A Good Read: A Scottish Plant Hunter in Nineteenth-Century Japan

The Society for the History of Natural History, or SHNH (http://shnh.org.uk/) produces a newsletter for its members three times a year. One item in the newsletter is ‘A Good Read’, where members of the society can write an article on their favourite natural history book. Past issues of the newsletter (available at http://shnh.org.uk/newsletter/) have included contributions on Mary Kingsley’s travels in West Africa and the history of herbals. When asked to step up I chose the story of a Scottish plant hunter and his adventures in Japan:

Robert Fortune’s Yedo and Peking. A narrative of a journey to the capitals of Japan and China (London, John Murray, 1863).

A surly Robert Fortune. From http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-great-british-tea-heist-9866709/?no-ist
A surly Robert Fortune. From http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-great-british-tea-heist-9866709/?no-ist

‘Having heard and read so many stories of this strange land’ recalled Robert Fortune in 1863, ‘I had long looked upon Japan in much the same light as the Romans regarded our own isles in the days of the ancient Britons.’ In a good read, it is impossible to tell where adventure ends and natural history begins. It is this quality that attracted my undergraduate-self to the Scottish botanist’s Yedo and Peking. A narrative of a journey to the capitals of Japan and China. Following centuries of isolation (sakoku), Japan had been forcibly opened to Western trade with the arrival of Commodore Perry’s fleet outside Edo (now Tokyo) in 1853. Treaties were subsequently signed between the Tokugawa shogunate, United States and multiple European powers. New trading ports were opened and travel privileges granted to foreigners.

In the wake of diplomats and merchants came Victorian plant hunters. Working on behalf of the United States patent office, Fortune was keen to not only gather ‘vegetable productions of an ornamental and useful kind’ but also ‘other objects of natural history and works of art.’ He first arrived in Japan in 1860, at a time of transition. Steam machinery and telegraph lines rested alongside temples, teahouses and gardens. Fortune’s lively description of everyday life in nineteenth-century Japan is intermingled with botanical observations and notes on garden design. A moment of hero worship appears when he meets the elderly German physician and ‘veteran naturalist’ Philipp Franz von Siebold. Yet Fortune’s Japanese guide Tomi is described as overly-fond of sake (rice wine), managing to stay only ‘largely sober’ during the daylight hours.

Following a brief sojourn in China, Fortune’s narrative continues upon his return to Japan in the spring of 1861. Fortune prepared and stored his ‘collections of dried plants, seeds, insects and shells’ and soon had cases crammed full of ‘rare species’. Yet all was not well. Fortune lived under the protection of the Tokugawa government following attacks on foreigners by disaffected rōnin (masterless samurai). Characteristically, the collector within him took the time to show his guardians his natural history books and collections, ‘with which they appeared greatly pleased .’ His rationalisation to the Japanese officials is indicative of the whole practice of imperial natural history: ‘in England we had such things introduced from all parts of the world… I was now endeavouring to add to our collection all that was useful or beautiful in Japan.’

Robert Fortune’s adventures in China are better known than his Japanese travels, perhaps unsurprisingly, as the former found him disguised in native dress and fighting off pirates. But his expeditions to Japan also have much to offer readers: a nineteenth-century shopping spree in Edo, visiting ‘garden after garden in succession’ and infectious delight on acquiring a male Aucuba japonica, the ‘Holly of Japan.’ Yedo and Peking. A narrative of a journey to the capitals of Japan and China is now freely available, along with many of Fortune’s other works, at the Biodiversity Heritage Library website.

SHNH Newsletter, No. 110, July 2016, pp. 13-14 



A Hidden Gem: The Mineralogy and Petrology Museum, University of Alberta 

Late last month I found myself in Edmonton, with a free day prior to the Three Societies meeting (22-25 June). Touring the University of Alberta campus, I  wandered into the basement of the Earth Sciences building, to discover the Mineralogy and Petrology Museum (http://www.eas.museums.ualberta.ca/mineralogyandpetrologycollection.aspx). Visitors to the small museum are greeted by a colossal sample of Albertan copper – continue to explore and numerous treasures present themselves. For instance, the Toluca meteorite, discovered in 1776 and at some 4.6 billion years old advertised as the ‘oldest item you will ever touch.’


A moment from the history of science is captured in a display on the work of George Barrow (1853-1932). A geologist and surveyor, Barrow is best known for his work in Scotland from 1884 to 1900. Mapping in Glen Clova (northeastern Scotland), Barrow noticed a pattern of mineral occurrences. Subsidiary minerals – chlorite, biotite, garnet, staurolite, kyanite and sillimanite occurred in six distinct zones (see below). Barrow theorised that these differences indicated different degrees of metamorphism (the intensity of heat and pressure) that had occurred in each region. He had discovered a new tool for mapping metamorphic rocks. Zones of progressive metamorphism have subsequently become known as ‘the Barrovian sequence’ or ‘Barrovian zones’.


Yet according to David Oldroyd’s entry on Barrow in the Dictionary of National Biography (http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/56917), all did not end well. Barrow used his discovery to declare that the main metamorphic regions of Scotland all came from the same source: each had simply been ‘metamorphosed to different degrees.’ Oldroyd tells us that Barrow had a certain ‘tenacity’ regarding this theory, which caused him to fall out with his colleagues. Eventually, it was agreed ‘to move him from Scotland to the less controversial geology of the English midlands.’


The Mineralogy and Petrology Museum is undoubtedly a hidden gem, which holds fascinating specimens and captures intriguing moments from the history of geology. Founded in 1912 by the first Chair of the Geology department, Dr. John A. Allen, the museum now functions as both a teaching space for students and a public attraction (for tourists like me)! If you ever find yourself in the Edmonton area, the museum and the neighboring Paleontology Museum are well worth a visit!

Enlightenment Ghosts and Ecological Utopianism in the Scottish Highlands

Here at the Centre for the History and Philosophy of Science at Leeds, our eighteenth-century reading group has spent the last few weeks looking at Fredrik Albritton Jonsson’s Enlightenment’s Frontier: The Scottish Highlands and the Origins of Environmentalism (2013). During the eighteenth century, Enlightenment figures looked to the Scottish Highlands as an untapped source of natural wealth. Agriculture, mines, fisheries and townships emerged from the imaginations of natural historians, surveyors and agricultural improvers. Colonisation and prospecting in the Highlands occurred in conjunction with a flurry of Enlightenment ideas and values. Belief in a divinely-ordered nature led Scottish naturalist John Walker to survey the wilderness for minerals, while agricultural improver John Sinclair mapped acres of untamed land for future cultivation.


Herman Moll, “The north part of Great Britain called Scotland,” 1732. The National Library of Scotland: http://maps.nls.uk/view/74417584

By the early decades of the nineteenth century, the Enlightenment drive for Highland prosperity narrated by Jonsson had come to a close. Hopes of unlimited growth and prosperity had run into real-world obstacles. It had been thought that agriculture and land management would alter the harsh climate of the Highlands and that fixed townships would be established. In reality, the end of the Napoleonic Wars proved the bane of many Enlightenment schemes. The market for Scottish kelp and wood collapsed alongside the profitability of projects such as the Caledonian Canal. As failure followed failure, pessimism crept into natural history circles. Surveyor John Williams warned of limits to the Scottish coal supply, while Malthus’s essay on population, which cited disease, war and famine as natural checks on population circulated.


Sir Frank Fraser Darling (right), at the BBC Reith Lecture, 1969: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-13647943

Enlightenment’s Frontier closes with musing on modern population and environmental fears, from the Club of Rome’s 1972 The Limits to Growth to anthropogenic climate change. Yet an alternative vision of the Highlands was established some years before by ecologist Frank Fraser Darling in his West Highland Survey (1955). Darling claimed that excessive exploitation of the Highlands had inflicted severe ecological damage. Eighteenth-century iron smelters and nineteenth-century sheep pastures had caused unprecedented forest loss in the region. The loss of the traditional clan system and annexation of the Highlands in 1745 had, Darling suggested, upset an environmental equilibrium that Gaelic culture had achieved over centuries. His solution to the Highland “problem” of poverty and depopulation was conservation and ecological study, based upon Gaelic society and culture.

In many ways, Darling’s vision was as flawed as that of Jonsson’s actors. On the island of Tanera Mòr, where Darling was based during the 1940s, he had correlated the ecological value of woodland with long-term economic success, without actually working out the finances involved. For eighteenth-century improvers, the harsh and unyielding conditions of the Highlands doomed many of their Enlightenment-themed projects. For Darling, it was these very attempts at “improvement” which had devastated the Highlands.

(Re)Introducing the Capercaillie to Scotland, 1837-1900

Animals seem to drop in and out of popularity like the latest trends in fashion. In history, this malleable approach to nature was clearly evident in nineteenth-century Scotland. I felt moved to introduce this topic today thanks to the eighteenth-century reading group here at the University of Leeds. The members kindly agreed to alter their meeting times to include yours truly, who is interested in their latest book choice – Fredrik Jonsson’s Enlightenment’s Frontier: The Scottish Highlands and the Origins of Environmentalism (2013). Needless to say, a review will follow once we have finished! But for now, here is a bit of species history, courtesy of a large woodland grouse, the capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus).


Hunting the capercaillie: Plate from J.A. Harvie-Brown, The Capercaillie in Scotland (Edinburgh, 1879).

The capercaillie had been driven to extinction in Scotland by 1785, when the last two recorded individuals were shot at Ballochbuie in Deeside. The extirpation of the capercaillie was largely attributable to habitat loss, the species being adversely affected by decreasing forest cover since the Mesolithic. However, the role of direct human pressure through hunting undoubtedly contributed to its disappearance. The hungry Reverend Lachlan Shaw in his 1775 The History of the Province of Moray described the flesh of the capercaillie as “tender and delicious,” with a hint of “resinous fir.” As the species vanished (possibly into Reverend Shaw’s stomach), poetic flourishes came from saddened Scotsmen, who spoke of the capercaillie as the “finest of feathered game”, once residing in the “noblest” Scottish forests.

During a thirty-year absence, changing land-use practices inadvertently restored former capercaillie habitat. Highland estates that had been previously cleared for sheep established deer forests and grouse moors, catering for the new leisure pursuits of the Victorian upper classes. The reforestation of Scottish estates, at first driven by aristocratic social assertiveness, aesthetic sense, patriotism and long-term profit, began a process of “unconscious rewilding.” Estates such as Rothiemurchus were cleared of sheep for grouse shooting, while other forests reappeared following the end of the French War. A competitive lease market also lent itself to the profitable exploitation of sporting visitors to the estate by the late eighteenth century.


Changing depictions: From left, in B.R. Morris, British Game Birds and Wildfowl (London. 1855) and R. Lydekker, The Sportsman’s British Bird Book (London, 1908). The birds photographed on the right are taxidermy specimens.

According to naturalist John Alexander Harvie-Brown, the first attempted reintroduction of the capercaillie to Scotland took place in either 1827 or 1828, with the importation of Swedish birds to Mar Lodge. The following year, the Highland Society of Scotland debated reintroduction, but reached the conclusion that attempts to alter the natural relations between wild animals and the state of a country’s population and terrain was fraught with difficulty. Despite such setbacks, the first successful introduction of the capercaillie took place at Taymouth thanks to Lord Breadalbane in 1837. A successful introduction at Arran in 1843 resulted from birds sent from Taymouth, with more birds arriving from Sweden in 1846. In 1868 capercaillies were bred in Torwood and eggs were successfully hatched at Invereran, in Strathdon in 1873. The feverish rush by landowners to claim possession of the bird is explained by the economic and social advantages associated with game ownership in the nineteenth century.

The Vertebrate Fauna of Sutherland (1884) described the capercaillie as a “desirable addition” to the range of game in the district. Capercaillies on the estate of Monymusk were first shot in 1891, following sightings of the birds only two years earlier. Sportsman Charles St. John considered the reintroduction of the capercaillie a “spirited example”, preceding the introduction of other “ornamental and valuable” game birds.

However, these avian arrivals were by no means universally embraced in Scotland. While certain estates, including those at Athole and Forfar, preserved and nurtured capercaillie populations, on others they were killed at every opportunity. Controversy seems to have arisen over the effect of capercaillie on black grouse populations. The reception of capercaillies on Scottish estates was dependent upon the outcome of this debate. Sir Robert Menzies, writing to Harvie-Brown in 1843, preserved migrating capercaillies on his lands, because he believed they did no harm to “the grouse or black game.” Sportsman Charles Dixon (1893) pointed to a lack of evidence linking the supposed “theft” of black grouse and pheasant nests by capercaillie.

However, legitimate concerns were also raised regarding forest damage. Capercaillies were capable of considerable damage to small forests, eating large amounts of the shoots and buds of the Scotch fir. Harvie-Brown agreed with this assessment, declaring the damage done to woods and forests a “sad thorn” in proprietor’s sides. At the time of writing (1879), Harvie-Brown also reported that the appearance of numerous capercaillies on an estate would lead to shooting, rather than fostering. Ornithologist Robert Gray reported the shooting of “wandering” capercaillies in pine plantations near Glasgow in 1876.

Reintroductions of the capercaillie were driven by thoughts of economic and social gain through the restocking of a new game species. However, these very human factors could be extremely fickle, as many of the newly-arrived birds discovered to their cost.

Further Reading:

Grey, R., ‘On the Birds of Galsgow and its Vicinity’, in E.R., Alston, R., Gray, P., Cameron, J., Ramsay & J., Stirton, Notes on the Fauna and Flora of the West of Scotland (Glasgow, 1876), pp. ix-xvi.

Harvie-Brown, J.A., The Capercaillie in Scotland (Edinburgh, 1879).

Ritchie, J., The Influence of Man on Animal Life in Scotland (Cambridge, 1920).

Stevenson, G.B., “An Historical Account of the Social and Ecological Causes of Capercaillie Tetrao urogallus. Extinction and Reintroduction in Scotland”, PhD Thesis, University of Stirling (2007).