THE walk through Maasai Land was never going to be easy. It was dry, it was hot and the terrain was difficult. But what helped Maggie Green and her cousin John Hastings-Thomson every minute of every day, what kept them going for every one of the 65 miles, was that they were doing the walk for a very specific reason: to revive the memory of a Scottish explorer who was once celebrated but is now forgotten.

The explorer is Joseph Thomson. Is it a name you recognise? I admit to Maggie when I meet her at her home in Glasgow that until I received an email from her I hadn't heard of him. She shrugs her shoulders. She's used to it. She could stop 100 people in Scotland, and then 100 more, she says, and the chances are none of them would have heard of her ancestor.

But contrast that with Thomson's fame in the 19th century and his fame even now in Maasai Land. Maggie tells me that when she first visited Kenya 20 years ago, her husband mentioned to the staff at their hotel that Maggie was related to Thomson and they were overwhelmed. In Kenya, the children learn about him in school and, to many in that country, Thomson is still a hero. Thomson's gazelle, the most common gazelle of eastern Africa, is named for him.

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He was a hero at home in Scotland as well in the 19th century. In fact, on his return from one of his expeditions, he was carried shoulder-high through the village of Thornhill in Dumfriesshire; the novelist H Rider Haggard was also inspired by Thomson's stories to write King Solomon's Mines. In fact, the stories in that novel resembled Thomson's experiences so closely that it is said the real-life explorer was tempted to sue. In one of the most famous episodes in the novel, the hero Captain Good terrifies the natives by taking his false teeth out and claiming to be a magician, just as Joseph Thomson did in Maasai Land.

So why has Thomson been forgotten at home? To find out, I'm meeting Maggie and her cousin John at Maggie's home in the west end of Glasgow, but I also want to find out more about what Thomson achieved - and the extraordinary way he achieved it - as well as the family's work to revive his memory. Specifically, I want to know more about that 65-mile walk through Maasai Land, and the others that are planned for the future.

Maggie, who is 71 and a former teacher, tells me she was told about Thomson when she was very young. "The story was passed down," she says. "My mum used to tell us that her great-great uncle was Joseph Thomson the explorer. I knew that he'd been born in Penpont in Dumfriesshire and I knew that his father managed a quarry and that he'd gone to university to study geology. But it was bits and pieces."

In time, the full story of who Thomson was, and what he achieved, emerged. He was the first European explorer to make it through Maasai Land which, considering the fearsome reputation of the Masai warriors at the time, was quite an achievement. And to make it even more impressive, Thomson did not threaten and bully his way through the region or carry a gun, other than for self-defence against animals. He is remembered for winning friends rather than making enemies; his motto was "He who goes gently, goes safely; he who goes safely, goes far."

John Hastings-Thomson, 69, who is descended from Joseph Thomson's brother William, was also told those stories when he was growing up.

"Certainly in the expeditions through Maasai Land, Joseph negotiated his way through," he says, although he says his ancestor also had to resort to a little chicanery, including the trick with the teeth. "They thought it was a magic trick and he did the same with Epsom salts which he put into water. So he was quite a showman.

"His triumph was that he convinced the Masai that he was OK and they wouldn't end up on the next slave ship. They have this tremendous reputation for being aggressive and even in colonial days the British kept them at arm's length."

Hastings-Thomson says his ancestor first became interested in exploring while he was a child. "He heard about the Stanley expedition to find David Livingstone and pestered his mother to write to Stanley and say that he wanted to go, but his mother managed to talk him out of it. But from the age of nine, he was going to go to Africa."

He got his first chance after studying geology at Edinburgh University. He heard about an expedition to central Africa planned for 1878 and signed up as the resident geologist on the trip. However, once there, the leader of the expedition, Alexander Keith Johnston, died and Thomson was forced to take charge. He went on to lead the party over unknown territory to the northern end of Lake Nyasa and then to Lake Tanganyika.

Four years later, it was announced that Thomson would lead what would become his major expedition to find the shortest route from Zanzibar to Uganda and it was on this adventure that he travelled through the country of the Masai. The route took him from Mombasa on the coast through Maasai Land and by Kilimanjaro and by December 1882, he had reached Lake Victoria - a journey of 1,500 miles.

It was this expedition that inspired the 65-mile walk through Maasai Land which Maggie Green and John Hastings-Thomson completed late last year. The walk was actually the idea of a Masai man called Ezekiel ole Katato who got in touch with the family after contacting a small museum about Joseph Thomson in Penpont, and suggested the trek in honour of the explorer.

Ezekiel, who is 49, was born in the village of Ildepen in Maasai Land and after working as a social worker and community development worker, established Across Maasai Land, an organisation that promotes sustainable livelihoods for the Masai. I email him in Africa and he tells me that he first heard about Joseph Thomson in geography lessons in school in the 1970s.

"I read about many explorers who came to Africa," he says, "but Joseph stood out for me because of his journey through Maasai Land. I always wanted to know more about his journey. I kept this to myself for many years until 2004 when I read his book Through Maasai Land. I was even more interested to learn that he passed through the village where I live and mentioned the Suree gorge, where we take our cattle to drink water."

WHEN I ask Ezekiel why Thomson is important to him, he says it is because he made the Masai people known to the world, but I do wonder if it was all to the good. Thomson himself may have been relatively benign, but his explorations played a part in the construction of the Kenya to Uganda railway that opened up Kenya to the Western world, and arguably, the exploitation of the continent by colonial interests.

I ask Maggie Green about this side of the story and she says it had occurred to her too. "I asked Ezekiel this - why do you have so much admiration for a man who actually made it possible for Britain to come in and take over and his answer was that he didn't think of his land as being all of Kenya - his land was Maasai Land, and he was thinking of the man and how he admired him and also the fact that he had come in peace."

Ezekiel confirms that this is his take on the matter and says Thomson is still a very special figure in his community. It was for this reason, he says, that he wanted to organise the walk.

The aim is to make even more people aware of Thomson, in Africa and here, but also to inspire young people to embrace and preserve the Masai culture. "Through these walks, I hope to consolidate the place of the Masai culture and people in the world and create a positive image about the Masai people," he says.

Ezekiel's 65-mile walk eventually happened last November and it was an inspiring and emotional experience. As well as Maggie Green and John Hastings-Thomson, there was their friend Jane Harlow, 15 Kenyans including Ezekiel and 23 Dutch people, who were travelling with the peace organisation MasterPeace, which helped support the trip.

The journey took the group though thorny savannah that, when it rained, would turn into a slick of mud; they slept in tents and cooked their meals in the open over a fire, but for Maggie Green the physical effort was worth it because of the emotional rewards.

"The thing that really made me cry was the welcome we received at Ezekiel's village," she says. "We went in in single file and the entire village was there, the warriors making this noise in their throats that would have frightened the pants off you if they had been attacking you."

It was emotional too because suddenly the Scotswoman who had heard all the stories about her famous ancestor was walking part of the same route, and through countryside that was pretty much unchanged since Thomson's time. But the trip wasn't all about the past, as there was a huge educational element too - as she walked, Maggie learned more about modern Kenya and some of the issues that its citizens, particularly its women, face.

"I spoke to one girl who told me how she had been in a forced marriage when she was 13 and we discussed female genital mutilation and what they were doing about it. The girls who were with us were sure of the changes that they wanted. There was one girl from Nairobi who had been married at 13 and escaped who said there were a lot of women working towards change."

Education is an important part of the walks for Ezekiel too - even now, only about 30 per cent of Masai children go to school. The Thomson family back home hope to set up a family trust that could sponsor schoolchildren from Scotland to go on future walks through Maasai Land.

But the other important aim is to raise the profile of Joseph Thomson further. Last year, Ezekiel came to Scotland while on a trip to Europe and visited the statue of Thomson that stands in Thornhill. But for him what lingers most about the trip is that so few Scots know who Thomson was.

"I was really surprised," he says, "because Scotland is his birthplace and I thought many people knew about him."

The aim is to change that and encourage more people to go on the Thomson walks in Maasai Land and find out more about the explorer's legacy. After the 1882 expedition, Thomson travelled privately in Morocco in 1888 before joining Cecil Rhodes's British South Africa Company, making mining and trade agreements in Zambia. There was then another expedition in east Africa before his death aged 37.

JOSEPH Thomson had no wife or children so there are no direct descendants, but there are around 40 members of the wider family, including Maggie and John, and many of them are involved in reviving the explorer's memory. It seems strange to John that Joseph Thomson should have been so feted in his day, carried shoulder-high through Thornhill, painted at the Glasgow Art Club with Lillie Langtry, celebrated by H Rider Haggard in King Solomon's Mines, and yet he is almost invisible now. John, Maggie and Ezekiel walked 65 miles to change that, and are prepared to do it again until Joseph Thomson once again has the fame he deserves. n Visit penpontheritage.co.uk

 

Pictures from Joseph Thomson Group