Helen Gloag lived from 29 January 1750 until some time after 1790. She was born near Muthill in Perthshire and through a series of remarkable events went on to become the Empress of Morocco. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Helen Gloag was born the daughter of a blacksmith on the tiny village of Wester Pett, a mile or so south of Muthill. Her mother died when Helen was still a child and her father remarried. Helen and her stepmother did not see eye to eye on a range of subjects, and matters came to a head when Mary became romantically involved with an older farmer, John Byrne.
At the time many Scots were leaving their native land for the new world, and for the Carolinas in particular. Mary seems to have decided on a new life, and with a group of friends signed up for the voyage to South Carolina. She set sail in May 1769 either from London or from Greenock, depending on the sources you choose, aged just 19.
Two weeks out into the Atlantic, the ship she was on was intercepted by Barbary pirates from Salé in Morocco, now virtually a coastal suburb of the Moroccan capital, Rabat. By Helen's time, Salé's pirates had been notorious for over a century, and regularly preyed on emigrant ships, sometimes as far afield as the US coast. Their aim was to take prisoners who could be sold as slaves back in Morocco, and over the decades it seems that tens of thousands of Europeans fell victim to this trade.
On arrival in Morocco, Helen was put on sale in the slave market. She was bought by a wealthy Moroccan who, wanting to gain favour with Sultan Sidi Mohammid ibn Abdullah, handed her over to him. By all accounts, Helen was a striking woman of considerable beauty with red hair and green eyes and it seems the Sultan was very taken with this new addition to his harem. So much so that she eventually became his fourth wife and was given the title of Empress.
Stories began to circulate about the new Empress of Morocco, and her intervention was said to be behind a number of releases of seafarers and slaves captured by the Salé pirates. She was also able to write home and was visited on a number of occasions in Morocco by her brother Robert, who was largely responsible for her story finding its way back to Scotland.
Over time, Helen came to be credited in a reduction in the activities of Moroccan-based Barbary pirates, though this may equally have been due to an increase in the number of English and French warships in these waters as tensions between them increased in the run up to the Napoleonic Wars.
In 1790, Sultan Sidi Mohammid ibn Abdullah died, and the Moroccan throne was seized by Mulai Yazeed, a son of the Sultan whose mother was a German resident of the harem. The new Sultan sought to consolidate his hold on power by killing any competitors, among whom were Helen's two sons. She tried to find them safety in a monastery, but by the time she was seen by a British envoy she had been trying to contact, her sons had been killed. Nothing more was ever heard of Helen herself, and it seems likely that she was also killed during the two years of unrest that followed the death of Sidi Mohammid ibn Abdullah.