Iona McGregor – Scottish Lesbian Writer

Photo: Iona McGregor by Phil Ewe
Iona McGregor by Phil Ewe.
Copyright Lighthouse Bookshop

Evening falls in Edinburgh on 17 November 1860:

In the Royal Mile, former police inspector James McLevy is walking his dog, Jeanie, named for one the city’s notorious thieves.

At Waverley Station, the Empress Eugenie of France is arriving. Two demonstrators leap from the crowd, but the Empress and her ladies escape to Douglas Hotel in St Andrew Square. There they unpack a glittering diadem – made, not of diamonds, but of paste. Though the jewels are false, they are about to lead to theft and sudden death.

A short distance away at Moray Place, at the Scottish Institute for the Daughters of Gentlefolk, the scheming headmistress, Lady Superintendent Margaret Napier, is writing up her secret dossier. In the students’ quarters, Christabel MacKenzie, handsome, clever and rebellious, is composing a sonnet about her lover, Eleanor.

This is the opening sequence of Iona McGregor’s historical novel, Death Wore a Diadem, a mystery published by The Women’s Press and launched in 1989 at West & Wilde Bookshop.

For the purposes of the launch, we called it ‘a lesbian mystery’, and Iona herself calls it a lesbian novel in an interview. But even this brief outline shows that it was more besides – a portrait of many characters, from an empress to a detective to a madam, with a lesbian heroine at the centre.

Many lives in one frame

Describing Iona’s career gives a similar impression: many lives in one frame.

Book cover: Death Wore a Diadem
Death Wore a Diadem, Women’s Press papaerback edition

She told us the launch of Death Wore A Diadem represented an important moment for her – the first lesbian novel she had been free to write. She was animated as she spoke about her central character, Christabel MacKenzie.

The novel opens on Christabel’s 17th birthday. Like many fairytale heroines she is an orphan. She loves rambling over the countryside, shooting guns, and spending the day in bed with her lover. Left to educate herself in her radical grandfather’s library, she is a free spirit who does not fit well into the life of a Scottish lady. But is confident she can live as she pleases. In the story, despite the machinations of her nemesis, Lady Superintendent Napier – she succeeds.

For Iona, however, life was not often like this. (She certainly did not intend Christabel as a self-portrait, but as a lesbian who could have been, one dealt a run of cards for peril but also for good fortune and courage.)

Early life

Book cover: Footsteps and Witnesses - Polygon edition
`Footsteps and Witnesses – Polygon edition

Iona was born in 1929 – in England rather than Scotland, but she explained that she would have been born here if she hadn’t been premature. Her father was a teacher in a military school. She had a rough and physically active childhood with his male pupils for friends. She was a Catholic (though as an adult she had no religion) and ‘a great tomboy,’ and prayed to be transformed into a boy every night. (If God could move mountains, why couldn’t he do this?)

Later she said she was not sure whether she had been transgender or simply determined not to accept the feminine role.

Sent to a convent school, she argued with the nuns about Darwin. Moved to a school in Monmouthshire, she took well to the classics, especially when she discovered ‘Sappho et cetera’. She told Bob Cant, in his book about Scottish queer lives, Footsteps and Witnesses, that she had known from age eight that she was different.

Finding herself

As a young woman she settled in Edinburgh, a city she had always loved. But she found it impossible to meet partners or even lesbian friends, and so she moved to London. She found a job as a grammar school teacher, and quietly explored the fringes of the lesbian scene.

Once, she told the Remember When Project, she met a woman who had been an ex-girlfriend of Prince Ranier of Monaco. They went to the Gateways lesbian pub together and had a brief relationship.

Then she met the woman her friend Marsaili Cameron describes as ‘the love of Iona’s life’. They were together for 12 years and moved to Edinburgh. A few years later her partner left, swayed by family pressure and the sheer pain of a life in which everything had to be kept secret.

Her activist years and early writing

It was then that Iona became what we would now describe as an activist.

Why did she do it? The risk in those days was enormous. She was teaching at an exclusive school. Any exposure of her real life would have ended her career. But she may have decided she had had enough of secrecy.

At the same time, she also began to write her young adult historical novels. They were influenced by the prolific children’s writer Rosemary Sutcliffe. They had no queer content, she said, because the publisher made it clear to her that that would never be allowed.

Two of the novels, the ones she felt were the best, were set in Edinburgh: An Edinburgh Reel and The Tree of Liberty. The latter deals with the effect of the French Revolution in Edinburgh, where there were (mostly now forgotten) radical agitators and violent riots, and the book may have a clue to her life after her relationship ended.

Book covers: An Edinburgh Reel and The Tree of Liberty
Young adult fiction by Iona McGregor

Being a rebel is dangerous, but it can also be necessary for survival. The sister and brother in The Tree of Liberty are on opposite sides of the question. Caroline keeps her head down but reads, thinks and looks outward as hopefully as she can. Sandy, her brother, takes part in rebellion and barely escapes with his life – and doesn’t learn his lesson. As the story ends, he is on his way to revolutionary France.

Like Caroline, Iona was a survivor and believed in careful effort rather than impulsive action. The Scottish Minorities Group, which worked for legal reform, also created safe meeting spaces and started a women’s group in Glasgow. Iona became part of it. Making contact with the meeting was complicated, and Iona used the name ‘Chris Campbell’. But despite – or possibly because of? – the elaborate secrecy, she made friends at this time who were still close to her years later.

In Edinburgh, she worked in another SMG women’s group, founded by Ruth Schröck. She also worked as a Befriender on the Gay Centre Switchboard in Broughton Street, listening to queer people talk about the choices and dangers everyone faced in those days.

She did shifts in person at the Gay Centre, introducing women to the group and the scene in the city. She used her own name, met dozens of people week after week and could easily have been outed at work. But it must have made a difference to lesbians who arrived at the centre to meet a woman who was hospitable, well-read, funny, a cat lover, a traveller, a walker and a writer.

Free to write

She left the centre in 1980 and in 1985 she finally gave up her teaching job. She was not outed, but apparently small things built up and the time came to leave. So she was finally free to write the fiction she had always wanted to write, and Death Wore A Diadem was the result.

The novel was based on a long trawl through libraries and manuscripts – in the 1980s, a far greater task than it would be today. Recent scholarship by Rosy Mack has uncovered Iona’s correspondence with her editor at The Women’s Press, Jen Green, which shows that her research included a tremendous amount of detail and speculation about lesbian relationships in 1860. The letters even include diagrams of the school and the characters’ movements within it.

The novel was published by St Martin’s Press in the US. Reviews still turn up in books and blogs on lesbian writing, including The Art of the Lesbian Mystery Novel by Megan Casey and (Re)recovering Victorian Queer History by Rosy Mack on The Activist History Review website.

Iona apparently planned a sequel, or many sequels. The stories of Christabel and her lover, Eleanor, seem to be at their very beginning as the novel ends. James McLevy, a real life Edinburgh detective and crime writer, probably had a further part to play as Christabel’s friend and fellow sleuth.

Later life

But Iona discovered that she could write study guides which paid far better than detective fiction. And there had always been much more to her life than writing.

She travelled and had a large circle of friends she entertained regularly. She learned DIY and was never without an elaborate project. She acquired so many books that, when she moved into a care home later, they were removed by the vanload. ‘There are real gems in these boxes,’ said the librarians at Glasgow Women’s Library, who received the feminist and lesbian books. ‘Some of them are amazing.’

Iona probably also liked the variety of the better-paid writing she was doing, in addition to the study guides: it ranged over many subjects and required much research. As a writer, she was an adventurer.

She also returned to teaching with the University of the Third Age and was a founding member of the AD Group – which had two names for different occasions, Anno Domini and Aged Dykes. She had always been her own kind of lesbian, and she lived her own kind of old age.

This was a not always straightforward. She said that the struggles of her early life had given her ‘a weight, a social guilt’. ‘As she got older,’ said her friend Marsaili, ‘the physical, mental and emotional consequences of living with high levels of anxiety became harder and harder to manage.’

Nevertheless she lived to be 92 and passed away earlier this year at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, to the sadness of her friends and her readers.

At her funeral in Edinburgh, Marsaili spoke about her and thanked her for her kindness to young newcomers at SMG, her intelligence and courage, and for ‘showing that another life could be lived.’

That life carries on in her novels.

Please feel free to leave a comment about your memories of Iona and the books you’ve read.

[Iona’s Death Wore a Diadem, An Edinburgh Reel and The Tree of Liberty and Bob Cant’s Footsteps and Witness are all part of the Lavender Menace Queer Books Archive. Iona’s work also features in our video Unsung: the queer books that tell our lives.]

A Lavender Attic

‘LGBT+ archives,’ says Gerard Koskovich of the GLBT Historical Society of San Francisco, ‘are your queer grandma’s attic’. They are the place where younger generations will find our legacy.

News from our lavender attic

This spring our own archive – our own lavender attic – is  getting started. We’re clearing out the cobwebs in the attic and making space for almost 800 books. They’ve been generously donated by groups and individuals. We’re reaching out to find support to help us preserve the books which meant most to LGBT+ people in the thirty years after Stonewall. The years they were coming out of hiding, visualising, and demanding equality.

Because of lockdown, we haven’t been able to access our book collection (housed by Lighthouse Bookshop in Edinburgh). Instead, we’ve spent the winter finding out about queer archives around the world. They specialise in conserving documents created by LGBT+ people – pamphlets, posters, flyers. Lesbian and gay groups used them to publicise themselves before the internet turned it all into digits and pixels.

The GLBT Historical Society decided in 1985 that this material should be preserved for future generations. 36 years later, that means you and me. They called a community meeting to see who was interested. And the 65 who attended set them on the road to today’s extensive collection, exhibitions and museum in San Francisco.

Meanwhile, in London in 1984, the Lesbian Archive and Information Centre was set up and initially funded by the Greater London Council. They collected journals, pamphlets, oral history and books. Today the collection is at Glasgow Women’s Library.

Working with other archives

Book cover: Gentleman Jack: the Real Anne Lister

We’ve spoken to archivists in Scotland and beyond. We attended a Zoom Conference on 5 December, given by London Metropolitan Archive LGBTQ+.

Their theme was Unorthodox: What are the missing voices? Their network includes queer archives all over the UK. Some not only preserve books and papers but research the pubs and other spaces where LGBT+ people met in secret, help refurbish buildings where queer people lived. Or collect clothing such as Ann Walker’s wedding dress, which she wore to say her vows to Anne Lister (Gentleman Jack) in 1834.

LGBT History Month

But research wasn’t all we did – in February, Edinburgh City Libraries invited us to make a film for LGBT History Month Scotland. The 2021 theme was ‘Unsung’ and we chose three queer writers whose archive books are either out of print or were dismissed as ‘too queer’ for many years. ‘Unsung’ was released on 15 February and on 24 February Chris Creegan chaired a Q&A session on the film. It attracted participants from Scotland, England and the USA. They expressed strong interest in more material about Scottish queer writers. And more ways of making the books better known and available. You can view the film and Q&A here.

Book cover: Gay Bar: Why We Go Out

We’re grateful to Grainne Crawford, Lifelong Learning Libraries Development Officer, and Howard Elwyn-Jones of Pretty Bright who produced the film and the Q&A broadcast. We were delighted to participate in LGBT History Month with LGBT Youth Scotland, who sponsored our first appearance as a queer books group in 22 years.

On 11 March, Lighthouse Bookshop invited Bob to appear at an online event with Jeremy Atherton Lin. His new book, Gay Bar, is a memoir of his life in bars of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and London. Bob talked about his days running Taste, an Edinburgh house music dance club. Straights and queer people danced together in a friendly and inclusive atmosphere in the 1990s and the early aughties.

Pride Month 2021

We aim is to take part in events about LGBT+ writing, publishing and history to promote the archive and encourage donations. The thrilling thing about this collection of books is that it shines a light on authors and titles from the past. Some of whom have been forgotten and remain unrecognised. Pride Month is coming soon. And we’ll be announcing our next events and further news from our efforts to establish our archive and celebrate queer writing history.

Let us know your thoughts

Thank you for following us on our social media. We love your feedback. And please feel free to leave your thoughts here on the work we’re doing.

Murder in the Collective

Murder in the Collective by Barbara Wilson
Women’s Press, 1984
ISBN 0704339439

‘Safe spaces’ in 1984 were thin on the ground

‘Safe spaces’ for queer  people were rarely heard of in 1984. This mystery by a lesbian writer explores the idea of ‘safe’ and ‘dangerous’. In a liberal, wealthy city, challenging the system isn’t supposed to lead to murder. But when Pam’s radical print shop collective proposes to merge with a lesbian typesetter, she is horrified to find the shop’s machinery smashed and one of her co-workers shot dead.

Cover: Murder in the Collective

Quiet, methodical Pam teams up with impulsive Hadley from the lesbian collective in order to solve the mystery. At first, they are less than serious, but then they become lovers as well as fellow-sleuths. As Pam tries to come to terms with a complete change in her life, the situation spins out of control – and the police, saboteurs and foreign rebel movements are involved. Pam and Hadley are no longer sure if they can trust anyone – including each other. 

Mysteries are one of the most popular types of lesbian books today, but few deal with the world of queer books and presses. Lesbian writer Barbara Wilson, now known as Barbara Sjoholm, founded Seal Press in the US, lived in London in the 1980s, and came to Lavender Menace to read from Murder in the Collective.

This is a taster of a longer appreciation of Wilson’s first crime novel, which will be published as a longer blog soon.