Henry Noltie

In pursuit of interesting facts for some captions I was recently asked to write I turned to David Pearman’s fascinating account of the first records of British plants (Pearman, 2017). The desire to trace such records is a slightly curious one, but has a long tradition in the best amateur tradition of British botany, including the writing of local Floras (duly followed by Ruth Ingram and myself in our 1981 Flora of Angus). Of course it has little relevance to biology, as most plants made their own way to these islands following the retreat of the ice after the end of the last ice age. The story of their ‘discovery’ is therefore the history of botanical investigators and, more particularly, of who managed to get into print first. For this reason the greatest contributors to the story are men like William Turner, Thomas Johnson and John Ray such that by 1724 a surprising 87% of the native British flora had been recorded (i.e. published).

But such intersections of people, history and plants lead to fascinating byways and anecdotes, as well as more serious aspects of the history of scientific discovery and its documentation. The question of post-glacial arrivals, for which there is at least the possibility of discovering a date, either for man-carried, or in the case of light-seeded orchids perhaps wind-borne (i.e. ‘natural’) ones, is somewhat different: for these an accurate date might have some biological meaning. In some such cases, where a recent introduction has hybridised with a native species (or at least a longer-established, presumed non-native, termed an ‘archaeophyte’), this been shown to have led to significant evolutionary consequences and the origin of new species, as in the cases of Spartina anglica and Senecio cambrensis. However, in what amounts to a kind of  phyto-racism, introductions known certainly to have been made by man (denoted ‘aliens’) are normally excluded from ‘first-record’ lists, such as the pioneering one of William Ambrose Clarke in 1900. Pearman admitted archaeophytes, and a few other categories, thereby covering a total of 1671 species considered ‘British’ (excluding microspecies of Hieracium, Rubus and Taraxacum), of which 1197 are probably ‘native’.

While perusing this book and its fascinating introductory material, which includes a brief review of historical floristic literature and basic biographical information on all makers of first (or near-first) records, I was delighted to find that three such makers have links with India. This is a personal obsession and I claim no particular significance for the links. They are, rather, an indirect result of the interconnectedness of the two countries, especially of the career trajectories that took many ambitious young men, often with a medical training, from Britain to India in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The green figwort, Scrophularia ehrhartii Stevens (now S. oblongifolia Loisel.)

The entry for this plant in Pearman (2017: 367), under the name Scrophularia umbrosa Dum., reads “Edinburgh, Mr W.H. Campbell. Cramond Woods, West Lothian, Dr. A. Hunter’. – Stevens (1840)’.

This came as a surprise on two counts – the first nomenclatural and distributional, as I had always thought of the plant as more of a western species; the second from the name ‘Dr. A. Hunter’. The Rev Charles Abbot Stevens (1817–1908) realised that in European Floras and British herbaria (including those of Linnaeus and J.E. Smith) two species had been conflated under the Linnean name Scrophularia aquatica. When describing the second element as a new species in 1840 Stevens named it for the German botanist and Linnaean pupil J.F. Ehrhart who had first described it (though under the name S. aquatica). In the paper, in addition to earlier literature references under various names, the Campbell and Hunter Scottish specimens were cited, which makes them part of the nomenclatural type material of Stevens’s species. At least two earlier names have now been found for the plant, one of them since Pearman’s publication: S. oblongifolia of J.-L.-A. Loiseleur Deslongchamps apparently predates, by a matter of months,  B.C.J. Dumortier’s S. umbrosa, though both were published in 1827 (will such exhumations ever end?).

It was the name Hunter that caught my attention – could it possibly be Dr Alexander Hunter (1816–1890), founder of the Madras School of Art, a fascinating man of whom I wrote in The Cleghorn Collection (Noltie, 2016a)? It was. Both he and William Hunter Campbell were botanical students of Professor Robert Graham. In 1836 Campbell was a founder member, of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh (BSE) and its first Secretary (he went on to be a lawyer); Hunter joined the Society only two months later and both were keen contributors to the Society’s herbarium (making their first donations in December 1836). The specimens referred to by Stevens are still in the RBGE herbarium:

‘Banks of Almond, Edin-shire, 30 Augt. 1834, ex herb. W.H. Campbell, and ‘Cramond woods, West Lothian, August 1835, Alexr. Hunter’ (along with two duplicates of a third early specimen, ‘Nr Cramond Bridge 13 Sept. 1834, W. Brand’).

Hunter went to Calcutta in 1841, where his father had been a prominent merchant, but he failed to get a job and had to return to Scotland. Having secured an EIC assistant-surgeon’s appointment he returned to Calcutta in 1843 where he married Jane Mary Patton (niece of Anna Maria Walker, the Ceylon botanist), before taking up his appointment to Madras, which is where he spent his entire career. There are also Indian connections with the Campbell family: William was a step-cousin of Hugh Cleghorn; his brother James Campbell was in the Madras Army and collected specimens on the west coast of India (there are many in the RBGE herbarium) and later married Robert Wight’s niece Rebecca Stewart (Noltie 2007, 2016b).

The green figwort has a curiously spotty distribution in the UK (Central Scotland, Cumbria, Yorkshire/Lancashire, eastern Wales and Norfolk, and in Ireland along the Liffey west of Dublin) and the 2002 Atlas of the British and Irish Flora (Preston et al, 2002) suggests that ‘it may be a relatively recent colonist’.

The alpine milk-vetch, Astragalus alpinus

The entry for this beautiful alpine legume in Pearman (2017: 109), quotes the 1837 supplement to Sowerby & Smith’s English Botany (under plate 2717) and reads: ‘It was discovered on 30 July 1831, on a cliff near the head of the Glen of the Dole, Clova, by Mr. Brand, Dr. Greville, and myself [Dr. R. Graham]’.

It turns out that one significant name is omitted from this account and herein lies the link with India. The occasion was one of Robert Graham’s summer excursions to the Scottish Highlands for his undergraduates, friends and Edinburgh alumni – on this trip were not only William Brand and Robert Kaye Greville, but some other distinguished botanists: Hewett Cottrell Watson, Dr A.J. Macfarlane, W.H. Campbell, Martin Barry, James McNab, William Christie and Dr Robert Wight. Of those whom Graham credited with the discovery, Brand was one of his students who later became a lawyer (his bust is in the RBGE library), another founder member of the BSE and, as already noted, an early collector of Scrophularia ehrhartii. Greville had attended medical lectures with Robert Wight in Edinburgh around 1815, but actually graduated from Glasgow with a law degree: private means, however, allowed him to pursue his interests notably botany (especially cryptogamic) and anti-slavery and temperance activities that would now be called ‘lobbying’.

It is Robert Wight’s presence that makes the link with India, as at this point he was on furlough from his first period in India. In 1831 Nathaniel Wallich was also on leave, from his post of Superintendent of the Calcutta Botanic Garden, and was in London distributing the EIC herbarium. Greville wrote Wallich an amusing account of the discovery of the Astragalus (then known as Phaca astragalina), which strongly suggests Wight’s involvement:

“And this leads me away very naturally … to our Highland ramble, where, if you had been present, instead of vegetating in your dusty workshop – bad man that you are – you would have been present at the discovery of Phaca astragalina – the first time that Phaca has made its bow to a british audience – our friend Wight performed wonders, and to the gazers at the foot of the precipice, seemed Wightia scandens rather than gigantea; especially as being seen in perspective little more than his anonymous end was visible. He & I however really, having less regard to broken bones or the sighs & tears of those we left behind, carried off most of the specimens. And just in this place, I beg that you will not turn up your nose at so much being said about a new british species.– Man of a thousand discoveries deign to recollect that to find a new phaenogamous plant in this exhausted receiver, as it were, of vegetation, is like finding a new species of Elephant or a Palm tree in Nepal – ahem!”

The obscure references are that Wallich had recently discovered a new palm in Nepal, now Trachycarpus martianus, and had named a species after Wight, Wightia gigantea; ‘scandens’ means ‘climbing’ and refers to Wight’s activities on the cliffs. For the reference and other information see Noltie (2007).

Although Wight was present at the discovery, and I had taken Greville’s account to suggest that his antics might have made him a key player, David Pearman has alerted me to a paper by F.M. Webb on some interesting specimens in the RBGE herbarium (Transactions of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh 13: 88–114. 1879) in which the full story is given: ‘The discovery of this species was brought about by the accident of … Mr W. M’Nab’s [then the RBGE Curator] stick slipping from his hand over a steep cliff in Glen Dole, Clova. Mr Brand descended to recover it, and, in doing so, met with the plant. The party went round to the base of the precipice, and on the lower levels were enabled to procure a supply of specimens’.

Astragalus alpinus still occurs in Glen Doll, with only three other British stations: Creig an Dail Bheag in South Aberdeen, and in East Perth on the Cairnwell and on Ben Vrackie (where it is by no means certainly native).

These two cases both date from the 1830s and stem from the medical origins of botanical exploration. The third, despite many unresolved questions, differs in several respects – it dates from an earlier period, and the recorder not only came from an arts background, but would go on to attain the highest office in the India of the Company period.

Pipewort, Eriocaulon aquaticum

The entry for Eriocaulon in Pearman is a double one – a substantiated record and a more doubtful one. The first reads: “It was found, September 1768, in a small lake in the island of Skye, by James Robertson’. Hope (1769 [actually 1770])’. The second: “In a small lake by the road side leading from Sconsar to Giesto in Skye, 11 Sept. 1764. Sir John Macpherson, who, indeed, first noticed it, leaped from his horse, waded into the lake, and brought it out’. – Dr. Walker in Hooker (1821: i. 270).’

There is no problem about the first record. James Robertson was one of Hope’s ablest students, who was commissioned to undertake a series of remarkable surveys of the Highlands and Islands for the Commissioners of the Annexed Estates, and visited Skye between 23 July and 8 October 1768. Although Eriocaulon is not mentioned in his diary of the trip (Henderson & Dickson, 1994) a specimen was in Hope’s herbarium, and Robertson made an outstanding analytical drawing of it. Hope was intrigued by the plant, its annulated roots suggesting a possible link with algae, for which reason he sent it to John Ellis, before realising that it belonged to Linnaeus’s Eriocaulon, for which he was able to improve the generic description (Noltie, 2011). At first he had taken it to represent a new genus, which he intended to name for his patron Sir James Naesmyth of New Posso (later Dawyck). Robertson’s drawing was engraved by Andrew Bell, and some states of the print were inscribed with the name Nasmythia articulata, one of which must have been seen by William Hudson who published this name in 1778. Hope, however, had concluded that it was conspecific with E. decangulare of Linnaeus, and published the illustration and an article under this name in the Philosophical Transactions of 1770. Before this publication Hope must have sent a copy of the plate and paper to his patron the Earl of Bute, who passed it on to his tame botanist John Hill who, while crediting Hope and Robertson, pre-empted Hope’s publication and in 1769 coined his own name for it, Cespa aquatica, which after transfer to Eriocaulon (by G.C. Druce in 1909), remains its correct name.

The second, more enigmatic record is the more interesting, not only for the hint of rivalry between John Hope and the Rev. John Walker, as played out through their respective protégés, that might lie behind it. Hope held the Edinburgh Regius Chair of Botany and Medicine, while Walker held the Regius Chair of Natural History, to which he had been appointed in 1779 in preference to William Smellie, another Hope protégé and therefore one possible cause of friction. Pearman quoted the source of this pre-Robertson record as Hooker’s Flora Scotica, not published until 18 years after Walker’s death. In a footnote Hooker, however, did supply the original source of the suspiciously detailed anecdote: a note on a specimen in Walker’s herbarium as seen and recorded by a Mr Maughan (probably Robert Maughan, an early member of the BSE). Unfortunately neither Hope’s nor Walker’s herbarium has survived. There arise several questions. Is Eriocaluon, a submerged aquatic, whose inconspicuous inflorescences project only a few inches above the water really likely to have been spotted from a man on a horse (even if not galloping)? And if Walker and Macpherson had seen it four years before Robertson, why did they fail to publish such a significant record, especially following the appearance of Hope’s 1770 paper? A further cause for at least a raised eyebrow is that Macpherson was not made a baronet until 1786, so the note must have been added more than 22 years after the event (with a hint of snoobery, that Walker was proud of an aristocratic connection).

To me, however, the main interest is the Indian link in the person of the alleged finder, John Macpherson. Macpherson’s father was the Rev James Macpherson (1713–1765), minister of Sleat, a noted antiquary and Gaelic scholar. Walker was commissioned by the Society in Scotland for the for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SSPCK) to undertake a series of Highland Surveys. (Another possible point of friction between Walker and Hope, as it was Robertson who was commissioned to undertake similar surveys for the Commissioners of the Annexed Estates). As part of his first major trip in 1764 Walker is known to have been on Skye from mid-August 1764 (Professor C. Withers, pers. comm.). Given the SSPCK connection it is highly likely that Walker met Macpherson pater, but the whereabouts of filius at this point is uncertain. John and his brother Martin had been sent to study arts at King’s College Aberdeen with a view to ordination: both had graduated AM in April 1764. Martin went on to become a minister, but in this same month, April 1764, the more talented and ambitious John was said to be spending the session studying at Edinburgh University (Anderson, 1893: 244). It seems possible that the young Macpherson could have met Walker in Edinburgh and offered to accompany him on part of his survey, but, if so, there is no record of it; on the other hand John could have been on a summer break with his father, and the meeting could have been a fortuitous one on Skye.

The truth, even should the Walker specimen turn up, is never likely to be ascertained, but it is worth saying a little more of John Macpherson’s later life. By all accounts he was a remarkable character, regarded as a polymath, speaking five languages and, at well over 6 feet tall, physically striking (for further details see ODNB, 2004). He went to Madras in 1767, and became acquainted with the Nawab of Arcot, who had been lured, if not forced, by a notably corrupt Madras Government into a tangled web of debt, which Macpherson tried to help him to sort out by returning to London (he arrived back in November 1768, which is why the date of September 1768 for the Eriocaulon discovery cited by William Wright in a letter to Robert Brown (Mabberley 1985: 66) cannot be correct). Macpherson went back to Madras as a writer, where he arrived in 1771, but was dismissed by the controversial Governor Lord Pigot in 1776, after which he returned to London and became MP for Cricklade. In 1781 Macpherson was appointed to the Supreme Council of Bengal and became right-hand man to Warren Hastings (a friend since their earlier Madras days), which is why, on Hastings’s resignation in 1785, Macpherson acted as Governor-General of India for 19 months until the arrival of Lord Cornwallis as the official nominee in 1786. During this time he made himself very unpopular by taking a stance against corruption. Macpherson, who never married, returned to London, where he again became an MP (briefly again for Cricklade, then for a longer period for Horsham), and travelled in Europe. He died in London in 1821 and was buried in St Anne’s Soho.

The pipewort has an interesting distribution: ‘amphiatlantic’, occurring on both sides of the ocean. It is scattered in eastern Canada and the United States as far west as Lake Superior. In Britain, after Skye, it was next found in Ireland (by Walter Wade in Connemara in 1801), where it is widespread, occurring in Cork, Kerry, Galway, Mayo, Sligo and Donegal, then on Coll where it was first recorded by the geologist John MacCulloch in his Description of the Western Isles of Scotland including the Isle of Man (1: 59. 1819). In 1967 it was found on the Ardnamurchan peninsula on the Scottish mainland.


Anderson, P.J. (1893). Officers and Graduates of University and King’s College Aberdeen MVD–MDCCCLX. Aberdeen: New Spalding Club.

Henderson, D.M. & Dickson, J.H. (1994). A Naturalist in the Highlands: James Robertson, his life and travels in Scotland 1767–1771. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.

Mabberley, D.J. (1985). Jupiter Botanicus: Robert Brown of the British Museum. Braunschweig: J. Cramer and London: British Museum (Natural History).

Noltie, H.J. (2007). The Life and Work of Robert Wight. Edinburgh: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

Noltie, H.J. (2011). John Hope (1725–1786). Edinburgh: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

Noltie, H.J. (2016a). The Cleghorn Collection: South Indian botanical drawings 1845 to 1860. Edinburgh: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

ODNB – Matthew, H.C.G. & Harrison, B. (2004). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pearman, D.A. (2017). The Discovery of the Native Flora of Britain and Ireland. Bristol: Botanical Society of the British Isles.

Preston, C.D., Pearman, D.A., & Dines, T.D. (2002). New Atlas of the British & Irish Flora. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stevens, C.A. (1840). On Scrophularia aquatica of Linnaeus and Ehrhart. Annals of Natural History 5: 1–3.