Dr David Livingstone's newly revamped museum is a place to rediscover a Scottish hero – Susan Morrison

Every now and then my teachers hauled us along to the rickety preserved tenement that was the birthplace of Dr David Livingstone.
The revamped museum about 19th-century Scottish missionary and explorer Dr David Livingstone is worth a visit (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)The revamped museum about 19th-century Scottish missionary and explorer Dr David Livingstone is worth a visit (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The revamped museum about 19th-century Scottish missionary and explorer Dr David Livingstone is worth a visit (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

We were a bit iffy about the museum for a wee jaunt. Disneyland it was not. Think more ‘theme park designed by Presbyterians’. It was dark and cramped, and very educational. I do not recall a gift shop.

Our teachers appeared to regard the true lesson of the trip to be the grimly determined way Livingstone did his homework. Young David had to study on the floor outside the one room his family lived in, after a full shift in the cotton mill.

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My teachers clearly believed this was the way all homework should be tackled, and we were snivelling wretches for whining about a Latin ink exercise once a week.

There were tableaux. Huge carved panels of Dr Livingstone doing various brave things. You pressed a button and two 40-watt bulbs lit the display, only this was 1970s’ Scotland, so only one bulb ever worked. It didn’t really illuminate anything. In fact, it seemed to make things murkier.

I have a strong memory of glass bottles containing dried beetles. Shelves of them.

As children, we came away with two strong impressions. One, that Dr Livingstone was as scary as the headmaster, and two, we weren’t doing that again.

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Well, fortune and funding have shone on the building where Livingstone was born and did all that homework. It’s been revamped and redesigned. The grounds have been beautifully laid out. There is now a gift shop, a lovely little cafe, and a playground for outdoor romping about.

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He’s a complicated character, Dr Livingstone. Even when they told us of his exploits as a missionary, I remember thinking, but the Africans didn’t ask him to go.

Fortunately for Livingstone, most Africans he met were very polite. How would Victorian society have reacted if a Tswana holy man had fetched up in London to correct the error of their religious ways and demanded that St Paul’s Cathedral be flattened into a traditional meeting place? Oh, hang on, I can tell you. Probably very badly.

Dr Livingstone was sent to be a missionary. He was rubbish. He converted two people, and one of them had a bit of a re-think later. So that’s really only about 1.5 on the project achievement scale there.

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He seems to have had that very Scottish ability to fall out with everyone. As a husband and father, I think the word ‘absent’ sums it up.

So, why is he a hero? Because he was more than a sermonising, grumpy doctor. He was a ferocious anti-slaver. He was an extraordinary explorer and cartographer. He was on the receiving end of the most famous introduction in history “Dr Livingstone, I presume?”

And when he dies, his grieving African friends haul his body for nine long, dangerous months to the coast to ship him home. His funeral in Westminster Abbey is the sort of hullabaloo the Victorians usually reserved for Imperial warlords like Nelson and Wellington.

Find out just how deep, complex and heroic he was. Visit the newly reopened David Livingstone Birthplace.

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The beetles have gone, but they’ve kept the tableaux. What they’ve done with them is extraordinary.

Go. Re-discover a Scottish hero.

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