Meeting David Livingstone’s descendants

As the bicentenary of the birth of David Livingstone is marked at Westminster Abbey tonight, Dani Garavelli talks to three direct descendants about what the great Scottish explorer means to them

During a service in Westminster Abbey tonight to celebrate the bicentenary of David Livingstone’s birth, three elderly siblings will step forward to lay a wreath on his grave. Mary Dick-Smith, Elspeth Murdoch and Neil Wilson are all direct descendants of the great Victorian missionary and explorer, the grandchildren of his youngest daughter, Anna Mary, and his legacy has loomed large in their lives.

Although Dr Livingstone died 140 years ago and the siblings have only fleeting recollections of their grandmother, Livingstone has shaped an entire dynasty, instilling in each new generation, a deep-rooted Christianity and a passion for public service.

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Elspeth, 84, was born in Chitambo Medical Mission in Zambia – not far from where her great-grandfather died, his heart buried under a tree – because her father Hubert Wilson, who went on to be a GP in Carnoustie, was working there; and doctors and missionaries run through the family as if medicine were hard-wired into their DNA.

Their elder brother, David Livingstone Wilson, who died in 2010, spent eight years in the Lubwa Hospital in Zambia and three of his sons also became doctors, including Neil Wilson Jnr, who is now a paediatric orthopaedic surgeon at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children at Yorkhill in Glasgow. Elspeth was a nurse who married a doctor and one of Neil senior’s daughters is a therapeutic radiographer.

A love for Africa has also filtered down through the years; Elspeth has been there twice, once, on the centenary of Livingstone’s death, at the behest of Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda, himself the son of a Church of Scotland missionary, who described Livingstone as a father of the nation; and, more recently, on a safari with one of her daughters.

Although Neil senior, a physics teacher who has worked with the homeless, has never been to Botswana, his four daughters holidayed together there last year, and in May, the youngest, Moira, will join Elspeth’s daughter, Ishbel, in an Edinburgh Medical Missionary Society fund-raising bike ride in Malawi.

A passionate anti-slavery crusader, Livingstone wanted to improve the lives of those in Africa by bringing Christianity and commerce to Africa. The first white man to visit the Victoria Falls, he explored and charted large swathes of Zambia, Malawi, Botswana and Tanzania. A poor leader, he apparently alienated members of his own expeditions and sometimes he found he had to depend on the very slave traders he abhorred for survival.

His evangelism was not impressive – legend has it he only ever converted one person to Christianity – but he was interested in the customs of the African people, forged good relations with tribal chiefs and treated many natives with serious illnesses. A meticulous scientist, he also gathered much important information on the geology and botany of the continent.

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Two hundreds years after his birth, he is revered in many parts of Africa, and vibrant churches continue to flourish in the countries he visited. Links between Scotland and Zambia and Malawi are still strong, with the Scotland Malawi Partnership dedicated to fostering links between the two nations.

It is impossible to imagine Livingstone would not be thrilled by the way in which his work has influenced his own country and the countries he set out to help.

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Although the Wilson children were told not to boast about their famous ancestor, he was nonetheless a constant presence. Their grandmother Anna Mary had few tales to tell; her mother died when she was three, Livingstone when she was 15 and she was brought up in Hamilton by a couple of maiden aunts, but his pictures hung on their walls, his journals were kept in the family safe and they were frequently asked to speak at occasions to honour his memory.

“I don’t know what age I was when I realised he was an exceptional man,” says Elspeth, who lives in Buchlyvie in Stirlingshire and has strong links with the David Livingstone Centre, a museum housed in his birthplace in Blantyre. “He wasn’t perfect, but he was driven, he believed he was being guided by God and he couldn’t sit still, he was ambitious to explore further, he always had to push at the boundaries of everything.

“I have been to Westminster Abbey several times and it is strange to think of him buried there amongst kings. When William and Kate got married, one of my grand-daughters said, ‘They’ll have walked right over his grave.’”

Her brother Neil, who lives in Kendal, is fascinated by the family’s links to that Lake District town. “When Mary came back to Britain and Livingstone was exploring towards the Zambezi [she and the children had travelled with him, even accompanying him while pregnant across the Kalahari desert], she faced hard times, but a family from Kendal who supported the London Missionary Society was very supportive and some of the children went to school here,” he says. Anna Mary, a great hoarder who kept all their father’s letters, eventually married someone who was connected to that family.

When her descendants have travelled in Africa, they have found the mere mention of their ancestor provokes gasps of admiration. In the UK, however Livingstone’s reputation is more problematic. Though few would dispute the contribution he made to the fields of medicine, exploration and science, he has been criticised for his treatment of Mary, who died of malaria on a trip out to see him, and for sparking the so-called Scramble for Africa, the invasion, occupation and colonisation of African countries by Europe’s imperial powers, which began less than a decade after his death.

But his family are quick to defend him as a man of his time, who would have hated the way the continent became a pawn in Britain, France and Germany’s struggle for dominance.”

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“Of course, there were faults,” agrees Elspeth. “He was fond of his wife, yet he only spent about 50 per cent of his marriage with her, but that was part of the scene back then, and he really wasn’t colonial. He was very good with the Africans themselves and tried to find out all about their customs. He just wanted to improve their lives.”

Hundreds of miles away in Sussex, Helen Taylor-Thompson believes she is also a direct descendant of Livingstone – although she is unsure of the exact relationship. She grew up being told the great explorer was a distant cousin of her father, George Laurie Walker, who was chairman of the African Inland Mission, and the knowledge inspired her, in part, to dedicate her life to good causes. Though her ambition to become a doctor was thwarted by the war, she was appointed to the board of Mildmay Hospital in London’s East End, eventually turning it into the country’s first Aids hospice.

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Later, she turned her attention to Africa, working with Aids victims there. Now, aged 89, she is the founder of Thare Machi (The Starfish) charity which makes interactive DVDs to disseminate basic health advice to people in the poorest areas. She is also involved in anti-slavery initiatives, aimed at stopping young African women falling prey to pimps and becoming prostitutes (which is how many of them contract HIV).

“My father was very influenced by Livingstone. Although he never visited the continent, when he was chairman of the African Inland Mission it set up a hospital in Kenya which is still going strong,” says Helen, who adopted a little girl from Cambodia at the height of Pol Pot’s atrocities.

“And my charity works in many African countries, including those most closely associated with Livingstone.” Helen says she is in the process of setting up a grant-making trust which will be called the Jenny Livingstone fund, named after both the explorer and the mother of her father’s second wife, who was a missionary in China.

Many of the descendants of Livingstone’s youngest daughter Anna Mary will be at tonight’s service, though only the three surviving great grandchildren have been invited to a function afterwards at Dover House, home of the Scotland Office.

They have been overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the bicentenary celebrations, which have included talks, symposiums, an exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland and a memorial service at the Hamilton United Reformed Church.

Despite civil unrest in her own country, Malawi’s president Joyce Banda will join Elspeth, Neil and Mary, who lives in Crieff, for the wreath-laying ceremony – testament to the warmth many people in Africa still feel towards the explorer.

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“I’ve been a bit deluged by everything that has been going on to be honest,” says Elspeth. “But it’s great Livingstone still inspires such interest. When it’s over I will have time to reflect and realise it’s all been lovely.”