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George Don senior  1764-1814

George Don senior was born at Ireland Farm in the parish of Menmuir in Angus.  When he was about 8 or 9 the family moved to Forfar.  He must have started his working life very early, as firstly he was a shoemaker’s apprentice in Forfar, and then was a clockmaker‘s apprentice in Dunblane.  He spent time working in London as a clockmaker but by the age of 15 he went to work alongside his uncle in the gardens of Dupplin Castle, Perthshire.

George then spent 8 years working in England as a gardener before resuming his trade as a watchmaker, this time in Glasgow.

By 1797 George and his wife Caroline Stewart had obtained a plot of

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Ireland Farm, Menmuir 2012

© Norman Atkinson

land in Forfar known as Dove or Doohillock. He built a house there and began his Botanic Garden which included a nursery and market garden. The garden soon earned a reputation for its range and rarity of hardy plants.  This brought many famous visitors to the garden.   He also corresponded with many of the most learned men of the time.

In 1802 he took up the post of Superintendent or Principal Gardener at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, situated at that time at Leith Walk. George and his family moved into the Botanic Cottage. This Cottage has recently been demolished stone by stone and will soon be rebuilt in the current Botanic Garden in Edinburgh.   

George Don’s vasculum

© Angus Council, Cultural Services

George spent a lot of time out in the surrounding area, discovering many new species of wild flowers, lichens, mosses and fungi.  He became an Associate of the Linnean Society and a member of the Natural History Society of Edinburgh.  He also attended medical classes at the University. He started to contribute to publications, and his first herbarium (a book containing dried specimens) was issued.

In 1806 he left the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh to return to Doohillock, and to his travels around the countryside.  He made discoveries in the hills and glens, at Forfar Loch, Restenneth Moss and the coast.  His favourite location for plant collecting was Glen Clova. When he went on those journeys, he was on foot and would carry a vasculum to hold specimen plants he brought back with him.  The vasculum can be seen in the Meffan Institute in Forfar.

Not only did he explore his beloved Forfarshire, as Angus used to be called, he also travelled as far afield as Skye and Knoydart.  

It is interesting to note that his catalogue of plants for sale was 17 pages long and George wrote in it that: ‘This catalogue contains but a small proportion of my Herbaceous Collection, which is equalled by few

in Britain and surpassed by none, perhaps only the Cambridge one.  I also have upwards of three hundred species of Grasses.’  Despite this wonderful Botanic Garden and his huge wealth of botanic knowledge, George did not make a success of his business.  He had great difficulty in obtaining payment for plants supplied.  Perhaps it was because he concentrated so much on his expeditions to the hills and glens that he never managed to make his Botanic Garden a financial success.  This meant that little money was coming in to keep the family.  By 1812 the family was so poor, that they depended on neighbours for food.  

In the autumn of 1813, George returned from a trip with a severe cold. Instead of resting and recovering, he had to keep on working, and his symptoms worsened.  He died on 14 January 1814 at Doohillock.

Grimmia donniana One of George Don’s plants from Angus

© Creative Commons HermannSchachner

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George and Caroline had a family of 15 children but only 6 were still alive in 1814.  His family were left penniless and dependant on friends and George’s fellow botanists for charity.  Of the 6 children, the eldest, a daughter, died within 2 weeks of her father.   The two elder sons, George Jnr and David went on to have successful botanical careers (see their biographies on this website). The three younger boys, Patrick Neill Don, James Edward Smith Don and Charles Lyell Don had careers in horticulture in England.

George’s grave in the Old Parish Church remained unmarked until 1910, when money was raised and a memorial obelisk was erected.