Not a member?
Register and login now.

Issue 50 - In search of the Empress

History & Heritage

This article is available in full as part of History & Heritage, visit now for more free articles and information.


Scotland Magazine Issue 50
April 2010


This article is 8 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

Copyright Scotland Magazine © 1999-2018. All rights reserved. To use or reproduce part or all of this article please contact us for details of how you can do so legally.

In search of the Empress

Heidi Scholt investigates the case of Helen Gloag.

Take a stroll along the sleepy streets of Muthill in Perthshire, and you might be lucky enough to spot a descendant of the village’s legendary former resident – Helen Gloag – Empress of Morocco.

Her remarkable life, which saw her transformed from a blacksmith’s daughter to a glamorous empress, via a Barbary pirate or two, reads like a real-life fairy tale. The only difference is that Helen’s story has no ending.

No one knows for sure what happened to the adventurous Scottish lass after the death of her Sultan. It is a mystery which has long perplexed living relative, Dr Hugh Gloag Morton, prompting him to look into the life of his famous ancestress.

Born in Wester Pett, by Muthill, in January 1750, Helen became the wife of Sultan Sidi Mohammid ibn Abdullah after leaving behind her peaceful village home aged just 19 in search of a new, more adventurous life overseas.

With a group of friends, Helen had set sail for a new life in the Carolinas in May 1769, but was never to reach her destination for her ship was intercepted by Barbary pirates from North Africa. The pirates, notorious slave traders, took Helen captive, transporting her to Morocco where she was put up for sale in a slave market. There she caught the eye of a wealthy Moroccan who handed her over to the Sultan as a gift.

The Emperor was much taken with Helen, and, introducing her into his harem, made her his fourth wife, bestowing upon her the title of Empress. She bore him two sons.

An intelligent and spirited young woman, Helen did not rest on her laurels in the pampered royal harem. She came to be credited with a reduction in the activities of the Barbary pirates and, in some accounts, is said to have abolished the Moroccan slave trade altogether.

A fabulous beauty, with a lustrous mane of auburn hair, Helen soon became the Sultan’s favourite wife. Today, many of the flamehaired residents of Muthill and nearby areas such as Crieff are thought to be direct descendants of Helen’s family. The name Gloag can also be found inscribed on gravestones in Muthill’s historic churchyard.

Helen’s story inspired novels such as bestseller The Fourth Queen by Debbie Taylor.

Historians and scholars have studied her life, she has also been the subject of numerous articles and exhibitions.

It is strange, therefore, that the final chapters of Helen’s days are so shrouded in mystery. After the death of her husband, Sultan Sidi Mohammid ibn Abdullah, the trail goes cold. Was she, as some researchers have suggested, rescued by the British government after urgent pleas for help? Or, more tragically, was she murdered by her husband’s vindictive successor.

It is a fascinating puzzle, and one which Dr Morton is hoping to shed some light on.

A retired psychiatrist from Fife, he grew up in Kirkcaldy hearing stories about his Perthshire relative, he is directly related to Helen along his maternal line. His grandfather, James, was the son of Thomas Knox, who in turn was the son of Ann Gloag, who was Helen’s great niece.

Much of the family’s knowledge about Helen came from the late Janet Scott, Dr Morton’s grandfather’s sister. It was Janet who recorded the events surrounding the death of the Sultan. She told Helen feared her sons were in mortal danger. Being the favourite wife of the Sultan, they were a threat to the ambitions of his disowned son, Yazeed.

“Yazeed was very jealous of Helen’s sons,” explains Dr Morton.

“Helen wrote to Britain for aid. A gun boat was sent to Morocco to rescue her, but when it arrived, the two boys had been murdered.” Janet, he continues, believed that Helen died on the return voyage. “She wrote that a record of ‘the death’ is to be found in Somerset House, London.” So far Dr Morton has not been able to verify this. “Written historical records did not exist in Morocco in the 18th century,” says Dr Morton. “It was all passed on by word of mouth.” The fact that Helen was female, he adds, makes the search even harder, for women were considered to be of little consequence at that time. A chance meeting with an Arabic expert, however, gave him some hope. “He told me that there could be records held in Seville, Spain, dating from the time of the Moorish occupation.” Fortunately for the family, the details of Helen’s early life are less perplexing.

Although there have been doubts over its veracity, Dr Morton believes the story is mostly correct. “Why would anyone make all that up?” he asks. “The voyage is accurate. It is well known that piracy off the Moroccan coast was prevalent at that time.” Aside from dealing with the cynics, Dr Morton has also endured some unflattering portrayals of his ancestor in novels which have tended to focus on the more erotic aspects of 18th century harem life.

The best-selling book, A Gift for the Sultan, written by Olga Stringfellow in the 1960s, shocked his mother to the extent that he was ScotlandHistory These pages clockwise from left: Morocco became her new home; the views from Muthill, Muthill High Street; do these graves hold a link; land Helen would have know in her childhood banned from reading it.

The Fourth Queen also featured accounts of concubines, glittering harems and the like, and caused even more upset. “On no account would I allow any of my grandchildren to read The Fourth Queen,” says Dr Morton. “I was quite embarrassed about it really. I got wind of the fact that it was being published and got in touch with the author. But when it came out, I read it and thought ‘I don’t think I’ll pursue this’. Basically, she used the bare bones of Helen’s story to build a parable about sexual intrigue.” If the details of her life were not perplexing enough, Dr Morton received a letter in 1958 throwing doubt on Helen’s name.

Malcolm Knox, Dr Morton’s late uncle, was an academic and former principal of St Andrews University. In a letter to his nephew he stated that his grandmother, Ann, believed that Helen was also named Ann. “He also wrote that granny remembered articles at the Mill of Steps farm (Helen’s childhood home) about the gun boat being authorised by the Foreign Office and Admiralty. My uncle went on to say that he ought to have made enquiries at ‘Register House’ but that he never had.” So, the fact that Helen might not have been called Helen at all, has presented further obstacles. “If someone was trying to ascertain something in Morocco then it is obviously important to float the possibility of her name being Ann,” says Dr Morton.

He can, however, take some comfort from a more optimistic theory put forward by the late historian, Archie McKerracher. Writing in the Scots Magazine in 1983, he says there is evidence that Helen could have survived Yazeed’s murderous reign.

“Some years ago, two ladies from Muthill were visiting the modern town of Rabat built on the other bank of the river from the old pirate town of Salle, when their guide suddenly pointed out a monument which he said had been erected to the memory of a Scottish Empress.”