It was difficult to spot there even was a figure in a Victorian photo of the RBGE Rock Garden which was transferred to the Archives last week, and even when I did spot him I didn’t think much of it at the time as it is so rare that anyone in a photo of that age can be identified. It was only when I was looking in detail at the image for another reason that I looked again at the figure and could see immediately the striking resemblance between him and James McNab (1810-1878) who was Head Gardener at RBGE from 1848 until his death. Scanning and magnifying the figure left it beyond doubt for me.
One of McNab’s most impressive achievements was considered to be his Rock Garden, situated in the south east corner of RBGE’s Inverleith site (although some did not agree, Reginald Farrer most famously referring to it as the ‘Devil’s Lapful… to be remembered with shudders ever after’). It is therefore most fitting that he be photographed surveying the results of his design, the standout points being the numerous artificial mounds named after prominent alpine botanists, each with their own monkey puzzle tree, and all the little brick planting compartments made from the dismantled wall which once separated the RBGE from the Experimental Garden of the Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society which had been located on the site of the Rock Garden.
The date of the photograph ties in with McNab’s timeline – it appears that it was taken in around 1874 and was used as an engraving in a supplement to the Gardener’s Chronicle in 1875 (though with McNab cropped out). Interestingly, now that this figure has been identified as McNab, it has allowed me to spot that another more well-known photograph, this one of the Sabal Palm in the tropical Palm House, likely taken at the same time and also used in the Gardener’s Chronicle as an engraving in 1874 and 1875, also has James McNab in it – the figure is less clear, but plainly the same one as in the Rock Garden image. This again is entirely logical, as Head Gardener McNab was heavily involved in the re-tubbing of the palms in the glass houses and wrote an article on the subject, published in 1873 by the Botanical Society of Edinburgh.
Despite the fact that two of the photographs are relatively unclear, I still think that going from one photo of McNab to potentially three in one day is pretty good going!