Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

A photograph of the original Palm House taken by Dr James Duncan.

The RBGE Photographic Collections contain more than 250,000 slides, glass plate negatives, cyanotypes and digital photographs. The subjects of the photographs range from former members of staff to plant portraits to cultural and geographic landmarks photographed by plant collectors as they travelled around the world. The size and depth of the collection reflects the importance of photography as a tool to support the scientific and horticultural work of the Garden. RBGE appointed its first photographer, Robert Moyes Adam, in 1903 and our current photographer, Lynsey Wilson, continues this work today, recording everything from the first flowering of new plant species to royal visits. Given the importance of the collection and the fact that it is perhaps less well known than some of our other collections it felt appropriate to nominate a photograph as one of Scotland’s Treasures.

The nominated photograph is the earliest photographic print in our collection and as such is an important object in its own right. It is also the earliest known photograph of the Garden adding valuable information to the written descriptions, plans and drawings that were produced prior to this time that are also held in the Collection.

The photograph was found in one of two “scrapbooks” compiled by the family of James McNab, the RBGE Head Gardener between 1849 and his death in 1878. The scrapbooks contain newspaper cuttings, letters, paintings and ephemera that relate to his life and that of his father, William McNab (1780-1848) who held the position of Head Gardener prior to his son. The collection is relatively unusual in that it provides an insight into the lives and interests of working-class people in the 19th century.

The photograph also represents the ongoing importance of archival collections in supporting the work of the wider organisation. First used in the 1850’s to support a request to Parliament for funds for a new Palm House the Photograph is now being used once again to tell the story of the Garden in support of fund-raising efforts for the Edinburgh Biomes project (https://www.rbge.org.uk/news/edinburgh-biomes/), a seven-year project to protect the Garden’s unique and globally important collection of plants that includes the refurbishment of the historic glasshouses.

Accompanying and giving context to the photograph is a letter from the architect of the Palm House, Robert Matheson, saying that the bid to Parliament for funding for the project was successful. This has been annotated by James McNab to say that the note reached the Garden as the Castle guns were firing for the peace at the conclusion of the Crimean War. Two pieces of good news in one day!