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12 Mar 2024

Women’s history at Gladstone’s Land: Elsie Maud Inglis

Written by Katie McCall (VSA); edited by Leia Caldwell (VSA – Collections Care)
A golden statue of a hawk holding a rat in its talons is attached above the entrance to Gladstone’​s Land. Beyond it, the view extends down the Royal Mile, with the spire of St Giles’​ Cathedral clearly silhouetted against the pale blue sky.
Gladstone’s Land on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile
The National Trust for Scotland conserves, cares for and speaks up for Scotland’s heritage. As part of this, our teams love to share important stories connected to our charity’s places.

Gladstone’s Land is situated right in the heart of Edinburgh’s historic Old Town. We often use the phrase ‘if the walls could talk’ here at the property, a place that has witnessed momentous social and political change for more than 500 years.

With this in mind, some of our team at Gladstone’s Land have decided to highlight five local notable women through a series of blog posts that explore their historical influence as well as their connections to this very special property. Among these trailblazers stands Elsie Maud Inglis, a pioneer in medicine and a champion for women’s rights. Her legacy continues to inspire generations today.

Elsie Maud Inglis was born in 1864 and she dedicated her life to breaking down barriers in the medical field. In 1894, she established a maternity hospital in Edinburgh, staffed entirely by women. This groundbreaking initiative not only provided essential medical care to women but also created opportunities for female medical professionals in a male-dominated industry.

Not content with revolutionising maternity care, Inglis ventured further to challenge the status quo. She opened a doctor’s office next door to Gladstone’s Land in the Royal Mile, challenging traditional gender roles and demonstrating that women were equally capable of excelling in the medical profession.

Dr Inglis took her mission still further during World War I when she founded the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service. Determined to contribute to the war effort, she and her colleagues faced staunch opposition from the War Office. Undeterred, they persevered, eventually serving in Europe, often dangerously close to the front lines.

Inglis became a chief medical officer in 1915, opening three hospitals in Serbia. Her selfless dedication earned her the title ‘mother of the nation’ as she cared for the injured, even as others fled during an invasion. Inglis’s courageous journey took a harrowing turn when she was taken prisoner of war. It seems her spirit remained unbroken though – in 1917, she refused to leave Russia unless all prisoners were granted safe passage to the UK.

Elsie Maud Inglis’s indomitable spirit and unwavering dedication to her principles continued until her final moments. She died the day after her return to the UK. Her funeral was held at St Giles’ Cathedral on the Royal Mile, a 2-minute walk from Gladstone’s Land. It marked the end of a remarkable journey but the beginning of an enduring legacy.

A view of St Giles' Cathedral on a sunny day in Edinburgh, looking down the Royal Mile. The green statue of Hume is in the foreground.
St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh | Image: f11photo, Shutterstock

Today, as plans are underway for a statue to commemorate her life and work on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, Inglis’s name will forever be etched into history. She will be the first woman to have a statue on the Royal Mile and only the third in Edinburgh – a fitting tribute to a woman who defied expectations, shattered glass ceilings, and paved the way for future generations of women in medicine and beyond.

Why not pay us a visit at Gladstone’s Land to see what Old Town Edinburgh looked like during Elsie Inglis’s lifetime? You could even take one of our special medical tours. Discover how we moved from at-home remedies to professional care, and how Edinburgh itself has had a long and rich history with medical advancements – even if they haven’t always been legal or morally correct. This tour also explores Edinburgh’s Old Town disrepair, the advancement of surgeons and the Black Death.

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