3 March 2015

S4M-12191 Celebrating Mary Slessor on International Women's Day 2015

The Deputy Presiding Officer (John Scott): The final item of business today is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-12191, in the name of Jenny Marra, on celebrating Mary Slessor on international women’s day. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises the centenary of the death of Mary Slessor, the missionary who left the slums of Dundee at the age of 28 and went on to save hundreds of lives and promote women’s rights in Calabar in Nigeria; commends the Mary Slessor Foundation’s work with a number of people, companies and organisations throughout Dundee and beyond to organise a series of events throughout the centenary year; welcomes the launch of these events with the unveiling of a commemorative standing stone and plaque in front of Dundee’s Steeple Church; recognises Mary Slessor’s importance as a historical figure as a Scot, a woman and the first female magistrate in the British Empire, and considers that her accomplishments should especially be highlighted on International Women’s Day 2015 to celebrate her work in helping create a future for women that is bright, equal, safe and rewarding.


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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I thank Jenny Marra for giving us the opportunity to celebrate the life of one of Scotland’s best-known and most important daughters and, more generally, international women’s day.

Not many Victorian lassies who were born in Aberdeenshire and brought up in the slums of Aberdeen and Dundee earned a state funeral at the other end of their lives, ended up a member of the Order of St John or were a magistrate, which was pretty much exceptional in Victorian times. As we have heard, the Clydesdale Bank put her on one of its banknotes. Of course, I have a special interest because her alcoholic father came from Buchan in my constituency. We will all claim our little connections, because there is nothing so nice as the reflected glory of a true hero.

In 2007, Maureen Watt held an event in the Parliament to celebrate the life of Mary Slessor, and many members signed a motion about that at the time. It is good to come back to the issue on the anniversary of her death. Her life was not easy. It is clear that, when her father died in September 1870 at 6 Eliza Street in Dundee, she was not living in the most prosperous of circumstances, as that was not a part of Dundee where the rich lived. Four years later, when David Livingstone died, she was then only 25 years old. Her life was set by her experience of deprivation, her Christian faith and the inspiration that came from David Livingstone.

The Mary Slessor Foundation, which today supports her memory, has been responsible for many things. For example, money has been raised for the foundation by a play about her life, “Mother of All the Peoples”, which has been performed all over Scotland. I hope that it continues to inform people across Scotland about the inspiration that comes from Mary Slessor’s life.

I am pleased to hear that a commemorative standing stone and plaque now stand in front of Dundee’s Steeple church. There were previous plans to have a memorial in Aberdeen, although I am not sure that they came to fruition. Mary spent most of her life there, and it was probably more formative than her time in the north, so it is important that Dundee celebrates her life.

Mary Slessor was quite different and disjointed from women of her time. We have heard that she dressed, ate and drank in the way that the people in Nigeria she supported did. More fundamentally, she learned to speak the native language. For me, as someone who is no linguist of any great merit, that particularly stood out because, of course, she had to learn it from the people she was supporting—there was no one in particular to teach her. The inspection that took place in the early 1880s commented on the friendship that she had with the people and the fact that she had that language, which helped her in her work.

We have heard something of other women and I will say just a little bit about women in my former profession of software engineering.

Women have played a remarkable and substantial role in today’s computer technology. Ada Lovelace, who was the daughter of Lord Byron, was Charles Babbage’s programmer and is the first identified programmer.

Grace Hopper, who worked for the United States navy, retired three times and was begged to come back each time. When she finally retired, having been made a rear admiral by the US President, she was 80 years old and went to work for the remainder of her life for a computer company. She is responsible for the fact that we talk about bugs in programs because she coined that phrase.

I remember hearing on a flight about 25 years ago, although I cannot remember where, the announcement that it was the first commercial flight operated from Scotland on which all the crew members were female—those in the back of the plane and in the front of the plane. It is sad that it took that length of time before women were given even that modest recognition.

Mary Slessor did a lot for people in Scotland and in Africa, and it is right that we celebrate her life.


Stewart Stevenson
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