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Angus  - the Botanists’ County

Angus produced several influential plant scientists and horticulturalists who took their skills, knowledge and curiosity for new plants around the world. We plan to extend this section to include more Angus plantsmen.

William Paterson Robert Brown James Traill

The Early Days

The following extract is taken from ‘Memorials of Angus and the Mearns’ by Andrew Jervise published in the 1860s.

But it was during the time of the last Alexander,  while commerce of the kingdom, its agriculture, and even its horticulture, were in a state of considerable advancement, that Forfar was most patronised by royalty; and it is curious that, but for a passing notice relative to the King’s gardeners at Forfar, Menmuir, and two or three other places, the interesting fact of the art of horticulture having been known and cultivated in Scotland in those days would have been little else than matter of conjecture.  The gardeners of Forfar and Menmuir are the only gardeners mentioned in this part of Scotland at that period; and it is probably that both places were frequently resorted to by royalty.  The yearly wages of the gardener of Forfar was five marks, while the gardener of Menmuir had only one mark – a fact which perhaps indicates the smallness of the labours of the gardener at Menmuir as compared with those of his brother at Forfar.

William Paterson was born in August 1755 in Kinnettles, a small village near Forfar. William’s father David Paterson, was gardener to Mr Douglas of Brigton House. William was apprenticed at the Chelsea Physic Garden, and then in 1777 through the patronage of the Countess of Strathmore, he travelled to South Africa to collect seeds, living roots and herbarium material of Cape plants for her home in Chelsea.  Unfortunately, she defaulted on her payments to him.

Paterson made four journeys into the interior of the South African Cape between 1777 and 1779 and from those journeys he introduced a number of plants from the Cape into cultivation, such as Pelargonium ternatum, Protea scolymocephala and Pleiospolos nobilis.  Paterson also brought back the first giraffe skin to the UK and sold it to John Hunter who was a fellow of the Royal Society.  The narrative of his travels in the Cape was the first book written in English on that subject.

In 1781 Paterson joined the British Army, serving in India and then in Australia. While in Australia, he collected and sent home botanical, geological and insect specimens to Sir Joseph Banks.


For 9 months in 1794-95 he acted as Administrator while a new Governor was awaited. In 1796 he returned to England on sick leave.  While there, he advised Sir Joseph Banks on plants and trees for Australia.


William Paterson (1755 -1810)

William Paterson

Protea scolymocephela

Paterson returned to Australia in late 1799 and was sent on to Van Dieman’s Land (now Tasmania) to take charge of a new settlement.  He remained there for several years and continued to send back specimens to Sir Joseph Banks.  In January 1809 he reluctantly moved to Sydney to assume the Lieutenant Governorship of New South Wales after the arrest of the previous Governor, William Bligh.

On the last day of 1809 Paterson, now a sick man, relinquished his post to the newly arrived Governor. He left Australia with his wife and Regiment on the 12th of May 1810 and died at sea on 21st of June 1810.

Although Paterson was a soldier and administrator, his chief interest was science.  He was a member of the Royal Society and met many of the leading scientists of the day during his time in England.  Paterson’s botanical collections are preserved in the Natural History Museum at South Kensington.

Some plants commemorate Paterson, including Hibiscus patersonius and Lagunaria patersonia. Patterson’s Curse - Echium plantagineum is a biennial plant originally from the Mediterranean and is an invasive weed in Australia.  It costs Australian agriculture in the region $30 million annually.  It is sometimes erroneously attributed to William Paterson but was introduced in 1843 long after he had died, and the real culprit was a Jane Patterson.

Robert Brown (1773 - 1858)

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It is in 1263-4 that those interesting notices occur, when Alexander III was but fourteen years on the throne.

Coincidentally, we are back in Menmuir from where George Don originated.  It is a pity that the names of the two gardeners are not recorded, but could these two men be the earliest recorded Angus gardeners or botanists?

Robert Brown was born in Montrose, Angus, on 21 December 1773.  He attended the local school (now Montrose Academy), and then went on to Marischal College in Aberdeen. His father, James, was a minister in the Scottish Episcopal Church and had Jacobite convictions so strong that in 1788 he defied his church's decision to give allegiance to George III.


Brown studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, but developed an interest in botany, and ended up spending more of his time on the latter than the former. He attended the lectures of John Walker, made botanical expeditions into the Scottish Highlands, either alone or with nurserymen such as George Don, and wrote out meticulous botanical descriptions of the plants he collected.  He also began corresponding with and collecting for William Withering, one of the foremost British botanists of the day.  During this period Brown shared the discovery, with George Don, of Eriophorum alpinum a new species of grass.  His first botanical paper, "The botanical history of Angus", read to the Edinburgh Natural History Society in January 1792, saw him propelled to botanical limelight.

He joined the army in 1795 and served in Ireland as an ensign and assistant surgeon until 1800.  During this period, he collected and studied Irish flora as well as continuing to make contact with the eminent botanists of the day.

An expedition was being mounted by the Admiralty to chart the coast of Australia under the command of Matthew Flinders.  Sir Joseph Banks recommended Brown for the post of Naturalist and in July 1801 he set sail on HMS Investigator.  Also on board were Ferdinaud Bauer, botanical artist; William Westall, landscape painter; and Peter Good, gardener.  During the 4 years of the expedition, over 4000 plant specimens were collected, many of them new to science.   When HMS Investigator sailed for England in May 1805, it was carrying one of the greatest botanical collections ever made.

It was from this expedition to Australia that Brown produced what is often called his unfinished masterpiece - Prodromus Florae Novae Hollandiae.  The Prodromus was designed to be volume one of the major Flora of Australia work.  However, disappointed by poor sales, Brown did not continue the work.

On his return to the UK after the expedition, he had been appointed to the prestigious post of Librarian to the Linnean Society working with its President, Sir Joseph Banks. The post was poorly paid but it allowed Brown the time to work on his Australian collection.

In 1819 Brown was offered the position of Chair of Botany at Edinburgh University, a post which also meant that he would have been Regius Keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.  However, he turned this offer down out of loyalty to Banks who was ill.  Banks died a year later and Brown became President of the Linnean Society.  It was at this time that David Don was appointed to the post of Librarian of the Society.

Brown was much respected during his lifetime.  Charles Darwin praised Brown for his minuteness of observation and accuracy.  Alexander von Humboldt dedicated his seminal work on the Flora of the New World to Brown.

Brown is responsible for the first description of the cell nucleus, cytoplasmic streaming, and the first observation of the motion of particles suspended in water, later named for him as Brownian motion.  These discoveries were made through his pioneering microscopical work. He also did much of the early work on the mechanisms of plant pollination and fertilisation. He was first to recognise the fundamental difference between gymnosperms and angiosperms and carried out some of the earliest studies in palynology, the study of fossil pollen.

There are many plants commemorating Robert Brown but an interesting example is Brunonia which is a genus of one or two species, from the Daisy family, found in Australia. The naming of this Genus saw Brown violate the virtual taboo of naming a plant after himself. In February 1810, James Edward Smith read a formal description of Brunonia to the Linnean Society. Two species were given: Brunonia australis and Brunonia sericea. Later that year, Brown made use of Smith's names in his Prodromus Florae Novae Hollandiae. However, Smith's speech did not go to print until 1811, so priority of publication of the genus belongs to Brown not Smith. This means Brown technically described the genus and species first.

Robert Brown

Brunonia australis

James Traill (1801-1853)

James Traill was born in Dunnichen, Forfar in 1801 on the estate of Honest George Dempster MP.   It is presumed that his father would have worked on the estate.  However, Traill moved to Ireland and was brought up on the Castle Dillon estate in County Argmah.  He then went to Baronscourt at Newtonstewart, Omagh, then to Shelton Abby in Co. Wicklow and finally to the estate of the Archbishop of Armagh.

He moved to England in 1824 and started work with the Horticultural Society, as an under gardener in the Ornamental Experimental Department.


In 1828 or 29 Traill secured a post in Egypt.  Along with another gardener, William McCulloch, he entered the service of Ibrahim Pasha who was the son of the ruler of Egypt and Sudan.  Traill and McCulloch took plants with them which had been supplied by the Horticultural Society, for the palaces and gardens of Ibrahim Pasha on the island of Rhoda (also known as Roda or Rawdah) in the Nile.  By 1832 Traill had become head gardener and was given a ‘delightful’ house on Rhoda.

The garden which Traill and McCulloch created on Rhoda had ruined temples, grottoes, lawns, a winding waterway and Chinese bridge.  Traill had a wall built round the island in an attempt to guard against flooding.  The garden was finally destroyed by a flood in 1848 and was not restored.

During these years, Traill sourced plants from the Horticultural Society in England and McCulloch collected plants in India to be introduced into Egypt.  This was a political arrangement for economically important plants to be given to Egypt in return for a fast route for goods between British India and Europe via Egypt.

Traill also assisted Edward William Lane in his measurements of the Pyramids.

James Traill was not a botanist, scientist or plant collector but by being a skilled horticulturalist in the service of Ibrahim Pasha, he is credited with the greening of Cairo.

Ibrahim Pasha

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