Seeds of Blood and Beauty: Scottish Plant Hunters
At our joint ‘Spring Lecture’ on 15 March 2018, with Friends of The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Author and journalist, Ann Lindsay, set out to explain ‘how a handful of Scots have hunted out and introduced into the West, more plants from around the world than all the other European Nations combined’.
They were explorers as well as collectors and their quests took them from familiar Scottish towns to far-flung territories across the world in search of exotic specimens, the lure of adventure and the chance to seek a fortune.
But what made the Scots in particular, such good plant hunters? There were many opportunities for work in estates across the country or in the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Apprentices were highly literate, already products of the Scottish Parish Schools system, they were taught botany, had a good knowledge of horticultural practice and importantly were disciplined, with a good work ethic. Scots were head gardeners on several estates in England and the Scottish gardening fraternity had its own very excellent ‘Bush Telegraph’, which enabled younger gardeners to seek employment opportunities via their older counterparts. None was more important than Philip Miller (1691-1771), who Ann described as the Scottish ‘Godfather in London’, the doyen of the Chelsea Physic Garden, which he ran for decades. His Scottish father had insisted on only employing Scottish gardeners, resulting in a ready pool of talented Scottish horticulturalists to choose from.
The Chelsea Physic Garden provided invaluable experience for Miller’s young Scots assistants. Miller, a great plantsman wrote ‘The Gardeners Dictionary’ in 1731. He trained William Aiton (1731-1793) from Hamilton, who became the Head Gardener at Kew and also William Forsyth (1737-1804) from Old Meldrum, who was Head Gardener at Kensington to King George III.