Saved for the nation - archive shines light on little known Kenyan missionary

Charles Kasaja Stokes
Minnie Watson and her "adopted son" Charles Kasaja Stokes

Handwritten letters, documents and photographs that belonged to one of Scotland's unsung heroines have been saved for the nation.

The collection casts fresh light on the extraordinary life and legacy of pioneer Minnie Watson, one of the founders of the Presbyterian Church in Kenya.

The archive has gathered dust in a cupboard in Dundee for nearly 70 years but the Church of Scotland missionary’s great niece, Paddy McFarlane, has decided to gift it to the National Library of Scotland.

The gesture will enable the public to better understand the immense impact that Mrs Watson, née Cumming, had on the former British colony where she worked to spread the Gospel from 1899-1931.

Magnetic persona

Known as the “mother of the faith”, her legacy is the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) which has 3.5million members and runs a network of schools, hospitals and universities.

But the school teacher is practically unheard of in her homeland despite being described in one letter as a “worthy East African successor to that great Dundonian Mary Slessor of Calabar”.

The daughter of a ship's captain, she followed her fiancé, Rev Thomas Watson, to Kenya in 1899 after he established the Scottish Mission in Kikuyu near Nairobi.

The couple married and during their first year together they had to contend with a smallpox epidemic and a devastating famine which wiped out huge numbers of people.

Mr Watson of Monifeith, Angus died of pneumonia in 1900 leaving his 32-year-old wife to assume responsibility for the project, which was funded by the Christian directors of the Imperial East Africa Company at the time.

Mrs Watson, the only white woman in the region, ran the mission station singlehandedly with “heroic, untiring zeal” for a year until the Church of Scotland took over responsibility.

The missionary, who is described as intelligent, earnest, energetic with a magnetic persona, established a network of schools in Kikuyu for girls and boys and campaigned against female circumcision.

Canvas hut

Known to pupils as Granny Watson, among the many children that came into her care was Jomo Kenyatta, who served as president between 1964 and 1978, and is now considered the founding father of the Kenyan nation.

The archive includes teaching, marriage and death certificates, a script of a play written about Mrs Watson and her husband, silverware and a compelling short story written by a former pupil.

She vividly describes how she ran away from her village to escape the clutches of a witch doctor and was nearly mauled by a hungry leopard before being given sanctuary by the kindly woman in a “canvas hut”.

Paddy McFarlane examines the letters, documents, certificates, photographs and traditional weapons that relate to her great aunt's life.

Jennie Chinembiri, Africa and Caribbean Secretary of the World Mission Council of the Church of Scotland, said: “It is wonderful that all these important letters, certificates and photographs have come to light after so many years as they hold such an historic importance for both Scotland and Kenya.

"The PCEA are at present identifying their own archives and documentation so they have a record of their history and they hope to open a museum on the Kikuyu mission.

"The Church of Scotland is sharing these archives with PCEA so they can add these to their collection”.


Tom Cunningham, a PhD researcher at the University of Edinburgh who is studying the origins of the PCEA, said Mrs Watson was “highly regarded” in Kenya for good reason.

“She got her local name ‘Bibi wa Ngambi’ - wife of the camp - after her pivotal role in setting up rescue camps during the horrendous famine of 1900 which wiped out huge numbers in the Kikuyu highlands,” he explained.

"Together with her husband, she saved many lives and when he died she single-handedly ran the Scottish Mission

“Minnie Watson then went on to make the Mission Station function as a kind of refuge for young Kikuyu girls."

Minnie Watson with some of her pupils. National Library of Scotland

Mrs Watson adopted two boys from the Scottish Mission Station, Charles Kasaja Stokes and John McQueen, and brought them back with her to Dundee in 1907.

They stayed with Mrs Watson’s mother at the family home in Wortley Place for four years and attended nearby Morgan Academy.

Letters show that Mr Stokes, who was 11 when he returned to Kikuyu in 1911, regarded the missionary as his “second mother” and named his first daughter after her.

Second mother

The first permanent Presbyterian place of worship in Kenya is in Kikuyu and named after the Watsons and Dr Henry E Scott, a former Scottish Mission leader.

In March 1931, Mrs Watson laid the foundation stone of the Church of the Torch nearby which was designed by an Englishman, directed by a Scots master mason and built by 200 Africans.

She returned to Dundee in 1931 and spent the rest of her life living in a house in Wortley Place, aptly named Nairobi, until her death in 1949 at the age of 81.

Charles Kasaja Stokes
Letter of condolence written by Charles Kasaja Stokes after Granny Watson's death
Upon her retirement, the Church of Scotland Foreign Mission committee said Mrs Watson, who had no biological children of her own but many adopted ones, displayed in the early days after her husband's death "heroic fortitude, untiring zeal and conspicuous ability".

The Secretary of the Church of Scotland Mission in Kikuyu, writing in Feb 24, 1949, said: "Her memory will long be cherished and her name honoured in this land and among the Kikuyu people.

"She did a magnificent pioneer work among this people and was indeed a worthy East African successor to that great Dundonian Mary Slessor of Calabar.

“I, and many others, are proud to have known her and to have worked with her.

"She was a great example and inspiration to younger missionaries joining the missionary.

"And for the Africans she was a true 'mother in Israel' to whom they all - and particularly their women folk - owe an incalculable debt".

Kikuyu people
Minnie Watson and some of her pupils in Kikuyu. National Library of Scotland

In a letter to the Cumming family after her death, Mr Stokes wrote: “Granny Watson is just granny as we all know her and earned herself a great affection among the Kikuyu people.

"To me she was much more for she acted as my second mother.

"Mrs Watson has taught many of us here in Africa to love God, to know about our saviour Jesus Christ.

"It is she who has made it possible for us to live the life we are living.

"May God reward her in heaven for her work, her love and kindness to us all.

"For none of us has ever been able to reward her except in trying to live the life that she would have liked us to live and which many of us are doing."

Mrs Watson's ashes were returned to Kikuyu where they are buried next to her husband’s remains in a graveyard close to the church named in their honour.

Watson-Scott Memorial Church
This church, named in memory of the Watsons, was prefabricated in Scotland at the turn of the 20th century and shipped out to Kikuyu

Mrs McFarlane said: “I am very proud of Minnie and pleased that the wider public will be able to learn more about her extraordinary life.

“She was a fantastic lady who had such a positive influence on the life and faith of the Kikuyu people.

“What impresses me most, besides her courage at staying on after Tom's death, was her desire to educate young people and do as much as possible for the girls.

“In one of the letters, she describes how right from the start of the school she aimed to give the girls the same chance as the boys.

“As the years progressed she established a laundry where the girls were taught not only how to wash linens but also mending clothes.

“Later she opened a dormitory for the girls who lived further from the Mission and here they learnt many homemaking skills, mother-craft and needlework.

“By 1930 they had dormitory accommodation for nearly 100 girls and had also introduced nursing training in their hospital for many of them.”

Minnie Cumming Watson
Minnie Watson outside her Dundee home, aptly called Nairobi
Paddy McFarlane
Minnie Watson brought spears, a bow and arrow and short swords back from Kenya. L-R Tom Cunningham, Jennie Chinembiri, Paddy McFarlane and husband Angus McFarlane