Selkirk doctor became one of Scotland’s great explorers

IMG_4822Selkirk doctor became one of Scotland’s great explorersAs Mungo Park started his medical studies at Edinburgh in the late 1780’s the big news of the day was all about France.

Revolution had ushered in an era of turmoil and savagery, the worst of times that would lead to a protracted 25-year war with Britain ending in final defeat for Napolean at Waterloo.

Ironically this was also a time of enlightment and discovery and Mungo, the seventh child of a well to do farmer from Foulshiels, just outside Selkirk, had his sights set far beyond the Scottish Borders to make his way in the world.

He was destined to make his mark on history.

Offered the post of assistant surgeon on an East India Company expedition to Sumatra in 1793 he jumped at the chance.  While working in the Far East he indulged an interest in botany and discovered and recorded several new species of flora; studies that would open doors to influential new contacts in London on his return.

They included Sir Joseph Banks, himself a famous botanist and explorer who had circumnavigated the world with Capt James Cook, and a leading light in the Africa Association that supported attempts to open up the ‘dark’ continent.

In 1795 Mungo accepted a commission from Sir Joseph to travel to Gambia and from there organised an expedition to discover the source of the River Niger.

The trip ended in disappointment and considerable personal suffering as he fell foul of local chiefs and Moorish tribesmen. 

The fact that he managed to travel hundreds of miles inland to Segou, in modern day Mali, and live to tell the tale, was an achievement in itself.  But eventually, running out of resources, he was forced to make his way back to the coast and then to Britain.

The resulting book he published and became an overnight sensation but any ambitions Mungo harboured to return and complete the assignment had to wait until 1805.

In the interim he married and established a successful surgery in Peebles. However, when the call came to make a second trip, again from Sir Joseph, he had no hesitation in accepting.

This time he was to head a party that included 40 men from the Royal Africa Corps and builders to construct a boat when the source of the Niger was reached.   

Against all advice and logic, he set off in the rainy season from Gambia and before long his party was severely reduced as men died of dysentery.

Reaching Segou the depleted party converted a canoe and travelled over 1,000 miles along the river through hostile country. Park and the handful of men with him were killed by natives at Boussa rapids, in Nigeria, in 1806. His body was never found but Mungo Park is remembered as a courageous explorer who opened the way for those that followed.

Letters to his wife and friends in the Borders, sent while he was on expedition in Africa, can be seen on display at the Sir Walter Scott courtroom in Selkirk.  While taking pictures for this article I was approached by an elderly gentleman who introduced himself as William Nichol Park – Mungo’s great-great-great-great nephew – who still lives in Selkirk.

In his memory, the Mungo Park Medal is presented annually by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. 

The Mungo Park statue in High Street, Selkirk has four cast corner pieces of African natives by the internationally famous sculptor Thomas Clapperton who was born and brought up in nearby Galashiels.

A Mungo Park monument stands at the end of High Street in Selkirk and incorporates impressive metal casts of African natives; the work of internationally renowned sculptor Thomas Clapperton from Galashiels in the Scottish Borders.

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