In May 1810 the McNab family took up residence in Botanics Cottage, then on its original site on Leith Walk. The family consisted of William, his wife Elizabeth, – they had married in 1808 – their daughter Catherine Mary, aged 14 months, and their month-old son James.
Elizabeth was London born and Ayrshireman William had been employed at Kew Gardens since 1801. They arrived in Edinburgh (more correctly Leith, as they had travelled by sea) because William had accepted the appointment as Principal Gardener [Curator] of the Botanic Garden. Although the post was a promotion – William had been a foreman gardener from 1803 – the salary was less than what he had received at Kew.
In the estimation of Professor Sir Isaac Bayley Balfour, Regius Keeper of RBGE from 1888-1922, William McNab
“of all the [RBGE] Principal Gardeners stands highest in reputation in Horticulture and is deservedly placed in the front rank of the world’s gardeners”Principal Gardeners – william mcnab in notes from the royal botanic garden edinburgh, 3: 297 (March 1908)
One of William’s earliest innovations was to introduce regular plant record documentation at RBGE.
Making use of his professional network William introduced plants to Edinburgh from areas of the world being investigated for the first time by Europeans. RBGE trained gardeners mentored by William collected in Cape Province and in the Altai Mountains.
The transfer of the Edinburgh Botanic Garden from Leith Walk to Inverleith between 1820-1824 was masterminded by William. He developed special transplanting apparatus to successful move the trees between the old and the new garden.
James, the infant who arrived with his parents, went on to succeed his father as Curator at RBGE, and his contribution to the ongoing development of RBGE could equally merit Bayley Balfour’s praise of his father. William as the pioneer just takes the pole position.
Botanics Cottage would witness Elizabeth giving birth to seven more children, between 1812 and 1824.
Margaret, second daughter of William and Elizabeth was born on 10th March 1812.
In May 1834 Margaret was seriously ill when her eldest brother James set out with retired Perth nurseryman, Robert Brown, on a nine-month collecting tour of the northeastern part of the United States and the part of Canada around the Great Lakes. Four months later James and Mr Brown were lodging with Robert Buist, a former RBGE employee, who had established a nursery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. James notes in his tour diary, held in RBGE Archives
“After arriving in town we got a cart and went to Mr. Buists and found our boxes had arrived from Pittsburg, here I received the letters from home of dates June 13th, June 22d., June 29th and July 6th, and here for the first time I received the melancholy tidings of the departure of to another world of my dear sister Margaret, it was nothing more than I was prepared to expect from the state represented to me, in the letters which I received at Toronto, Little did I expect on the 11th of June, the distress of my family at home, In turning to that date in my journal I find that my attention had been more taken up with the wind, which this day was more changeable to us, than any other which we experienced – My mind is now at rest on this subject but has caused me more thought than any thing I can recollect off, sometimes it would seem to me that she had got well, and would be the first to meet me on my return, again nothing could persuade me from thinking of the worst, On coming to Pittsburg, which place I was anxious to reach as early as possible and come into it all of a tremble, expecting there to be made acquainted with the melancholy occurrence – “From Manuscript journal kept by james McNab during 1834 tour of parts of north america, held in rbge library special collections
Margaret was buried in a grave William acquired for his family in Edinburgh’s New Calton Cemetery. In September 1844 Elizabeth was buried beside her daughter.
In the early hours of 1st December 1848 William died at the Curator’s House at RBGE Inverleith and was the last family member to be interred in the grave.
The 1st December 2023 is the 175th anniversary of William McNab’s death and to remember the contributions made to RBGE by him, and and his wife and daughter, on 10th November 2022 RBGE staff planted a selection of bulbs, tubers and corms on the grave, to flower in succession through 2023. In July 2023 a batch of seedlings of Verbena bonariensis were planted to augment the bulbs, and provide blooms in late autumn. The verbena flowers were still blooming on 30th November.
Regular visits have been made to the grave on the first weekend of each month to record the plants as they came up and flowered and to tidy the grave. Additional visits were made during the summer to prune buddleja on the adjacent grave and to clear weeds.
The flowers will continue to bulk up and bloom on the grave in years to come. So if at any time you are passing either from Calton Road to Regent Road or the reverse, please step a little way from the main path and pause at the grave, and if you see a weed, remove it.
Note, the cemetery is on a hillside and there is a steep flight of twelve steps at the Calton Road entrance but there are no steps at the Regent Road entrance although the entrance is on a slope.