Margaret (1843 – 1920) and Agnes (1843 – 1926) Smith were Irvine-born twins who were language scholars and travellers. They discovered the earliest Syriac version of the Gospels and translated it.
On the 11th of January 1843, twin sisters Margaret and Agnes Smith – otherwise known as The Sisters of Sinai, famous for discovering and translating ancient biblical manuscripts – were born in Irvine.
Their father John Smith was keen linguist and a lawyer – he was the executor of the Irvine millionaire and town benefactor John Ferguson’s will. Their mother Margaret unfortunately died a couple of weeks after they were born, having only been married to John for 14 months. Their house, Hamilfield in Kilwinning Road still exists to this day and has a blue heritage plaque at the entrance.
Their father never took another partner and seemed to devote his time to teaching his girls Latin, French and German. As an incentive to travel, he promised he would take them to these places if they became fluent, which they did. By the time they were sent to boarding school in Birkenhead they had been abroad several times.
When the girls were 23 their father died and left them with a quarter of a million pounds. As the girls had no other relatives or anyone to tell them what to do with it, they decided to travel to Egypt and Greece- much to the horror of some Irvinites (it wasn’t the done thing for young, unaccompanied females to do in those days!) They had many adventures, even dodging bandits on the journey from Jerusalem to Jericho and travelling up the Nile and visiting Palestine.
Agnes married James Gibson – a trainee minister in 1883 and Margaret married Samuel Savage Lewis who was the librarian of Corpus Christi College in Cambridge at the time. Both sisters however would become widows after a short period of time.
In 1892 the sisters travelled to Egypt once again, this time to St. Catherine’s Monastery, at the foot of Mount Sinai, where they discovered the Sinaitic Palimpsest in the monastery’s library. The 4th Century manuscript, written in Syriac (the language of ancient Syria) contained a translation of the gospels of the New Testament. This discovery was the earliest Syriac version of the Gospels known and it was translated to English by the sisters. They also discovered other ancient biblical manuscripts that proved the Christian Bible was a product of many translations and revisions.
The sisters received many honorary degrees from various universities and were the founding benefactors of Westminster College, Cambridge.
Margaret died first on their 77th birthday, 11 January 1920 and Agnes followed 6 years later on 29th March 1926.