Scottish links

There are strong links between South Africa and the Scottish. The town I grew up, Boksburg, in had one of the first Presbyterian churches in the then Transvaal. The Presbyterian church started in Cape Town, South Africa in the early 1800s following a request by the Black Watch who were on a tour of duty in South Africa for religious services of their own.

However, more well-known are the Transvaal Scottish, the military regiment which came into being after the Anglo-Boer War. Many Scots served in the war, mostly on the side of the British Empire. (The Irish were better known for serving on both sides – the leader of the Boksburg Boer Tarantale or ‘Guineafowl’ Commando  was allegdly an Irishman – Gravatt, a man commemorated in the local Klip Kerk or ‘Stone Church’ as the Dutch Reformed Church is affectionately called.) During World War 1, the Transvaal Scottish served on the Western Front participating in the battles of Delville Wood. A local family, the McKinlays, lost three of their four sons in Europe and Mom McKinlay was one of the two Transvaal civilian representatives at the opening of the Delville Wood memorial in 1926. Having worked on the family’s history for the grandson of the only surviving brother who had not been allowed by the army to enlist, the grandson, Scotty, died in March 2017. At least he’d discovered what his uncles had done and there’s more of a story behind the stained glass rose-window in St John’s Presbyterian Church, Boksburg – a building which itself is 100 years old in 2017.

In addition to the many Scottish miners who settled in South Africa, another notable group was the missionary contingent. Missionaries from both the Church of Scotland Missionary Society (CMS) and Presbyterians travelled to South Africa to do their bit. The most famous missionary to Africa is probably David Livingstone. Livingstone’s wife was of missionary extraction – Robert Moffat who settled in Kuruman. My husband’s family owes its origins to William Samson who took up a posting initially in Ghana in 1916 and then a few years later in Southern Rhodesia with the Presbyterian Church of South Africa. The family originated from Ayreshire and according to folklore had a connetion with the famous Scottish poet, Robbie Burns, who wrote an ode to a Samson – Tam O’Samson (rather uncomplimentary – suggesting good friendship perhaps?)

One of my earliest social memories growing up is of my parents going off to Burns’ Night suppers and dances with the local Masonic Lodge. Auld Lang Syne was (and remains) another regular Scottish link, sung every New Year’s Eve and unlike other British accents, I was most accustomed to the various Scottish dialects thanks to those who attended the local Presbyterian church.

An affinity for things Scottish remains due to these early childhood experiences, so it’s no surprise that things Scottish have a magnetic attraction today. On my way to the British Library in April 2017, taking a slightly different route to my norm, I stumbled across an exhibition in The Crypt Gallery of St Pancras Church. The church has been undergoing refurbishment for as long as I can remember so seeing an opportunit to explore below ground, I jumped at the opportunity. A Sense of Scotland, oil paintings by Davy Macdonald took me back to South Africa – Houtbay in particular – with scenes of fishermen and women fixing nets and preparing fish caught for sale. What was striking about this exhibition was the prominent role women seemed to play, unlike in Africa where this is most definitely a man’s job – one I’m happy to leave to them given the stench of the open fish-drying places we encountered in Ghana.

And an exhibition I didn’t get to see in person because time didn’t allow, but which, thankfully, is online too, is The Scottish Diaspora Tapestry. An amazing compilation of needlework from around the globe showing just how widely the Scots travelled (and settled). One day I might get to see it in all its glory.

My Scottish links continue – apart from working on the history of the Presbyterian church in South Africa from inception through to the late 1990s, I am regularly asked which clan’s tartan I’m wearing – my answer: Masaai

Buildings – a sign of community

WW1EAfricaCampaign regularly tweets items from the East African Standard telling us about auction sales and other daily events which continued despite the war being fought a bit further south in German East Africa. It’s also been rather insightful looking into the lives of Indian (that is the sub-continent – today’s India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) settlers in East Africa and their war-time involvement. It appears to be very little. The Indians who served in East Africa were contingents which had been raised on the sub-continent specifically for service in East Africa once it had been determined they were not needed in Europe. The Indians in East Africa were building businesses and running the railways, although there is an indication in Pandit Shanti’s (1963) The Asians of East and Central Africa that a handful did get involved in wartime service.

Further south, in South Africa I’ve been working on various histories of Presbyterianism. One concerns the denomination as a whole and its position in South Africa, but another is more local – to the town I grew up in. There the Presbyterian Church building turned 100 years old on 25 November 1916 – well, that’s the date the foundation stones were laid. In the more general history, comment is made about a church in Meikle Street Johannesburg having its foundation stone laid on 20 May 1917.

I’ve often wondered about church buildings. I love the one in Boksburg. It’s an old friend – one I was baptised, confirmed and married in (and the image I use for Minority Historian). The names on the walls are family and friends. I was in St Paul’s Cathedral in the week before Easter to listen to a friend play in Bach’s St John’s Passion. A beautiful building but with awful acoustics and a little ostentatious for my Calvinist background. Then there’s Westminster Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. The former is my preferred building – the inside, at the time I last visited, still needing to be completed because they’d run out of money so the ceilings were painted black rather than be covered with colourful mosaics. Yet, the two places of worship that top my list are a tiny wooden church in a village in Senegal and one of the oldest mosques in Kenya. I happened to visit the church in Senegal one Christmas Day. The rough branches that had been used to create the structure were lopsided and the gaps between enough to allow enough light (and rain) through whilst keeping the heat of the day away. A hewn piece of wood resting on two stumps formed the communion table decorated with a jam jar filled with a few cut wild flowers. The pews were rough wooden boards resting on stumps and a goat stood on the dusty sand floor looking round the door.

The mosque was just as simple. A small white-washed rectangular building split in two – one side for men and the other for women. The building not big enough to cater for all its adherents.

Another church building I have close connections with is one in Northwood, UK. This church building was completed in 1915, the foundation stone being laid in March 1914. On the outbreak of war, the community offered the building, then a tin tabernacle as a VAD Hospital. This was accepted in November 1914 and by the time of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, the newly constructed sanctuary was also turned over to the War Office becoming a hospital. The mother of artist Roger Hilton, Louisa Simpson, captured the interior in a watercolour she painted whilst working at the hospital where her husband was the senior doctor.

Why was there this need to continue building religious buildings during war? As indicated by WW1EAfricanCampaign’s tweets, life goes on and people in uncertain times look for sanctuary.  But is a building necessary? On a previous visit to SA, I was told by a young Malawian that his community back home was desperate for a church building. They were currently meeting under the trees. Given the poverty of the area, I wondered, what will a building help? Yes, it will provide shade, but the trees already do that… It will keep people dry if it rains, but that happens so seldom, I wonder if it’s worth the community investing the amount of money required.

Having asked the question on numerous occasions before and since my Malawian encounter, what is the purpose of a church (or equivalent), I came across an answer in Calvin Cook’s history of the Presbyterian Church of South Africa. He says, ‘Buildings are a sign of community.’ It’s a thought provoking statement. They’re a place communities can come together, passers-by recognise and assume they know what goes on in buildings of a certain look – there’s a logic behind a church building’s construction as noted in How to read a church (wikipedia; video). The same with a mosque and synagogue. The latter I was told in South Africa only being allowed if there were ten or more Jewish families in the area.

The interior often tells you much about that community – the people who contributed much to its development or who are significant to its identity. I can’t help but think of the Rand Club, set up by Cecil Rhodes and others, which has recently gone through some financial struggles and uncertainty regarding its future as a result of the mining houses undergoing various changes since the end of Apartheid. Parliamentary buildings too, tell a story about the communities they represent (or try to control). Many of these buildings are no longer fit for purpose, yet many are reluctant to see any changes – the historian in me rails against removing bits of our past – I’m often caught by visitors who say things like ‘it’s good to see there are still pews’, ‘oh, and that’s a real organ, wonderful!’ Churchill too, was reluctant to change the set-up of the British Parliament in 1945. Nostaligia reigns.

I wonder what an all-inclusive, genuinely equal, building would really look like? I already see a difference in approach: Africa vs Europe vs Asian …