Helen Gloag - Pirates, Sultans and Scotland
Helen Gloag was born in Wester Pett in Perthshire on January 29th 1750. The eldest of four children, her father, Andrew Gloag was a Blacksmith and her mother, Anna Kay died while Helen was young. Helen was said to be a ‘Celtic’ beauty with long red hair, green eyes and pale skin. Her birth came at the end of the political and social turmoil created by the Jacobites. Helen's cousin, Duncan McGregor was a Jacobite who had been present at the 1745 uprising, and often boasted of his familial links with Helen. Her father remarried and, in the style of the fairy tales, Helen and her Stepmother had a particularly strained relationship.
Ten years after Helen’s birth, in 1760, The Highland Clearances began gaining traction, directly and indirectly causing an outpouring of some 20,000 Scots to Canada and the colonies. This momentum and strained home life seem to have led to Helen’s decision to emigrate to America. Some sources claim that the main reason for Helen’s departure was an affair that she had started with a neighbouring farmer called John Bayne. According to the sources, this pushed her relationship with her stepmother to breaking point and was the true reason for her choice to emigrate. However, it has also been suggested that their ‘affair’ could in actuality have been an innocent friendship. In truth, we do not know the true nature of their relationship, nor if this played any part in her decision to leave Scotland. In May 1769, the 19-year-old Helen boarded a ship with the intention to go to South Carolina as an indentured servent. She embarked at Greenock accompanied by several female friends.
Unfortunately for Helen, she left at the very time that Piracy campaigns were circling Britain. It is estimated that 1.25 million Europeans were taken by pirates and slave traders during the 17th and 18th centuries. The average length of a journey across the Atlantic ranged from 6 weeks to two months. Having only been on the sea for two weeks, the ship was intercepted near Spain by the Moroccan-based Barbary pirates. Some sources claim the men on board were killed, whilst others indicate some survived and, along with the women, were taken to a slave market in modern-day Algeria. Helen was sold to a wealthy Moroccan businessman who gifted her to the then reigning Sultan Sidi Mohammed XVIII of Morocco. He became infatuated with her beauty, adding her to his harem before making her his fourth and favourite wife. After the birth of her two sons, Helen was given the title Sultana of Morocco. She was also allegedly known as Lalla Zahra. ‘Lalla’ in Morocco was used for women of status as a sign of respect.
The Sultan is credited with furthering Euro-Moroccan trade links and, as his favourite wife Helen’s younger brother Robert was allowed to begin trading with Morocco. Helen maintained her links with Scotland through her letters, (none of which seem to survive), and often sent her brother home with gifts for her family. On one occasion she allegedly sent gifts to John Bayne.
During her time as Sultana, Helen is credited with assisting in reducing Moroccan piracy and seems to have had a hand in the alleged release of British prisoners.
The Sultan’s other wives included a German woman, whose son Yazid became Sultan after his father’s death in 1790. There are two versions of what happened next. The first version claims that Yazid wanted to rid the court of any potential opposition to his rule, including Helen’s two sons. In anticipation of this, Helen had her sons sent to a monastery for safekeeping. She reached out to British envoys for assistance, but by the time they responded, Yazid’s forces had reached the monastery, found her sons and killed them. Nothing more was heard from Helen, and it is assumed that she was murdered by Yazid sometime between 1790-1792. A second account claims that Helen and her sons were not killed but merely thrown out of the court, before taking up refuge in a monastery. In either instance, Helen vanished.
Helen’s story has been an enduring, seemingly romanticised one. One article on Helen calls her story ‘romantic’, ‘fantastical’ and ‘fascinating’. Another portrays it as a kind of success story – from a rural Scottish girl to the favoured wife of a Moroccan Sultan. Amongst the imagined glamour of the Moroccan Court, it is imperative not lose sight of the fact that she was captured and sold. Her thoughts and feelings on the course her life had taken can only be guessed at. Nevertheless, the story is a compelling one. But how much of it is real?
The story had become intertwined into local storytelling, with some recalling the ‘good looking woman who liked playing cards’. Helen’s cousin, Duncan McGregor often spoke of his familial links to the Sultana. According to the Scotsman, the Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women claimed that whilst the Sultan did have white women in his harem, a visitor to the court in 1789 recalled seeing no Scottish member. They further suggested that Helen’s story could have been carefully curated to cover a true, less savoury career in the Mediterranean. In 1839 the Perthshire Advisor claimed that they had ‘reason to believe that this romantic story is, in its essential features, strictly true.' The advisor indicates that there may have been exaggerations and misinformation interlaced with the true story of Helen Gloag. As with any story this is highly likely. One such exaggeration may have been the extent of Helen’s influence in the campaign to rid Morocco of pirates. Though there was a definite decrease in active pirates in the Mediterranean, it should be noted that this could have been a result of increased British Ships present in the area as a result of the Napoleonic Wars. Though some have questioned the validity of Helen's story, is it still typically presented as fact.
What do you think? How much do you believe about Helen Gloag?
 Alison Campsie, ‘On this day 1750: Scottish farm girl who became Empress of Morocco is born’, The Scotsman, 29.1.2020. https://www.scotsman.com/heritage-and-retro/heritage/day-1750-scottish-farm-girl-who-became-empress-morocco-born-1395788  A. Campsie, ‘On this day 1750’, The Scotsman.  A. Campsie, ‘On this day 1750’, The Scotsman.
List of Sources
Undiscovered Scotland - https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/usbiography/g/helengloag.html
History of Royal Women - https://www.historyofroyalwomen.com/the-royal-women/helen-gloag-slave-empress-morocco/
List of Images
Boulanger's La Harem Du Palais was inspired by visits to Morocco.
Barbary pirates taking captives from a ship (Photo:Inews - Hulton Archive / Getty Images)