Bessie Waton (13 July 1900 - 1992) was born in Edinburgh, to Horatio Watson (a bookbinder at George Waterstons) and Agnes Newton, and was brought up in their home in the Vennel.
In an event that affected the rest of Bessie's life, her aunt Margaret (a furniture varnisher), who lived with the family, contracted tuberculosis, and the seven year old was encouraged to take up the bagpipes when she was 8 years old. Described as a frail child, this was intended to strengthen her weak lungs and help protect her from the disease. Her small size meant she needed a specially made half-size set of pipes, which was ordered from the city's pipe-maker, Robertson's of 58 Grove Street.
There were few female pipers, let alone children, and her talent for the pipes meant that it only took a couple of years for her to become famous, and be performing in front of thousands.
She played at major demonstrations and parades for the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), including a famous procession through Edinburgh on 9 October 1909 when suffragettes marched down Princes Street before congregating at Waverley Market for a rally led by Emmeline Pankhurst.
Bessie was supported by her parents, ardent followers of the women's suffrage movement, and would wear the colours of the movement.
For her part in the 1909 parade, Bessie received a special gift from Christabel Pankhurst (daughter of Emmeline) who came to Edinburgh to address a meeting at the King’s Theatre. There, she was presented with a brooch representing Queen Boadicea (Boudica) in her chariot, as a token of gratitude for her help in the march.
In 1979, Bessie passed the brooch on to the newly-elected Margaret Thatcher. The fight for the right to vote had taken until 1928, and just over 50 years later Bessie passed on this symbolic token bearing the image of a heroic Iron Age queen to Great Britain’s first ever female prime minister, known as the Iron Lady.
On 17 June 1911, Bessie was invited to lead the Scottish contingent with other female pipers at the Great Pageant in London, just five days before the Coronation of King George V, in a procession that grew to five miles in length.
When the new King made a state visit to Edinburgh a few weeks later, Bessie led the 2nd Edinburgh Company of the Girl Guides, and received recognition from the King himself as she raised her salute. The young girl was only hust to turn 11 years of age.
She regularly played outside the walls of Edinburgh’s Calton Jail in an attempt to raise the spirits of the suffragettes locked up inside, and accompanied inmates bound for Holloway Prison via Waverley Station, playing her the pipes as their trains departed.
While suffragette activity was suspended during World War I, Bessie, by then a teenager, dressed in full Highland garb and joined ranks of the Scots Guards to aid the call to arms for volunteers.
In 1926, Bessie and her parents moved to a new house on Clark Road, Trinity, where she lived for the rest of her life. She taught music and foreign languages, and would play her pipes at 11 am every day.
Bessie passed away in 1992, just two and a half weeks short of her 92nd birthday.
There are - at time of creating this page following the appearance of The Scotsman article - relatively few mentions of Bessie.
- The incredible story of Bessie Watson: the youngest suffragette - The Scotsman Retrieved 29 January 2017.
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