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Women in History of Scots Descent
Mary Slessor

Mary Slessor, from Dundee, a missionary who worked to tackle barbarism against children in south Nigeria. PIC: Centre for the Study of World Christianity, University of Edinburgh.

‘A Missionary – how dull!’ I hear my readers say. It is a sad but undeniable fact that the word calls to our mind nothing of the amazing adventure and novelty of a missionary’s life, but rather a general impression of dully pious persons teaching black children in an endless Sunday school.

Well, give Mary Slessor a chance.

To begin with, let us try to imagine ourselves in the deep mysterious silence of an African jungle, no roads, no wood paths, such as we know in Scotland, but we can follow tracks made by animals, and now and then, but rarely, we can see the intense blue of the sky beyond the trees, and a glint of the pitiless sun. There is a river flowing not far from us, and we can just hear the sound of the dip of paddles as a native canoe glides towards the village; we hear too the rhythmic song of the paddlemen.

Presently we come upon the village, a few huts made of bamboo and thatched with plantain leaves; there are black children playing about, deep jet black, with close-curled hair, and all, unclothed.

This is the true land of the Negroes, that word being derived from the Latin, Niger, meaning black. The country we are talking about is called Nigeria, for it is watered by the mighty Niger river; the river which, centuries ago, even before the birth of Christ, men had discovered, and called ‘The Nile of the Negroes," supposing it to be a branch of the Egyptian Nile. This land of Nigeria is indeed the cradle of the negro race.

But Africa is a mighty continent; let us look carefully on the map at this region, Nigeria. It is but a tiny part of the mighty continent, though itself nearly as large in area as Great Britain, France and Belgium put together.

It lies tucked away, as it were, in the angle where North-western Africa juts out like a huge shoulder from the trunk; the eastern boundary of Nigeria touches the curve of the coast, as it sweeps southward past the Cameroon mountains.

Look also from that curve westwards, and along the edge of the coast line you will see descriptive words which sum up an old and terrible piece of history: ‘Gold Coast; Ivory Coast; Slave Coast.’

For in the Middle Ages there came hither from Mediterranean countries sailors who were seeking a sea-way to India and the further East. Touching at various ports, they discovered gradually the wealth which lay behind the swamps and jungles of the coast; gold from inland gold mines; ivory, or ‘elephant’s teeth’, and ‘black ivory’, as was sometimes called the tragic merchandise, African slaves.

It was not only Portuguese who first trafficked in those goods; our own John Hawkins of Plymouth in 1562 carried off 800 negroes from Sierra Leone to be sold at 40 pounds a piece on the West Indian Islands. And the traffic went on, worked further and further southwards and eastwards, till in that angle where Nigeria lies, the Cross river and the Calabar river making a great estuary, there grew up the densest market for this traffic in humanity. To the ports on this estuary throngs of black men and women and children were driven along forest paths; those who fell out by the way were left to die of hunger or to be the prey of beasts, and even such a fact was more merciful than the voyage oversea, where one-third of the number died of heat and thirst before the journey’s end. Can we wonder that centuries of such traditions had made fear the ruling factor in the life of these negroes? And fear is the evil root from which spring cruelty and lying, suspicion, and hideous ways of worshipping the ‘unknown gods’ whose wrath must at any cost be appeased.

* * * * * *

Up the estuary of the Cross and the Calabar rivers there passed one September day in 1876 a steamer from Liverpool, the ‘Ethiopia’. There was on board her a certain woman missionary, Mary Slessor by name, who had come to work with the ‘Scottish United Presbyterian Mission’, established now for some thirty years at Calabar.

Mary Slessor came from the town of Dundee, where she had had a hard life. Being the eldest of five children she had looked after younger brothers and sisters while her mother worked in a factory, and from the age of eleven she had been a factory hand herself. The family was poor, for the father, once respectable, had become a hopeless drunkard; not till after his death was Mary free to follow her true line of interest, namely work among slum children in evening schools and Sunday schools.

For there were bad slums in most towns, then as now, and no public day schools to help on the civilizing and disciplining of children who had little discipline at home. So the work of these volunteer teachers was hindered by gangs of rough lads who tried to frighten school-goers, both teachers and taught. Thus, one evening as Mary Slessor went to the evening school, she suddenly found herself the centre of a group of boys who were swinging a heavy weight round the heads of passers-by. Mary stood still, unflinching and silent, the weight swung nearer and nearer till it all but grazed her forehead. ‘She’s game, boys; let her go’, the leader shouted, and when she entered the mission-room the crowd of boys followed her in, and sat quiet to hear her talk.

That incident sufficiently paints one aspect of Mary’s character; if by ‘game’ we mean self-controlled, though tremulous – wisely patient with the undisciplined – then indeed Mary Slessor was ‘game’.

When, soon after this, she felt herself less needed at home, her thoughts turned towards foreign mission work; through the church she attended she heard of the crying needs of Calabar, where there were not more than twelve white teachers with some twenty native workers. So at the age of twenty-seven, she joined this group of missionaries at Duke Town on the creek, and for some months followed only the routine for newcomers, i.e. learning ‘Efik’ the most useful of the native languages, teaching the native children, and occasionally visiting outlying stations where she tried her hand at speaking in Efik to large gatherings of men and women.

And so wise a person was she that in all these early experiences she was aiming at knowledge of the fundamental humanity of the people she wanted to help. Her mental attitude towards her problems was not ‘What am I to do, or to say?’ but always ‘What do these people need, and why do they need it?’

After three years of this life, she was brought so low by frequent attacks of fever that she returned to Scotland for a holiday. Braced up by her native air, and the restful voyages, she was back at Duke Town in the autumn of 1880.

Here, to her great joy, she found herself promoted to what she called ‘being a real missionary’, her next experience was the charge of the mission work at Old Town, farther up the river and in the midst of very degraded people.

Let us watch her at work. Imagine a hut with matted roof, walls of mud and wattle, and whitewashed interior. Here Mary Slessor lives with one young native woman and several girls and boys whom she is training. Her life in her home is of the simplest, for her time is wholly absorbed in not only teaching but perpetually giving advice and medical help to people of a wide district.

‘On Sabbath’, as her Scots tongue phrases it, she is fully occupied: first, at a service, very early, in the distant village, Qua; about 100 worshippers here: later, a service at Akim; at mid-day a large Sunday school to be conducted at Old Town; and in the evening, again at Old Town, a large meeting in the chief’s yard. ‘A table covered with a white cloth; on this a Bible and a primitive lamp; darkness amid which rows of dusky faces are just revealed by a flickering light.’

Or, let us watch her on a short visit to ‘Elephant Country’; a native chief has sent a state canoe in which she lies under a curtain of matting, trying to read by candlelight, till she falls asleep lulled by the rhythm of the native voices and the sound of the paddles. On arrival she is carried ashore to a chief’s hut where she is beset by crowds of women who sit as close to her as possible by way of showing respect and friendliness. The heat, the crowding, and the sounds from rats and lizards in the roof above make the days bad enough, but the nights—terrible!

And, after her visit has become known, crowds gather from distant villages, sick and wounded persons—all who are in any trouble or distress—thronging round her for advice and consolation. For wrong-doers ‘Ma’ must be judge; happily by this time, she understands Efik standards and superstitions, and speaks Efik more fluently and more intelligently than the natives themselves. So, when a case arose of some girls who were condemned to be beaten with 100 lashes for a trivial breaking of a foolish law—Mary pleaded for them, at first in vain. She blamed them for breaking the law, but far more strongly those who would exact the cruel penalty. The lashes were given, but ten stripes only; and then the poor girls ran to ‘Ma’, sobbing with pain and fear and were soothed to rest by medicine and dressings to their wounds.

This is a typical scene of ‘Ma’s’ work in the ‘up-river country.’

And again her health gave way and a return to Scotland was necessary. As before, she recovered, but it was not till the end of 1885 that she was back at her post; soon after this she heard from home of the death of her mother and of her one remaining sister.... Only her dear black people to need her now!

She had been at work at the Calabar Base for some twelve years when she began to feel the impulse to go yet farther afield. She knew of inland districts where no white missionary had as yet worked. In June 1888, with permission from the authorities, she journeyed up the main stream, the Cross river, to explore the terrible district called Okoyong. This was a tract of forest land interspersed with cultivated patches and inhabited by a finer and stronger race than the negroes of the coastal regions. Finer and stronger physically, that is, but cruel, revengeful and passionately superstitious; to them, human life was valueless, women mere chattels, all sickness and death except from old age, due to sorcery—twin babies, things accurst and only to be murdered—such were some of the problems facing a pioneer missionary.

As before, a friendly chief, King Eyo of Creek Town, lent her his royal canoe in which she lay in a curtained recess covered with palm leaves. On landing, she had to travel on foot through the forest to a native village, where she was welcomed with clamorous warmth, and received promises from the chiefs of gifts of ground for home and school, with special conditions, insisted on by her, that all land and building given to the mission should be held sacred as harbours of refuge for accused and criminal persons.

Even so, we are reminded, must the early preachers of Christianity in England have pleaded with our Saxon forefathers for land where such protection should be looked on as lawful. And so grew up the rights of sanctuary.

Then, Mary returned to Creek Town, packed her belongings together with all that would be needed for a new mission centre, and set off with her five native ‘children’, up-river to Okoyong.

It was dusk when they reached the landing-beach—-dusk and raining pitilessly. There were four miles of dripping forest to be covered on foot to the village, Ekenge: with her, one white man had come from the mission to help, but as he must be left to superintend the unloading, and as the children’s rest and shelter mattered most, ‘Ma’ set off alone with them—three boys of eleven, eight and three, a girl of five and a baby girl on ‘Ma’s’ shoulders. And as they trudged thus through dripping darkness ‘Ma’ sang to keep up their spirits— probably her own were the most in need. She was not sorry, probably, to find ‘the village’ departed wholesale to the funeral of their chief; two slaves appeared, however, and helped her to get fire and shelter so that the younger children were dried and comforted to sleep. But before there could be any rest for ‘Ma’ she had been forced to return to the landing-beach where the carriers were sleeping unperturbed, and with the help of Mr. Bishop and the slaves from Ekenge, some stores of food and clothing at last reached the village.

Thus began the new venture!

There being no house for ‘Ma’ at present, she was lodged in the harem, that is, among the wives of the chief. She had indeed a room of her own, but the black children she had brought shared this; it had been left dirty by the former occupier, goats, fowls and cats wandered in and out, centipedes and cockroaches were everywhere. A door was fixed by her request, and a sort of window inserted, but ‘Ma’ was the centre of curiosity, and moreover, by native African standards, a visitor should not be left alone.

So much for her personal comfort! And this state of things lasted many weeks for, in spite of promises to help in building her house, they could see no need for hurry; ‘there never is hurry in Africa’, it has been said; and when, at length, a group of mud huts arose, with two rooms and a verandah, with a shed at each end, this seemed a palace of peace, and cleanliness, and privacy compared with her life in the harem. A mission hall arose not long after, with willing contributions of materials and work from numberless black folk, and thus the outward form of a settlement began. But the real problems, the changes needed in customs, life and beliefs, these indeed were matters for tougher, stubborner patience, for infinite courage and wrestling and prayer.

Among all the original problems of the primitive life of these people, there was another, bitterer than all, the problem of drink; for this did not belong to primitive life, but arose purely from trade with white men. Worst of all, how could these childlike people understand why one set of white men should sell them spirits, and another set of white men blame those who drank?

As a chief had said to Mary long ago at Duke Town, ‘What for white man bring rum, suppose them rum no be good? He be god-man bring rum; then, what for god-man talk so?’ There’s the difficulty, in a nut-shell!

Here are some scenes in Mary’s most strenuous life.

Sitting in her verandah one morning, a sound reaches her from the surrounding jungle; she starts, listens, then quietly makes off in the direction of the sound, as an animal might hasten to its young.

She finds a young man injured, paralyzed indeed, by the fall of a log; a Scots carpenter, working at a new house for her, discovers her and the patient, and together they carry him back to his village. For two weeks she nurses him, till his death. The chief, viewing the dead body, shouts ‘Sorcerers have killed him! Bring the witch doctor!’ (It is like an awful travesty of a civilized inquest.)

The witch doctor arrives, and decides that a certain village is guilty of the young man’s death; from this, a dozen or so of men and women are brought prisoners to Ekenge, loaded with chains.

Mary conceives the idea of changing the people’s views by honouring the corpse; she dresses it gaudily, places it in the midst of the crowd, every honour she can invent around it; all that happens is a perfect orgy of dancing and drinking. Meanwhile the prisoners are there, starving, while for days the orgy goes on; the two brave Scots keeping watch alternately by day and by night lest greater harm befall them. And day by day, Mary is pleading, pleading for the lives of these prisoners – if only once the custom can be broken through, she thinks, there will be hope of stopping it. At last, one woman is led out to drink the poison cup; Mary seizes her and drags her away, out of the circle, into her own house; it is sanctuary, the woman is safe; the white ‘Ma’ cannot be touched.

And slowly, by twos and threes, the prisoners were released, through days of strained watching and pleading, and last of all, the rescued woman was allowed to slip out alone into the forest. Thus the white ‘Ma’ had her way.

Not long after, when she had prevented another death penalty, she realized the gratitude of these fear-ridden folk, as one after another would come to her secretly to give thanks for her teachings of mercy.

* * * * *

In 1890, Miss Slessor was again ordered home, since fever was attacking her more and more frequently. Two mission ladies were appointed to fill her place at Ekenge, where by this time there was a real mission-house with plenty of space, a church, a dispensary and a boat-house.

But at the very moment when she was awaiting the steamer and packing her trunk, came news from a far-off village that fighting was going to begin between tribes which she knew. Her resolve was made; she could and would prevent it.

No warnings of danger to herself, no arguments from her own helplessness availed. Taking two attendants with lanterns, she walked all through the night, reaching the first of the warlike villages at dawn; surrounded for a few minutes by armed bands, she is presently recognized by the chief who leads them; they cannot promise to keep the peace, but they say she may go with them to plead between the two forces.

Soon they are off, and she, after one hour’s rest, is after them, in response to the familiar call from women-folk, ‘Run, Ma, run.’

She reaches the place where fighting is about to begin—the air resounding with yells—and she, a white woman alone in the midst of African tribes determined on war, she determined on peace.... She speaks very much as a teacher might speak to quarrelling children; no one else speaks, or moves; suddenly an old man kneels at her feet; ‘We thank you, Ma, for coming’, he says in Efik, ‘we beg of you to help, so that peace may be kept’; and she discovers that he is a chief whom, two years before this, she had visited and nursed in illness.

Now is the time for mother-wit, no pleading, no sentiment.

‘Find me a comfortable seat’, said she, ‘and I will talk to two or three men from both sides.’

It took hours to settle the differences, but at last they agreed on payment of a fine to the aggrieved party, and the fine to be paid on the spot.

A fresh difficulty here; for gin was to be the medium for payment; they would drink till they were mad, as ‘Ma’ knew too well, and the peace would end in an orgy!

Quick as thought she removed her outer garment and threw it over the boxes of liquor; this act by native custom gave the protection of her person to the object which, therefore, none dared touch. Then taking one glass only, ‘Ma’ dealt out the drink to each—one glassful—no more. They obeyed her like children, promising to keep the peace during her absence in England, and the promise was actually kept.

For her part, she had to undertake that the rest of the liquor should reach the village claiming it, and then worn out but victorious, the little ‘white mother’ tramped back to her forest-hut.

She had earned a holiday!

* * * * * *

When she reached Scotland, she surprised her friends with the news that she had lately become engaged to be married to a mission teacher named Charles Morrison, who had gone from Scotland to the base in Calabar. A difficulty had arisen from the fact that the mission authorities required Mr. Morrison’s help at Duke Town only, and would not sanction his joining Miss Slessor at Okoyong, while she for her part entirely refused to work anywhere except for the present in that difficult district. Nothing, perhaps, in Mary’s whole career illustrates her selfless devotion more than her attitude during this crisis of her life; ‘I lay it all in God’s hands’, she said; and when, eventually, the matter ended in Mr. Morrison’s return to Scotland on account of his health, she merely said, ‘What the Lord ordains is right’; she never again spoke of this bit of experience, only after her death some of her favourite books were found to contain the initials ‘C.M.’ and ‘M.S.’ close together, a token that the memory was a very real thing in her life.

* * * * * *

A year later, in restored health, Miss Slessor was back at work, amid the old difficulties, the old horrors, the old imperious claims on her courage and patience, symbolized in the familiar cry, ‘Run, Ma, run,’ at any hour of the day or night.

Now, it is again the fear of witchcraft, a chief dead, and someone suspected; a throng of people deep in the forest waiting to accuse a suspected person. ‘Ma’ watches also—sleepless during four days and nights—wild beasts creeping stealthily about the throng, only scared by fire-light. The natives hope to weary out the ‘white mother,’ but her will is as of iron—they submit.

* * * * * *

Or it is a case of a runaway slave who takes refuge with her, and she must be the peacemaker. Her commonsense talk wins over the master and the slave is taken back.

* * * * * *

Now, it is another case of twin-babies about to be killed, and ‘Ma’ must save them. Even the friendly chief Edem is against her in this case, but she manages to convince both him and his people that there is nothing uncanny about twin babies. Thus a clear step is taken towards public toleration.

We have a good deal of testimony from travelling visitors about Miss Slessor at this period of her career. Miss Mary Kingsley visited her at Ekenge and was profoundly impressed with her personality and her influence. This is the more striking because Miss Kingsley had no sort of sympathy with mission work, but thought that African natives would work out a satisfactory civilization of their own, if freed from the influence of bad European habits. So it was a wonderful thing that the two women should become firm friends—Mary Slessor, a fervent Christian; Mary Kingsley, as she said of herself, ‘without the part that one believes with.’

Moreover, Miss Slessor was becoming known to the Government officials; two of these, Mr. Moor, the Vice-Consul for her district, and later Sir Claud Macdonald, the Consul, held conferences with the chiefs, exacting promises from them that wholesale murders and other horrors should cease; and such public doings strengthened Mary Slessor’s hands. The officials, however, never failed to note and to report that Miss Slessor’s influence was greater than theirs. One such official wrote thus: ‘I have been staying with ‘Ma’ and learning my first lesson in dealing with natives. . .As an interpreter, she made every "palaver" easy.’

Again a missionary visitor writes of her: ‘She is really Queen of the whole Okoyong district. The High Commissioner and his staff leave all the work in her hands. One thing I noticed was that she never allowed a native to sit in her presence, though when they are ill, sometimes with loathsome diseases, she will nurse them. And she never shakes hands with them.’

On the other hand, her fearlessness amazed her visitors; ‘no locks on her doors.’ And once a man convicted of murder was brought to her house, in chains. While waiting for him to be taken to Duke Town ‘Ma’ sat with him in her house, he unchained, doors and windows open. She showed no fear.

Again in her frequent walks through forests, often at night, she heard leopards not far off; afraid she was, but unflinching. ‘I used to pray, "O God of Daniel shut their mouths", and He did.... But I used not to believe the story of Daniel.’

About fifteen years after her first settlement in Okoyong, the first Communion Service was held in a hall beneath the Mission House at Akpap, now Miss Slessor’s headquarters. It was a wonderful event for her—a great throng of worshippers, and eleven children to be baptized, six of whom she had rescued, as twins, from death. A psalm was sung in Efik and Miss Slessor spoke a few words of pleading with her people ‘to remain true to the faith.’

‘Her face had a far-away look. . . and her eyes shone as though she saw in a vision her beloved Okoyong at last fair and redeemed.’

* * * * * *

The days of adventure, however, were not yet over. She was looking in imagination across the river to a western region on the banks of the Enyong creek, a region which for centuries had been a noted centre of slave traffic. The tribe called Aros had long dominated the weaker tribe, south of the creek, the Ibibios; these latter, through centuries of terror, had become as furtive as hunted animals. Mary Slessor had long known of the horrors of this region, for she had talked to the native slave-dealers as no other white had done. A military expedition into the Aro country had done something towards suppressing the worst of the evils, and it was now Miss Slessor’s greatest wish to begin some mission work amongst these people.

When, at length, two new helpers took over her own station, Akpap, she went upriver by Government launch, and found to her surprise many friendly chiefs and even traders. One chief in especial, sent an invitation to her, and welcomed her to his quite civilized house, where he told her how he had once guided a missionary when he was a boy, and had heard of the ‘white man’s God’, and of the ‘Great White Ma.’

She was presently asked by Government to act as a magistrate, sitting in a native court to judge offenders against the law. She consented to act so, in the district of Itu, but would not take any salary. Native chiefs were joint judges, and a jury was present, but in practice her decision was supreme. Terrible cases came before her, but her experience of such matters enabled her to judge without sentimentality, and with shrewd sense; nor would she allow ill-manners from the native chiefs. She would box a man’s ears if he continued to interrupt her. Little as truth was respected, few dared to try deceiving her; she would lay bare every falsehood and shame a liar with reproach.

Her life at this time, between 1906 and 1912, was a struggle between ill-health, and her most strenuous duties—court sittings, teaching and preaching, palavers with native visitors. Once, after ten hours in court, she returned home to find fifty visitors waiting for advice and it took her till midnight ‘to straighten out their troubles.’

When she became thoroughly ill, she consented to travel to the Canary Islands, and rest there as she could not rest where she was known. On her return, wonderfully restored, the doctor’s report of her was: ‘Good for many years—with care.’ With the best possible will to take care of herself, however, old habits of entire selflessness could not be broken through. She went on with most of her ordinary work—except that of the court, which she gave up—she visited the centre at Akpap, meeting crowds of her old friends of Okoyong—some of her rescued babies grown into healthy, happy young people—and she conducted a religious service with a congregation of four hundred.

Now, for the first and only time, she was induced to accept a token of public recognition in England; she was sent the beautiful silver cross signifying admission as ‘Honorary Associate into the Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem in England’, an honour conferred only on persons ‘eminently distinguished for philanthropy.’ Much as she hated to appear in public, and specially to be the centre of attention, she felt bound in honour to go to Duke Town to receive publicly this badge of honour. There was a great gathering, and she was obliged to speak after the presentation; chiefly she addressed the children who were present, trying to impress on them the idea of loyalty to Government as well as to Christianity, and stressing the honour of her presentation as given to the mission rather than to her. Of herself she said only:

‘If I have done anything in my life, it has been easy, because the Master has gone before.’

For two more years she wrestled on and on, meeting the same old difficulties in her own original ways, still travelling up and down the rivers, still keeping a little home where her native ‘children’ were cared for—and then came a last shattering blow— the Great War of 1914.

It was August—strange awful days in Europe, the first week after the Declaration of War—but it was not till August 13th that the news reached the Calabar Mission Field. It was the neighbourhood of the German territory of the Cameroons that brought fear to the European settlers there; fear for their settlements and work rather than for themselves. Miss Slessor’s health suffered greatly from the strain of anxiety but her fighting spirit rose, ‘Oh! if I were 30 years younger, and a man’, she cried.

At the New Year she had a happy meeting with two of her co-workers, but a week later she went down with an acute attack of fever. Five of her native girls were with her, and the mission workers nursed her by turns. She suffered intensely from thirst and utter weakness: ‘O God, release me’, she was heard to say. On January 12th her strength was swiftly ebbing, her breathing difficult: the end came gently in the very early dawn.

* * * * * *

Throngs of men and women were round the house soon afterwards for the news had spread swiftly; hundreds came to look once more on ‘Everybody’s Mother.’

Two days later, the coffin reached Duke Town and crowds followed it in procession from the Mission Hall to the cemetery. There was no noisy sound of grief; the natives realized now that silence means reverence. She was laid to rest there under African skies amid the black people she had lived for—tropical sunshine, tropical flowers above her—and the faithful devotion of African hearts.

* * * * * *

There seems no need to try to sum up the results of her work; as we read of it we feel indeed that the best part of it could not be described or expressed in any way. Her amazingly wide and deep influence was revealed to some extent after her death by the mass of letters she had received. It seems as though none came into contact with her without a deep impression of her simple, joyous, loving humanity. She is a beautiful example of the beautiful saying,

‘To have love is to work miracles.’

These are pictures of Mary Slessor's Memorial Cairn kindly sent in by Richard Rollings of Evesham in Worcester, U.K.

Richard emailed me to say:  Whilst working in Nigeria, (around 1980) when we were electrifying Arochukwu & the surrounding areas, I visited various sites, & came across Mary Slessors Memorial Cairn. The sign said "This Cairn marks the site of the house of Miss Mary Slessor Pioneer Scottish Missionary, who died here on 13th January 1915"

Mary Slessor of Calabar
Pioneer Missionary by W. P. Livingstone (1916) (pdf)

The story of Mary Slessor for young people. The white queen of Okayong
By William Livingstone (1917) (pdf)

Return to Women in History of Scots Descent Index


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