the centuries, Scotland has had a reputation for producing many of the
world's finest gardeners. William Aiton, from Lanarkshire, became the
first superintendent at the Botanic Gardens at Kew in the 18th century.
In the 19th century, famed Chinese plant hunter Robert Fortune was from
the Borders, and Charles M'Intosh, horticulturalist and author, who
became gardener to European royalty and aristocracy, originated from
Crieff in Perthshire.
What is not so
well known is the contribution that Scottish women have made to all
areas of horticultural history from garden creation and plant collecting
to botanical art.
In 1954, two women were awarded the Royal
Horticultural Society's Veitch Medal, one of the highest awards given to
gardeners. This was doubly unusual: they were only the seventh and
eighth women to receive the award since its instigation in 1869; that
they were both Scottish women was an extra cause for celebration. One
medal went to Dorothy Renton, who, with her husband John, created the
beautiful gardens at Branklyn now run by the National Trust for
Scotland. The gardens are famed for their displays of peat-garden
plants, in particular the illusive blue Himalayan poppy, meconopsis.
other Veitch medal went to Mrs Mary Knox-Finlay, who again with her
husband Major WC Knox-Finlay grew unusual plants superbly at their home
at Keillour Castle in Perthshire. Rare nomocharis flourished in their
woodland garden, which they started in 1938, adding to the original
late-19th century garden. One variety is named for them, Nomocharis
finlayorum, a fitting tribute to this passionate gardening couple, part
of that elite club of both husband and wife having been awarded the
RHS's Veitch Memorial Medal.
Both these women helped create
great gardens in the 20th century. But when Lady Haddington was later
awarded her Veitch medal in 1973 for the development of the gardens at
Tyninghame in East Lothian, she was making a link with another less
well-known ancestor who also contributed to Scotland's female
Helen Hope, Countess of Haddington,
gardened in the fierce conditions of Scotland in the early 18th century.
She was reputedly the main force behind the tree-planting programme at
Tyninghame. In addition to the 800-acre estate being planted with more
than 50 species of tree, the countess oversaw the development of a
"pleasaunce" or wilderness area, and a bowling green that had 14 walks
emanating from its centre.
This arboreal lust had not won
immediate approval from her husband, who was her first cousin. But
eventually he was won round and became a tree expert himself and
supportive of the vast planting schemes proposed by his wife. Writing to
his grandchildren in 1733 not long before his death, he admitted that
in the early years of their marriage, he "took pleasure in sports, dogs
and horses but had no manner of inclination to plant, enclose or improve
His wife, however, had other interests. "Your
grandmother was a great lover of planting, (and] she did what she could
to engage me to it, but in vain. At last she asked leave to go about it,
which she did, and I was much pleased with some little things that were
both well laid out and executed."
But it wasn't just at home
that Scottish women made horticultural inroads. Christian Ramsay,
Countess of Dalhousie, came from a family of Scottish lawyers, and not
long after her husband succeeded to his earldom in 1815, she went with
him to Nova Scotia where he had been appointed Lieutenant-Governor. Once
in Halifax, Lady Dalhousie became involved with horticultural
organisations. She learned about native plants, and sent seeds and
living plants back to the gardens of Dalhousie Castle, near Edinburgh.
She became so knowledgeable that she presented a paper on Canadian
plants to the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec.
return to Scotland in 1824, the countess made elaborate plans to
redesign the gardens at the castle. She won praise from her head
gardener, a breed notoriously difficult to please, who wrote in The
Gardener's Magazine in 1826, that "few…attained such proficiency as her
ladyship in the science." Later, the family moved to India, when the
Earl became Commander-in-Chief of the British Army.
were there, the countess did some serious plant collecting in and around
Simla, and on their final return to Britain, she presented her complete
Indian herbarium of some 1,200 specimens to the Botanical Society of
Edinburgh. This gesture resulted in William Hooker dedicating a volume
of Curtis's Botanical Magazine to her, and Robert Graham, Professor of
Botany at Edinburgh then named the genus Dalhousiea for her.
are two sorts of plant collectors: those who visit distant countries to
find species that have never been seen before, and those who relish the
satisfaction of hunting down a supplier for that rare variety no-one
else has. One prime example of the latter group was the consummate
Scottish plantswoman, Frances Jane Hope, of Wardie Lodge, near
Edinburgh. "To very many gardeners," Gardeners' Chronicle wrote in their
obituary of Hope in 1880, "the garden is everything, the plants are
This was not Miss Hope's way of viewing
things; for her, the garden existed for the plants not the plants for
the garden." Her collection of hellebores was reputedly larger than in
any public garden and she supposedly visited every nursery garden "of
importance" in England and Scotland, and one suspects never came away
She would have loved the nursery of plantswoman and
artist Mary McMurtrie. A wife of the manse, Mrs McMurtrie began it at
her home at Skene in Aberdeenshire in the 1930s where she happily
propagated saxifrages, primroses, pinks and auriculas, in between
looking after her husband, the parish minister, and four children. When
they moved to Balbithan House, Kintore, not far away, the stock came
Mrs McMurtrie began producing small plant catalogues and,
having been to art school, accompanied these with delicate and
highly-prized watercolours which she exhibited along with her plants at
the Scottish Rock Garden Club's shows. Fortified by a "dram of sherry"
from the bottle kept in her library desk, she gardened throughout the
year, braving Scotland's coldest days to be outside watching over her
In her eighties Mrs McMurtrie moved in with her
daughter but continued gardening enthusiastically for another 15 years.
Her artwork remained more in demand than ever, and in 1975 Roy Genders
asked her to do some illustrations for his book, Growing Old-Fashioned
Flowers. She began writing and illustrating her own books, and just
before she died in 2003, aged 101, she was given an award by the
charity, Counsel and Care for the Elderly, for being the oldest British
working artist on the publication of Old Cottage Pinks in the same year.
This article was
first published in The Scotsman on 15 May 2010.