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Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Hidden Heroines in History

 At the beginning of March, Women’s History Month 2021, I was thinking about little-known women who have made important contributions to our society. I asked my critique group and several non-writer friends if they knew of any such women. They came up with many names, some of whom I had not heard about. Here I have whittled the list to a few who have impacted the world in various fields and historical periods.

Caroline Herschel - U.S. Public Domain

Caroline Herschel was born in Hanover, Germany on March 16, 1750. When Caroline was ten, she contracted typhus. This caused vision loss in her left eye and affected her growth. She reached a height of only four feet, three inches. Assuming she would never marry, her mother decided she should train to be a household servant. Her father, however, thought she should be educated. During her mother’s absences, he tutored Caroline individually and included her in her brothers’ lessons.

Her older brother William became a successful music teacher in Bath, England. In 1772, he brought Caroline to live with him and do the housekeeping. He tutored her in mathematics and trained her as a singer. The siblings gave public musical performances until 1782, when William accepted an appointment to the office of court astronomer to King George III. This position came about after William was credited with discovering the planet Uranus the year before.

While still keeping house for William, Caroline helped with his research by grinding and polishing mirrors for his telescope and executing the calculations related to his observations. Her interest in astronomy grew and she began making her own observations. On February 26, 1783, Caroline made her first discoveries, a nebula that was not previously recorded and a second companion of the Andromeda Galaxy.  In 1786, she became the first woman credited with discovering a comet. The following year, the king gave her an annual salary in her role as her brother’s assistant making her the world’s first professional female astronomer. Over the next ten years she discovered seven more comets.

After her brother’s death in 1822, she returned to Hanover, where she continued her astronomical work, verified and confirmed William’s findings, and produced a catalogue of 2500 nebulae. Her work had gained her the respect and admiration of the general public as well as the scientific  community. In 1828, at the age of 77, the Royal Astronomical Society awarded her a Gold Medal for revising and reorganizing their work. No other woman would again be awarded a Gold Medal until 1996.

Caroline died in Hanover on January 8, 1848. The C. Herschel crater on the moon is named after her, continuing her legacy into the twenty-first century.


Susan La Flesche Picotte 
Nebraska State Historical Society Photograph Collections

Susan La Flesche was born on June 17, 1865 to Chief Iron Eyes (Joseph La Flesche) and his wife, One Woman (Mary), on the Omaha Reservation in northeastern Nebraska. Her father was a strong advocate for education. Susan attended school on the reservation until she was fourteen. After a brief period of home-schooling, she was sent to the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies in New Jersey. In addition to her native tongue, she was fluent in English, French, and Otoe. She returned home at age seventeen and taught at the Quaker Mission School on the reservation for two years. A co-worker encouraged her to complete her education and earn a medical degree.

When she was twenty-one, Susan entered the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Philadelphia, one of the foremost institutions for higher education of non-white students in the country. The physician there urged her to attend the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, which she did, graduating as valedictorian on March 14, 1889. Susan was the first Native American to earn a medical degree. As a child, she had seen an Omaha woman die because the local white doctor refused to treat her. Later, Susan stated that this heart-breaking experience had inspired her to become a physician so that she could care for her people. She returned to the Omaha Reservation and assumed her position as physician at the Agency Indian School, where she taught students about health and hygiene in addition to providing medical care. Although she was not obligated to treat people outside the school, she made house calls and cared for the sick in the surrounding area. She became a widely trusted community leader.

 In June 1894, she married Henry Picotte, a Sioux man from the Yankton agency. They had two sons. Susan continued to practice medicine after the birth of her children. In her practice, she treated both Omaha and white patients in the town of Bancroft and surrounding communities. Sometimes she even took her children along on house calls.  She worked to teach her community about preventive medicine and other public health issues such as food sanitation and efforts to prevent the spread of tuberculosis. Alcoholism was a serious problem on the Omaha reservation, including Susan’s husband. Susan advocated temperance and struggled against disreputable whites who used alcohol to take advantage of Omahas while making land deals. She also worked on behalf of community members in their struggles with the bureaucracy regarding land interests.

Throughout her adult life, Susan had worked for the building of a hospital. In 1913, the first privately funded hospital on a reservation was completed on the Omaha tribal land. It was later named in Susan’s honor, and in 1993 the Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte Memorial Hospital, Walthill, Nebraska, was declared a U.S. National Historic Landmark. Susan died of bone cancer on September 18, 1915 at the age of fifty.

Shirley Chisholm
Library of Congress

Shirley Anita St. Hill was born on November 30, 1924 in Brooklyn, New York. Her father was an immigrant from Guyana, and her mother was an immigrant from Barbados. She graduated from Brooklyn Girls’ High and Brooklyn College, then worked as a nursery school teacher.

In 1949, she married Conrad Chisholm, a private investigator. She earned a master’s degree from Columbia University in early childhood education in 1951. By 1960, she was a consultant to the New York City Division of Day Care. Having encountered discrimination based on her race and her gender, she became active locally in the League of Women Voters, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Urban League to counter inequality. She also joined the Democratic Party. 

Shirley ran for the New York Assembly in 1964 and became the second African American in the New York State Legislature, where she served through 1968. Her accomplishments included the granting of unemployment benefits to domestic workers and a program that gave underprivileged students the opportunity to attend college while taking remedial education classes. Both programs continue today. In 1968, she won a seat in the House of Representatives, becoming the first Black woman elected to the United States Congress. She represented New York's 12th congressional district for seven terms from 1969 to 1983, introducing more than 50 pieces of legislation. Throughout her career, she fought for racial and gender equality, tried to improve conditions for the poor, and advocated for ending the Vietnam War.  

Her autobiography, Unbossed and Unbought, was published in 1970. It chronicled her first-hand account of her journey from her childhood in Brooklyn to her position as the first Black Congresswoman. In it she wrote, “Our representative democracy is not working because the Congress that is supposed to represent the voters does not respond to their needs. I believe the chief reason for this is that it is ruled by a small group of old men.”

In 1972, Shirley became the first Black candidate to seek a major party's nomination for President of the United States, and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Due to discrimination, she was blocked from participating in televised primary debates and, after taking legal action, was allowed to make just one speech. However, she garnered support of students, women, and minorities, entering twelve primaries and winning 10% of the total delegates to the Democratic Convention. While she did not become the presidential candidate, she continued to serve in the House of Representatives.

     Conrad and Shirley divorced in 1977. She kept the last name of Chisholm in her professional endeavors even after she married Arthur Hardwick Jr., a New York state legislator, She retired from Congress in 1983, taught at Mount Holyoke College and co-founded the National Political Congress of Black Women. Shirley Chisholm died on January 1, 2005 in Florida. President Barack Obama awarded her a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.


Maryam Mirzakhani
National Science Foundation

Maryam Mirzakhani was born on May 12, 1977 in Tehran, Iran. She attended an all-girls high school and in 1994 she became the first Iranian woman to win a gold medal at the International Mathematical Olympiad. She repeated the achievement the following year. This recognition of her genius enabled her to pursue a career in pure mathematics, an opportunity rarely accorded to Iranian women. While attending the Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, she was involved in a serious accident when a bus she was riding in fell off a cliff. She was one of the few survivors.

In 1999, she earned her Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics from Sharif University. That year, she published Elementary Number Theory, Challenging Problems in Farsi with friend and fellow student, Roya Beheshti. While at the university, the American Mathematical Society recognized Maryam’s work, and she traveled to the United States for graduate study at Harvard University. In her doctoral thesis, she connected and solved two long-standing mathematical problems. She was awarded her PhD in 2004.

She accepted a position as assistant professor at Princeton University and as a research fellow at the Clay Mathematics Institute. Soon after, she joined the faculty at Stanford University in California, where she was recognized for her work in the fields of hyperbolic geometry, topology and dynamics. In 2008, she became a full professor at Stanford.

Also in 2008, Maryam married Jan Vondrák, a Czech theoretical computer scientist and applied mathematician. They had a daughter named Anahita.

Working alone and with colleagues, Maryam proved several theories related to simple and complex geodesics, tying together fields including geometry, topology and dynamical systems. In an interview, she characterized her process this way: “It is like being lost in a jungle and trying to use all the knowledge that you can gather to come up with some new tricks, and with some luck you might find a way out.”

On August 13, 2014, Maryam was awarded the Fields Medal. Presented every four years, the Fields Medal is the most prestigious award in mathematics, akin to a Nobel Prize. Maryam was the first and, to date, the only woman to be honored with this recognition since its inception in 1936.

After a four-year battle with breast cancer, Maryam died July 14, 2017. She was 40 years old.

Among the many honors and tributes were accorded to her after her death were having an asteroid and a micro-satellite named in her memory, a documentary featuring her and her work, and recognition by the United Nations as one of seven female scientists who have shaped the world. Beginning this year, the Maryam Mirzakhani New Frontiers Prize will award $50,000 to outstanding women in the field of mathematics who completed their PhDs within the past two years.

Through the millennia, women have made major contributions that have gone largely unrecognized. Hopefully, in the future, our society will do a better job of acknowledging women’s achievements.

 Ann Markim


Monday, March 22, 2021

Castles wanted - preferably ruined, plus dungeons

This may be sentimental of me, but I'm a romantic and I rather like castles with a bit of wear on them. The well-kept ones like this one at Ludlow in Shropshire,  have a rugged grandeur and give a lot more scope for a writer's research, but there's something about a ruin.

The one lurking behind me on my usual mugshot is a good case in point: Dunstanburgh has one of the best locations in the country - acres of green, little villages, wild Northumberland coast - but it wouldn't have the same charm for me if it was complete and shiny-new.

'Athelstan's Tower' at Exeter, where the Rougemont Castle site is a delectable public garden and the sandstone tower sits in the wall near the war memorial, is part of my husband's home-town memories.

The battered gatehouse of the old castle at Sherborne in Dorset- the town has two, the second later and swankier - breathes long-vanished adventure to me, even (maybe especially) in a dull and rainy autumn afternoon.

Nonsense for a medievalist, I know, but indulge me.

Of course, a working medieval castle would not be complete without a place to hold prisoners.

Medieval castles and dungeons tend to go together in people's imaginations.What we imagine as a typical dungeon, however - dark, underground, no windows, lots of chains - was less common in the Middle Ages than is assumed. 

Take the word 'dungeon'. Its earliest form, donjon, meant a keep or tower, a strong defensive position. Over time that tower has been taken to mean a prison, often underground in a castle. This form of prison was in fact an oubliette (meaning 'forgotten place') and was far darker and more grim than a dungeon. 

Famous dungeons include the Tower of London and those at Pontefract Castle and Alnwick Castle, though true dungeons in castles were not usual until later in the Middle Ages. Often noble prisoners, captured and held for ransom in the dungeon, would be kept in a secure, comfortable place within the host's castle: certainly the room would be well-guarded, but we should not picture a Richard the Lionheart or Charles of Orleans languishing in the rat-infested, damp stone cell of imagination. Life expectancy in an oubliette would be short, and bad for the ransom business. 'Common' prisoners might be kept in gate houses, while those considered undesirable and disposable but not to be actually murdered could end up down with the rats in the oubliette.

Lindsay Townsend.  

Railroads and National Parks

by Patti Sherry-Crews

 March 2021.

It’s been well over a year since I’ve had a proper planned vacation. As we’re seeing the light at the end of a long tunnel, I’m counting my blessings by remembering wonderful trips we had as a family. 

One of my favorites was taking the Amtrak Empire Builder, which runs from Chicago to Seattle and Portland. We got off at Glacier National Park. Traveling with two children, we opted to book a family bedroom, which came with our own personal attendant who booked our meals in the dining car, and while we were at dinner, he'd convert our couches into beds. It was an excellent way to travel where we all could sit back and enjoy the views. 

I remember traveling for hours through the golden grasses of the Great Plains, which seemed to go on forever. And then detraining at Glacier National Park where we stayed at one of the old great lodges of the National Park Service.

It was during this trip I became aware of the history of the partnership between the railroads and the National Park Service, which enjoyed a golden age of railroad travel beginning at the beginning of the 20th century and lasting until the 1950’s.

Teddy Roosevelt and environmentalist, John Muir, first saw the benefit of setting aside protected areas as national treasures. Then in 1903, the Union Pacific Railroad and The Chicago & Northern Western Railroad formed the Bureau of Service to National Parks and Resorts, establishing resorts at Yellowstone and the Rocky National Park.

In 1915, railroads promoted parks at the Panama-Pacific Exposition. The exposition was meant to highlight the Panama Canal, but massive exhibits of the parks drew the crowds' interest, which included a 4 ½ acre replica of Yellowstone complete with geysers and the Old Faithful Inn.

In 1916, the National Park Service and the railroads partnered up. As the parks were only accessible to the general public by rail at that time, the railroads constructed the buildings to support the tourist trade: lodges, cabins, and dining halls. Destination travel to the west was born. The train wasn’t only a means to get from one point to another anymore. This type of organized travel with an agenda and means of vehicular transport within the parks opened up the wilderness to the person who sat somewhere between adventurer and armchair traveler. For instance, Circle Loop took travelers in comfort through Zion, Bryce and the Grand Canyon.

Circle Loop

The art departments at the railroad got busy with a campaign glorifying the natural beauty of the parks making travel posters and paintings. The film departments shot footage to be shown before movies at cinemas across the country to lure tourists. The posters have become iconic.

Architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood was commissioned to design the facilities. His buildings in the so-called National Park Rustic Style or Parkitecture  became the standard for later development, using native stone and timber to create his lodges, cabins, and dining halls.

Ahwahnee Lodge, Yosemite Park, Designed by Underwood

The Interior of Old Faithful Exemplifying the Organic Nature of Parkitecture (Designed by Robert C. Reamer)

After 1918, the army who had been charged with manning the parks were replaced by the Park Rangers we know today.

We can thank the railroads for helping preserve the parks. Train travel has a relatively benign impact on the environment. Early on all the railroad companies involved agreed to ban billboards, so the train passenger could enjoy uninterrupted views. The rails followed the natural contours, rather than trying to plough straight through the landscape. And by limiting the number of stops, much land was left undeveloped—and free of litter.

Of course, bringing tourists to the west wasn’t always an easy relationship between the native American Indian tribes and the railroad development was an uneasy dance at times. But the railroads and National Parks did introduce travelers to a side of native American culture they otherwise might not have seen. The National Park Service is under the Department of the Interior, as is the Bureau of Indian Affairs. 

Demonstrating Navajo Weaving

In the 1950’s automobile travel overtook train travel, which struggled to compete. In 1972, the railroads donated all the facilities at Zion, Bryce, Cedar Breaks, and the Grand Canyon to the National Park Service.

My dream is to visit all the National Parks, and if not stay in the Great Lodges, at least step into the lobbies. Maybe have a bite to eat in the dining hall. Have you stayed or visited any of the Great Lodges? What National Parks have you been to?

Thursday, March 18, 2021

New Release -- The Wildings: A Family Saga by Sarah J. McNeal


THE WILDINGS is a wonderful collection of western romance stories that follow the Wilding family through generations of love and loss, joy and sorrow, and wins and losses in life. Get lost in this exciting boxed set of full-length books and novellas that trace the adventures of the descendants of the Wilding family. From the lawless old west days of the early 1900’s in ruthless Hazard, Wyoming, through the generations forward, the action, romance, and suspense is nonstop.

Follow the saga of the Wilding family from the early days that begin with a haunted house, a trunk, and a date with destiny in Harmonica Joe’s Reluctant Bride. Can Joe and Lola’s unlikely romance last? Next, the dangers of World War 1 in For Love of Banjo, and a Prohibition-era kidnapping with Fly Away Heart will have you on the edge of your seat. Hollow Heart is a post WWII short story with a surprise twist, and The Beast of Hazard will touch you with its romance between a veterinarian and a beautiful circus performer facing danger. In Unexpected Blessings, a couple overcomes a seemingly insurmountable problem, and in Home For the Heart, a determined young woman must find a way into a confirmed bachelor’s heart. A conversation at a wedding spoils everything in It’s Only Make Believe, and in I Dream of You, a recurring dream, a kiss, and deadly secrets could unlock not only love but a very dangerous outcome for everyone. Three Christmas novellas, A Husband for ChristmasWhen Love Comes Knocking, and A Christmas Visitor are also included to round out the series and bring it to a very satisfying conclusion.

This wonderful collection will keep you entertained with richly-woven stories filled with real-life excitement, danger, and love from the heart of romance author Sarah J. McNeal. THE WILDINGS will enthrall you and keep you turning pages as you follow the multi-faceted characters and the stories of their lives! Don’t miss it!

Amazon Link

Friday, March 12, 2021

A Tale of Two Women and One Castle – The Ladies of Dunbar - Part Two


In Part 1 of my stories about the Two Ladies of Dunbar, I covered the valiant Marjorie Comyn, countess of Dunbar and March.  She married into the ancient Dunbar family, and yet she held her castle against the king of England in a time of war.  Instead of that deed striking a heroic chord in history, earning her immortality, her fate has been largely, frustratingly buried.  Her defiance is little noted today.  No poems about her, few people ever recall her life, or her heroic audacity.

Castle Dunbar

Forty decades later, another woman traveled that same path.  Agnes Randolph married into the Dunbar family—in fact, she married Marjorie’s son Cospatrick.  By the time they wed, he was using Patrick as his given name.  He was about eleven-years-old when his mother defended Dunbar Castle.  Since young men of the nobility became squires around that age, I might assume he was riding at his father’s side, with the English king Edward I, and watched as his mother took a stance for the Scottish side.  His young age is why his name isn’t on the Ragman Roll.  Some mistakenly assert he assumed the titles to the earldoms in 1297, the year after his mother vanished from history.  However, correspondence to and from king Edward during that time remark upon Patrick’s father’s and his loyalty to the crown, referencing the elder Dunbar as still in possession of the titles and keeping his oath to the English monarch.  Edward won a crushing battle at Falkirk that autumn—with both Dunbars riding with him—yet it failed to bring him the control of the country he long craved.  The castle of Dunbar—the name meaning fort of the point— was built on a huge promontory, which projected out into the sea.  The ancient stronghold of the earls of March was of key strategic importance, due to its location being near to the major commercial seaport of Berwick.  The fortress overlooked the coastal town of Dunbar, in East Lothian, and afforded defenders the view of most of southwest Scotland.  Thus, Castle Dunbar was vital to Edward’s plans to defeating the Scots, once and for all.

Caerlaverock Castle, Dumfries

The center of the Scottish resistance was Caerlaverock Castle, near Dumfries. The Comyns were still giving the English soldiery, garrisoned throughout the countryside, hell and fury.  And the supposed highly defensible Caerlaverock was their base for the struggle.  From there, they could launch surprise attacks, fighting in the Highland way of guerilla warfare—strike and then vanish into the mists.  Their familiarity of the countryside, and the English troops' lack of it, gave them a distinct advantage.  And the tactics proved to be a festering thorn in Edward’s side.  To that aim, he fixed on denying the Scots this base of operations.  Edward and his army advanced through Annandale—lands of the Bruces—stopping off at the royal Pele Tower of Lochmaben.  The full splendor of Longshanks' army bore down upon the beautiful moated castle, and with banners flying high, he laid siege. Once again, riding at his side was Cospatrick of Dunbar and his son Patrick.   You can read about the siege in the Song of Caerlaverock, an overly flowery poem that is mostly PR for the English view of what happened.  Even so, it is valuable to historians as it notes the names of the many knights and lords who were there.

 There were many rich caparisons embroidered on silks and satins; many a beautiful pennon fixed to a lance; and many a banner displayed. And afar off was the noise heard of the neighing of horses: mountains and valleys were everywhere covered with sumpter horses and wagons with provisions, and sacks of tents and pavilions. And the days were long and fine. 

Touches, chevalier of worship, carried gules with yellow martlets. Banner gules, a lion argent, there the Earl of Lennox flew, and upon a silver border roses of the field’s same hue; Patrick of Dunbar, his son, bore likewise with a label blue. 

The anonymous poet made the whole affair sound so gay, and what a valiant effort it was on the English’s part to invest the castle.  In truth, the fortress was hardly a match for the English forces, so soon both Patrick and his father were back to their own business.  By December, 1300, Patrick, now in his twenties, was named in an English Royal Administration paper, indicating he received regular payments for assisting King Edward in controlling the Scots in East Lothian.

Sometime after that point, he married his first wife, Ermengarde Soulis.  Little is known of Ermengarde, other than she was a few years younger than Patrick, and likely a cousin, the daughter of Sir William de Soulis (one of the claimants to the throne of Scotland in 1296) and Ermengarde de Duward.  She gave birth to a son Patrick—yes, yet another Patrick—sometime around 1304, for it was recorded that she received a shipment of a cask of wine from Edward Longshanks, and it was noted she was pregnant at the time. There was another son, John, born less than two years later.  After that, nothing else is heard about her.  No reference to her death.  No place of burial, though one would assume at Dunbar Castle, which is now in ruins.  One might infer she died in childbirth, or shortly thereafter, as the date would indicate that.

In 1305, Patrick petitioned King Edward for his father's lands at Polwarth, Berwickshire to be settled upon him, but this was declined.  Against the backdrop of February 1306, Robert Bruce called for a meeting with John “Red” Comyn.  Both had been Guardians of Scotland.  Both held no love loss for the other.  And both wanted to be king of the Scots.  Instead of coming to an agreement, Bruce killed Comyn, and a month later then declared himself king.  Early 1307, Edward was making plans, once more, to invade Scotland.  He commanded, Patrick, along with his aging father (now sixty-five), were to preserve the peace in Scotland and to obey the earl of Richmond in this aim.  The denial of his petition in 1305 had little consequences or impact to Patrick.  Edward I died in July of 1307.  Less than a year later saw Cospatrick die, so his heir Patrick assumed the earldoms of Dunbar and March. 

Bruce's killing of Red Comyn

In 1313, Patrick was sent to England with a petition for the new king—Edward II.  The communication was from people of Scotland, laying out their suffering at the hands of Edward Bruce.  Robert’s younger brother had a bone to pick with the Comyns and Dunbars and seemed to take great pleasure in the confiscating coin, crops and horses from his enemy.  Patrick’s own lands and those of his vassals were vulnerable to raids of both Bruces, as well as by attacks by the English garrisons at Berwick and Roxburgh.  I surmise, in order to protect his honours, Patrick did his best to keep both sides in reasonable humor with him.  When the Battle of Bannockburn in 1313 was a route for the Scots, Patrick provided shelter and assistance to the fleeing English king. 

Edward II

No sooner than Edward II was safely across the English border, Patrick switched sides, aligning himself with Robert the Bruce in spectacular fashion.  He took part in the Scottish siege at Berwick, as one of Bruce’s commanders.  He helped Bruce gain control of the town on the 28th of Mar 1318, and the castle by the 20th July of the same year.  Bruce must have been pleased with Patrick’s tireless efforts for he received a grant of lands from King Robert covering the ones Patrick had been forced to forfeit in England due to the war.

He also received a new wife.  And no miss to fade into the annals of history.  His second wife was Agnes, daughter of Bruce’s nephew, Thomas Randolph, 1st earl of Moray.  Their royal lineage goes back to Gospatrick of Dunbar, Somerland, King Duncan I, and the Pictish kings, and through his mother's side he was 8th great-grandson of Henry I, king of France.  Though doubt has been cast by some historians about her father being Robert the Bruce's nephew it is easily proven.  Bruce's older half-sister, Isabel du Kilconquhar was the mother of Thomas Randolph.  Documents from the reign of David II of Scotland  (Bruce's son) makes hundreds of references to John Randolph being his Cognatus/consanguineus (kinsman/male cousin)-- a cousin of the first or second degree.

If Dunbar had been vital to the English’s ability to strike into the heart of Scotland, it was doubly as important in the Bruce’s mind.  He was fighting to subdue Clan Comyn—which meant the largest part of Scotland—and preparing should Edward II invade yet again.  The marriage between Patrick and Agnes had all the markings of a political union.  Bruce got a strong ally against his old foes the Comyns—Patrick’s relatives—and Patrick checkmated Bruce’s generals Randolph and James Douglas from raiding his lands every time they needed supplies.  The advantageous marriage seemed to seal the pact.  They were married in England, due to Scotland being under interdict.  In 1317, Pope John XXII issued the interdict because Bruce and Douglas kept raiding in England.  The papal decree prevented Scotland’s churches from celebrating all sacred rites and ceremonies, save death—which meant no marriages could be performed there.

Agnes, who was Randolph’s first born, brought to the marriage her sizable inheritance—including the lordship of Annandale (the honour belonging to Bruce’s father, but after his death had been bestowed by Bruce on his nephew Randolph).  However there were a few bumps to the marriage.  Dispensation had to be sought, and was granted for them to wed on the 18th August 1320, the need arising because they were related closer than the fourth degree of consanguinity.  Patrick and the Bruce shared the same great grandfather—Robert de Brus, 4th lord of Annandale, which meant Agnes and Patrick were second cousins.  Later, a second dispensation was needed from the Pope dated the 16th of January 1323, when it was found their family connections complicated things further.  Agnes’ sister Isabella had married Patrick Dunbar—yes, another one!—this time Patrick Dunbar of Cockburn, Stranith and Bele, the nephew to Patrick through his brother Alexander, knight of Wester Spott.  And her sister Geilis Isobel (history keeps merging with her older sisterby ten years—who was also named Isobel—hello! they are NOT the same person!!) married John de Dunbar of Derchester & Birkynside, Earl of Fife— another Dunbar malePatrick’s younger brother.  It seems these Randolph sisters had a thing for the  men of Dunbar.  The second decree was needed to validate any children as legitimate.  Agnes and Patrick were already married by that time, so they were permitted to remain husband and wife.  While there might be a question if Patrick was in love with his lady wife, there is no doubt he truly wanted their marriage and was willing to go to extremes to see no man put their vows asunder.  In 1328, he is named as a surety on a promise to pay Edward III of England a sum of 20,000 pounds—an ungodly amount for the times—and to submit to the jurisdiction of the papal court on the matter.  He wanted it clear any issues of the marriage would be considered by the church and king as true heirs to their vast joint holdings.

Agnes’ amazing father died in 1332 at the Battle of Musselburg. He didn't die in battle, but fell ill and died a short time later.  Randolph was on his way to repeal yet another attack by the English.  This time, it was Edward III backing the exiled Edward Balliol in his attempt to claim the Scottish crown.   The latter was the son of John Balliol—the man Edward’s grandfather made king of the Scots in 1292.  Both of them were pressing the assertion that Robert the Bruce had no true claim to the crown, that John was the last king of Scotland, and thus Edward Balliol, his son, was the real monarch.

During these years, Agnes held the important castle of Dunbar.  She was the eldest child of Randolph’s children by his wife Isabel Stuart of Bonkyll.  Agnes was a strong, opinionated female, and clearly had learned a lot from her resourceful father.  She inherited her dark looks from her handsome sire.  Often called "Black Annis" (a Scottish witch) or  “Black Agnes”, historians immediately assume she was dark-complected, calling her “swarthy”.  However, in Scottish Clans you will often see “black branch” and “red branch”, meaning the black line is the elder son, while the red branch is the younger son, so I question if the Scots calling her Black Agnes had more to do with the fact she was the eldest of Randolph’s children.  

It must have chafed a strong-willed Agnes that upon the death of her father, the title of earl of Moray went to first her younger brother, instead of her.  Thomas held the title for barely a year before dying at the Battle of Daupin.  Then, it was handed to her second brother, John.   Later on, after his demise, the title reverted to the crown, but Agnes refused to accept that and added the Countess Moray to her status.  None dared challenge her on this.  Patrick began using the title as well.  Her brother had married well to Euphemia Ross; later, after his death she remarried to King Robert II of Scotland.  After Agnes’ death, Robert II conferred the title officially to her nephew, George Dunbar (Isabella’s son) since Agnes had no legitimate heirs. (This has been questioned and disputed by historians, even to some listing George as their son).

Patrick was a good match in ambition for Agnes.  Sometime after 1331, the Bishop of Durham  complained to the Regency in Scotland that the village of Upsettlington, on the Scottish side of the River Tweed west of Norham, belonged to the See of Durham and “not the earl of Dunbar, who had seized it”.  Patrick was not only a good fighter, but proved a savvy politician.  Patrick was named as the Guardian of Scotland, and upon his father-in-law’s death, replaced Randolph as regent for Bruce’s young son, King David II.

Accounts differ about whether Agnes and Patrick had and were survived by any children.  That they didn’t seem to be confirmed since their titles and inheritances passed to the children of the marriage between Patrick's nephew and Agnes' sister. There is a claim (which doesn't square with the way the earldom of Moray actually passed to the next generation), suggesting that she did have a daughter, also called Agnes of Dunbar.  In the years following, the other Agnes became the mistress of David II, and preparations undertaken showed she was his intended wife when he died in 1371.  Since Patrick was away so much, Agnes could have had a child by another man, or possibly she was fostering the daughter of her sister, in Scottish tradition.  (One assertion is that Agnes was Patrick’s daughter by his first wife—but even a small amount of research invalidates that claim as the birth of this Agnes was after Patrick married Randolph’s daughter).

Edward III of England

If Edward III had given up on his schemes to place Edward Balliol on the throne of Scotland, Agnes Randolph’s name would likely have faded from history, just as her mother-in-law’s did.  Only, Longshanks’ grandson had a bee in his bonnet and was unwilling to give up on the crackedbrain plan.  Patrick opposed Balliol in several battles and skirmishes, following the Battle of Dupplin Moor.  Thus, it appeared that his marriage to Agnes kept him firmly anchored to the Scots’ side.  In January of 1333, he was appointed governor of Berwick Castle.  His tenure in that position was short lived, as the English forces compelled his surrender of the castle following the Battle of Halidon Hill in July.

To escape prison, Patrick bent knee to the two Edwards, and was back on the English side.  His presence is noted at the Scottish parliament Edward Balliol held, in the role of the new king.  No mention of Agnes being with her husband was noted, so we may assume she was still at Dunbar and in charge of the fortress.  Balliol gave over the castles Berwick, Dunbar, Roxburgh, and Edinburgh to Edward III as payment for his help.  Likely a furious Agnes was forced to watch her husband destroy much of Dunbar Castle’s fortifications as part of the agreement, rendering it useless to the Scottish forces.  No sooner than the dismantling was accomplished, Edward III contrarily changed his mind and demand Patrick rebuild and refit Dunbar—and pay for all the refortifications out of his own pocket.  The castle wouldn’t be battle ready again until late 1337.  A change in decision, which would soon come to haunt Edward III.

Edward Balliol, King Edward of Scotland (for a time)

At this stage, I am losing track of the ping pong game of Patrick’s changing alliances.  I’m sure Agnes was, too.  He had given oath to the two Edwards, in spite, he was still working for the Scottish crown.  In 1335, when the King and Baliol made an attack upon the Scots, the Earl Patrick cut off a body of English archers on their return southward.  Afterwards, he assisted John Randolph, 3rd earl of Moray (his wife’s younger brother) and Sir Alexander Ramsay in defeating the Count Namur at the Battle of Boroughmuir.  After Namur’s surrender, John guaranteed the man’s safety and escorted him back to the English—after all, the count was the cousin of the Queen of England.   On the way, John fell into an ambush and was taken prisoner.   Patrick and Ramsay barely escaped with their lives.

On 13th January 1338, when Patrick Dunbar was away, the English, under William Montague, 1st earl of Salisbury, laid siege to Dunbar Castle.  They made the mistake of assuming it would be an easy task since Lady Dunbar was in residence with only her servants and a few guards. However, Agnes was determined not to surrender the fortress, even though facing the English’s vastly superior force of 20,000 men.  Salisbury must have been flabbergasted as Agnes tossed down her firm No! from the rampart and answered the demand:

Coat of Arms for Earl Salisbury

"Of Scotland's King I haud my house, I pay him meat and fee, And I will keep my gude auld house, while my house will keep me."

Don’t you think Agnes was just a tad upset?  They had just finished rebuilding the castle on Edward III’s command, and he turned around and decided to lay siege to it?  Clearly, Agnes was not about to hand it over to Edward’s lackey, just to appease the king’s current whim.  Enough was enough!  It appears she was caught unawares by the attack.  The castle guard had been thinned, the Dunbar men off fighting with her husband, and since it was midwinter, supplies were running low.  Agnes was not prepared to withstand a long siege, but withstand she did. 

When she refused to surrender the castle, and the opening attacks were repelled, the Earl Salisbury called forth siege engines, mangonels.  He attempted to take the fortress by catapulting huge boulders and lead shot against the ramparts.  Agnes met their efforts with disdain.  When the English would finally break from hurling stones for the day, she’d parade her ladies-in-waiting along the ramparts and they would “dust” the castle wall with white kerchiefs. After a couple weeks of this nonsense, the earl built a movable siege tower, called a sow, meant to allow men to use a battering ram under a shelter, protecting them from archers raining arrows down on them, or the defenders pouring boiling pitch or oil on them.  Unflappable, Agnes called out that Salisbury better take care of his sow or she would soon be catching “little English pigs” in her bailey.

When the earl didn’t hesitate in launching the machine, Agnes had boulders—the very ones the English had been flinging into the castle—dropped over the ramparts from a crane and onto the sow, crushing it.  She, naturally, shouted thanks to Salisbury for the ammunition he had supplied Dunbar.  As the survivors scurried back to the English line, Agnes launched another taunt with her indelicate wit: 

“…behold the litter of English pigs scurrying!”  

a Sow

Her joyful defiance seemed to infect the meager number of guards.  One Dunbar archer drew down on Salisbury, but deliberately hit the man next to him, and then yelled:

 "There comes one of my lady's tire pins; Agnes' love shafts go straight to the heart."

Obviously, all the work Patrick had done over the past three years to refortify Dunbar was well worth the coin it cost.  It was impossible for the English to invest the castle.  Unable to make any progress with the attacks, Salisbury switched to guile.  He bribed a Scotsman, who guarded the portcullis at the front of the castle.  Salisbury extracted a promise to leave the gate unsecure, so his troops could descend upon the mighty gate and force their way inside the bailey before alarm could be raised.  The earl must have smirked when the man accepted the bribe, and a short time later the portcullis creaked open.  In true careless fashion, the English troops charged the gate, with Salisbury in the lead.  One of his eager soldiery dashed past him and through the entry first.  Shock filled them when the portcullis came crashing down, trapping the eager Englishman on the Scottish side.  Salisbury just missed being captured by Agnes!  The gatekeep had accepted the bribe, but had run straight to Agnes with the tale of what Salisbury wanted him to do.  She had turned the tables and laid a trap for the haughty earl.  Sadly, she missed taking him prisoner, but she couldn’t resist another of her stinging barbs:

 "Farewell, Montague, I intended that you should have supped with us, and assist us in defending the Castle against the English."

Weeks dragged by, then months, and with Agnes getting the best of him at every turn, Salisbury’s patience was wearing thin.  He had John Randolph, earl of Moray (Agnes’ youngest brother, and prisoner to the English since his capture) dragged before the castle walls, with a rope around his neck.   Anges and John corresponded regularly during his imprisonment in a series of places--Bamburgh Castle, thence by York and Nottingham to Windsor, and from there was removed to Winchester, and finally to the Tower in irons.  Thus Salisbury assumed she would give into a threat to his life.  The earl called out that unless she surrendered he would hang John before her very eyes.  If he thought to crush Agnes’ spirit, he little understood Randolph’s daughter.  She merely laughed and told him to go ahead and hang John, that he would be making her the new countess of Moray—a title that should have been hers in the first place.  (Evidentially, the threat to kill John was nothing more than a bribe to get her to surrender.  John wasn’t harmed, and later was released, only to die in six years at in the Battle of Neville Cross.   (**In a side note, an odd quirk of fate saw John being exchanged for Salisbury in a prisoner trade.  In 1341 Salisbury had  been taken prisoner by the French, and they agreed to trade the earl for John Randolph. After the exchange the French released Moray, and he came straight back to Scotland to raise more hell.)

Winter passed, then spring, and summer was upon them.  Salisbury knew the castle had to be rationing food and water.  So, he turned his attention to the longer means of winning a siege—a blockade to starve the castle out.  He cut off all roads, paid Genoese galleys to block the defenders from receiving support from the sea, and stopping any communication with the outside world.  Only Sir Alexander of Dalhousie (my 26th great-grandfather)—who had earned a reputation for being a constant thorn in the English king's side—got wind of Agnes’ predicament.  He left Edinburgh, and with forty men, moved swiftly up the coast.  Ramsay and his small company approached the castle in the cover of night, and entered through the postern gate from the sea.  He brought fresh troops, ready and eager to fight, and food for the people of Dunbar.  Salisbury, expecting a weakened guard, launched another frontal assault on the castle.  However, Ramsay rushed out with his hardened troops, and pushed the startled Englishmen back all the way to their encampment.

Agnes had held Dunbar for nearly five months.  With Salisbury becoming a laughing stock and no closer to forcing her surrender, on the 10th of June 1338, he threw up his hands and lifted the siege.  The triumph of Agnes over the earl and 20,000 English men lives on in a poem by Sir Walter Scott, which put a rhyme in the earl’s mouth…


She kept a stir in tower and trench
That brawling, boisterous Scottish wench;
Came I early, came I late,
I found Agnes at the gate


The failed siege of Dunbar had cost the English crown nearly 6,000 British pounds and gained nothing from it but mockery.  It seemed Edward III was no more successful in subduing Scotland than his father and grandfather had been.  But Agnes, the heroine of the Scots, had earned immortality in history with her valiant defiance.

Agnes died in 1368 and was buried at Mordington, at a church established and patronized by the family.  Patrick died a few months later in Crete, on route to the Holy Land.  Perhaps he did love his Agnes and was making the pilgrimage after losing her.  Before leaving Scotland he had arranged the security of the vast Moray and Dunbar estates. As his sons by his first marriage preceded him in death, Agnes nephew (Patrick’s grandnephew), George Dunbar, received Dunbar & March, Man and Annandale.   John, the younger brother, was eventually confirmed earl of Moray.

Mordington Church

In a time of war, when Scotland was fighting for its life, Agnes gave the Scots hope.  She kept over 20,000 soldiers and siege engines tied up for over five months.  She saved her husband and her family from having to face that massive army.  No telling how many lives she saved, and quite possible saved the country from having to yield to English rule.

George Dunbar must have inherited the traits of the Randolph family, because he rose to become one of the most powerful men in Scotland.  But no one wrote sagas and poems about him.  They even wrote a song about her.

Deborah writes in the period of Robert the Bruce in her Dragons of Challon series