Bicentenary of George Don’s death

The memorial to George Don, erected in the East and Old Kirkyard by Forfar Town Council in 1910.
The memorial to George Don, erected in the East and Old Kirkyard by Forfar Town Council in 1910.

This week marks the death of one of Forfar’s most famous sons and a true world-class pioneer in the science of botany.

Tuesday was the 200th anniversary of the death of George Don, whose career led him to the top of his profession and the documentation of new plant species in Scotland.

Five plants of different species still bear his name and his two elder sons, George and David, also went on to have highly successful botanical careers.

Kirriemuir man Norman Atkinson, former Angus Council cultural services manager and life-long admirer of George Don, contacted the Dispatch and Herald this week to highlight the anniversary of the “great man” who did much to document the flora and fauna of his native Angus and throughout the highlands.

Born at the farm of Ireland, near Menmuir, in 1764 Don’s family moved to Forfar six years later where they lived in Little Causeway. His father was a shoemaker, and on leaving school George seemed destined to follow that trade, or that of his brother, a clockmaker, but the pull of natural history was too strong, and he moved to Dupplin Gardens near Perth where he began his training as a gardener.

Mr Atkinson said: “This career saw him travel throughout England, but in 1790 he returned to Forfar, setting up in business as a nurseryman. In 1797 he and his wife Caroline Stewart took a 99-year lease of Doohillock, just east of the present Tesco supermarket, where he created a botanic garden, and they raised some 15 children or so!

“His reputation as a botanist and respected contacts saw him secure the prestigious post of superintendent of the Edinburgh Royal Botanic Garden in 1802, but he wisely kept on Doohillock. This part of his career proved to be short-lived, as he returned to Forfar in 1806.

“George Don’s plant discoveries in Angus, Scotland and Britain were impressive, and included three new to science. Many of these are in his Herbarium Brittanicum, published between 1802 and 1813. A copy of this, of which only three survive, came up for auction a few years ago, and I tried to acquire it for Forfar. Unfortunately it fetched a tidy sum, so Forfar is still without a copy of this magnificent publication.

“However, Don’s list of the Plants and Animals of his native county, published in 1813, is perhaps his greatest legacy, and a feat which surely no naturalist will equal.”

Mr Atkinson also said Don proved himself to be more than a botanist with his 1813 bird list, the first ever compiled for Angus.

George Don died on January 14, 1814 at the relatively young age of 49 and although his funeral was attended by a huge crowd, there was no memorial to him in the town until 1910 when one was erected in what is now the East and Old’s kirkyard.

Forfar Town Council also named Don Street in his honour, and a memorial plaque was erected by Forfar Historical Society on the site of Doohillock, now the Forfar Resource Centre.

Mr Atkinson added: “The Meffan Institute in Forfar has Don’s vasculum or plant-collecting box on display, and also has nine of his herbarium specimens.

“No fewer than five of his sons followed in his botanical footsteps, while other Angus botanists - notably Thomas Drummond and William Gardiner benefitted from his teachings. The newly created Forfar Botanists garden in the Myre is a fitting tribute to them all.”