Mar 032017

The Black Watch Museum in Perth

When war began in August 1914, whilst most of RBGE’s male staff were joining the Royal Scots and the Cameron Highlanders, two of our staff members enlisted in the Black Watch. Based in Perth, and with origins that can be traced back as far as 1725, the Black Watch had the reputation of producing particularly ferocious soldiers, each having the honour of wearing the red hackle on their tam o’shanters.

The two men in question are Thomas Aird, who joined the 11th Battalion of the Black Watch on the 16th November 1914 and Thomas Young who enlisted in the 1st Battalion Black Watch on the 5th August 1914 – a day after war was declared.

Unfortunately neither of these men have left many records, nor records easily attached to themselves, but we’ve been able to piece some pieces of information together, mostly thanks to help received at the excellent Black Watch Museum in Perth and researcher Garry Ketchen, who I’m again grateful to for allowing me to use his genealogical research.

Aird’s name on the RBGE Memorial

Thomas Aird’s name appears on the RBGE War Memorial, so we know he numbers amongst RBGE’s 20 members of staff at the start of the war that were killed, but his date of death for some reason was not recorded on our Service Roll. During a visit to the Black Watch museum we discovered his name, his service number (S/6773) and the information that he was killed in action on the 3rd March 1917. Garry Ketchen, who has researched the men appearing on the RBGE War Memorial, also discovered this information along with the fact that Aird was born on the 25th July 1878 to Hamilton and Agnes Aird in Kirkmichael or Kirkconnel, Ayrshire. He also discovered that Aird was employed as a colliery fireman before he began work at RBGE on the 11th May 1914 as a Labourer. Although Aird enlisted with the 11th Battalion of the Black Watch, one of the new battalions set up in October 1914 to take the huge numbers of new recruits joining in the early months of the War, it soon became a reserve battalion with members being sent to bolster others on the Western Front. It appears Aird was transferred to the 1st Battalion in January 1916 after completing his training. He therefore would have been active in the Battle of the Somme which began in July of that year. We know from RBGE records that he was wounded once.

Aird’s name on the Black Watch memorial in Perth

By looking at the Battalion diaries available on we can see where Aird was when he was killed. The Battle of the Somme was still raging at the time and the 1st Black Watch were to the south of the river. On the 3rd March they moved from Assevillers to huts and billets at Chuignolles. Prior to this they had been spending short periods on the front line and in training, staying nearby to offer support when needed. There was no mention of any action or death on the 3rd March, only a tally at the end of the month: 1 Officer wounded, 17 O.R. [Ordinary Ranks] ditto, 2 O.R. died of wounds and 3 O.R. killed. Aird’s pension records show that he was killed in action, so presumably he was one of the last three, probably in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Thomas Young, on the other hand, survived the war.  We know he joined RBGE on the 24th April 1914 as a Patrolman (presumably a cross between a policeman and a security guard) and was immediately called up to Aldershot to join the 1st Battalion of the Black Watch becoming one of the first soldiers to cross the English Channel as part of the British Expeditionary Forces, all of this hinting at a previous spell in the army.  He would have been involved in many of the major battles of the First World War including Mons, Ypres, Loos, the Somme, Passchendale and finally the storming of the Hindenburg Line at the end of the War. At the Black Watch Museum I was made aware of the Black Watch’s history, written by Major-General A.G. Wauchope. In it is a list of 30 men who were part of the 1st Battalion mustered at Aldershot at the beginning of the War and who were still in the 1st Battalion when the war ended in November 1918. The name Private Thomas Young is on that list, and it may well be that he is RBGE’s Thomas Young, in which case the Black Watch Museum know that he had originally joined in 1905 and would indeed still have been on reserve in 1914. I was shown an image of the 1st Battalion at Aldershot as they were about to depart – Thomas Young would have been one of those many men and it was sobering to think that just 30 of them were still in the same battalion for the Armistice (although reserves continually bolstered the battalion of course). At present we know nothing more about Thomas Young. He did not return to RBGE after he was demobilised on the 22nd February 1919.

Photo of the 1st Black Watch in Aldershot, August 1914, with kind permission from the Black Watch Museum.

We can look at the 1st Battalion diary for the end of the War though, and get a sense of the atmosphere at the time the men of the 1st Black Watch were being demobilised. Major Fowler was the one Officer also present on the list of 30 men surviving in the 1st Battalion from the beginning to the end of the War:

“On the 24th [February] Maj. And Q[uartermaster] W. Fowler M.C. left the Battalion to proceed for duty at Bisley. After over 35 years service in the Regiment, and continuous service, without a break with the Battalion throughout the war, his departure was a matter of great regret to everyone, and the high esteem in which he was held by all was impressed by the voluntary turn out of the Battalion to escort him to the station. Both the Pipe and Brass Bands were in attendance. On reaching the station, the Brass Band played ‘Auld Lang Syne’, after which Major Fowler addressed the Battalion and said good-bye. As the train moved out of the station, the pipers played ‘Scotland the Brave’, accompanied by much cheering.” wrote Lt. Col. J. Anderson.

We can also read the farewell given to the men by Brigadier General L.L. Wheatley when the 1st Infantry Brigade was disbanded on the 25th March 1919:

To Brigade Headquarters, 1st Battalion The Black Watch, 1st Battalion Royal North Lancashire Regiment, 1st Battalion The Cameron Highlanders, and the 1st Trench Mortar Battery. “The Brigade is about to break up. For your loyalty in the past I thank you, for the present I say Good-bye, and for the future I wish you good luck. It has been the proudest six months of my military service to have had the honour to command you.”

With thanks again to Garry Ketchen and to Richard McKenzie at the Black Watch Museum.

Feb 272017

In researching those past members of RBGE staff who enlisted and were killed during the First World War I’m aware of all those who enlisted and survived the war, having served their time in the trenches – those that never received a mention on any war memorial but tolerated many of the same experiences including the fear, pain and discomfort we so often associate with trench warfare. Ironically, it can be these survivors that can be harder to research, but an opportunity to look at one of them, John Richard Ferisy, arose recently when he became the subject of an enquiry sent to the library at RBGE. The enquirer was a medal collector who had come across a couple of medals with Ferisy’s name (or his ‘alias’ Ferguson) inscribed on them. During his research he discovered that Ferisy had worked at RBGE as a timekeeper and so he asked if we had any more information about him.

Unfortunately, information about our labourers (Ferisy’s job title) at this time is scarce and scattered, but between the two of us, using sources like the RBGE Guild journals and census and military information available via, we were able to piece together the following:

John Richard Ferisy was born on the 27th February 1869 in Edinburgh. His parents were Sophia (née Watson) and William Ferisy, who was a gardener, and he was brought up with his brothers and sisters in a small thatched farm cottage called Forest Hall just north of Craiglockhart in the parish of Colinton. Ferisy’s military records tell us that he joined the army, specifically the 2nd battalion of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB) in 1889 at the age of 19 (which calls into dispute either the age he gave when he joined up or his birthdate, but only by one year), stating he was a mason prior to this. He was involved in the 1895 ‘Relief of Chitral’ campaign on India’s northwest frontier and was therefore awarded the 1895-98 India General Service Medal; our medal collector has obtained this medal, but not the Queens South Africa medal that he also would have been entitled to when he was recalled from the reserves four years later to serve in South Africa with the 1st Battalion KOSB during the 2nd Boer War between 1899 and 1902.

Ferisy joined RBGE in December 1913 as a labourer, but re-joined the army again on the 28th August 1914 when the First World War began, initially with the 6th Battalion KOSB and then the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) with the latter service in India, thus sparing him the horrors of the trenches towards the end of the war. His South Africa and WW1 medals are yet to be located and our collector would love to re-unite them.

RBGE records back up what the medal collector discovered from Ferisy’s military service records, his retirement notice in our Guild Journal stating:

“John Richard Ferisy, …a South African veteran, joined the Garden on the 8th December 1913 and served in Flanders and India during the Great War. He was a familiar figure to many past members, as he fulfilled the duty of timekeeper at the Works Entrance for a number of years. The appreciation of the Staff was expressed by the presentation of a cheque upon his retirement on 27th February 1934.”

The next time Ferisy gets a mention in the RBGE Guild Journal (apart from his appearances in the Guild member lists, the RBGE Guild being a society of past and present members of staff, allowing everyone to remain in touch) is when he dies: “Obituaries… John Ferisy, Edinburgh, in April 1939”. He would have been 70. He does however receive further mentions, in the early 1980s, when past members of staff were asked to recall their memories of working at RBGE for inclusion in the Guild newsletter.

Cartoon drawn by Jock Scott in 1936 showing Patey at the gate – he was Ferisy’s successor.

Ferisy’s first mention is from Frank Knight, a probationer gardener originally from Cornwall who was at RBGE between 1919 and 1923- he said:

“I was soon the object of much curiosity, “had they seen the wee red-headed probationer from N. Cornwall with a dialect like Uncle Tom Cobley and Jan Stewer and all?” I had one champion and that was Jock Ferisy, who was in charge of the back gate. During his army career in the KOSB he had for a time been stationed in Crown Hill barracks, Plymouth, and could say with not too bad an accent, “up along and over”, a local saying that he had picked up in the Plymouth pubs.”

His second mention was from another former probationer gardener, Tom Grieve, who was at RBGE between 1928 and 1934 who said:

“in my time, at least two probationers were dismissed for getting married, and no married applicant had a hope as a prospective probationer. We started work at 6am and the Gate was closed 5 minutes after, and, if late, we lost two hours pay until breakfast which made quite a hole in our weekly wage of £2:2:2d. Jock Ferisy at the gate used to look out and hurry us up if we were in sight. How we puffed up the lane. Good old Jock. Many a pint did we buy him (2½p), old soldier he.”

His name doesn’t appear on any memorial here, but I like to think that thanks to email enquiries, researchers, information gleaned form historic records and outlets such as Botanics Stories we can remember men like him.

Dec 122016

The Library at the Botanics has recently acquired a new member of staff – or should that be an old member of staff?  Certainly an old member of the Botanical Society of Scotland…

William Brand's bust in its new home at RBGE

William Brand’s bust in its new home at RBGE.  It was sculpted in 1860 by William Brodie R.S.A.

We were contacted recently by the curator at the Bank of Scotland, looking to rehouse some of their less well used artworks – could more appropriate homes be found for them? When looking to rehouse the bust of William Brand WS, the Secretary of the Union Bank of Scotland between 1846 and 1869, research showed he had botanical connections, and so we were contacted.  Of course we said yes!

Born in 1807, the son of a farmer at Blackhouse, near Peterhead, William Brand was initially educated in parish schools before being apprenticed to Writers (solicitors) in Peterhead then in Edinburgh where he entered legal classes at the University.  Having completed his legal education he became a Writer to the Signet in 1834 and a partner in the Edinburgh firm of Scott, Findlay and Balderston. In 1846 he was elected Secretary to the Union Bank of Scotland, a position he held until his death. In 1863 he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

But what are his connections to RBGE?

The 1830nEdinburgh University Botany Class Lists, showing Brand's name (50)

The 1830 Edinburgh University Botany Class Lists, showing Brand’s name (50)

Whilst completing his medical degree at Edinburgh University, Brand developed a strong interest in botany, accompanying Professor Robert Graham (Regius Keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and Professor of Botany at Edinburgh University) on collecting excursions throughout Scotland during 1830 and 1831.  In 1836, when meetings were being held to discuss the creation of a new Botanical Society, Brand was there.  He attended the inaugural meeting of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh on the 8th February 1836 making him a founding member and also logical choice for its first Treasurer.  He developed ideas for a number of Society publications, devised methods for arranging and cataloguing the Society’s herbarium and collected a significant herbarium collection himself, discovering several new plants including Astragalus alpinus in the process.

Photograph of William Brand taken in 1865. From the Botanical Society Club Album.

Photograph of William Brand taken in 1865. From the Botanical Society Club Album.

He was also a member of the Botanical Society Club, an offshoot of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh initially comprising its original members, becoming its Secretary.  At the last Club meeting he attended, in June 1869, he complained of feeling ill.  After a couple of months he recovered enough to visit relatives in Peterhead, but became ill again on his return home, dying on October 15th 1869.  He left behind a widow, a son and two daughters.

John Hutton Balfour describes Brand in his obituary, published by the Botanical Society in 1870:

Mr Brand was a person of great energy and vigour, a shrewd and intelligent observer, an excellent and fearless cragsman, capable of enduring great fatigue, and of accommodating himself to all the discomforts which might happen during excursions.  His happy and cheerful disposition rendered him a most pleasant companion; whatever occurred, he was never out of temper, but on all occasions was a true peace-maker.

The bust itself was sculpted by William Brodie R.S.A. in 1860 and is now on display in RBGE’s Library at 20a Inverleith Row.  We’re very grateful to Douglas MacBeath, curator at the Bank of Scotland for offering the bust to us.  It is a reminder that without the Botanical Society of Edinburgh (now Scotland), RBGE’s Library, Archive and Herbarium collections would not be of the high standard that they are today as it was the Society’s collections that became the foundation of our own.

List of the original members of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh

List of the original members of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh, Brand 6th on the list

Jul 012016

The Battle of the Somme commenced at 7:30am on the 1st July 1916, an offensive lasting for 141 days of blood, mud and horror. The first day stands out in terms of casualties as one of the worst days for the British Army – 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 fatalities. The objectives of the offensive were to take pressure off the French army who were at that time engaged in a vicious battle with the Germans at Verdun by attacking the Germans to the north of this, and in doing so attempt to capture the plateau between the rivers Somme and Ancre.

Photograph of James Hamilton Dick and John Anthony (both 2nd Lieutenants at the time) on the Somme in 1916. Both were to win Military Crosses by 1918.

Photograph of James Hamilton Dick and John Anthony (both 2nd Lieutenants at the time) on the Somme in 1916. Both were to win Military Crosses by 1918.

Considering the length of the battle and the number of Scottish battalions involved, it must be that many men listed on RBGE’s Roll of Honour were involved in this offensive although it is hard to say who – with many battalions being merged and assigned new names and men leaving battalions to reinforce others at this time it becomes more complicated to follow our soldiers’ progress in the War. I do know that we have no fatalities at all listed during the period of the Battle of the Somme, so it must be concluded that although it’s possible there may have been men wounded, none of our staff who left RBGE at the beginning of the War to join the army were killed at the Somme in 1916.

In our Archive collections however, we do have a small album of photographs of soldiers, one of which is titled “Capt J.H. Dick M.C., Capt J. Anthony M.C., On the Somme 1916”, so it seems timely to look at this album now (although I’m reasonably sure neither men were sent to France until September 1916). There are many names in the album, so it was only fairly recently spotted that the album was put together by John Anthony, or perhaps a member of his family as he is referred to within as ‘The Hero’ which by all accounts of his modesty, doesn’t sound like a name he would have used for himself!

Our hero, John Anthony

Our hero, John Anthony

John Anthony was born in Edinburgh in December 1891. He attended Boroughmuir and George Heriot’s School, entering the University of Edinburgh in 1911 to read Arts and Science. His studies were interrupted with the outbreak of war in 1914 and he joined the University’s Officer Training Corps as a cadet in 1915. In October 1915 he joined the 5th Royal Welsh Fusiliers as a 2nd Lieutenant and was promoted to Lieutenant in in July 1917. He became an Acting Captain in August 1917 when he was attached to the 7th Royal Warwickshire Regiment to command one of their Companies. It was shortly after this time that Anthony was awarded a Military Cross (the M.C. referred to on the Somme photograph above) for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty – he took command of his Company during a night time relief in Italy when during heavy shelling the officer in charge was wounded. Anthony quickly reorganised the section and was able to drive off two enemy attacks on advanced posts thus saving lives and maintaining the position of the line.


Anthony and his fellow cadets at camp, possibly in Peebles in 1915?

Anthony and his fellow cadets at camp, possibly in Peebles in 1915?

Altogether John Anthony spent eight years in military service, fighting on the Western Front in France, and also in Italy, Egypt and Palestine. He wasn’t able to return to his University studies until 1923 as the War Office had him engaged in educational work in the Middle East after the war ended. Anthony was eventually to spend the rest of his life working in education. He completed his M.A. in 1924 and his B.Sc. in 1926 before going to Malaya to work on a large rubber estate for five years, returning home in 1932 to become an assistant lecturer in Botany at Dundee University. He began his connection with RBGE in 1934 when our then Regius Keeper, William Wright Smith asked him to join Edinburgh University’s teaching staff as a lecturer in Forest Botany, and any other botanical subject he was called upon to teach. During this time he developed an interest in wood anatomy and intended writing a book on the subject – indeed, the typed manuscript for this work entitled “The Identification of British Trees, Shrubs and Undershrubs by means of the Microscopic Structure of their Wood” is housed in RBGE’s archives.

2nd Lieutenant John Anthony in Llangollan, August 1916.

2nd Lieutenant John Anthony in Llangollen, August 1916.

John Anthony did eventually have a book published, albeit posthumously.  After his retirement in 1958 he and his wife worked on a flora of Sutherland, spending all his spare time exploring the botany of this county and compiling a typescript, which he did not live to see published. The Botanical Society of Scotland published it in 1976, four years after his death in 1972 at the age of 80.   It is still seen as a tribute to a modest and good humoured man, fondly remembered by the staff at RBGE who knew him.

The Album

The photograph album itself is small and plain and marked with the name and crest of the Allan Glen’s School, although the link between Anthony and that school is not known.  There are photos of Anthony’s family, his friends, views around Edinburgh including Colinton Dell, blurry locomotives on the Caledonian railway, and of course, Anthony and some of his fellow cadets and soldiers, often in very relaxed, laid back poses, enjoying the calm before the storm.

John Anthony and his fellow cadets enjoy tea in the camp, likely Peebles, c.1915.

John Anthony and his fellow cadets enjoy tea in the camp, likely Peebles, c.1915.

Anthony and his friends take some time off from training, c.1915.

Anthony and his friends take some time off from training, c.1915.

2nd Lieutenant Anthony with Lieutenant Edwards, Captain Evans and a very relaxed Colonel Gavin in Oswestry, August 1916; around a month before Anthony is sent to the Western Front.

2nd Lieutenant Anthony with Lieutenant Edwards, Captain Evans and a very relaxed Colonel Gavin in Oswestry, August 1916; around a month before Anthony was sent to the Western Front.

May 312016
St Brigid anemone

‘I like to plant something every day!’

Ruby Collett was in her eighties when she made this remark to a younger neighbour.  A student probationer gardener at RBGE in the 1920s, Ruby was a force of nature and I’d like to share some of her experiences with plants.   During her time at RBGE she would learn much about propagating and tending new and established species.  This practical learning period no doubt helped develop this very formidable plantswoman.

Ruby Collett application

Ruby Collett Probationer Gardener Application Form

456 individuals were taken on as probationer gardeners at RBGE between 1889 and 1939. Only seven of that group (1.5 %) were women.

You can see a list of all of these probationers here.

The student probationer scheme was established in 1892 by Professor Isaac Bayley Balfour, Regius Keeper, to provide free courses of instruction in practical scientific horticulture and forestry over a period of 2½ years.  Applicants had to be aged 25 or under with at least three years working experience in gardening or forestry. In return for full time work in the garden, pay was fixed at £1 1 shilling per week with extra pay for Sunday work.  Courses of instruction were provided through evening classes taught by RBGE staff and external specialists, and on-the-job practical work.

Ruby was the seventh woman gardener to be accepted as a student probationer.  In case you are wondering here is the list of the six women who preceded her at RBGE, with their years of training. Their stories all have interest, and may appear in future blogposts.

  • Constance Ida Hay Currie (1873-1952). 1897. Eventually emigrated to British Columbia where she lived with her husband E. G. Beaumont on the remote Discovery Island.
  • [Jane Torr] Lina Barker (1866-1929). 1897 to 1899. In 1900 established the first school of gardening for women in Scotland with her fellow probationer Annie Morrison as co-Principal.
  • Annie Morison (1870-1948). 1898 to 1899.
  • Amelia Jean Scott (1903-1925). 1919 to 1921. Lived within sight of RBGE and started as a probationer straight from school. Sadly died from peritonitis at a very young age.
  • Mary Ord (1895-   ) 1920 to 1923. Came to RBGE from Darlington where she had been in charge of the Alpine and Herbaceous Department at Kent & Brydon, a well-established firm of nursery and seedsmen.  Returned to Darlington, where she married A. F. T. Ord.
  • Edith Cairns (1898-   ) 1922 to 1924. Married fellow probationer William P. Dodghson in 1926 in Alberta, Canada.

Ruby’s full name was Ruby Sarah Martha Collett. She was born on a large mixed farm at Abbot’s Ripton, Huntingdonshire in 1900. Prior to arriving at RBGE in August 1924 she garnered 5 years’ practical experience working in private and collegiate gardens.

From 1919 to early 1922 Ruby worked as a gardener at Reading University and Loughborough College. During this time she gained the R.H.S. Senior Certificate – 1st Class.  At Loughborough she managed the garden and grounds of five student hostels and supervised a team of assistant lady gardeners.

J.F. Driver, Works Manager at Loughborough College gave Ruby a recommendation for her application to RBGE in which he states:

‘Besides being a good practical gardener Miss Collett has high theoretical qualifications, and has had excellent experience.’  J. F. Driver

In 1923 Ruby started as gardener in a private garden at Pampisford, Cambridgeshire, where she worked under glass and outdoors.  Her employer was Mrs Annie Hudson, the widow of P R Hudson, a significant brewer in Cambridgeshire.

She took up her place at RBGE in the August of 1924 coming from a postion at Anstey Hall, Cambridgeshire, where she was working in the glasshouses.  We know from a personal letter that she roared around Edinburgh on a motorcycle.  Ruby  excelled academically, never receiving a mark below 75 per cent and in two subjects (Systematic Botany and Meteorology) passing with full marks. When she left RBGE in February 1927, Sir William Wright Smith, Regius Keeper, noted in the certificate he issued that:

‘Her work in the Royal Botanic Garden has been performed carefully, skilfully and intelligently and her conduct has been in every respect satisfactory.’

On leaving RBGE Ruby was the first woman to gain a position with the Ministry of Agriculture as an Assistant Inspector of Horticulture. She worked primarily among the orchards in Worcestershire.

In 1933 she re-located to Cornwall, having amassed sufficient capital to purchase a farm of eight small fields covering approximately 12 acres and two cob-walled cottages, to become a producer of good quality flowers and fruit, a long held ambition of hers.  The farm was located at Quenchwell, Perranwell, halfway between Truro and Falmouth.  In March 1934 seed of forty-five shrubs and herbaceous plants, including Lilium regale, Ceanothus veitchianus, Spiraea douglasii  and Meconopsis wallichii, were sent to Ruby from RBGE.

Ruby wrote about her experiences during the first six years’ of her flower farm in an article published in the August 1939 issue of The Journal of the Ministry of Agriculture.

Before Ruby purchased her farm she was advised to make sure the farm was saleable in the event of her failing to make good. Undaunted, she set to work, but with a plan that every endeavour had to be made to make both buildings and equipment serve more than one purpose.  She also improved her farm by building a cottage for her foreman, improving her own cottage and building additional storage and picking sheds, a garage and water tanks.

As well as working on her farm herself, Ruby employed a small staff of three and took on horticultural students and employed seasonal workers for flower harvesting.  One of the first things she tried to assess was whether mechanical or horse power was the best way of powering work on the farm. A rototiller won out over the horses, after some trying experiences. By 1939 the rototiller had more than paid for itself. Ruby continued using the rototiller for four years after which she purchased a tractor for ploughing, rolling and harrowing.

St Brigid anemone

St Brigid anemone

By 1939 the crops cultivated included over an acre of anemones, the same of daffodils and 2 acres of strawberries, with smaller areas of violets, raspberries, blackberries and gooseberries. In the early years of the farm the number of strawberry plants sold was between 50,000 to 70,000 per year and the number of viola plants sold was between 20,000 and 50,000.

Here are a few of Ruby’s observations from her article:

‘I have worked up a connection for plants of high quality, which are despatched to all parts of Great Britain.’

‘I aim at the best; there is no stinting where manures and cultivators are concerned.’

‘I would like to emphasize the great importance of introducing the very best strains and stocks for the initial plantings.’

‘Any success I have achieved I attribute to the experience which comes from being born on a large mixed farm, to having had a horticultural training followed by a varied practical experience, to having enjoyed good health and to the possession of a large capacity for hard work.’

Sometime in the late 1940s Ruby re-located within Cornwall moving to Rosmergy, in the Parish of St. Agnes, in the Wheal Lawrence Valley, a former centre of Cornish copper-mining.  Here she established another flower farm from five fields. Ruby’s enthusiasm for plants meant that she was a very hard worker who expected more of her employees than was perhaps the norm. Someone who worked for her for a short period recalled her as a ‘hard taskmaster.’  One thing that Ruby grew commercially at Rosmergy was shrubs including Pittosporum. Amongst the seeds sent from RBGE in 1934 were seeds of P. crassifolium and P. divaricatumP. crassifolium, a native of New Zealand, was particularly suited to the climate of the south-west and has naturalised in some places in Cornwall.

Pittosporum crassifolium

Pittosporum crassifolium

In a letter, Mrs Isobel Burrows, whose mother was a friend of Ruby’s, describes the beauty of the garden Ruby created around her cottage situated only half a mile from the sea. Ruby planted a protective shelter belt of pines, olearia, griselinia and elaeagnus, within which she grew single specimen trees such as Cornus kousa, eucalyptus and copper beech.  In front of the cottage were a tree paeony and a flowering cherry.  Fuchsia magellanica provided an edging on one side of the drive up to the cottage. The garden was particularly attractive in winter when camellias and Rhododendron ‘Christmas Cheer’ flowered.  Gunnera planted by Ruby is remarked on by walkers in the area to this day.

A keen golfer, Ruby played the game well into her eighties. She created a practice green on part of her land, and tended it with  a particular pride, offering sixpence to any child who could discover a dandelion growing on it.

Ruby reached the age of 90 but sadly died in her garden, in tragic circumstances, on Boxing Day 1990.

Anne Meredith looks in more detail at Miss Collett’s experiences in her thesis ‘Middle class women and horticultural education, 1890-1939’ Ph.D. University of Sussex (2001). [EThOS ID:]

My thanks are due to Mr Tom Thompson (St Agnes Museum (, Mrs Isobel Burrows, and Mr & Mrs John Branfield for providing information about Miss Collett and her garden and nursery at Rosmergy.

Written by Graham Hardy, May 2016

Apr 302016

In 1916, RBGE lost two members of staff in France during the First World War. The first was George Blackmore who was killed in the trenches of the western front in March, the second was Arthur Henry Jones who died in hospital in April 1916, but he wasn’t an infantry man.

Papaver rhoeas from A. Dietrich's Flora Regni Borussici. III; T.185. Berlin, 1835

Papaver rhoeas from A. Dietrich’s Flora Regni Borussici. III; T.185. Berlin, 1835

Arthur Jones was born in Dymock in Gloucestershire in around 1882 to Thomas and Charlotte. He became a porter in a workhouse before becoming a labourer at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh in December 1911. On the outbreak of war Jones enlisted immediately, joining the Royal Army Medical Corps in London on the 5th August 1914. He quickly entered the theatre of war, crossing to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force on the 25th August 1914. Jones ended up working as a ward orderly in the No.11 General Hospital which was situated in the Imperial Hotel on the sea front in Boulogne. The book ‘A Doctor on the Western Front’ (edited by John Hutton, 2013), comprised of the wartime diary entries of Captain Henry (Harry) Barton Owens, describes this hospital, from the point of view of a doctor. He was posted there briefly in September 1915 and referred to life there as

“a complete change in every way. I was able to refresh my memory in medicine and surgery… We lived in luxury in a very nice house let to us fully furnished with bed rooms, bathroom, billiard room, dining room, smoking room, etc. on the sea front at the north end of the town. We bathed in the sea whenever we wanted to, played a good deal of tennis and altogether had a good time and were not too busy.

I suspect things would have been somewhat different for the orderlies, but still, one wonders what caused Arthur Jones’s death if he was not fighting in the trenches? One would imagine that disease would be the most likely cause, but the answer came on the website of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission where one of the documents associated with Jones’s grave in the Etaples Military Cemetery states that he had attained the temporary rank of Acting Corporal, Army Health at the time of his death at the young age of 34 on the 30th April 1916. The cause of death was given as heart failure.

Jones's service card stored in the RBGE Archives

A.H. Jones’s Service Card, RBGE Archives

(RBGE records state that Jones died on the 19th May 1916, but it looks as if we must be mistaken)

Again I am deeply indebted to Garry Ketchen for his genealogical research into the men that appear on RBGE’s War Memorial and his kind permission to use it in these Botanics Stories.

Mar 082016

Bertha Chandler (1885-1961)

Bertha Chandler

Photograph of Bertha Chandler published in Transactions Royal Scottish Society of Arts, 24 (1), October 1939. (Reproduced with permission of RSSA)

In 1901 did Andrew Carnegie know, by donating $10 million to create the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland, that his legacy would assist pioneering women science graduates and researchers, like RBGE’s own Bertha Chandler? Carnegie’s gift came less than ten years after the Scottish universities had begun to admit women as students on the same terms as men, following the passage of the Universities (Scotland) Act, 1889.

Bertha was born in India, whilst her father was in the Army serving overseas. The family moved to Edinburgh in 1900 where Bertha and her sister Edith Kate Chandler (Dawson) were pupils at the Edinburgh Ladies’ College, latterly known as The Mary Erskine School. Edith gained her medical degrees from Edinburgh in 1921 and went on to be an internationally recognised pathologist, whose papers are now held at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.

On leaving school Bertha competed for and gained a Heriot Bursary to assist with the cost of her studies at the University of Edinburgh. There were a number of Heriot Bursaries, including two for women students.

Bertha undertook a joint Arts/Science course of studies and in 1907 graduated with an MA. In July 1908 she also gained a Bachelor of Science (BSc), with special distinction in Botany. Studies in Chemistry and Geology also formed part of Bertha’s joint degree. When Bertha studied at the University of Edinburgh, the Botany Department was based at RBGE and the Professor of Botany, Dr Isaac Bayley Balfour, was also the Regius Keeper of RBGE.

Botany class photo

The RBGE Archive contains this photograph of the Advanced Botany Class, Winter 1907-08, University of Edinburgh. Professor Bayley Balfour is seated in the front row centre, and Bertha is on his left [RBGE Archive]

Sporophyte from notebook

Drawing of ‘Sporophyte’ from Bertha’s Practical Botany Class notebook for the Practical Botany class 1907-08 [RBGE Archive]











From 1908 Bertha worked at RBGE supervised by Bayley Balfour. During that time she undertook the research and experiments that would lead to her obtaining the degree of Doctor of Science (DSc) from the University of Edinburgh in 1913. Bayley Balfour had been the first Edinburgh University student to gain this postgraduate degree. Bertha made Scottish academic history as the first female graduate to attain it.

Bertha’s thesis is on ‘The Theory and Practice of Vegetative Propagation in Flowering Plants.’ A copy of the thesis, with Bertha’s handwritten and signed declaration that the work submitted was done by her, is held in RBGE Archive. The thesis covers dicotyledons, monocotyledons and conifers in turn, and examines stem-cuttings, leaf cuttings and root cuttings as means of vegetative propagation for each group. The thesis is heavily illustrated with diagrams drawn by Bertha, also photographs taken by her and her RBGE colleague Robert Moyes Adam.

Acanthus montana

Photographs in Bertha’s D.Sc. showing ‘Leaf cuttings of Acanthus montana.’ [RBGE Archive]

Bertha was appointed a Carnegie Research Scholar in 1909, thus directly benefitting from Andrew Carnegie’s generosity. The same year she was proposed as a member of the Scottish Horticultural Association. For a number of years Bertha was a member of the SHA’s Scientific Committee.

In 1910 Bertha gained the Anderson-Henry Prize. This prize was awarded for the best and approved essay on a botanical subject proposed by the Professor of Botany, the Curator of the Royal Botanic Garden, and the President of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh.

From 1904-1914 Bayley Balfour re-organised the management of the RBGE collections, creating four Assistant posts, with responsibility for the daily running of the Library, the Museum, the Studio, and the Laboratories. In the period 1912-13 Bertha became the first Assistant in Charge of the Laboratories at RBGE.

RBGE elevation

Section of architectural plan of Laboratory Building, RBGE. [RBGE Archive]

Bertha stopped working at RBGE after her marriage in 1913, and in 1914 gave birth to a daughter, Doris; but did not give up on practical and research based science. Her husband Charles Norman Kemp (1883-1975) had graduated with a B.Sc. (Edinburgh) in 1906, his scientific interests lay more in the area of physics and chemistry than biology. He developed a specific interest in the new field of X-rays, particularly their use in industry but also as applied to medicine.

X-rays entered Bertha’s life at this point also, as during the First World War she worked at the Second General Military Hospital at Craigleith, Edinburgh, operating X-ray equipment. She later gave illustrated lectures on the topic ‘X-Rays in a Military Hospital.’ In 1919 Bertha was elected a member of the Röntgen Society (founded 1897), which in 1927 amalgamated with the British Institute of Radiology.

Another area that Bertha studied was bio-luminescence. Her earliest published paper on ‘Luminosity in Plants’, was published in the Transactions and Proceedings of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh, volume 23 in 1908. Bertha continued to deliver illustrated lectures on this subject during the 1920s and 1930s. Frustratingly the RBGE Archive contains only part of the manuscript of one of these lectures, donated by Bertha’s daughter.

The Royal Scottish Society of Arts was founded in 1821 (and still active today) to promote and encourage the useful arts in Scotland. The ‘useful arts’ covers all areas of applied science, technology, engineering and manufacture. In 1921 Bertha applied to the Council of the RSSA for a grant from the Keith Bequest to undertake ‘Investigations in the Applications of X-rays to the examination of Materials, with special reference to the radiographic appearances of abnormal conditions in Timber.’

Bertha reviewed the literature and started some experiments but in 1922 submitted a progress report which notes that her research:

‘was interrupted for some time by the transference of attention to the X-Ray examination of coal … This field of investigation also was found to have been almost entirely neglected, and was soon seen to have important and far-reaching possibilities’

Bertha does not appear to have undertaken research after this date, however, she did continue to give illustrated lectures and attend scientific symposia. She also served on the Council of the RSSA for two periods, 1926-1929 and 1938-1943. Bertha died on 23 November 1961.

It is fitting that we celebrate and acknowledge her contribution to RBGE and her practical research across a variety of scientific disciplines through the first decades of women science graduates in Edinburgh.


Written by Graham Hardy, Serials Librarian, RBGE

AthenaSWAN logo International Womens Day logo

Mar 072016
George Blackmore's Service Card, RBGE Archives

George Blackmore’s Service Card, RBGE Archives

In March 2016 we remembered the life of George Blackmore, a man who worked at RBGE as a labourer until the beginning of the First World War in 1914. Documents held at RBGE give the briefest of information about him; his employment as labourer at RBGE began on the 2nd October 1913 and he enlisted with the 7th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers on the 1st September 1914. His rank is given as Sergeant, but a note from his wife Margaret on our service record card tells us that he gave up this rank, with no reason given, making him a Private. He died of wounds received in action on the 7th March 1916.

Papaver rhoeas from M.A. Burnett's 'Plantae utiliores; or Illustrations of Useful Plants, employed in the Arts and Medicine', 1842

Papaver rhoeas from M.A. Burnett’s ‘Plantae utiliores; or Illustrations of Useful Plants, employed in the Arts and Medicine’, 1842

Genealogical research can tell us more about Blackmore’s life, and I’m very grateful to Garry Ketchen for conducting this research and allowing me to use it. Blackmore was probably born in 1870 in Edinburgh to Henry, a groom, and Susanna, a laundress. George Blackmore became a mason before enlisting with the 2nd then 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers in Ayr in October 1892.  He served in East India and eventually attained the rank of Lance Corporal before being discharged in October 1913, at which point his employment at RBGE started. At the outbreak of War, Blackmore would have been around 44 years of age, older than most of his colleagues who were enlisting, but the army would have been keen to recruit experienced soldiers and Blackmore re-enlists in Edinburgh on the 1st September 1914, becoming Private 7494 of the 7th Royal Scots Fusiliers. An extensive period of training followed in England (Aldershot, Bramshott, Basingstoke and Draycott) before Blackmore’s battalion finally entered the theatre of war in July 1915, although Ketchen’s research states that Blackmore did not reach France until the 17th November 1915. Less than four months later, on the 7th March 1916, he was dead, his remains now buried in the Lapugnoy Cemetery near Bethune.

There was no specific battle that day.  It appears that the Royal Scots Fusiliers were engaged in holding the Western Front line near Loos where so many Scottish soldiers had lost their lives since the British army began their offensive against the German opposition there in September the year before.  John Buchan describes the winter the 7th Battalion would have just experienced in his book outlining the ‘History of the Royal Scots Fusiliers (1678-1918)’ published in 1925:

“In this area [Loos] throughout the winter of 1915-16 the trials of the Fifteenth Division were very severe.  The Hohenzollern sector, in particular, could perhaps be best described as an open battlefield when taken over in October 1915 by the 45th Brigade, of which the 7th Royal Scots Fusiliers formed part…  Communications through the old British trench system, across the previous no-man’s land, to the old German trenches now held by our own men, were lengthy as well as exposed, so that reliefs and the tasks of carrying-parties were both perilous and exhausting.  The mine warfare, combined with the heavy hostile artillery and trench mortar fire, took its toll.  The strain on battalions can perhaps best be understood when it is realised that during two of these months in the trenches, the Fifteenth Division suffered 3,000 casualties.”

It’s obvious there would still have been skirmishes and sniper attacks on the front-line on a daily basis and it appears that George Blackmore may have been a victim of one of these.

In Buchan’s book I found the below poem, written by Lieut-Col A.M.H. Forbes, a fellow Royal Scots Fusilier, in which he describes with humour some of the conditions experienced by the soldiers during their first winter in France in 1914.  I think Blackmore may have had similar experiences the following winter and so I include it here.

“I came to France prepared to shed my blood,

But not to perish miserably in mud,

I’m ready to attack with might and main,

And here I’ve sat six weeks inside a drain,

While all that’s left of Bill, who took a snooze,

Is just a bayonet rising from the ooze.-

You find me out a bit of ground that’s dry

And I’ll soon show the savage Alleman why;

But now I can’t advance against the brutes

With half a ton of France upon my boots!”




Feb 232016

With Valentine’s Day occurring recently it may be apt to recount the story of a nineteenth century Royal visit to RBGE, and tell the stories behind two red roses named in honour of the visitors.

From the visit in October 1861 of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert until the present time, many members of the British Royal Family have made official and semi-official visits to the Garden.

In the summer of 1881, Victoria and Albert’s second son, H.R.H. Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh visited RBGE on two separate occasions.  The first visit was on the 26th July,  the day he officially opened new docks at Leith. Prince Alfred planted a commemorative tree, a Quercus conferta (Hungarian oak) to mark his visit.  This species is now known as Quercus frainetto.

The second visit, accompanied by the Duchess of Edinburgh, was exactly a month later.  The Duchess was Maria Alexandrovna the daughter of Tsar Alexander II of Russia.  Her marriage to Prince Alfred took place in the Imperial Chapel of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg  on 23 January 1874.  You can view a painting of the occasion on the Royal Collections website.

The Duke and Duchess were visiting Scotland in a party of the Royal Family headed by Queen Victoria. They visited RBGE on their last day in Edinburgh, before heading on to Dundee. The carriage conveying the royal visitors arrived at the Garden at 12.30 and they were met by  Professor Alexander Dickson, Regius Keeper, Emeritus-Professor John Hutton Balfour, Regius Keeper from 1845-1879,  and John Sadler, Curator.  Having received prior notification of a  royal visit a site had been prepared to receive a commemorative tree, and a young birch tree selected. The Duchess performed the tree planting ceremony.  Having filled in a few spadefuls of soil, she asked Mr Sadler if that was sufficient.  Sadler replied that it would require more soil if the tree was to live.  The Duchess smilingly replied, ‘A little more?’ and added another two spadefuls. Tree duly planted, the party proceeded to what a contemporary news report calls ‘the new class-room.’ This building is now known as the RBGE Lecture Theatre.

The Duchess was then presented with a handsome bouquet of flowers by Sadler’s youngest daughters, Ada (4 and a half) and Isaacina (18 months), and the company then proceeded to view the palm houses and the hothouses before departing, cheered by ‘a number of persons who had assembled in the Garden.’

And the roses… Well, all plant breeders like to catch contemporary events by naming new cultivars after current personalities or events.

Prince Alfred was created Duke of Edinburgh in 1866. The Hertfordshire rose growers Paul & Son had unnamed seedling rose, which sent out a flower of ‘brilliant colour’ in 1865, after testing, this seedling (one of whose parents was Rosa ‘General Jacqueminot’) was issued in 1868 as Rosa ‘Duke of Edinburgh.’

Noted rosarian Canon S. Reynolds Hole commended the rose as ‘one of the most brilliant; good in autumn.’ Gertrude Jekyll included it in a list of best roses in her ‘Roses for English gardens’ (1903), noting that it was ‘A bright and strong-growing exhibition and garden Rose.’

Perhaps this cultivar behaved differently overseas as Jekyll’s American contemporary H.B. Ellwanger commented that ‘Occasionally this is very fine early in the season, but the flowers lack substance and durability of color. It is more shy in the autumn than the parent; not to be commended for general culture.’

Perhaps befitting a royal rose, twentienth century rose grower, Peter Beales notes ‘not easy to grow except in the very best soils.’

Specialist rose growers still supply the cultivar.

Unfortunately no copyright free colour image of this rose has been found in the Library collections here at RBGE. Here is a monochrome image which appeared in The Garden in 1888.

Rose 'Duke of Edinburgh' from 'The Garden' 29 September 1888

Rose ‘Duke of Edinburgh’ from ‘The Garden’ 29 September 1888

A colour plate of this rose was featured in Paul Hariot’s Le livre d’or des roses: Iconographie, histoire et culture de la rose (1903).  This is a work that we do not hold at RBGE.

In the year of the marriage of Prince Alfred and Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna, two French rose growers independently named new rose cultivars ‘Duchess of Edinburgh.’

The one sent out by Dunand, raised by Schwartz, was not considered valuable.

The other cultivar, raised by Nabonnand, with Rosa ‘Souvenir de David d’Angers’ as one of its parents, was much more favourably received. This rose was sent out by leading UK nurserymen Veitch & Son.

Although promoted in horticultural journals at the time, see colour image below, this rose drops out of guides to rose growing around 1900. Clematis ‘Duchess of Edinburgh’ on the other hand, also named in honour of Maria, Duchess of Edinburgh, is a garden plant that is still available to-day.

Chromolithograph of 'Rose Duchess of Edinburgh' from 'The Garden', 15 January 1876

Chromolithograph of ‘Rose Duchess of Edinburgh’ from ‘The Garden’, 15 January 1876

And in case you are wondering if the Prince-Duke and the Duchess lived happily ever after, that’s another story, and a tragic one in places.


Images sourced in RBGE Library Illustrations Files and Periodicals Collection.


Jan 012016
Arthur Conan Doyle's signature in the 1877 Botany Class Roll held at RBGE.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s signature in the 1877 Botany Class Roll held at RBGE.

In amongst the institutional archives of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh are items relating to the teaching of botany here, including lists of students going back to 1798.  It occurred to me that it should be possible to find amongst these lists the name, and perhaps even a signature, of someone still in the public eye today, someone who had studied botany in the past, perhaps as part of a medical degree.  These flights of fancy are usually fruitless, but this time it wasn’t long before I actually did spot a name still familiar to everyone, especially now that his stories about the detective Sherlock Holmes are enjoying a popular resurgence – that of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  His signature can be found in two of our Class Roll books, showing that he attended lectures here in medical botany and vegetable histology in 1877.

Library volunteer Diana Wilkinson has looked at Doyle’s early life and his time at Edinburgh University and has written the following post for Botanics Stories:

Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was born in 1859 at 11 Picardy Place, Edinburgh (aerial photo, monuments) the eldest son and third of nine children of Charles Doyle, an artist and draughtsmen and his wife Mary. In 1867 the Doyle family moved to an overcrowded tenement flat at 3 Sciennes Place, Edinburgh, where Arthur headed a local street gang of boys. Funded by wealthy uncles he attended Hodder preparatory school from 1868 to 1870 and Stoneyhurst College from 1870 to 1875, then spending his final year of schooling in Feldkirch, Austria. In 1876 Conan Doyle entered Edinburgh University Medical School.
While at medical school Conan Doyle started writing and his first published story ‘The Mystery of Sarassa Valley’ appeared in Chamber’s Edinburgh Journal in September 1879. In the same month he published his first non-fictional article Gelseminum as a poison (herbarium specimen) in the British Medical Journal. His university studies were interrupted by work as a doctor’s assistant in Birmingham and service as a ship’s doctor on a Greenland whaler and he graduated MB CM in 1881 (alumni entry). He added his MD, also from Edinburgh, in 1885 (title page of thesis).

Conan Doyle built a successful medical practice in Portsmouth and in 1885 married Louisa Hawkins. His literary career progressed apace, developing the short story format from the examples of Guy de Maupassant and the Edinburgh medical journal articles. The first Sherlock Holmes and Dr.Watson story ‘A Study in Scarlet’ was published in 1887 in Beeton’s Christmas Annual.
In 1891 Conan Doyle moved with his family to London and in that year the Holmes and Watson stories began appearing regularly in the newly founded Strand magazine. Because Conan Doyle feared he would only be known for his detective stories he killed Holmes off in ‘The Final Problem’ in December 1893 and turned his attention to historical fiction (though Holmes was resurrected in 1903). He continued to have some involvement with the University of Edinburgh, establishing a scholarship for a student in the Faculty of Medicine in 1902. His wife Louise died in 1906 and the following year he married Jean Leckie with whom he had 3 children. He continued writing and in his later years developed a strong interest in spirituality. Conan Doyle died at his home in Sussex in 1930 (letter written from his home in Sussex).

Connection with the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh

In order to graduate with a degree in medicine from the University of Edinburgh at that time, students were required to have undertaken 4 years of education and, in each year, to have attended two six month courses of lectures or one of six and two three month ones. In practice (according to his memoirs) Conan Doyle compressed his classes into half a year in order that he could earn money to support his studies and his family working variously as an outpatient clerk to the influential Dr. Joseph Bell (portrait), as a medical assistant in Birmingham and on board the Greenland whaler SS Hope from February to August 1880.
Botany was a compulsory subject and medical students attended a three month course of lectures at the Royal Botanic Garden (RBGE) for every year of their studies, totalling no less than 50 lectures. Botany was then examined as part of their Professional examinations along with subjects such as anatomy, chemistry, Institutes of Medicine, Surgery, etc. Botany exams, as far as possible, were conducted by demonstrations of objects placed before the candidates and through written and oral examinations.

The 1877 Botany Class Roll showing Conan Doyle taking two classes off due to illness.

The 1877 Botany Class Roll showing Conan Doyle taking two classes off due to illness.

As part of his degree Conan Doyle completed a summer course on Vegetable Histology and Practical Biology at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, attending lectures on 4 days a week from May to July 1877. At that time he was living at 2 Argyle Park Terrace, listed in the Post Office Directory as possibly a lodging house run by a Mrs. Burnside with one female and four male residents including Conan Doyle.

John Hutton Balfour in his University robes, 1879.

John Hutton Balfour in his University robes, 1879.

According to his own ‘Memories and Adventures’ published in 1924, Conan Doyle did not enjoy his medical training describing it as ‘one long weary grind at botany, chemistry, anatomy, physiology and a whole list of compulsory subjects many of which have a very indirect bearing on the art of curing’. In these recollections he describes his various professors including Professor J. Hutton Balfour who was Regius Keeper of the Botanic Garden between 1845 and 1879, as well as Professor of Botany at the University. “Balfour, with the face and manner of John Knox, a hard, rugged old man who harried his students in their exams, and was, in consequence, harried by them for the rest of the year”.

Plan in the RBGE Archives showing the classroom layout in the 1880-90s. This is now our conference room.

Plan in the RBGE Archives showing the classroom layout in the 1880-90s. This is now our conference room.

At that time those studying botany at the Botanic Gardens did so in some discomfort. The Regius Keeper’s Report for 1877 notes the lack of funding to run the gardens and particularly the poor state of accommodation for students. He comments that the class room could accommodate a maximum of 230 students yet numbers attending were 389 (students of medicine, science and pharmacy as well as general students) and that he was compelled to lecture in “an over-crowded room, the vitiated air of which is injurious to the health of the lecturer and his pupils”.  Students regularly petitioned the Office of Works and the Regius Keeper as well as the University and in 1878 provided details of the severity of the overcrowding; “Every possible means have been taken for getting accommodation by filling the passage with stools and forms, occupying the platform where the Professor lectures, removing an important table for holding the plants for demonstration, and by filling the outer lobby with seats”. There is no record of Conan Doyle attending lectures at the Botanic Gardens after 1877 as far as we know, but despite the conditions, botany was the only subject within his degree course which Conan Doyle was known to have excelled.

Certificate issued by John Hutton Balfour in 1876 at the end of the Botany course - presumably Conan Doyle would have received a similar one the year after.

Certificate issued by John Hutton Balfour in 1876 at the end of the Botany course – presumably Conan Doyle would have received a similar one the year after.

Conan Doyle draws on his experiences in his partly autobiographical thriller ‘The Firm of Girdlestone’ published in 1890. One of the minor characters, Tom Dimsdale, is a medical student at Edinburgh University. In Chapter 9, entitled ‘A Nasty Cropper’ there is a detailed description of Tom’s botany exams and his examiner. “This venerable teacher of botany, though naturally a kind-hearted man, was well known as one of the most malignant species of examiners, one of the school which considers such an ordeal in the light of a trial of strength between their pupils and themselves”, which sounds rather like his description of Balfour in his memoirs.
Conan Doyle clearly draws on his medical knowledge including botany and the use of plants as poisons in his Sherlock Holmes stories. Dr. Watson ‘Knowledge of Botany: Variable. Well up in belladonna, opium, and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening’ as one of Holmes’ 12 strengths and weaknesses and refers to his knowledge of botany in other contexts e.g. in ‘The Study in Scarlet’.

Credit goes to Diana Wilkinson for writing this Botanics Story, which although about Conan Doyle has actually shed some light on Hutton Balfour as a teacher which I found particularly interesting. Diana received a little help from Lorna Stoddart who is working on a PhD on Balfour, and myself, and I’m grateful to Elspeth Haston and staff at the National Galleries of Scotland, Historic Environment Scotland and the Edinburgh University Library for working on linking this Story with other collections across Edinburgh.  The collection of student class roll books is currently being listed by library volunteer Anne Taylor.


Leonie Paterson, Archivist at RBGE