A man called McNab got Royal Botanic show on the road

William McNab
William McNab
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NO wonder they’re looking serious. In their flat caps and waistcoats, posing with hands purposefully placed on hips as if they can’t wait to get the job started, the task awaiting them was nothing if not formidable.

For, as anyone who has recently battled to relocate the family Christmas tree from the loft to the lounge – or perhaps even worse, negotiated the route from garden centre back home with an uncooperative Norwegian spruce in tow – knows, trees have an annoying habit of wanting to stay rooted to the spot.

In the battle that transpires, spiky branches tear and rip at clothes, foliage leaves a green trail behind, and twigs suddenly snap back and whack you in the face.

What, surely, every home needs every December is its very own tree transplanting machine . . .

Not that the relatively simple task of moving a five foot spruce 20 feet in order to smother it in glitter and plop a fat fairy on top was on the minds of these determined gents from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh when they were pictured some 120 years ago.

For they were demonstrating how a much bigger, far more impressive challenge had been completed some 70 years before that – the removal of the entire Garden’s collection from a place near Leith Walk to its new home in Inverleith.

This remarkable picture which reveals how they did it was taken in about 1890 and has emerged in a new book that reflects on the history of the garden and its most precious, diverse and sensory asset, the Living Collection.

It shows a wooden tree planting machine similar to one invented in 1820 by principal gardener William McNab for the purpose of transporting trees up to 40ft tall.

McNab had devised it when the Garden was moved from its then home in Hopetoun Crescent off Leith Walk, around two miles to its new address in Inverleith.

Today – traffic and roadworks permitting – it’s a journey that should take less than ten minutes by car.

Back in Georgian times, with horse, wooden cart, ropes, six tons of tree, soil and roots, with branches waving and many men travelling at a snail’s pace, it was a crosstown jaunt that took several days.

Indeed, moving the entire Garden from one spot to the other took a total of three years.

The episode, revisited in the book and a new exhibition of photographs at the Garden’s Gateway Gallery, produced a remarkable sight for New Town folk who would stop and stare at the incredible moving trees as they made painstaking progress, pulled by up to six horses at a time.

The feat of shifting an entire garden containing many thousand species of plant and various mature trees was made all the more remarkable considering that hardly a single specimen was lost and every tree – in spite of their unique journey over the city’s cobbles – survived.

Even now, nearly 200 years later, one of the palm trees they moved is still thriving inside one of the tropical glasshouses at Inverleith.

“McNab was a very pioneering spirit in horticulture,” reflects David Knott, Curator of the Living Collections at the Garden.

“To come up with a tree-planting machine was an impressive feat. You can’t underestimate the pioneering spirit that was involved and the success he achieved.”

The tree-planting machine and task of moving an entire botanic garden from one part of town to another is just a tiny element of a fascinating history that stretches back almost 350 years to a time when the wonders of the plant world were just beginning to unfurl.

It was 1670 when two doctors, Robert Sibbald and Andrew Balfour, decided to start a collection of plants to be used for medical purposes on a plot of land at the edge of Holyrood Park. Their plan evolved into the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh – today its diverse collection of specimens is 13,500 strong and includes an estimated 130,000 different plants.

But while the heart of the Garden is its spectacular living plant collection, there is another real life element to its work – its staff.

And while in the early 1820s they were busy moving trees, today they can be found in all corners of the world trading expertise, researching and helping conserve habitats at risk from climate change and mankind.

And as David Rae, director of horticulture and author of The Living Collection book points out, they are just as likely to be on the back of an elephant in Nepal searching for rare species of plants or helping to conserve the Brazilian savannah, creating a new botanic garden in Oman or trekking across a Chinese hillside.

“A key part of the work we do today is helping to conserve plant species for the future,” adds David Knott.

“One reason the Garden was set up was to cultivate plants for medicinal purposes, to help cure humans because so many drugs are derived from plant species.

“Now we are looking to conserve these plants, and the habitats of others we have yet to discover, for the future.”

* The Living Collection by David Rae costs £25 and is available from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh at Inverleith, or go to www.rbgeshop.org.uk.

n An exhibition of images featuring staff from the Garden down the years is on now at the Gateway Gallery within the John Hope Gateway.

Plants crossing – garden on the move

DURING the first 250 years of its existence, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh managed to journey roughly five kilometres across the city.

Between 1670 and 1820, there were three moves involving at least five different garden sites, as what began as a small plot of medicinal herbs at Holyrood grew to become one of the largest and most important botanical collections in the world.

From a patch of land at St Anne’s Yard by Holyrood Abbey, barely bigger than a tennis court, the Garden moved to a new site at the mouth of the Nor’Loch – now covered by Waverley Station.

It was not, however, the perfect location for a garden. The Nor’Loch had a tendency to flood the garden with sewage. And its plants were vulnerable to grazing animals. The construction of the North Bridge, connecting the Old Town and the New Town, sealed its fate and the Garden’s Living Collection was moved in 1763 to unpolluted ground on Leith Walk.

By that time, plants were arriving in Edinburgh from around the world as Scots ventured to far corners in search of new lands, new trade and fresh discoveries. The Garden moved to Inverleith between 1820 and 1823 and today is a world renowned centre for plant science.