Patrick Neill, Doyen of Scottish Horticulture

An Esoteric Essay by Clive Justice, PhD, FCSLA
Landscape and Plant Historian

Forbes Robertson does a right fine job of bringing to the light of day and presenting Patrick Neill’s horticultural works, writings and travels that occurred during the closing and immediate post war decades of the Napoleonic Wars. This period from the turn of the century to end of the war, (1800 to 1815) has unfortunately been lumped in with the Victorian era. When Victoria came to the throne in 1837 it was the rebirth of gardening and horticultural practices that helped build the British Empire. What had gone on horticulturally prior to her ascendency had been building during the wars through the efforts of Sir Joseph Banks. When Banks died in 1820, he left a legacy of exotic plant discoveries the first with his own plant findings on the Capt Cook voyage to the Antipodes. The Scottish Surgeon-botanists, John Houston with his Caribbean and Southern US plant discoveries, and introductions of Archibald Menzies’ plant discoveries with Capt Vancouver in the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands, New Zealand and North America’s North Pacific Coast.

Banks charge to Sir William Jackson Hooker to send out plant collectors to find new plants for Queen Charlotte’s garden at Kew [to make it into the world’s greatest garden and the repository for the world’s plants both living and dead.] It is no wonder that Patrick Neill’s work lay unpublished in the university of Edinburgh with rival University of Glasgow’s William Joseph Hooker at then Kew’s helm and busy writing his classic Flora Boreali-Americana. This description of the plants of Northern Parts of North America would be made up largely from these plant collections made by the ex-navy surgeon-botanists /naturalists Hooker had trained for the navy at the university of Glasgow. Robertson’s complaint that Patrick Neill’s horticultural writings and other works were not published in his lifetime and some are now lost, seems to pale a bit in comparison to the work two of his contemporary Lothian plantsmen: Navy Surgeon- naturalist Dr John Richardson who was a member of the Wernerian Natural History Society in Edinburgh which Patrick Neill had founded and was also a keen gardener so they must have known each other. Richardson was on the first Arctic overland Expedition under Captain Franklin, 1820-22 and the second, also overland down the Mckenzie River in 1825-27 but fortunately when Franklin departed on the ill-fated voyage by ship to find the Northwest Passage, Richardson was not with them. He led the second search for Franklin overland with John Rae in 1848-51.


David Douglas met Richardson at Cumberland House at the time of early summer of 1823, they were preparing for the voyage home after returning from the First Franklin expedition. David Douglas made by far the largest contribution to botany through his plant discoveries and seed introductions; Richardson to natural history, ecology, geology and zoology. Their contributions and discoveries (particularly those of David Douglas) helped Hooker to assemble and publish his Flora Boreali-Americana, in 1840. Neither of their Journals were published in their lifetimes. Journal kept by David Douglas 1823-1827, not until 1914, by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) and John Richardson, not until 1984 with C. Stuart Houston’s, Arctic Ordeal, The Journal of John Richardson. Surgeon-Naturalist with Franklin 1820-1822.

On a personal note, in the 1980s while on an American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboretums (AABGA) tour, hosted by the Devonian Botanical Gardens of Edmonton, Alberta, one of our tour guides talking about the prairie ecology brought up the name of a little prairie animal called Richardson’s Squirrel. Naively not knowing, I asked, who was Richardson? Thinking of plant names bearing the names of their finders like Douglas-fir not the discoverer Archibald Menzies but the introducer, David Douglas (also discoverer of many prairie grasslands plants). Not one member of the tour group or the tour guides could tell us who Richardson was. This prompted me to consult David Douglas’ Journal as I remembered his mention of meeting a John Richardson whom he much admired at some place during his botanizing and collection as gentleman guest of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC)North American territories.

David Douglas (1788-1834) not yet thirty had been collecting in HBC’s New Caledonia, territory from Fort George on the Fraser in the north to Klamath Falls in the South from his base at HBC Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River. Working from the fort he botanized extensively in northern New Caledonia (BC), lost all his collection when his canoe overturned shooting the Fraser River rapids, south of Fort George. His collections in future BC coastal areas, Washington, Oregon, and northern Spanish California made it home in company ships in sealed tin boxes. These were provided by the HBC on the instructions from the newly formed London, later RHS secretary, Joseph Sabine.

Douglas’ botanizing collections with the returning fur brigade up the Columbia and over the Athabaska Pass down the River of the same name to Jasper House where they joined the northern northwest fur brigade out of Fort George. The combined brigades continuing down the Slave to Fort Vermillion to collect the furs from the western Arctic and return back up with all the furs to Edmonton House, on the North Saskatchewan River. Douglas and a small party left the fur Brigade to Portage overland by horseback over the thawing wetlands that lie between the Peace and Fort Edmonton. Here Douglas sent his botanical collection to date in a sealed tin box onto Vancouver for shipment back to London. The box arrived at the London LRS before Douglas did.

His adventures with the combined fur brigade flotilla in York boats, canoes and pole barges on the North Saskatchewan were not all botanizing. On the Upland Plains before Fort Carleton, the hunting party from the brigade stampeded the herd of bison they were hunting. One of the party, his friend Mr F. McDonald was found badly gored and lay bleeding from his left thigh, broken ribs, dislocated wrist and severe bruising.

From Douglas’ Journal, Pg74 “ Poor Mr. McDonald was so placed for two and a half hours bleeding and at the point of death, and that under cloud of night, which gave us scarcely any opportunity of rescuing, for the animal was within a few paces and we were fearful to fire lest a shot should take him. By the activity of Mr Harriott and my assistance he was saved. I bound up the wounds and afforded all the assistance a small medicine chest and my slender knowledge could suggest. We passed hastily on, in hope of finding Dr Richardson, but on our arrival found the doctor had gone to Cumberland House. At Carleton House I had the pleasure to meet Mr Drummond, of Captain Franklin’s party, who spent the greater part of his time in the Rocky Mountains, contiguous to the sources of the Rivers Athabaska and Columbia.

Douglas was wary of the older Drummond as he was infringing on Douglas’ territory. His journal continues: Mr. Drummond had a princely collection. I had intended to cross the plain from this place (Carleton House) to Swan and Red Rivers, but from the hostile disposition of the Stone Indians deemed unsafe. [largely a figment of Douglas’ fear of the unknown] I descended [the Saskatchewan River] to Cumberland house, and found there Dr Richardson, who kindly showed me parts of the princely collection of natural history made during the expedition. This part of the of the country has been well described in the former narrative of Captain (now Sir John) Franklin that it leaves me no room; I shall therefore only notice my stages.

Douglas was fully aware of the rigid British hierarchical system in place in Britain at the time as he was younger and a better Botanist than the other two older men, Drummond and Richardson, but was low man on the totem pole in the hierarchy and not even on it in regard to the British Navy order. Douglas was also paranoid about keeping his plant discoveries secret and was bent on besting others in plant collecting. So he took off south via Lake Winnipeg to the Red and Assinaboine Rivers in Lord Selkirk’s settlement. He botanized along the lake’s west side getting there, all through the settlement, and all the way back down the lake on the east side to Fort York and onto the Nelson River and down to Hudson’s Bay where he took the HBC supply ship back to England. The botanical collection from his botanizing from Fort Edmonton along the Saskatchewan River to Hudson’s Bay and the Manitoba lakes and along the Rivers in the Selkirk settlement consisted of 288 species many of which were new to me, . . . and had I stayed with Mr Drummond and Dr Richardson on the Saskatchewan, these would have been omitted. Douglas had won a round for his patron Sir William Hooker and Kew Gardens.

And yes, the ground squirrel. There are four species of them in the Arctic namely: Parry’s, Franklin’s, Richardson’s and the Thirteen-lined [striped] ground squirrel in the Genus: Spermophilos Parryi, S. Franklinii, S. Richardsonii, and S. tridecemlineatus. We know them today as Marmots. Why another British Navy Captain got his name attached to the Arctic marmots scientific name is another story too long to tell here. All four are known to dig tunnels in the Canadian Arctic tundra.

Talking about tunnels and tunnellings brings up horticulturist Patrick Neill’s home place ‘Canon Mills’ in the Midlothian hills south east of Edinburgh. The Leith /Newhaven Railway Company wanted to tunnel a rail line under his garden. Neill fought it through the Edinburgh Court for many years but finally lost out to the Railway. The tunnel is probably still in use but the garden that was above the Railway Tunnel is probably long gone.

The conversation continued around this subject and we came to something completely different: They say there is a connection between everything in nature. so here goes ! The surgeon botanist connection brings about an interesting read. There were other accounts of their healing works on the journey beside the one relate above with the Bison, and also some intriguing stories within these adventures:

It all started with a quote from Arctic Ordeal (the Journal of John Richardson, Surgeon-Naturalist with Franklin, 1820-1822, Editor, C. Stuart Houston, Illustrator, Albert Hochbaum, 1984, McGill University Press, Kingston and Montreal) Chapter 8 Rescue and Recovery-Section Commentary, Indexed as Breastfeeding by Males, pgs 187-8 “Richardson with great medical interest reported Wentzel’s story of the Chipewyan Indian man who had raised his infant after his wife had died in childbirth, feeding the infant meatbroth (perhaps one of the earliest records of meat based formula) and suckling it successfully at his breast. The editor continues Macleod and Glover, in Franklin’s first expedition, may not be justified in claiming that Richardson was a gullible victim of a Wentzel hoax (it wasn’t). Editor Stuart Houston continues. We now know that males as well as females, have the hormone prolactin and can produce milk (inappropriate galactorrhea or inappropriate lactation are the technical terms). In some parts of Africa, it is common for grandmothers, up to 50 years of age to put their grandchild to the breast.1 There are a few well documented cases of men successfully nursing infants, including that of a negro male wet nurse who was displayed before a medical class in Maryland in 1827; milk from the male breast is nourishing. (1. Robert Greenblatt Medical Aspects of Human Sexuality 1972; see also Cecil Slome 1956; 2. John Knott 1907 and R.C. Creasy, JAMA vol.58, 1912; and Alexander Von Humboldt of the electric eel and the Humboldt current, in Travels and Researches of Baron Humboldt, 1833, p79

Robertson, Forbes W. , Patrick Neill , 1776–1851: Doyen of Scottish Horticulture, 2011, Whittles Publishing Ltd. Dunbeath, Caithness KW6 6EG, Scotland, UK

For a different perspective see REVIEW BY SALLY EVANS on the same book.