Botanics gardener murdered 200 years ago remembered

John Williamson, right, was chasing smugglers when he was killed. Picture: Saltire News and Sport
John Williamson, right, was chasing smugglers when he was killed. Picture: Saltire News and Sport
Share this article
1
Have your say

A STONE plaque dedicated to a murdered gardener will be erected in his former home nearly 200 years after his death.

John Williamson was the head gardener at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh (RBGE) from 1760 to 1780. But he also worked as a customs officer and in that role was murdered by smugglers he chased on to the city’s Princes Street.

A memorial stone in honour of John William on the Botanic Cottage. Picture: Neil Hanna

A memorial stone in honour of John William on the Botanic Cottage. Picture: Neil Hanna

Now the Regius Keeper of the RBGE has commissioned a plaque inscribed in his honour to be added to the Botanic Cottage where Williamson lived, and which is being rebuilt.

The cottage itself was recently dismantled and transported stone by stone to the current garden site, where it is being meticulously reassembled like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

RBGE archivist Sutherland Forsyth said yesterday: “John Williamson is an important figure in the Gardens’ history. He became the principal gardener in 1760, and was a highly respected figure in Edinburgh.

“But he also had a part-time job as a customs officer, which could be dangerous. On the day he died, he tracked a group of smugglers from Leith up on to Princes Street. He intercepted one of the men and tried to get hold of the loot, but he was turned upon and left for dead.

“John Hope, the Regius Keeper at the time, was shocked and devastated, and commissioned a memorial. When the Garden relocated, the stone was taken down and Williamson’s story has largely been forgotten.

“Now, after nearly 200 years, people visiting this building will once again be able to remember this man who gave 20 years of his life to the Garden.”

The historic Botanic Cottage, designed by John Adam, was built in Leith Walk in 1764 as the gateway to the then RBGE site.

It provided accommodation for Williamson, his wife and their three children on the ground floor, as well as lecture space for students under the great botanist Professor John Hope, who was a leading figure in the Scottish Enlightenment.

Students who were taught there included Benjamin Rush, one of the founding fathers of the US; Sir Lucas Pepys, who was George III’s physician during his “madness”; and Thomas Charles Hope who discovered the element strontium and taught Charles Darwin.

The historic building faced demolition in 2008, but campaigners won a battle to take it down stone by stone instead so that it could be re-erected at Inverleith.

Each stone and timber was individually recorded, numbered and stored.

The building is now being re-erected as a state-of-the-art educational and community facility. It is expected to welcome its first students in nearly 200 years later this year.

The large stone plaque on the front reads: “To the memory of John Williamson, who during 20 years of faithful service as principal gardener in this place was no less respected for the good qualities suited to his station in life than esteemed for eminent skill in his profession.”