Marie Maitland: Scotland's 16th century Sappho

A precious primary record of LGBT+ history.

Modern-day Scotland can be a hostile environment for people who aren't straight. So, the fact that a 16th-century Scottish manuscript preserves a moving lesbian poem from more than 400 years ago is truly astonishing.

In this blog, researcher and writer Ashley Douglas explores the challenges of finding queer lives in the past, and the remarkably early record of lesbian love that is Poem 49 of the Maitland Quarto manuscript (1586).

Although gay people have existed in Scotland as long as humans have, traces of LGBT+ lives in centuries past are hard to find. This is the deeply sad result of the stigmatisation, condemnation, and criminalisation that gay people have faced throughout our history.

Primary records of positively self-identified LGBT+ people are exceptionally rare, and those records we have are often criminal ones. In Scotland, the crime of sodomy was, until 1889, punishable by the death penalty; same-sex relations between men were not fully decriminalised until 1981. Writing in 2023, it has not been a decade since equal marriage became legal in Scotland in 2014; even now, not everyone agrees with it.

In the late 16th century, the aftershocks of the Reformation were still convulsing Scottish society and inequality between the sexes, and suffocating social and religious orthodoxy, reigned supreme.

Yet, in this most inhospitable climate, a Scottish noblewoman penned a passionate sapphic poem and slipped it into a family manuscript - the Maitland Quarto manuscript, which is a significant collection of poetry in Scots.

Unknown Sappho Unknown

The manuscript is dated 1586, making Poem 49 one of the very earliest instances of lesbian verse in any language in Europe since Sappho (about 620-570 BCE) herself. Sappho was one of the most famous and celebrated female poets in the history of the world, who wrote about her love and passion for other women. Indeed, the two main words that we use to describe women who love women today, 'sapphic' and 'lesbian', both come from her - Sappho of Lesbos.

Poem 49 is a powerful nine-stanza poem in female voice in which the poet expresses her intense adoration of the female object of her love, and declares that their devotion to one another far surpasses that which has ever existed between any others. At the poem’s climax, the poet states her desire to adopt the veil of manhood so that the two women might marry. In the final stanzas, she reluctantly accepts the impossibility of their formal union, but vows her ever-lasting devotion.

The final stanza of Poem 49 as it appears in The Maitland Quarto Manuscript. Containing poems by Sir Richard Maitland, Arbuthnot and others. Edited by W.A. Craigie (1920).

“Thair is mair constancie in our sex

Then euer amang men hes bein

(There is more constancy in our sex,

than ever among men has been)"

Imagined portrait of Marie Maitland (2021), commissioned by and copyright Ashley Douglas.

Although the poem is anonymous, abundant evidence points towards the authorship of Marie Maitland (died 1596), a daughter of Sir Richard Maitland (1496-1586), the prominent Scottish statesman to whom the manuscript is dedicated.

Marie’s name appears twice on the title page of the manuscript, which she edited and compiled. Other poems contained in it refer not only to her role in compiling the manuscript, but also her own skills as a poet. One poem even compares Marie to other great female poets, including no less than Sappho.

As a woman, and a woman who loved women, Marie was doubly marginalised. This is an example of ‘intersectionality’: a concept first developed by Black feminist activists to describe the double disadvantage of being both female and Black in a sexist and racist world.

In 1989, it was defined by American scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw as:

'a metaphor for understanding the ways that multiple forms of inequality or disadvantage sometimes compound themselves and create obstacles that often are not understood among conventional ways of thinking'.

Class and race are also crucial aspects of the patchwork of societally-determined advantages and disadvantages that together make up our relative privilege at a given point in time in a given society.

In this sense, as a wealthy and highly-educated White noblewoman at the heart of one of Scotland’s most influential political families, Marie was also hugely privileged. Her scope for non-conformity was therefore greater; as was, quite simply, her capacity to express herself in writing. It is, fundamentally, thanks to Marie’s social status that we have Poem 49.

Gay people also of course existed among the lower classes of Scottish society; but without the luxuries of learning, literacy, and leisure time that would have allowed them to pen poetry, or the relative social freedom that would have empowered them to dare to express same-sex love.

None of this is to detract from the courage it took Marie to give voice to lesbian love in her time, the sincerity and power of that expressed love, or the preciousness of the poem. Its significance as a primary record of not only Scotland’s, but also global, LGBT+ history cannot be overstated.

The Maitland Quarto manuscript. Containing poems by Sir Richard Maitland, Arbuthnot and others. Edited by W.A. Craigie (1920).

That we have such limited testimony of women who loved women in the past is a sad reflection of the homophobia that has plagued our society, and that retains its grip today. It means that we have a duty to cherish and celebrate what precious evidence has come down to us. But we also have a duty to acknowledge that the rarity of records of expressed sentiment such as that expressed by Poem 49 does not mean that countless thousands more women, of all social classes, did not live and love other women; that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

An imagined portrait of Marie Maitland which was commissioned by Ashley Douglas and a reproduction of a section of Poem 49 are currently on display as part of James’s People, at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

Blog by Ashley Douglas



1 February 2023