Mungo Park in Selkirk

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Although the history day is named for Scott, there is more than one famous hero connected with Selkirk, and at the other end of the main street is a monument to the explorer Mungo Park, born nearby and educated in Selkirk. He was an almost exact contemporary of Scott’s – they were born within a month of each other – and the two became friends when Scott came to live near Selkirk, and Park was at home there between his two African expeditions.

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Mungo Park monument

Park’s earlier life followed a fairly familiar pattern¬†– a surgical apprentice who went on to study medicine and botany in Edinburgh, and then went to Sumatra as assistant surgeon on an EIC ship, returning to lecture to the Linnean Society on new Sumatran fish and bring Joseph Banks specimens of Sumatran plants.

At this point his path diverges from the usual one of the Scottish botanists, as he signed up for an African Association¬†expedition. Or possibly it wasn’t so different – the Association was certainly not above trying to improve British trade, but their main driving force really seems to have been a desire for knowledge, and a sense of shame that so little was known about such a large part of the world, and Park’s account shows a real interest in the Africans as people.

His first expedition was relatively successful – despite illness and other troubles, Park was the first European to reach the Niger river, and to record that it flowed towards the east, and not to the west as Roman geographers believed, although the full course was still not known. His second expedition reached further downstream, but many of the party had died of illness before even reaching the river, and Park and his last companions were killed in an attack on their boat at the very end of 1805 or the beginning of 1806.

The original inscription on the monument is very simple.

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Mungo Park inscription

The reverse commemorates two of his companions on the second voyage, including his brother in law and best friend, Alexander Anderson, along with his son Thomas, who died of fever in Africa, having travelled there to try to find news of his father, who he thought might be still held as a prisoner.

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Expedition companions

The monument was originally erected in 1859, but the panels on the sides, showing scenes from Park’s travels, and four figures apparently representing Peace, War, Slavery and Home, were added in 1905 to mark the centenary of the second voyage.

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African scenes
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African scenes

An odder memorial is the one built into the window of the Co-op nearby – a clock like a globe and a rather elegant explorer against a background which is presumably intended to be African, but looks more like a Scottish island with added palm trees.

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Co-op window monument

It comes with a decent concise history of his career, however.

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Mungo Park story

Scott’s Selkirk

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I went down to Selkirk in the Borders last weekend for an event called Scott’s Selkirk – a kind of mix of local gala day, historical commemoration, and music festival, with local groups playing outside the courtroom in the market square and at the other end of the main street.

Walter Scott was sheriff of Selkirkshire between 1799 and 1832 – this was what brought him to live first at Ashiestiel nearby and then at Abbotsford – and a plaque on the wall commemorates his work there.

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Walter Scott plaque

The current building dates back to 1804, and is now run as a museum called Sir Walter Scott’s courthouse. For the occasion they were running little shows which claimed to be reenactments of the kind of case which Scott would have heard – although the one I went to, called The Lady Varnishes, was mostly an excuse to squeeze in as many puns as possible (including the ancient ‘flair for it’!). But actually, in spite of that – and some costumes which were more Downton Abbey than Regency, and the fact that they ended up sentencing someone who had started off merely as an observer – the atmosphere of the court was well done.

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Sir Walter Scott’s courtroom sign

Apart from the shows, and occasional costumes, there wasn’t really all that much history to be seen, although there was a very interesting display in one of the shop windows describing the experiences of French prisoners of war in Selkirk during the Napoleonic Wars, when they set up their own orchestra and cafe (to which only the French were admitted).

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Selkirk old sheriff court

Selkirk is obviously proud of Scott, and a monument to him stands outside the courtroom, topped with a statue.

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Scott statue

The inscription specifically commemorates his local connection and his work as sheriff of Selkirkshire, setting aside any other claims to fame.

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Statue inscription