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8 Highland stories you should know in LGBT+ History Month

By Andrew Henderson

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In the United Kingdom, February is LGBT+ History Month.

Often it is used as a chance to look to the past to educate for the future – and the Highlands is no different.

Despite homosexuality being outlawed in Scotland until 1980, LGBT+ people existed.

In some cases we only know of them through court records, such as two men in the navy, Royal Marine Frank Lightfoot and merchant seaman William Thomson, who were charged with sodomy at the high court in Inverness for having consensual intercourse in Invergordon in 1919.

It is important, then, to mark and celebrate diversity – so read on to find out about some trailblazers with Highland connections.

Why does LGBT+ History Month matter?

You may well have come across the phrase "you can't be what you can't see" that is often applied to women's sports, for example, but the same is true of LGBT+ identities in every day life.

When role models are few and far between, it can lead to feelings of isolation and confusion. This is part of the reason that LGBT+ people are more likely to suffer from mental health issues than the general population.

Historically speaking, that crucial visibility has been difficult to find in the UK because of LGBT+ identities being legally prohibited, or socially stigmatised.

Even more recently after homosexuality was decriminalised, it was still classed as a mental health disorder by the World Health Organisation until 1992 – and being trans was not declassified as a mental health disorder until 2019.

Section 28, or Section 2A in Scotland, also banned the "promotion of homosexuality" by local authorities (ie. schools and libraries among other places), but because of how vaguely the bill was worded it essentially banned mention of LGBT+ identities.

That was in place until 2000 in Scotland, and 2003 in England and Wales, so an entire generation of people went through schools without learning anything about LGBT+ life – or in some cases, being bullied for being LGBT+ without teachers being able to defend them.

LGBT+ History Month, then, looks to redress that balance by increasing visibility, raising awareness and education levels of LGBT+ issues, and working to make insitutions safer places for LGBT+ people.

With that in mind, here are some people's stories that you should be aware of in the Highlands as LGBT+ History Month 2023 draws to a close.

LGBT+ History Month is drawing to a close.
LGBT+ History Month is drawing to a close.

Lady Vere Hobart (1803–1888)

Born in Granada in the West Indies, Hobart married Donald Cameron of Lochiel but was most famously linked to Anne Lister – whose life was turned into BBC drama series 'Gentleman Jack' where Jodhi May played the part of Lady Hobart.

The pair spent a winter together in Hastings before Lady Hobart accepted Cameron's proposal, and it is believed Vere Hobart represented everything Anne Lister has been searching for in a companion.

Something of their bond must have stayed with Lady Hobart after marriage, though, as she named one of her children Anne Louisa.

Louisa Caroline Baring, Lady Ashburton (1827–1903)

Born in Stornoway, Lady Ashburton spent much of her early childhood at Brahan Castle, near Dingwall, also spending time in Sri Lanks and Greece before returning to Brahan Castle in 1843.

Described as "of fiery temper, insatiable restlessness and socially ambitious", she was a Scottish art collector and philanthropist who had close connections with several artistic and literary figures of the period including Robert Browning, Thomas Carlyle and Florence Nightingale.

After the death of Lord Ashburton in 1864, Baring began a romantic relationship with the American sculptor Harriet Hosmer, of whom she became a patron.

Upon Lady Ashburton's own death in 1903, she was buried at Kinlochluichart Churce in Garve.

Major-General Sir Hector Archibald MacDonald (1853–1903)

Hector MacDonald was a renowned military man – but his life ended in controversy.
Hector MacDonald was a renowned military man – but his life ended in controversy.

The son of a crofter, Dingwall's MacDonald (also known as Fighting Mac) left school before he was 15, enlisted in the Gordon Highlanders at Fort George as a private at 17, and finished his career as a major general – a rare example of a British Army general who rose through the ranks on merit alone.

He distinguished himself in action at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898 – over 100 years before LGBT+ people were allowed to serve openly in the military – and became a popular hero in Scotland and England on his way to being knighted for his service in the Second Boer War.

Posted to Sri Lanka as Commander-in-Chief of British forces, he committed suicide in 1903 following accusations of homosexual activity with local boys that could have caused embarrassment to the regime – now believed by some to be a conspiracy by the British Establishment, motivated by jealousy and snobbery as the case file is believed to have been destroyed soon after his death – which he was later acquitted of by a Government Commission.

A 100-foot high memorial to MacDonald was erected above Dingwall in 1907, as well as another at Mulbuie.

Lady Constance Mackenzie (1883–1932)

The second daughter of the Earl of Cromartie and niece of the Duke of Sutherland was no stranger to flouting convention.

A keen sportswoman, Lady Constance favoured what was considered masculine clothing and travelled around the world in men's clothes prior to her marriage in 1904 to Sir Edward Austin Stewart-Richardson, 15th Baronet, in Tain's St Andrew's Church.

She was a dancer and author, an expert horsewoman, a keen fencer and an excellent swimmer – to the point she taught at the London club where Princess Mary (daughter of King George V) learnt to swim – amongst many other skills.

Constance Mackenzie broke gender stereotypes.
Constance Mackenzie broke gender stereotypes.

Ali Smith (born 1962)

A former St Joseph's RC Primary School and Inverness High School pupil, Ali Smith has worn many different hats over the years.

Described as Scotland's Nobel laureate-in-waiting in 2016, she is a prolific writer across novels, short stories, plays and journalism.

Success came fairly early in her career, winning the Saltire First Book of the Year and Scottish Arts Council Book awards for her debut short story collection Free Love and Other Stories in 1995, while most recently being awarded University College London's Orwell Prize.

Smith now lives in Cambridge with her partner, filmmaker Sarah Wood.

Author Ali Smith has won plenty of awards for her writing. Picture: Callum Mackay
Author Ali Smith has won plenty of awards for her writing. Picture: Callum Mackay

Jamie Bowie (born 1989)

Runner Jamie Bowie rose to the Commonwealth Games after starting out at the Inverness Harriers while at Inverness Royal Academy.

Specialising in the 4x400m relay, Bowie burst on to the international scene at the European Under-23 Championships in 2011, where he was part of a team that won gold.

A silver medal at the senior World Indoor Championships in the same event then followed, before competing for Scotland at the Glasgow Commonwealths in 2014 – setting a new Scottish record.

Bowie would return to the Commonwealth stage, albeit not as an athlete himself. He was the team manager for Scotland's gymnastics squad at the last two editions of the competition in Australia's Gold Coast in 2018 and then Birmingham last year.

Jade Konkel-Roberts (born 1993)

Another athlete, Jade Konkel-Roberts broke the mould when it came to women's rugby in Scotland.

Jade Konkel-Roberts being presented with her 50th cap for Scotland in their opening match of the 2022 Women's Six Nations against England. Picture: SRU/SNS Group
Jade Konkel-Roberts being presented with her 50th cap for Scotland in their opening match of the 2022 Women's Six Nations against England. Picture: SRU/SNS Group

Originally from Munlochy, Konkel-Roberts would follow in her family's footsteps by turning out for Inverness Craig Dunain in her youth, before going on to become the country's first ever professional female rugby player.

Now a fixture in the national side with over 50 caps to her name – including appearances in several Six Nations campaigns and the 2021 World Cup in New Zealand – Konkel continues to play for Harlequins in England's Premier 15s, and has begun planning for life after rugby by becoming a qualified firefighter.

Emma Roddick (born 1997)

With so much of the reasoning behind LGBT+ History Month being based in legal and political quagmires, it is fitting that this list draws to a close with the first openly LGBT+ MSP for the Highlands and Islands.

Emma Roddick lived in Alness from an early age, and was elected as a councillor for Inverness Central in November 2019, before making the step up to Holyrood in May 2021.

She was the youngest MSP elected that year, and notably – as far as LGBT+ issues are concerned – spoke as parliament debated the Gender Recognition Reform Bill.

Roddick has also been confirmed as one of the speakers at this summer's Highland Pride event, which returns for the first time in three years on Sunday, July 22.

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