Book of the Month: March – Scottish Plant Hunters

Seeds of Blood and Beauty: Scottish Plant Hunters
Ann Lindsay

This was essentially the extended version of the talk I went to a couple of weeks ago – 14 gardeners and botanists instead of four, and a much more naval story, surprisingly – if there was a ‘classic’ path into plant collecting for these men, it was to study medicine, with its botany classes, in Edinburgh, sign on as a naval surgeon, and be sent off to foreign parts.

There’s more social background here than there was in the talk, but the basic reason why so many gardeners and plant collectors were Scottish still seems to have been that lots of them were Scottish – not only did they encourage young relatives and boys from their areas, but they became known as successful, so that it became fashionable to have a Scottish gardener in order to be successful too.

The first few, Phillips and Forsyth and Aiton, are the gardeners of Kew and the Chelsea Physic Garden – Masson, who went to South Africa, is the first of the wanderers, and the first on a naval ship, sailing on Cook’s Resolution as far as Cape Town, and remaining there for the next three years before returning home. Another 18th century collector, William Wright, served as surgeon on naval ships in the West Indies for several years before settling as a surgeon in Jamaica.

Probably the most interesting story of the book is that of Archibald Menzies, another naval surgeon who sailed as official botanist, and later as surgeon, on Vancouver’s mission of exploration to the Pacific North West, involved in exploring and charting the bays and islands of the region, and also visiting other parts of the Americas, including the Galapagos Islands. Having already read about these events from Vancouver’s point of view, I knew Menzies only as the character who signed on to a naval mission for naval pay while under orders from Joseph Banks to keep a secret record of anything the captain – however correctly – did which went against his own entirely non-naval agenda. And I still think that was completely wrong, but I’ll accept that it would have been difficult for anyone to stand against Banks, and Menzies seems to have been a likeable and successful character in his own right.

David Douglas (my favourite as well as the author’s!) is one of the first of a new type of collector, sent on commercial rather than scientific missions, and he was followed by Thomas Drummond, who met Douglas in Canada and also died young in America, and John Jeffrey, also sent to the American North West, who simply vanished in mysterious circumstances in California.

David Lyall was one of a new set of Victorian explorers, sailing as a naval surgeon and naturalist to the Antarctic with James Clark Ross, on an expedition which reached further south than anyone else ever did by sail, and later visiting the Arctic and being stationed on Vancouver Island and visiting the Rockies. Thomas Thomson, in contrast, is the one army surgeon of the book, sent with the Army of the Indus into Afghanistan, but fortunately coming out again.

Unfortunately, the book could really have done with a good editor, or just with more care being taken with it in the first place – issues range from typos and plain wrong words (I liked ‘straightened circumstances’), to silly mistakes like mixing up Thomas Gladstone with his Prime Minister brother, or writing about the ‘1707 Union of the Crowns’ (a previous borrower had taken exception to this and scored out ‘of the Crowns’ – unfortunately it was clear from the context that the 1603 union was intended!), to a whole chapter given the dates of George Don junior and a title referring to his life (‘From Angus to Africa’) which turned out to be about the work of his father, who certainly never went near Africa. Enough to make you wonder how many silly mistakes are mixed in where you don’t know enough about the subject to catch them, which is a shame, because there are some interesting stories here.

RBGE Scottish Plant Hunters talk

Last week I skived off my usual Thursday night fiddle class to go to a talk at the Botanical Gardens which looked interesting – 18th and 19th century Scottish plant hunters.

The speaker said that she had written a book on the subject a few years ago, having become interested while working on a local gardening project and realising just how many of the people who had brought back the plants were Scots – proportionally more than any other nationality, she thought. (The description of the talk said that we would find out the social reasons behind this, but as presented they were quite simple – the relatively wide availability in Scotland of at least good basic education, and the presence in London of a successful gardener, Philip Miller, who would only have Scots to work for him, so that there was always a supply of well trained Scottish gardeners around.)

She had chosen four men from those she had originally written about for the talk, covering quite a wide range in time and location (but missing out Monty Don’s great great grandfather, who is apparently in the book!).

The first was Francis Masson from Aberdeen, whose big opportunity seems to have come through being in the right place at the right time when Joseph Banks fell out with the Admiralty after Cook’s first voyage – Banks went off to Iceland in the huff, and Masson went to the Cape instead.

His great find there was pelargoniums (which are presumably different from geraniums in some way unknown to me) – only a few years later they were found not just in big gardens, but in the window of every cottage.

Masson made a second trip to the Cape, hampered by the fact that Britain was now at war with the Dutch, and then went to the Great Lakes of America, which he seems to have liked so much that he never came back, dying out there 7 years later in his 60s.

The second was John Fraser, the son of a crofter near Inverness  who went to the Carolinas, bringing back magnolias, among many others. Later on he apparently decided that he was going to go to Cuba and, in spite of the fact that Britain was at war with Spain, who controlled it, just went, with a false American passport which he then lost!

He had foolishly quarreled with Joseph Banks in his youth, which seems to have cut him off from financial success, whether with his plants, or with publishing a book on the flora of the Carolinas written by a dead friend. Eventually he set off on a collecting expedition for Catherine the Great – however he had come into contact with her – only to find that she was dead before he returned!

The next, she said, was her favourite – David Douglas, born in Scone and an apprentice in the garden of Scone palace before moving to Valleyfield in Fife. His seems to have been the start of a new era in plant collecting – no longer the early scientific explorations using navy ships, but a more commercial business under the auspices of the Horticultural Society, with transport and support provided in this case by the Hudson’s Bay Company, with bases at York Factory on Hudson Bay itself and at Fort Vancouver in the west.

His first trip was to the east coast of America, where he was sent to look for better varieties of fruit trees, but it was his second trip, to the north west, which made his name. Along with the famous firs, he brought back flowers including lupins, and she told a story about a sack of lupin seeds apparently lost into the river from Balmoral, which led to lupins growing for miles along the banks of the Dee.

A third trip took him back to the north west, and he had a plan for walking home through Siberia, having already walked back across Canada on the first trip – but a canoe accident led to this plan being abandoned, and instead he sailed to Hawaii where he was killed in an accident at a fairly young age.

The last, and latest, was Robert Fortune, sent to China with what seemed like a shopping list – bring back a blue one of this, and a yellow one of that. His work was not so much exploring for plants as attempting to negotiate for them, in a country not particularly welcoming to foreigners, and he had various adventures, including entering the Forbidden City disguised as a Chinese man, and an encounter with pirates.

Besides flowers, his great discovery was that green tea and black tea came from the same plant, and on a later trip he got hold of the tea plants which were used to start the Indian tea industry. He also brought back porcelain and other Chinese goods, which he was able to sell for a good price back in Britain, and he was one of the few plant hunters to make a decent living from his efforts, publishing a book of his travels soon after his return, and living to retire comfortably and die at home.

I was hoping for a bit more botany and a bit less gardening in the talk – more scientific exploration, and less focus on the flowers grown in gardens now – but it was interesting, and I now have the book to read to find out about the rest of them!

Collingwood Society: Collingwood Lecture 2018

The Collingwood Society Lecture is always quite fun, because you get to go and sit in the fancy theatre in the RGS, and there is a bar. And it’s always interesting!

This year’s lecture was given by Richard Woodman, a prolific author of both naval history and historic novels. Answering a question at the end, he said that it was an interest in the details of the work going on between and behind the scenes of major events which led him to write novels, and this was a theme running through the whole talk.

Although he had called his talk ‘The Age of Collingwood’, he said that he could just as well have called it the Age of Pellew or of Saumarez, both of whom lived to enjoy the fruits of their labour – the main thing he objected to was the oversimplification of history which saw only Nelson and Trafalgar and let them overshadow everything else (a statement which he hoped would be less controversial for us than it had been in the south!).

Without denying Nelson his good qualities, he didn’t see him as a paragon – in particular, he thought that there were far better practical seamen – Pellew, Hood and Keats, to name a few – and that Nelson’s attack on Tenerife in particular was a foolhardy action which showed a real lack of understanding about the operation of small boats in heavy seas.

And Trafalgar, although significant, was equally not a single great event which prevented the invasion of Britain or destroyed the French and Spanish fleets, or a brilliant new strategy never seen before.

The threat of invasion was already past before Trafalgar – it had been over since Calder met a French and Spanish fleet in the Atlantic in June and preventing them joining the fleet at Brest, and the Armée d’Angleterre had already become the Grande Armée and started the campaign which would lead to the battle at Austerlitz – the high point of the French campaign, despite their losses at sea.

Although many Spanish and French ships were destroyed at or after Trafalgar, it wasn’t a case of straightforward annihilation – Nelson claimed that he had hoped for more prizes, and some ships were destroyed in the storm rather than the battle, or were retaken, while others were captured by Strachan’s cruising fleet rather than Nelson’s. And the ‘brilliant new strategy’ of breaking the line had already been used at the Battle of the Saintes in 1782 and Camperdown in 1797, if not earlier.

Where he did think Trafalgar was important was psychologically – the British navy had got what he called a ‘habit of victory’ which carried them through the next years. There were no more great naval battles, and after Duckworth’s victory in the Caribbean in early 1806 the French navy made no real attempt to come out in force.

From 1805 the shape of the war shifted, with an increasing focus on diplomacy and the building up of various coalitions – the work that Collingwood was doing in the Mediterranean was also being done on a smaller scale by Saumarez in the Baltic and a succession of people off Brest. (Saumarez apparently had the best posting in the navy, as he got to come home for the winter!)

One of his great interests is the merchant navy, and he thought that the support from the mercantile marine during the Napoleonic wars was very much underappreciated. As well as providing seamen, willingly or unwillingly, they brought in luxury goods from outside Europe to undermine Napoleon’s European blockade, traded with Russia in the Baltic in spite of Napoleon, brought saltpetre from India for gunpowder, transported troops, and provided logistical support for the Peninsular war – France’s resource were internal, or at least from within Europe, but Britain’s were brought from across the world.

Merchant ships, and the East India Company in particular, had had a raw deal from the navy at the time, as well as being forgotten now. Sailors were pressed ruthlessly from company ships, and there was little protection for ships travelling to the east, unlike the Atlantic convoys, although the French were now most active in the Indian Ocean – in fact he blamed Pellew for deliberately using EIC ships to try to tempt the French out. French corsairs were very active from Mauritius in this period, something which continued until Britain took the island from France in 1810.

Really – in spite of any effects of Trafalgar – he thought that if this was the age of any one man, it was Napoleon’s. France was at its highest point around 1806, having defeated the combined armies of Austria and Russia at Tilsit – and as well as having added the Russian navy to their own, they also controlled the Turkish, Danish and Portuguese fleets.

But things were about to start swinging the other way – the British made a preemptive strike on the Danish fleet to prevent it coming out in French support (although the Danish have never forgiven us for the collateral damage to Copenhagen itself, he believes), and took Heligoland, which allowed for an active smuggling trade and access to the British market for European countries under Napoleon’s control. The Portuguese fleet went off to Brazil with the exiled royal family, and by 1808 the Spanish were rising against the French, with British support.

The British army was rehabilitated with victories at Albuera and Talavera, after coming to grief in South America, the blockades of the French ports never let up, despite the debacle of the Brest roads, and by 1812 the Grande Armée was coming to grief in the Russian winter, while British gold had swayed Prussia and Austria, and the Swedish opportunists had followed. The eventual battle at Waterloo was another spectacular set piece, but although the French loss confirmed their defeat, a victory couldn’t have sustained the empire.

Overall, he thought it a shame that 10 years of bloody fighting between 1805 and 1815 was hidden by the shadow of Nelson, as a process of attrition rather than a series of great battles – the French influence eroded ‘as the sea always does erode the land’, with the British famously active wherever there was water to float a ship.

I really enjoyed the talk – so often the focus is on one person or one event or one area, and I found it very interesting to have the naval events fitted into the wider context of the war.

Throwback: Thomas Telford


It’s not exactly difficult to chase Thomas Telford in Scotland – you just fall over him everywhere you go. But I was a bit more aware of him than usual last summer, while I waited for the book to turn up, and I did keep finding him.

The first time wasn’t in Scotland at all, and was mid-May, so either I’d been waiting for the book for even longer than I thought, or this one was pre-emptive.

This is the ‘new’ bridge over the Wansbeck at Morpeth, built around 1830 apparently as part of a bigger plan for improving the Edinburgh to London road. (Photo taken from the old bridge, or at least the Victorian footbridge which uses the medieval central pier.)

Morpeth Telford Bridge

The next was something I didn’t have to go hunting for at all – the harbour walls at Tarbert are possibly the first place I heard Telford’s name (or possibly not). There probably wasn’t much personal involvement from him in them – he was in charge of a huge project to improve harbours across the western Highlands – but he seems to have spent most of his time dashing from one to another of the projects carried out under his name, so he’ll have visited at some point.

I’ve always loved the harbour walls, with their big old stones – worn smooth, and very good for walking along the edge of. And I do like the mismatched but perfectly sized arches for the burns which run into the top end of the harbour.

Harbour walls

The artificial island in the harbour known as the Beilding was built at the same time, and used to put a line onto boats which were struggling to turn in the harbour.

The Bielding

The little cottage built into the harbour walls – now a giftshop – was for the weightbridge for the fish. It has its own little slipway beside it.

Old weighbridge cottage
Weighbridge cottage from the water

The last was more of an adventure – I was staying on Skye later in the summer, and on a damp day when the hills were covered in mist decided to set out to walk down to Stein from the bus stop at the Fairy Bridge.

This was part of an earlier plan for improving highland harbours, under the auspices of the British Fisheries Society – the plan for Stein failed, but planned villages at Ullapool and Pultneytown in Wick were much more successful.

Telford’s plan was a grand one, with terraces on the hillside leading to a central church and school house. Very little was built, but the rows of white buildings at Stein are still noticeably different from the scattered croft houses behind.

Approaching Stein

The one row of houses which were built are a few years later than the original plan, but basically on part of the planned layout.

Rows of houses

The one part which was definitely Telford’s was a storehouse and pier built to the north of the village – the storehouse is now a modern house, but the site was obvious, and although there’s no direct access by road it was fairly easy to walk along the beach.

Old storehouse

The pier, with a kind of walled pool behind it, is half ruined now, but obviously the right kind of work from the right period.

Telford pier

There will probably be more Telford about – I need to go and have another look at the Dean Bridge, and I know I’m going to fall over him again in Newburgh and Cowal, never mind all the places further afield I want to go to…

Alexander Selkirk


An earlier Age of Sail story than usual this week – my wanderings round Fife have taken me as far as Lower Largo, birthplace of Alexander Selkirk, one of the main inspirations for the story of Robinson Crusoe.

There’s a monument to him on the houses which now stand on the site of his childhood home.

Alexander Selkirk monument

The statue is the standard Crusoe image, with the goatskin clothes – an image which was definitely taken from Selkirk’s story, wherever the actual story came from!

Selkirk statue
Selkirk inscription

In memory of Alexander Selkirk, mariner, the original of Robinson Crusoe, who lived on the island of Juan Fernandez in complete isolation for four years and four months. He died 1723, lieutenant of HMS Weymouth, aged 47 years. This state is erected by David Gillies, net manufacturer, on the site of the cottage in which Selkirk was born.

Originally sailing on privateers, he had joined the Royal Navy after his return from the island. ‘Lieutenant’ on the inscription is doubtful although possible – he had served on several non-naval ships as sailing master, and although he seems to have been a bit of a dubious character, must have been a skilled sailor and navigator.

The local hotel has gone for the better known name, but with a sign pointing to the Juan Fernandez islands rather than to Crusoe’s Atlantic island.

Crusoe Hotel
Juan Fernandez Island sign