Our Mother in Faith

Minnie Watson
Minnie Watson. National Library of Scotland

Scottish missionary Minnie Watson continues to inspire millions of people in Kenya.

The Dundee-born teacher is still revered in the African nation but she is virtually unknown in her homeland.

Mrs Watson helped lay the foundations of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) which today has around 3.5 million members.

She dedicated more than 30 years of her life to spreading the Gospel in Kirkuyu near Nairobi and established a network of schools for girls and boys

One of Mrs Watson's pupils was Jomo Kenyatta who went on to become Kenya's first president

Foundation of evangelism

Her legacy is such that when Rev Robert Mbugua points to what is the first permanent church building in Kikuyu, he says: “This place represents the foundation of where evangelism started in Kenya.

“Our roots are in Scotland so, because of that, this place is Scotland.”

PCEA Secretary General Peter Kariuki said: "Minnie Watson is our mother in faith.

"She is the image of Christ and sacrificed all her comfort to live among our ancestors.

"She remains the icon of civilisation and genuine Christianity.

"We love our mother."

Mrs Watson followed her fiancé, who was also from Dundee, to the former British colony in 1899 after he established the Scottish Mission in Kikuyu.

They quickly married, but barely a year later he died of pneumonia leaving the “devoted” 32-year-old toassume responsibility for the project.

It was a world away from Dundee and the daughter of a ship captain endured extreme hardship - drought, famine and disease - to fulfil her mission of spreading the Gospel.

Education and welfare was Mrs Watson’s primary focus and she established an extensive network of Mission Schools for girls and boys.

Outstanding role model

Jomo Kenyatta, father of the current Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, is a former pupil and was baptised in Watson-Scott Memorial Church.

It was prefabricated in Scotland at the turn of the 20th century and shipped 7,150 miles to Kikuyu.

The Scottish Mission was originally funded by Christian directors of the Imperial East Africa Company but was taken over by the Church of Scotland 12 months after Mr Watson died.

Mrs Watson, who was head teacher of the Mission Schools system, was described by former pupils as an outstanding Christian role model - always loving, humble, patient but strict when necessary.

She later retired to Dundee where she died in 1949 at the age of 82.

Minnie Watson
National Library of Scotland

Mrs Watson’s ashes were returned to be buried beside her husband’s remains in the cemetery, located next to the 108-year-old church named after them and Dr Henry E Scott, a former Scottish Mission leader.

Right Rev Dr Russell Barr, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, visited the couple’s grave to pay his respects earlier this month.

It is marked by a large stone Celtic Cross.

Dr Barr said: “It was a great privilege to visit Kenya and the Presbyterian Church of East Africa.

“Although the PCEA has long found its African heart and its African soul and its African voice, it was Church of Scotland missionaries who first planted the seeds of Christian faith.

“Prominent among them were the Rev Thomas and Minnie Watson, who established a mission at Kikuyu.

“It was quite humbling to stand at their graveside and to realise how their courage, devotion and Christian faith has been rewarded in the vibrant and growing church that is the PCEA.”

Right Rev Dr Russell Barr
Rev Robert Mbugua and Right Rev Dr Russell Barr at the Watson's grave

Mrs Watson, who taught against the practice of female circumcision, founded the church choir and Women’s Guild.

She laid the foundation stone of the Church of the Torch in Thogoto in 1929.

The building, which was opened four years later, is dedicated to Rev Dr John Arthur, a Glasgow-born medical missionary who established Kikuyo Hospital in 1908.

Church of the Torch
Church of the Torch

The facility, which is run by PCEA, is still operational today and is renowned for its eye, dental and orthopaedic clinics.

Professor David Ngugi, a Church of the Torch elder, said Scottish missionaries had a “big impact” on the Kikuyu people.

“They were very focused in spreading the Gospel and education because at that time Kenya was regarded as the Dark Continent,” he added.

Fresh water

“The missionaries planted several schools, improved health by setting up hospitals and fought poverty by starting agricultural industries.

“Many people in Kenya have benefited from that legacy and the impact of Minnie Watson still lives on.”

The relationship between the Church of Scotland and PCEA remains strong.

Dr Barr handed over £6,000 donated by Kirk members to help pay for a drinking water borehole at the Mother Esther Boarding School and Rescue Centre in Maasai land.

Russell Barr
Dr Barr, accompanied by his wife Margaret, broke the ground where a water borehole will be sunk

The centre hosts girls who have been saved from early marriage and Female Genital Mutilation. (FGM)

Dr Barr also presented a cheque for £10,000 to the leaders of the PCEA Boys and Girls Brigade.

The money was raised by the Boys Brigade in Scotland for the BB World Mission Fund and will be used to ;make uniforms for Kenyan youngsters.

Boys Brigade Kenya
Dr Barr inspects the Boys and Girls Brigade