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McNab, James (1810-1878), horticulturist and botanist

Peter D. A. Boyd

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BOYD, P.D.A. 2009. 'McNab, James (1810-1878), horticulturist and botanist'. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn, Oxford University Press, May 2009 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/99630]

Text © Oxford University Press 2004-9 All rights reserved


McNab, James (1810-1878), horticulturist and botanist, was born at Richmond, Surrey, on 25 April 1810, the eldest son and second of nine children of William McNab (1780-1848), foreman at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and his wife, Elizabeth, née Whiteman (1777/8-1844). Shortly after his birth the family moved to Scotland when his father became superintendent and curator of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. About 1822, at the age of twelve, he started work with his father in the Edinburgh garden, remaining there for twelve years, first as an apprentice, then a journeyman, and later foreman. He also returned to formal academic studies, taking classes in writing, accounts, Latin and elementary Greek, and architectural studies at the Dollar Institution in 1827 and 1828. An intelligent and able young man, he learnt and carried out the routine duties of a gardener and progressed to the preparation of plans of gardens and greenhouses, including the equipment required to heat the latter by steam and hot water. From about 1829 he also acted as either clerk or assistant secretary to Patrick Neill, secretary of the Caledonian Horticultural Society. He also had artistic talents, drawing many of the plants that flowered in the Edinburgh garden from 1829. A number of his paintings were engraved to accompany plant descriptions by Robert Graham, the regius keeper of the garden, in Robert Sweet's British Flower Garden and other periodicals during the 1830s. He also produced some illustrations for J. C. Loudon's Arboretum Britannicum (1838).

In 1834 McNab was asked by Robert Brown (c.1767-1845) to accompany him on a tour of the United States and Canada. Brown was a retired nurseryman from Perth who had been responsible for introducing the swede ('neeps') to cultivation in Scotland and breeding the first coloured 'Double Scotch Roses', among other accomplishments. McNab kept a journal of the tour, recording the adventures of these two plant explorers in the wilds of North America and the difficulties of travel by sea, land, and river, though only short accounts, including lists of some of the trees and plants observed and collected, were ever published (in, for example, the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal for 1835, and Transactions of the Edinburgh Botanical Society). The botanic garden benefited from plants and seeds collected during the trip.

In 1835 McNab was appointed curator of the Caledonian Horticultural Society's experimental garden at Inverleith, Edinburgh, where he remained until 1849, landscaping and managing the garden. In a ceremony officiated by Charles Terrot, Scottish Episcopalian bishop of Edinburgh, he married in Edinburgh, on 23 January 1844, Margaret, daughter of Peter Scott; they had a son and five daughters. In 1849 he succeeded his father as curator of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, where the regius keeper was John Hutton Balfour, who had succeeded Robert Graham. A temperate plant house was completed in 1858, for which the design of the heating system and the internal arrangement were McNab's. The garden occupied 14 acres, and in 1859 2 acres were added to its western side, landscaped and planted, while in 1864 the old experimental garden ground of 10 acres (which belonged to the crown) was added to the botanic garden and rearranged by McNab for conifers and other evergreen trees and shrubs. The experimental garden had been separated from the botanic garden by a stone wall, the stones from which were utilized by him to create in 1860 a rock garden of which he was particularly proud. This garden was enlarged in subsequent years and provided 5442 compartments with different aspects and soil mixtures for the cultivation of alpine and dwarf herbaceous plants, proving successful in providing conditions for the cultivation of a wide variety of 'difficult' plants.

McNab was much admired as a cultivator of hardy and tender plants. In 1877 William Robinson described him as being

among the faithful few who never deserted the beautiful hardy flora of our gardens for the famous red and yellow streaks that sometimes disfigure even our great botanic gardens. His knowledge of these in such a national garden is most precious. It comprises the culture and habits of the plants, in addition to a mere acquaintance with their names and relationships. (The Garden, 29 Dec 1877, 16)

Robinson also referred to the 'admirable cultivation and arrangement' shown in the palm house at Edinburgh. 'We must pronounce this the best-managed tropical house (both from the point of view of design, arrangement, and culture) of any in the botanic gardens of the United Kingdom' (ibid.).

McNab was not only an active gardener but also a prolific writer, contributing to a wide range of horticultural and botanical literature including The Garden and the Transactions of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh. He was one of the original members of the Edinburgh Botanical Society, of which he became president in 1872, and was a corresponding member of several societies in Britain and overseas. He died suddenly at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, on 19 November 1878, and was buried in the Warriston cemetery, Edinburgh. His coffin was surmounted with his favourite plants, including various evergreens, camellias, and chrysanthemums, together with wreaths made up of Cupressus macnabiana and rosettes of Saxifraga macnabiana, plants that had been named in his honour during his life. After his death many of his papers together with herbarium specimens, paintings, and documents of his father William McNab found their way to Ireland through his son William Ramsay McNab who was, by then, professor of botany in the Royal College of Science, Dublin. They were eventually purchased from W. R. McNab's widow for the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin.



Sources C. Byrom, Caledonian Gardener (1997), 44-52 · W. Robinson, The Garden, 12 (29 Dec 1877), 16 · Gardeners' Chronicle (1871), 1033; (1878), 661 · Desmond, Botanists · Journal of Botany (1878), 382 · H. R. Fletcher and W. H. Brown, The Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, 1670-1970 (1970) · Transactions of the Botanical Society [Edinburgh] (1879), 381-3; 44 (1987), 343-9; 45 (1988), 217-22 · census returns, 1861 · m. reg. Scot.

Archives Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh, papers · National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin, drawings and plans

Likenesses portrait, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Hunt Library · portraits, repro. in Robinson, 'James McNab', The Garden (1877), 16 · portraits, repro. in The Garden (1878), 459 · portrait, repro. in Gardeners' Chronicle (1871), 1033 · portrait, repro. in Gardeners' Chronicle (1878), 661 · portrait, Royal Horticultural Society, London; repro. in The glory of the garden: a loan exhibition in association with the Royal Horticultural Society (1987), 210

Wealth at death £4656 15s. 7d.: confirmation, CCI


Text © Oxford University Press 2004-9 All rights reserved

Peter D. A. Boyd, 'McNab, James (1810-1878)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn, Oxford University Press, May 2009 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/99630]

James McNab (1810-1878): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/99630


See also William McNab (1780-1848)


Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh


See Biographies for other contributions by Peter Boyd for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography


Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

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