Common Ground: A personal reflection from the project trainee

In January this year, I joined the museum as the Common Ground project trainee. This was not only an exciting professional opportunity, but it also held a great deal of personal significance as I took part in the Wardlaw’s, then known as MUSA’s, Youth Curator programme while I was in school. In Youth Curators, we created an exhibition, learned new skills such as collaborative working and video editing, and thought about ways the museum could better engage with teenagers. It is noticeable how Common Ground and Youth Curators share many similar aims in developing skills and confidence in secondary school pupils. But in the years since then, the museum has worked hard to develop its engagement programme to support the needs of migrants and refugees.

As the granddaughter of migrants who moved from Hong Kong to the UK back in the 1960s, for me it is very meaningful to see museums actively engage with these groups. Growing up in Fife, I lived only a few miles away from where my grandparents first set up home in Scotland. My Cantonese dissipated as I grew up and my gran never learned English, so we had to find other ways to communicate. From my experiences, I don’t necessarily believe that migrants need to learn English to still be valuable members of society and be afforded the same respect and care as others in the community. After all, my grandparents were hard-working members of the communities they lived in – my gran loved telling us that before they opened restaurants in Aberdeenshire, her husband co-owned the first Chinese restaurant in Dundee. Still, I can’t help but wonder whether learning English would’ve made life easier for her in Scotland. It could’ve given her the independence she had in Hong Kong. She was a social butterfly who loved speaking to everyone, so I always worried about her feeling socially isolated.

I hope, when I worked with the ESOL students and shared my own story, that they recognised someone who was Scottish, with a strong connection to Tayside and Fife, but also one with a proud migrant family history. For me, it’s encouraging that there are projects that support language development skills in the community where I grew up and I am excited to see where the museum takes the project next.

Blog post by Natasha Liu, Museum Trainee

Finding Common Ground: connecting communities across Fife

What is the Common Ground project?

Common Ground is a community project that brings together migrants and refugees studying English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) at Fife College and pupils from Glenwood High School. Over the course of six months, the group met at the Wardlaw Museum to learn new skills, forge friendships, and create a photography exhibition that explores the themes of family, friendships, and the environment. Participants discussed exhibition topics, experimented with light, angles, and framing in their photography, and made photo series with the support and guidance of photographer, Sophie Gerrard.

Through these explorations, they discovered ways to communicate stories and ideas through art and photography; they found common ground in a shared passion for the built and natural environment and reflected on how our connection with places tied in with our shared memories and experiences with friends and family.

[ESOL students and Glenwood pupils experimenting with light]

What are the benefits of the project?

For migrants and refugees, it can be incredibly difficult to leave behind their communities and feel at home in a new country. We also know that language barriers can be an additional obstacle to feeling part of the community they moved into. In Scotland, learning English can give migrants and refugees a sense of independence and security as it can help them find work, pursue education, and move more confidently around their communities.

Common Ground was developed from two of our previous two projects – Encountering Fife (2017-18) and Moving Art Connecting Voices (MACV, 2021-22). From these projects, we knew that by bringing these two groups together, we could use creative practices to encourage mutual understanding and peer-to-peer learning. The aim was to provide a supportive environment that would allow ESOL students to practice English with people from the local community, and to give secondary school pupils the chance to learn about migrant and refugee experiences and help them develop communication skills so that they could communicate effectively with people learning English.

Engaging with cultural life, forming social connections, and participating in community activities can help tackle social isolation and improve community cohesion.[1] By putting these issues at the heart of the project, we were able to empower refugees, migrants, and young people by amplifying their voice within the museum, and in turn the exhibition could show visitors that these communities are very much part of our Fife community.

[Glenwood pupils thinking about what they should consider when working with migrants]

What did we learn?

The ESOL tutors noted that providing students with the opportunity to practice English outside of the classroom environment can help bolster confidence and highlighted the well-being benefits for students to take time out of their day and engage in creative activity. The Glenwood pupils enjoyed how learning photography skills gave them the opportunity to explore their interests and the project helped them learn more about themselves and different cultures. We also worked with the pupils on building workplace skills to tie in the Developing the Young Workforce initiative, and the Glenwood pupils reflected on how the project improved their confidence, creativity, and social and practical skills.

Through observing these two groups interact and learn from each other, we can see that museums have the capacity to facilitate social integration and support community cohesion. But it is worth noting that the landscape of the refugee community in Fife, and Scotland, has changed tremendously over the past year. So, it is natural for new challenges to arise as the needs of the ESOL group will change year on year. Throughout the project, we were very aware that participants had many competing priorities, so we had to rethink and adapt to how we engaged our audience. We trialled different methods of delivering activities – we ran regular sessions within the museum, went out to ESOL classes, and held a family activity day at the museum for the ESOL students which was a massive hit for all those in attendance.

We have built strong relationships with local schools and the ESOL department at Fife College, and as we make plans for future projects, we are aware that our plans may have to change. Nevertheless, I am confident in the museum’s ability to be bold and flexible in our initiatives in supporting young people, refugees, and migrants living around Fife.

Blog post by Natasha Liu, Museum Trainee

[1] New Scots: refugee integration strategy 2018-22, Language – New Scots: refugee integration strategy 2018 to 2022 – (

St Andrew’s Lammas Fayre

Anyone familiar with Summertime in St Andrews could tell you about the Lammas fayre. A barrage of carnival rides, games and stalls sprawling across Market Street and South Street for a few days each August. But what exactly is the origin of the Lammas Fayre?

[The harvest workers at Creag a Mhadaidh, Loch Sween], August 1911, Image Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Library, ID THM-ALB-19-639

Dating back to biblical times, ‘Lammas’ is the shortened name of Loaf Mass. Loafmass day is a Christian holiday celebrated in the Northern Hemisphere on 1st August to celebrate the blessing of the first fruits of harvest. Traditionally, celebrations consisted of baking Lammas loaves, creating corn dolls and hosting a feast for friends and family upon reaping bountiful amounts wheat and corn on Lammas Day.

Christian celebrations of Loafmass developed the custom of bringing fresh loaves of bread to churches for consecration and having clergymen visit bakers to bless loaves of bread.

Alongside the Christian depiction of Lammas, it is also thought that the celebration is derived from the Gaelic ‘Lughnasadh’ meaning ‘Assembly of Lugh’; an important figure in Gaelic mythology, often portrayed as a warrior and master craftsman. Lughnasadh was specific to Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man as one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals and involved the same rituals of harvesting, creating corn dolls, feasting and making offerings for successful crops.

Lammastide Folklore Stamp, 1981. Alamy Stock Photo.

Similarly, in Medieval times the festival was referred to as the Gule of August and would have included a lively variety of events, the hiring and firing of servants, collection of rental payments, sale of livestock and special Lammas weddings. Most famed for conducting Lammas weddings were the Telltown marriages performed in Kirkwall, Orkney. Couples married on Lammas day would enter into a temporary union for one year, and the following August would decide whether to make the union permanent or to separate.

Beyond celebrating the first day of harvest, Lughnasadh rituals, such as blessing cattle, were conducted to protect farmers’ harvest and livestock by keeping evil spirits at bay for the following season.

Lammas Fair. Image Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Library, ID RM-24

Nowadays, St Andrews is one of few places which commemorates Lammas each year and has its own modern twist. Lined with food stalls and rides, the concepts of shared feast and local gathering are still commemorated, but the celebration of first harvest has been lost as farming methods have developed and our food outsourced. If nothing else, Lammas still acts as a reminder that summer holidays are drawing to a close and autumn is just around the corner.

On this day: The Murder of Cardinal Beaton

The last Cardinal before the reformation, Cardinal David Beaton played an important part in Scottish history, and today we unfold the events surrounding his untimely death in 1546.

Educated at St Andrews and Glasgow Universities, David Beaton was promoted to the role of Cardinal by his uncle, James Beaton, archbishop of Glasgow in 1522. Cardinal Beaton had close links to King James V and was devoted to the crown, despite the persistence of attempts by Henry VIII to encourage James V to renounce papal authority.

Portrait of Cardinal Beaton by Edward Trevannyon Haines. Image Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Library, ID HC141

However, the cardinal became unpopular through his persistent corrupt behaviour which included spending church funds as his own and ruthlessly enforcing punishment for heresy.

In fact, Cardinal Beaton ordered the arrest, trial and eventual execution of the Scottish protestant reformer George Wishart in March 1546 for heresy. However, this act became the Cardinal’s kiss of death by angering a swathe of Scots so deeply that a plot to murder David Beaton was concocted in the following weeks.

Having finally tired of the Cardinal, a group of protestant-leaning lairds snuck in to St Andrews castle disguised as masons on the morning of May 29th 1546 and carried out their plan to remove Cardinal Beaton for good. Having entered the castle, the lairds found Cardinal Beaton and murdered him.

Cardinal Beaton besieged in St Andrews Castle by W.E. Lockhart. Image Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Library, ID HC523

The cardinal was a zealous persecutor of reformers and was among those who found George Wishart guilty of spreading heretical doctrines. Wishart was burnt in St Andrews on 2 March 1546. As revenge for Wishart’s death, John Leslie, brother to the Earl of Rothes, his nephew Norman and Kircaldy of Grange surprised and murdered the Cardinal in his bedroom in St Andrews Castle and took possession of the fortress on 29 May 1546.

Entrance to St Andrews Castle, Circa 1905. Image Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Library, ID ALB-27-11-3

It is said that Cardinal Beaton’s body was hung from the castle on the morning of his death; a sombre warning for the town. It is said that the cardinal’s body was then placed in the castle’s dungeon and preserved with salt to counteract the smell of rotting flesh. Thankfully, Cardinal Beaton was eventually laid to rest at St Andrews Cathedral

April is Global Astronomy Month

A time to look up at the stars and marvel at the wonders of the universe. Though for many, the mysteries of the stars have remained just that…a mystery. Bright burning stars are lights which cover the night sky in an awe-inspiring display of beauty and magnificence. Even so, many’s foray into astronomy revolves around the world of zodiac signs, which has quickly made its way into daily life in the modern world. Unless you have an interest in the world outside of our own, astronomy may seem as distant and unknown as the dark sky above. To this, organizations, like Astronomers Without Borders have made it their mission to expand knowledge of astronomy, uniting our world with a love of sky and universe. They provide numerous programs, events, and communities for their members to create a more unified understanding of our world and the possibilities of the future. Some of the upcoming events hosted by the organization include a livestream of a hybrid solar eclipse (April 20th) and a meteor shower (April 22nd)! They are but one of several groups trying to make the big universe outside of our world a bit less scary and more accessible.

Planisphere, 1814. Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums, ID: PH769

However, we all cannot board a spaceship and jet into the unknown. So, for a closer to home view of the stars and a nice history lesson in the evolution of astronomy, the Wardlaw Museum provides the chance to view astronomy equipment in its fourth gallery: the Explorer Gallery.

Orrery, 1748-60. Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums, ID: PH211

Here, one can discover how past astrologists used to study the stars and how sailors navigated their way around the world using these celestial beings. From telescopes, celestial globes, planispheres (as seen above), to old telescopes, the Wardlaw provides a fantastic opportunity to expand one’s knowledge and more! Whether you are just starting out your space journey or simply an enthusiast, this is the place for you!

A New Astronomical Instrument, 1817. Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums, ID: PH773

Global Astronomy Month provides a chance to expand our knowledge of the universe and of the place that has provided us with much wonder and entertainment from the first-time humans looked to the stars to the moon landing. It has allowed us to contemplate about the complexities of the universe hidden within the simplicity of the planets and the stars. For all its unknowns, it does not have to be a stranger. We have much to learn from the stars…they are simply waiting for us to ask.

Blog post by Kiara DeVore, PHD student & Visitor Services Facilitator at the University of St Andrews.

Community Garden Week 2023

This year’s Community Garden Week runs from Monday 3rd to Sunday 9th April. Its purpose is to celebrate community gardens across the UK and emphasise the power of community gardening for all. We’d like to introduce you to some of the local gardening projects on offer across St Andrews and show there are lots of reasons to get involved this community garden week!

Community Gardens positively impact your health

Gardening and green spaces have been proven to have a positive impact on both physical and mental health. Spending time outdoors helps to reduce stress and ease depression and anxiety whilst community gardens also promote a sense of inclusion and belonging. Whether just visiting or volunteering, any time spent in gardens could have a therapeutic effect. Of course, community gardens also promote healthy eating by increasing access to fruit and vegetables!

Community Gardens have fantastic Social Benefits.

Not only does volunteering at a community garden help build friendships, but it is also an excellent opportunity to learn new skills from others and work collectively to enhance your surroundings. Community Gardens also create a sense of belonging and inclusion to the local area and builds a sense of community through mutually caring for a shared space.

Transition St Andrews

Community gardens play an important part in meeting the University of St Andrews’ goal to be net zero by 2035. Transition St Andrews focus on promoting food sustainability by diminishing carbon footprints linked to food transport, and creating designated green spaces where nature can flourish and improve air quality. Within Transition’s range of initiatives is the Edible Campus, which has developed over a dozen gardens throughout the town in which the public can get involved.

A complete map of Transition St Andrews spaces can be found on their website.

There are numerous ways to celebrate Community Garden Week. You can visit the garden, help others to maintain the plants, and do whatever else is possible to contribute.

You can share your expertise with the public. You can teach them how the space works, meet fellow gardeners, recruit new allotments, and show the people how it can benefit them.

You could even throw a party to show off your cooking skills with homegrown produce! This will not only encourage more people to become involved with gardening but provide a lovely social event for everyone to enjoy!

What to plant during Community Garden Week

As we all know, St Andrews doesn’t have the warmest of climates, but here are a few suggestions for what to plant in Scotland this April.

April is the perfect time to sow seeds for lettuce, cabbage, kale, peas, radish, spinach, chard, cauliflower, pumpkin, courgette and potatoes. Many plants from the allium family including garlic, onion/shallots, spring onions and leeks are also best planted in April. 

If you fancy getting involved with our amazing edible campus then get in touch at [email protected] or through the following link

School Garden Class. 1908. Image Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Library, ID JHW-C-186

And if you’d like to immerse yourself more in themes of community, nature and sustainability, then visit For Peatland’s Sake at the Wardlaw Museum until May 8th!

Celebrating the artist David Mach

David Mach was born on 18th March, 1956 in Fife. He attended Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, specialising in sculpture to challenge both his intellectual and physical artistic skills. For his postgraduate studies, he went on to attend the Royal College of Art. Following a solo exhibition held at the Lisson Gallery in London in 1982, he quickly established his international reputation; since then, he has exhibited all over the world including New York, Melbourne, Hong King, and Warsaw. His achievements include a nomination for the Turner Prize in 1988 and becoming a member of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1998. Today, he is regarded as one of the UK’s most respected artists, specialising in sculpture and installation art created from mass-produced objects such as magazine, newspapers, and matchsticks. Although the subjects of his sculptures often come from pop culture, his work is not intended to be interpreted as social commentary.

Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums, ID: HC2008.3

Titled “Match head: Buddha in Yellow” (2007), this matchstick sculpture was created by Scottish artist David Mach, and is currently on public display at the Wardlaw Museum as part of the Harry and Margery Boswell Collection.

The Harry and Margery Boswell Collection was inaugurated by Margery Boswell in 1995, in memory of her late husband Harry Boswell. The Boswell family came from the United States to Scotland to embark on the project of the restoration of their ancestral home. Throughout the project, Harry began to acquire works by leading modern Scottish artists. The Boswell family gifted an endowment to the University with the purpose of acquiring Scottish art, honouring the couple’s memory and Harry’s passion for Scottish art. Today, the Collection contains works by notable artists such as Pat Douthwaite, J.D. Fergusson, and Elizabeth Blackadder.

“Buddah in Yellow” is part of Mach’s matchstick sculpture series which began in the 1980s. His early sculptures were of human or animal heads, and since then has created sculptures of both real and fictional characters, including Betty Boop, Charlie Chaplin, and Marilyn Monroe. The National Gallery of Scotland is one of many art institutions that include his sculptures in their collections. The sculpture in question depicts “The Buddha”, also known as Siddhartha Gautama, who was a wandering ascetic and religious teacher from South Asia who lived from sixth or fifth centuries BCE.

To create his matchstick sculptures, Mach first designs a form made of plastic and then makes an identical one in clay. Thousands of colourful matchsticks are then inserted at various depths to create an intricate three-dimensional sculpture. He uses Japanese matchsticks for his sculptures because their heads come in all sorts of different colours. Looking at his other sculptures, Mach is seen using several colours for one sculpture but also just using one colour for an entire sculpture, such as the Buddha head. He relies on his ability to create depth in certain parts of the face so that basic features- the eyelids, eyebrows, nose, and lip-all slightly protrude. The intricate detailing of the Ushnisha, or crown of hair, at the top of the head of the Buddha speaks to Mach’s careful attention to placement and depth so that his sculpture resembles the popular icon. The matchsticks are placed so tightly that you can barely see the gap between the heads; if you were to stand far away from the sculpture, it would look completely solid.

Mach is also known for destroying his own art! His first matchstick sculpture was accidentally set on fire, but gave him the idea to turn his sculptures into performance art. Once the matchsticks are completely burned, the entire sculpture is entirely transformed. The “Buddha Head” on display at the Wardlaw Museum is not intended to be set on fire, but to be enjoyed as a work that modernises a centuries-old icon.

David Mach continues to be active in the local community, recently being named as an ambassador for the upcoming ‘Scotties by the Sea’ trail, alongside his brother Robert. ‘Scotties by the Sea’ is a free public art event featuring 30 giant Scottie Dog sculptures across St Andrews and Northeast Fife for a 10-week trail beginning on 1st September 2023.

David and Robert Mach with an original Scottie sculpture at Fraser Gallery in St Andrews. Image: Kim Cessford/DC Thomson

Fiesta at the Museum: A Museum LATE

Missed out on a ticket to our recent sold out ‘Museum LATE’? Read on to find out what happened their and learn about how you could be involved for the next.

On the 27th January, The Museums of the University of St Andrews hosted a Museum Student LATE in partnership with the Hispanic Society. This saw over 120 students attend the Wardlaw Museum to party the night away at the Fiesta at the Museum.

President of the Hispanic Society, Andrew Halyburton, talks about the LATE they just helped organise and named Fiesta at the Museum.

The LATE was set up to give students a sneak peek of the recently installed exhibition ‘For Peatlands’ Sake’.

“The peatlands exhibition focuses, at least in part, on Peruvian people [and] bogs, and given that Peru is, of course a Hispanic country with largely Spanish speaking communities, it was appropriate for the Hispanic society to look into that through the party. It was also good for us because we, despite being the Hispanic society, we didn’t actually have anyone in the committee, specifically from Peru and so we had to do our own research and learned a lot about Peruvian culture.”

The party was not what might be expected. It had a whole range of activities and events, crammed into the evening. Most party goers started the night with a drink. A Hispanic themed cocktail, either a Mojito or White sangria and snacks before heading down to the rest of the activities in the museum.

Revelers salsa dancing at the Museum Student LATE. Image © Naomi Cooper

There was “live music included; a silent disco included some [Salsa] dance instruction. It included collaborative art pieces and, for example, a photo booth where you could add your own Polaroids onto a map”. We also had Weaving, Inica Tote bags and salsa dancing from St Andrews University Salsa and Bachata Society.

“I love the quiet room” said Andrew, it was there to give space for party goers to take a break, chat about what they had seen and respond to the exhibition via an activity called Postcard to Peru.

Getting involved at the Inica tote bags activity station. Image © Naomi Cooper

Andrew lets us know why the Hispanic society decided to take part in this collaboration between themselves and the Museums of the University of St Andrews.

“After the museum, reached out to us, we discussed it among ourselves, among the Committee of the Society, and we thought it was a great opportunity to One: Promote things that we are passionate about, which in our case is Hispanic culture [In this case Peru]. And secondly, we thought it would be a good way to advertise ourselves and show that, you know, we’re a fun society to join.”

The Hispanic society were supported though the process of creating there LATE by the University Museums team. The team helped with all areas form marketing to ordering and aided the committee in the development of skills.

“I’ve learned a lot about the value of always being very communicative with the others that you’re working with and because there were moments where we weren’t communicating very effectively. We learned the value of communicating with each other and the value of taking the initiative and being more decisive with your own choices and not second guessing yourself all the time.”

Members grew not only in confidence but also developed skills around events planning, marketing and design, publicity and activity planning. The LATE provided all for them.

Thanks to the Hispanic Society for a memorable night at the museum! Image © Naomi Cooper

Finally, when asked why another society should take part in a Museum LATE, Andrew said:

“It’s a good chance to get your own experience organizing a larger scale event. It’s a good chance to promote your own society and to further the goals of your society, whether that be spreading, the word of what you’re passionate about or just getting a lot of people in the same place for a fun time.”

So in answer to our first question did you miss out on our last Museum LATE? YES! However, we are looking for a society to partner with us on our next Museum LATE: Party Animals on Friday the 15th September 2023. Could that be your society? Drop us an email on [email protected]. Sign up to our mailing list to hear when tickets drop so you don’t miss out.

Blog post by Naomi Cooper, Learning and Engagement Officer

Give your plants a little (Peat Free) love this Valentine’s Day!

For Peat’s Sake Compost packs

Planning the retail offer for an exhibition is an exciting challenge.   Whilst preparing the shop shelves for the current For Peatlands’ Sake exhibition at the Wardlaw Museum the Visitor Services team have been sourcing products that give our visitors the opportunity to continue the message of the exhibition.  Many visitors love to take away something  – a memento of their visit so when we can combine that with something that also helps continue the message of sustainability that makes us very happy! It also helps us to contribute to the University of St Andrews strategic aim of sustainability.

Whist planning the retail offer for the exhibition we were finding out more about how using peat free compost can help to protect and preserve peatland areas.  

One of our new suppliers George Davies runs a business called For Peat’s Sake™.  George is passionate when it comes to preserving peat and earlier this year he gave us an insight into his business.

“For peat’s sake!™ was founded by 21 year old George, following his study of Environmental Geography at Cardiff University, where he first learnt about peatlands and their vital role in our natural world. Disappointed by the continual destruction of peat bogs for the purpose of compost manufacturing, George was spurred on to find an alternative and spread awareness about the importance of peatlands as well as teaching people about the benefits of growing your own plants.

For peat’s sake!™ offers a growing medium made from a waste product of the coconut industry, the husk. This growing medium, called coir, also happens to be a favourite of the professional growing industry. For peat’s sake!’s coir is sustainably and ethically sourced, and is made to a professional-grade standard through a buffering and grading process which turns the coconut husk into the optimum soil structure. Following production, the coir is dehydrated and compressed to make it more efficient to transport and store, and also means no plastic packaging is needed. A world away from the traditional big, wet, plastic bag of peat-based compost most people are used to. All the user needs to do is add water, watch the compressed coir expand and start planting!” (George Davies Founder of For Peat’s Sake™)

A bit of an activist when it comes to preserving peatlands and how essential this is globally to the environment George has supplied us with packs of compost which we are selling in the museum shop as well as some T Shirts sporting the slogan “Love Peat, Don’t Dig It!”.  Cathy our Retail and Operations Officer decided to give the peat free compost a try when repotting a spider plant at home.  The compost pack was really easy to transport (no heavy bags to carry!)  and really easy to recycle as the packaging is entirely made from paper.  The process was really straightforward – just adding water to the cube of compost, waiting for it to expand and then planting.  You can watch a video of the whole process here!  Cathy said “the coir feels quite different from the compost I’d probably be using and it’s much less messy!” 

We love the Peat free option and recommend that you try it!  You can even help by asking your local garden centre about stocking it. 

Palm oil free products for sale in the Wardlaw Museum Shop

Whilst we’re at it – palm trees grow in the Peatlands of Peru and the overuse of these areas along with a demand for palm oil for a great variety of products is threatening these areas.  You can find out more about how communities in Peru are working together to make these areas more sustainable by visiting the exhibition.  In the Wardlaw Museum Shop  we’ve stocked some palm oil free products that you might like to try.  A variety of toiletries, washing up bars and even some chocolate are on offer so give them a try!

We can’t wait to see you and remember Love Peat, Don’t Dig It!

The For Peatland’s Sake Exhibition is running at the Wardlaw Museum until 7 May 2023.

Kim Cotton, UK’s first surrogate mother.

Today, our blog will introduce you to Kim Cotton, the UK’s first surrogate mother. Sometimes referred to as the UK’s first commercial surrogate mother, having agreed to carry the baby of an anonymous couple for £6,500 in 1984. Kim made history when she gave birth to baby Cotton on the 4th of January 1985. Following a whirlwind of public backlash and negative press coverage, the law around commercial surrogacy changed only six months later with the introduction of the Surrogacy Arrangements Act 1985. Kim Cotton had not expected the level of scrutiny that followed.

Inspiration struck Kim after watching a television programme on surrogacy, igniting her desire to help infertile couples and earn money whilst at home with her own children. In many ways, the surrogacy was a win-win situation for both Kim and the anonymous couple. However, public and journalistic opinion did not always agree with the ethical implications tied to surrogacy, with newspaper headlines such as “Born to be sold”, “No better than prostitution”, and “Sold for carpets and curtains” Even some of my colleagues recounted how Kim was vilified by the media. The Standard newspaper ran with the heading ‘Ban This Trade in Babies’ and six months after the birth of baby Cotton the Surrogacy Arrangement Act of 1985 was introduced. With the introduction of this Act, commercial surrogacy and advertising surrogacy was prohibited.

Regardless of the scrutiny she faced, Kim became a staunch advocate for surrogacy and even helped another couple have a baby after her initial surrogacy experience. Kim’s second surrogacy was for her friends, and it could not have been more different. The process behind this surrogacy was far more intimate with the parents this time being present at the birth, Kim felt the event to be much more joyful and fulfilling than the initial anonymous surrogate birth. Between her two surrogate births, in 1988, Kim established Childlessness Overcome Through Surrogacy (COTS), which is a non-profit organisation dedicated to helping people through surrogacy. Through this organisation, over 1000 babies have now been born through surrogacy, including a small number born to same-sex couples.

Kim Cotton with COTs’ 1000th surrogate baby ©The Independent

As the first surrogate mother, Anita Corbin looked for Kim Cotton to include in her project called First Women. Corbin interviewed Cotton for her project and had the following to say about Kim:

I had to do quite a lot of detective work to find Kim Cotton, Britain’s first surrogate mum, eventually I tracked her down via her business of finding replacement china pieces for broken dinner sets. Kim was very modest and reticent about being part of First Women UK as she felt she hadn’t achieved in the same way as other ‘firsts’ I am so pleased that I managed to persuade her to allow me to come and photograph her at home in 2014.  She was welcoming and warm and full of encouragement for my project, loving and giving. It was an emotional session as she told me of her two experiences of surrogacy and how they couldn’t have been more different, the first painful and upsetting and the second an uplifting and joyous birth and handover. I remember clearly how moved I was on hearing her talk of the ‘Gift of Life’ the ultimate gift, how it motivated her and made her determined to make surrogacy acceptable in the UK.

Kim Cotton at home © Anita Corbin

Kim has expressed her hopes for the future of surrogacy in a British Medical Journal article, stating that she feels the ideal situation would be to allow all surrogacies, free or commercial, and those should be monitored to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all involved. Kim concludes that ‘Whichever method they choose, the benefits experienced by all parties after the successful birth and handover of a long awaited surrogate baby are immeasurable.’

Writing for BioNews in 2019, Kim Cotton stated

I have always felt that the generosity of spirit that motivates a surrogate mother to help another couple experience the joys of parenthood is second to none. Not a clandestine affair but a beautiful way for a child to be born amidst the love of the participants. The relationships forged often become lifelong friendships, as it should be. None of this would be possible without the incredible resilience that infertile couples demonstrate when they embark on their incredibly daunting journey to parenthood. I have nothing but admiration for their bravery.I feel privileged to work in this field.”

First Women is now in its final week at the Wardlaw Museum and Laidlaw Music Centre, St Andrews. Come along to see more Kim Cotton and more inspirational women until Sunday 8th of January 2023.

First Women UK by Anita Corbin: 100 Portraits of 100 First Women to celebrate 100 years of women’s right to vote, created by photographer Anita Corbin over a decade and launched in 2018.

Blog post by Alisha MacKenzie, Visitor Services Supervisor.