The Botanical Gardens


I was at the Botanical Gardens last weekend, originally because I’d read that there was an 18th century monument there to Linnaeus, and I was sure I had never seen it – for good reason, it turns out, because it’s hidden round the back of the greenhouses in what seems to be a rather dreary packed lunch area.


It’s shown on the maps of the gardens, and then as you head towards the education building a sign tells you that the ramp takes you to it – but the ramp was roped off at both ends and marked as being for school parties only, so I had to do some surreptitious clambering – and then ended up inside the paying area of the greenhouses, which I felt a bit guilty about.


John Hope was Regius Keeper of the gardens, and responsible for establishing the gardens in their previous site on Leith Walk (where the monument presumably started out), as well as Professor of Medicine and Botany at the University of Edinburgh.

I feel like writing to the RBGE to complain about their neglect – this seems to be one of the oldest monuments in Edinburgh – but I’d have to admit to the trespassing, so maybe I won’t!

Anyway, I was then reminded of an even older and more exciting thing – both the oldest and the newest building in the gardens, as they describe it – the Botanic Cottage.


Built in 1764, the year after the site was bought for the gardens on Leith walk, this was the entrance to the gardens for visitors – on what was then a country road running from the town of Edinburgh to the town of Leith – as well as the home of the head gardener (downstairs), and a classroom where medical students were taught botany during the Scottish Enlightenment (upstairs).

Over the years, and after the gardens moved to Inverleith in 1822, Leith Walk was built up around the cottage, the road being raised to level with the first floor, and one end being removed to build a block of flats. Eventually it was to be demolished, but instead it was carefully taken to bits, and rebuilt and recreated in the current gardens.

Over one of the side entrance gates is a plaque to John Williamson, head gardener at the time the cottage was built, who also worked as a customs officer and was killed by smugglers in 1780.


Collingwood Society AGM

Last week I was down in Newcastle for the Collingwood Society AGM – with the summer break it felt like a very long time since I’d made a meeting, apart from lurking in the rain on Trafalgar Day.

They generally talk through the plans for the next year at the AGM – every year I think I shouldn’t go down too often, and then they read out the programme and I realise this is implausable, and this time more than ever – I can’t remember it all now, but it includes surgery in the Age of Sail (perfect for a Stephen Maturin fan), Max Adams talking about things which Collingwood’s son-in-law didn’t think fit to include in his published letters, and a picnic on the quarterdeck walk at Morpeth in the summer.

And then we had a tour of Trinity House, only we’d talked so much that I had to slip away before the end, and still only just made the last train home.

This reminds me that I never posted about going to see Max Adams in the book festival – he was talking about his new book, which is about the Dark Ages, but I took along the Collingwood book to get signed as well.


He said that he didn’t think anyone read both that and the Dark Ages stuff – but I first stumbled over Ad Gefrin on my way to Hethpool, so it’s all mixed up together for me anyway. And he told me he still had a soft spot for Collingwood – “He’s something special, isn’t he?”. With which I entirely agree.

Book of the Month: October – A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities
Charles Dickens

I’m not really sure what to say about this book – I enjoyed it without ever really feeling that I’d got my head round it. I liked the characters, and the places, and there was some very vivid description and set pieces – although sometimes the description got a bit too poetic, and I was lost again. (Plus I kept thinking it was turning supernatural – pale men hanging under carriages and vanishing over cliffs, and strange messengers striding across France – and then it never did.)

But given that I went in expecting a book about the French revolution, I don’t really feel that I got what I wanted. Maybe I’m just wrong, because I really don’t know about it to judge, but the thing that fascinates me about the period is the attempts to set up something new, and the ways they go so wrong. And the revolution of this book is quite purely mob rule – an inevitable, justified result of previous actions, but only a breaking down, with no sign of an attempt to build something new:

‘There could have been no such Revolution, if all laws, forms, and ceremonies, had not first been so monstrously abused, that the suicidal vengeance of the Revolution was to scatter them all to the winds.’

The book may be a plea for a better system of government, but it’s addressed to those with something to lose, to save them from losing everything, not to those who might gain.

I found the structure of the book a bit odd – for most of it you are following various people through loosely overlapping lives, not only without any clear idea of how they tie together, but with no clear idea that they will tie together at all. Once they did, I felt a bit as if I had been reading a murder mystery which let you see all the clues and suspects as usual but didn’t tell you who had been murdered or how or when – it must be deliberate, but these days at least I think it might work better with the incident that sets it all off described at the beginning, at least so we knew where we were heading.

And there are definitely a few too many coincidences for my liking – I can cope with the one which sets up the story, of Charles and the Manettes meeting on the ship, and even the previous connection, but once we get into long lost brothers, and resurrection men provided only to be able to prove that a particular person wasn’t dead, it’s going a bit far – although that at least did tie into the theme of resurrection which runs through the book, from ‘recalled to life’ at the beginning to ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ at the end.

But, oh, the ending. In a way, there’s no tension, because Charles and Lucy are the kind of people who never will end up suffering, and people like Miss Pross and Sydney always will do their suffering for them – but the battle between the two women is superb, and if the very end is a bit overblown again, I can’t read ‘you will let me hold your brave hand, stranger?’ without crying. So maybe it is some of the people with the least power in the beginning who save the day in the end.