop lit a great heather 'cowe' (faggot) at the communal blaze and took care that it did not burn out before he had completed the sunwise circuit of his field. Blazing heather was also carried round the cows in the byre to make them thrive, to prevent cows in calf from casting calf, and to ensure fertilisation in those not yet in calf.


Towards morning, as the bonfire subsided, the young men leapt through the flames, and by two o'clock, when Midsummer Day had dawned, they sought their beds, satisfied that they had performed the immemorial rites of their fathers, though ignorant and incurious about their origin and significance. The girls used to carry home a half-burned peat, which they dipped in the 'strang bing' (pit for collecting urine as manure) and laid above the 'odder stone' (lintel). Next morning it was taken down and broken across, and the colour of the fibrous material still holding the two parts indicated the colour of the future husband's hair."


According to Marian McNeill, Midsummer fires were more mysterious in Stenness.

"The old folk of the past generation used to talk of the mystical fires which, from a distance, could be seen that night both in the circle of the Sun and on Maeshowe, but which, on approach, faded out."


Lovers in Stenness drank at the well of Bigswell and then held hands through the now-demolished Stone of Odin while 'plighting their troth'.


It really was all go at Midsummer in Orkney. There was apparently a legend associated with the island of Boray, off Millburn Bay in Gairsay, that the spirits of those who died in the faith of Odin were allowed to visit the earth in their original forms on St John's Eve. They appeared on the island at nightfall and held high revel until the midnight chimes of St Magnus Cathedral were heard in the distance.


The third volume covered the festivals from Hallowe'en to Yule and there are not so many instances particular to Orkney. Hallowe'en was as busy a time here as Johnsmas but we seem to have shared our peculiar divination rites with the rest of Scotland.


"One of the many ways in which girls tried to get a clue as to their future husband was 'Pulling the Kail-Runt'. "Hand-in-hand, a band of young girls go out in the dark to the kail-yard, where, either blindfolded or with eyes shut, each pulls up the first kail-runt (cabbage-stalk) she touches. In Orkney, the girls go 'backlins' into the kail-yard and pull the first kail-runt on which they happen to strike their heel. The size - large or small, stout or lean - and the shape - straight or crookit - indicate the appearance of the future spouse; as the 'custock' or heart proves sweet or sour, so will his disposition; and according as there is much or little 'yird' (earth) adhering, so will the tocher or dowry be large or small."


The chapter on Hogmanay and New Year only gives a paragraph to the Kirkwall Ba. More space is given to the New Year song, describing bands of revellers visiting the houses of the laird and well-to-do-farmers in the small hours of the morning and singing one of the many versions of Queen Mary's song


Peace be to this buirdly biggin' -
We're a ' Queen Mary's men,
Fal the stethe unto the riggin'
And that's afore our Lady.


After a dozen or more verses had been sung, the singers would sit down to 'homely fare and jugs of home-brewed ale' and would take away a substantial piece of meat as well.


"Heaven knows how they combined so many suppers in one night," comments a reminiscent Orcadian; "but no slight could be more keenly felt by a Deerness farmer than to have his house passed over by the New Year singers."


The final volume, in 1968, described the Local Festivals of Scotland. Marian MacNeill described the Kirkwall Ba in a little more detail.


"...on the stroke of the hour, the ball is thrown up. Immediately a locked struggle begins. There is no rule against handling and only on the rarest occasions is there any chance of a player having a kick at the ball. It simply disappears from sight in the midst of a sort of vast scrum… the Doonies struggling to force their way with the ball down the street, and the Uppies as resolutely pushing up the street…


Although the New Year's Ba' is the traditional one, the Christmas Day Ba' games, which date from the latter part of the last century, have assumed almost an equal importance."


The Scottish National Party was founded in 1933 and two of its founding members were Marian MacNeill and her brother Duncan, author of The Scottish Realm, An Approach to the Political and Constitutional History of Scotland. Marian was the party's first Vice-President. She also founded the Clan MacNeill Association in 1932.


Floss retained her links with Orkney and her letters to Ernest Marwick are in the Orkney Archive. In 1955 she asked him to tell her about the new writers in Orkney and reminisced about taking John Bews to see Eric Linklater.


John Bews, who had been her near contemporary at Kirkwall Grammar School, had become professor of Botany at Natal University and its first Principal. He was an international expert on grasses but is also credited with using the good all-round, classical education he received in Orkney to be able to take a wider view; he was one of the first ecologists. Floss wrote that Eric had promised him the tea hour but kept him for the evening.


In January 1962 she wrote,"The Orcadian has done us proud. It is nice to know we are not forgotten. We all have a very warm feeling for Orkney, which is the only place we think of as home," and in 1965 she reminisced about the thrill of the Lammas Market in Kirkwall, "especially the 'hinmost Setterday'"


Floss wrote of her relief at receiving a Civil List Pension, in recognition of her services to folklore, as she had received no royalties for The Silver Bough, the work to which she had devoted so many years. It had been arranged that she would receive them after the publication of the fourth volume but financial difficulties of the publisher, William Maclellan, meant that they had "gone up in smoke"


Florence Marian MacNeill died in February 1973, having made an invaluable contribution to Scotland's knowledge of its traditions and social history.