Ellie Wilson was raped by a fellow UofG student during her time at university. After the successful conviction of her abuser, Ellie has successfully influenced government policy on reforms to the judicial process and higher education policy to better safeguard future victims.
At the beginning of this academic year, the University of Glasgow announced the final three nominations for its annual World Changing Alumni Award – an honour which celebrates the achievements of recent UofG alumni who have made significant contributions to their field. Previous winners have included Emeli Sande, Mhairi Black MP and Selina Hales, founder of Glasgow charity Refuweegee. Amongst the finalists this year is politics graduate of 2020, Ellie Wilson.
It’s hard not to be impressed by Ellie Wilson. At the age of just 25, she waived her right to anonymity as a victim of rape and domestic abuse after her rapist, Daniel McFarlane, was convicted and sentenced in 2022, in order to speak out publicly of her experience both of being in a domestically abusive relationship with a partner who repeatedly raped her, and of her experience with seeking justice in the legal system. This year she has been nominated as one of three finalists for the University of Glasgow World Changing Alumni Award, for her activism based on reforms to the judicial system and around policy to better safeguard students in higher education against potentially predatory peers.
Ellie was in an abusive relationship with fellow UofG student Daniel McFarlane throughout her undergraduate degree, and between 2017-2018 she was raped by him on more than one occassion. The experience of the abuse and rape caused her to attempt to take her own life whilst a student at the University of Glasgow, leading her to take a year out of education, before she eventually reported him to the police in the summer of 2020, as she was finishing the final year of her undergraduate degree. Whilst the police investigation and subsequent trial was ongoing, Ellie undertook a master’s degree in International Security at UofG, from which she graduated with a distinction. As Ellie described this timeline of events to me, I was struck by the self-evidence of her remarkable resilience and bravery in the face of abhorrent circumstances – to graduate with such accolades from successive undergraduate and master’s degrees requires a level of drive, perseverance and mental strength in the best of circumstances. Given what Ellie was processing and going through, it doesn’t seem excessive to describe it as a near-miracle.
Ellie worked in the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh following her graduation from UofG as she awaited the trial of her abuser. Not unreasonably, she had come to expect that she would not have to encounter her rapist in any capacity, as he was from Inverness originally and had been immediately suspended from the University of Glasgow following his initial arrest. To her dismay, Ellie came across a photograph of him competing in an athletics competition wearing a University of Edinburgh vest. After contacting the University to confirm both that McFarlane was a student there, and that they were aware of his status as an alleged rapist awaiting trial, (shockingly both were true) Ellie endeavoured to learn more about higher education policy around the admission of students with criminal backgrounds or convictions. After submitting FOI requests to all Scottish universities, she was dismayed at the findings: “I just realised that there was a huge loophole – a complete lack of unified approach and that most unis weren’t gathering this information and I couldn’t do anything about it publicly until the case went to trial so I was just working on it in the background.” After McFarlane was convicted and sentenced in court, Ellie wanted to use what she had learnt of the system to push for productive reforms: “I think like coming out of that I really wanted something positive to come out of my experience, and I think the kind of person that I was before I was raped, well I really wanted to make a difference in the world.I was a really outspoken and confident person, and I think that part of me was sort of broken down and I really wanted to reclaim who I was before that so speaking out and trying to make change was really important for me.” Ellie wrote a joint op-ed with The Times about the “loop-hole” she had uncovered in higher education policy, and launched a petition entitled “Introduce national safeguarding guidance on how higher education institutions should handle cases of sexual misconduct” .
Ellie characterises the activism she has engaged in since the completion of the trial as multi-faceted, pertaining both to her campaign around higher education policy, but also to the treatment of sexual abuse victims in a judicial setting. She told me of the trauma she was subjected to in the courtroom: “One of the things I struggled most with in court was how I was treated by the defence lawyer who cross examined me, it was so humiliating and invasive… He baselessly accused me of having personality disorders that I’ve never received a diagnosis for. After sentencing when he was found guilty he basically turned around and pointed at me and said it was an injustice that I had graduated with a first and got a masters with distinction and was going on to work in my chosen field whilst my rapist was going to prison.” Ellie’s description of her experience resonates with a lot of prevalent legal research around “secondary victimisation” of sexual abuse victims, sometimes referred to as a “second rape” – whereby victims are subjected to subsequent rounds of emotional and psychological trauma by the institutions such as the police force and the judicial systems who deal with their cases. Ellie described her experience as “it’s own separate trauma”; prompting her to initiate complaint proceedings against the defence team responsible. Upon attempting to do this Ellie came to understand why so few women ever successfully lodge complaints about their treatment in court settings, despite the seemingly endemic rape culture that pervades our legal system and contributes to the woefully low levels of conviction for abusers and rapists in the UK. To access the court transcripts necessary to corroborate her complaint against the defence team, Ellie would be required to pay £3000 – £100 for every hour of court proceedings. The inaccessibility of this data for most victims means that legal actors who violate laws around proper conduct in judicial settings – as Ellie alleges the defence team in her case did – are never held accountable. Ellie was able to crowdfund the cost for accessing her court transcripts, allowing her to successfully file a complaint and initiate an ongoing investigation into her treatment by the defence team. What strikes me about Ellie is her consistent drive to engage head on with experiences and settings which have evoked trauma and distress for her and to make positive change for those that may tragically come after her. Having crowdfunded her own transcript costs, Ellie began publicly campaigning on the issue and lobbying the Scottish government to make legal reforms in the area, prompting them to commit to a pilot programme for the provision of free court transcripts this May. “If people can’t access their court transcripts they can’t make complaints about their treatment which means there’s no accountability in the legal system, and you’re basically saying that justice and accountability is for sale – in a democracy? That’s not acceptable. You’re also asking people at their most vulnerable point to pay loads of money for information that pertains to them”.
The tenacity and strength it must have taken to spearhead such meaningful legal reform in an area of such personal distress is not lost on me as I speak to Ellie. But maybe the bravest thing about her story is simply her willingness to talk, publicly and openly about what happened to her. “I think it’s really important to challenge the shame and stigma associated with sexual violence and domestic violence – why should I feel ashamed? And so I really wanted to speak out publicly about it, and I think one of the things that is most touching for me is that other women have started speaking out and cited me as their inspiration for telling people about their experiences- and that just feels so amazing – because then more people see them speak out and then they speak out too and I just think that’s so incredible”. Ellie’s ability to foster spaces online where other women have felt empowered to disclose their own experiences is arguably as important as the bigger legislative discourses she has influenced with her work – the significance of helping other survivors to feel less alone is a perhaps less easily quantifiable but no less powerful achievement. According to Ellie, throughout her time at the University of Glasgow, whilst her abuse was ongoing, a “rape culture” existed certain clubs and societies, and specifically the athletics club that she and McFarlane participated in. Ellie cited other incidences of sexual assault within the club that were known secrets but never dealt with, which she attributes to the perpetrators having been “fantastic athletes”. For her, it was important to speak out against this culture of silence – “for my own mental health I needed to not care about the jokes people were making about me, and instead focus on the positive changes I was trying to make. But there is still a sense of injustice about how others acted, or more precisely their lack of action”.
I’m conscious that in effusing about Ellie’s strength and remarkable courage to undertake the work she has done it’s maybe easy to lose sight of the personal cost it must have had for her. Our discussion is quite frank, and she talks me through traumatising experiences with a matter-of-factness that takes me aback. When asked whether recounting all of this causes her pain still – Ellie refers to a quote that she characterises as her guiding influence: “pain can either be your prison or your platform”. According to Ellie, her pain was for a while her prison, and indeed she suffers from currently untreated PTSD. Indeed, her journey is far from over, as her rapist earlier this year made an attempt to repeal his sentencing and conviction at the Supreme Court of the UK following an appeal rejection in the Scottish crown court. For Ellie this marked a disruption to her healing process- “I felt like I was doing really well and I was just completely knocked off and I’m only just pulling myself out of that. It felt like I just can’t have anything because he’s just gonna keep pushing and that was so emotionally tough for me”. Whilst the appeal was once more rejected this March, Ellie remains very conscious that McFarlane will be up for consideration for parole in just over a year – a source of considerable anxiety for her.
Ultimately however, Ellie has transformed a devastatingly painful life experience into a platform for incredibly meaningful and productive legal reform but also support and inspiration for fellow survivors. For Ellie, being nominated for the UofG World Changing Alumni Award is hugely validating:
“I would say though that things like this award offer a way for me to rewrite my university narrative. I’m a smart girl and I was made to believe I wasn’t. I was told repeatedly that I wouldn’t be anything and I feel like this award is a validation of that – rewriting my story and making it into something triumphant… In an ideal world this would never have happened. But it did happen so then how do I use it and make it a force for good? The award is a huge deal for me personally but I also think it’s something important on behalf of all survivors that are trying to speak out and make change – there’s lots of us, and often it goes unrecognised. I’d say it’s an award on behalf of all survivors.”