IN modern times we are seeking to free Scotland from its historical reputation for male chauvinism, yet for the women’s side there is a way to go. Scottish women often still have lower status and lower pay at work. It is a legacy of history.

For the past we find at the top a mere handful of female names – St Margaret of Scotland, Mary Queen of Scots, the late Queen Mother.

One social step down and we witness a numerical crash.

Who comes after Flora MacDonald? And there is only a single celebrated daughter of the proletariat whose name occurs to me, though she is famous for what she did outside Scotland in the missionary field (women could not, of course, become ministers).

She is Mary Slessor of Dundee (though actually born in Aberdeen), daughter of a shoemaker who drank himself to death.

In 1859, at the age of 11, the pretty little girl with red hair and bright blue eyes began work as a “half-timer” in the Baxter Brothers’ mill. It meant she spent half her day at a school provided by the owners and the other half working at their machines. By the age of 14, she was her family’s main breadwinner, a skilled jute worker doing 12-hour shifts with brief breaks for breakfast and lunch.

Like many poor women, Mary kept herself going by religion, in particular her activity in the dissenting sect of United Presbyterians. The early death of brothers and sisters, but above all the return of David Livingstone’s corpse from Africa in 1873, aroused her missionary fervour and spurred her into applying for a post in the tropics.

She was accepted by her church’s foreign mission board as a teacher in Calabar, the main port at the mouth of the River Niger. After three months’ training at Moray House in Edinburgh, she set sail in 1876 with a cousin from Buchan, Robert Beedie.

Calabar had in the past been a port for shipping black slaves to the Americas. The Royal Navy halted that trade after 1815 but still the bad old days survived in many inhuman social attitudes.

Mary from the start tackled what seemed to her the most horrible practices. People in the area believed the birth of twins was a particularly evil curse. They feared that the father of one of the infants was a “devil child”, and that the mother had been guilty of a great sin. Unable to determine which twin was fathered by the evil spirit, they often abandoned both babies in clay pots to die.

Mary adopted every child she found abandoned and sent out helpers to find, protect and care for them at the mission house.Also, she ended the human sacrifice that followed the death of a village elder, because he was believed to need servants and retainers for company in the next world. She put a stop to the practice of making suspects of crime drink poison to determine their guilt.

For her first three years, Mary lived in the safety of her mission compound but she was always eager to go out and make contact with communities still ignorant of Christianity. She lived so frugally that she could send some of her salary of £1 a week to Scotland to support her mother and sisters. She took an occasional furlough to spend at home, while touring many local churches to share stories of the hard life in the tropics.

Mary made things twice as hard for herself by working mainly among the women, who were usually oppressed by their menfolk. She cast away the trappings of the colonial lifestyle – she ate the native food, drank unboiled water, used no mosquito net, walked barefoot and even went out in the burning sun without covering for her head. Visitors felt shocked at the tiny Scotswoman’s sunburnt face and unkempt appearance.

But she had a bold personality that came out also in her mastery of the local Efik language, gaining the trust and acceptance of the people all round the Niger delta, especially the back country known as Okoyong.

For her, Christian religion and western education were just as important as promoting women’s rights and protecting native children.

One traveller to the region found that “Miss Slessor … has lost most of her missionary ideas and bullies the native chiefs in their own tongue … and is regarded by the other missionaries as mad and dangerous”.

She was often at odds also with the colonial authorities, who wanted to restrict her movements to the safer areas.

Once her mother died in 1885 and her last sister in 1886, Mary had no further personal links with home: “Heaven is now nearer to me than Britain,” she wrote.

In 1891, she was briefly engaged to a Scottish missionary teacher 18 years her junior. A mean mission board refused to allow him to join her and they broke off the relationship.

Now her only family consisted of the twins she adopted because of the dangers to them. When she went on a break in Britain she would take them with her. A Scottish newspaper wrote that: “She and her four adopted African children were a centre of great attraction and helped to deepen the interest of the whole community in the Foreign Mission work of the Church.”

There was nobody else who knew local conditions so well, as the colonial authorities also appreciated. In 1892 Mary was appointed vice-consul at Calabar, presiding over the native court. A natural meddler with an iron will, she was well suited to the role of magistrate and outside the courtroom pestered the district officers about injustices and disputes.

The National: Mary Slessor with friends in Calabar, Nigeria, which became her home until her deathMary Slessor with friends in Calabar, Nigeria, which became her home until her death (Image: Archive)

In the UK she became a hero of popular culture, heralded as the White Queen of Okoyong.

When two inspectors went out to visit the mission in 1881-82, they were impressed.

They stated: “She enjoys the unreserved friendship and confidence of the people, and has much influence over them.”

Mary’s health began to suffer in her later years but she remained at Calabar until she died there in 1915.

Her body was transported downriver for the colonial equivalent of a state funeral. A Union flag covered her coffin. Attendees included the provincial commissioner, along with other senior British officials in full uniform. Flags at government buildings were flown at half mast.

Nigeria’s governor-general, Sir Frederick Lugard, telegraphed his “deepest regrets” from Lagos and published a warm eulogy in the government gazette.