At 4 o’clock in the morning on the 23rd of September 1780, a brutal assault took place on Princes Street. A group of armed smugglers ‘beat and wounded’ John Williamson, a customs officer, after he gave chase that fateful morning, presumably having caught them red handed. Soon after, this plaque (see image) was erected at the long lost Leith Walk incarnation of the Royal Botanic Garden, commemorating the life of this man… but why?
Well, John Williamson was not only a customs officer, but also the head gardener at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh for twenty years, and responsible for carrying out Regius Keeper John Hope’s grand plan to amalgamate the two historic sites of the Royal Botanic Garden at Holyrood and what is now Waverley Station, in a new garden on Leith Walk. Williamson was the first person to live in Botanic Cottage, a building designed to act as a home for the head gardener, as well as a teaching space for the Regius Keeper. Hope was so affected by the shocking way that Williamson – who was so dedicated, skilled and successful in his job at the Botanic Garden – had died, that he commissioned a plaque to be carved in his honour. It is thought that it was designed by one of the most eminent architects of the day, James Craig, at a cost of £2 17s 8d. Whilst we cannot be certain, all evidence points to the plaque having been placed on the building which was once Williamson’s home: Botanic Cottage.
It is notable that when the Botanics moved to their current site in Inverleith, this memorial was taken and re-erected in the present garden. It is hoped that when Botanic Cottage is rebuilt, the plaque will be returned to the front of this building, the home of John Williamson.
You can find out more about John Williamson in Alan G. Morton’s memoir of John Hope, revised by H.J. Noltie in 2011.