How the Scottish Redwood Trust came about!
Part 1 of 2
by Fiona Ross
When I think back to how the Trust started, it alludes to how ideas and consciousness can collide across time and space. It’s zeitgeist - a German word that reflects the idea of “spirit of the time” or the sense that people, no matter how far apart, are in a collective “multiple discovery”. For example, Albert Einstein, Henri Poincare, and Olinto De Pretto were all working on mass-energy equivalency, but Einstein is credited, because he tied it all together with relativity.
For me, the earliest stages of the SRT coming to be, were certainly in 2015. As the Chair of the Carse of Gowrie Sustainability Group (CoGSG) at the time, and currently, I was minding my own business until this ‘zeitgeist’ descended and changed the course of my life. Well, certainly as a community activist.
The Carse of Gowrie, lies between the cities of Perth and Dundee, from the Sidlaw Hills down to the Tay estuary - from the Tay to the Braes as they say. The area is predominantly arable farm land, whilst the landscape cannot hide its orchards heritage, first introduced by French monks 800 years. The French connection continues in reed beds, the finest in the UK, built as flood defence by French Napoleonic Prisoners of War, based at Perth prison. By the 19th Century, the Carse was one of the areas in Perthshire, producing the fruit tree stock for the British Empire. In fact, one orchard boosted 10,000 trees, the largest ever recorded in Scotland. What I didn't know then, but do know now, is that this orchard was created by a man called Patrick Matthew.
Photos (left to right): Carse of Gowrie landscape, abundant orchards and the Tay estuary at Port Allen
Whilst CoGSG’s focus was, and is, climate change and sustainability, our management committee have strong links and interests in community orchards and heritage. We have found that the connectivity between a sense of place, community and protecting the environment, often assists with opening conversations about climate change. That was six years ago when climate change was more of an ‘elephant in the room’, to most, rather than the immediate, politically charged and Greta Thunburg busting topic it is now.
On the 28th of May 2015, a Dr Mike Sutton from Trent Nottingham University emailed me, out of the blue, about someone called Patrick Matthew (PM), a 19th century landowner from Grange in the Carse of Gowrie, Perthshire. A man I had never heard of, yet a man I went to learn had made two significant contributions to the world of global science. Mike asked, “I wonder if you might be interested to learn that after more than 100 years Patrick Matthew's unmarked grave has been discovered in the Carse of Gowrie - in Errol Churchyard ”.
I probably raised an eyebrow, as I’m not sure I was that interested, but one thing Dr Sutton wouldn’t have known is that I lived less than a minute’s walk from Errol’s graveyard. I certainly didn’t recognise that this contact was to be Synchronicity, Carl Jung’s term to explain deeply meaningful coincidences which mysteriously occur in your life.
Photos (left to right): Mike Sutton's book, Errol Graveyard register showing the Matthew lairs, and '+' marks the spot of the Matthew lair.
Mike was a criminology professor, now retired, who was interested in investigating historic figures whose legacies have been lost in time or simply not recognised. He had become fascinated by PM and have been avidly researching and making contact with various descendants. He had created a PM website, and later published a book called Nullius in Verba: Darwin's greatest secret in 2017 (see front cover above). Mike and PM's descendants wanted to find a way to celebrate PM's life and work - a man who was relatively unknown at that time.
He went on to say “The discovery of Matthew's grave is of great cultural importance for Scotland, not only because it is officially recognised that Matthew was the first to published the full hypothesis of natural selection (27 years before Darwin and Wallace) but also because it is newly discovered (by me in 2014) with the aid of new big data technology research methods that Darwin's and Wallace's friends and important influencers actually cited Matthew's (1831) book in the literature years before Darwin and Wallace replicated the same unique ideas”.
A man, born in 1790, near Scone Palace, had discovered the process of natural selection and never formerly recognised! My colleagues at CoGSG and I were more than a little interested then!
Photos: Patrick Mathew with his wife, and first cousin, Christian Nicol, and their three daughters Euphemia, Agnes and Helen Amelia ( they have 8 children in all, including 5 sons)
At about the same time, unbeknownst to me, the CoGSG’s junior division, the Junior Carsonians (JCs), pupils from the six Carse Primary Schools, had started a new heritage protect with community artist, Astrid Leeson. The project was about the life and times of Patrick Matthew. Astrid had wondered why this published writer, orchard pioneer, and social campaigner just wasn’t known about. The JCs became PM detectives investigating his legacy from predicting the Tay Rail Disasters to his connection with the Californian gold rush and the Inchture redwoods.
Photos (left to right): JC's being interviewed by STV News, JC's project logo, and the JC's Matthew Family Tree sculpture.
Some say, it's the controversy between Darwin's achievement and Matthew's earlier theory, that drove the scientific established to sweep PMs contribution under the carpet. Perhaps, like Einstein, the zeitgeist here is that PM's earlier work related to the 'survival of the fittest' in fruit trees which he published 28 years before Darwin. However, Darwin brought the entire theory of the process of natural selection together across plants, animals and humans - his life's work. Some, scientists, and specifically puritanical Darwinists, still do not recognise PMs work, discounting him as a 'crank'. Yet, omitting the references to previous scientific work can wrongfully suggest that your own publication is the origin of an idea. It's etiquette and provides the method.
Interestingly enough, that didn't faze Matthew in his pursuit of scientific ideas and connections, as he exchanged a number of letters with Darwin. Whilst, Matthew was keen to meet him in person to discuss their individual theories and science in general, Darwin's global adventures had left him in poor health, so his wife often corresponded on his behalf.
However, not always, Darwin writes to Patrick Matthew on March 15th 1871 saying 'I thank you for your kind letter. You show no signs of your four score years in your letter or in the newspaper article, which seems written with your pristine vigour. My health keeps very indifferent and every exertion fatigues me, so that I doubt whether I shall be good for much more.....I have many letters to write, so pray excuse my brevity, and believe me, with respect'. This was in response to PM being in London and requesting a visit - it never happened.
Next, there was a loud stentorian knock on my ‘inbox door’ which introduced me to Howard Minnick, the 3rd Great Grandson of PM, from Utah. He had been endeavouring to find a way to celebrate PM’s remarkable life for many years. Whilst he had made contact with a number of local groups and Trusts, no-one had responded positively. Howard’s sheer enthusiasm descended on us like a train coming down the track and with that gathering momentum, we at the CoGSG had no doubt that Patrick Matthew’s star was in the ascent.
In 2015, it was synchronicity, whist it’s usually associated with a spiritual journey, at the core it’s a wink from the universe to show you a path. That’s when Mike, Astrid, Howard, the JCs and the CoGSG started working together to create a project and find funding to host a memorial protect. Two years later, we secured funding from the Heritage Lottery and CoGSG hosted the Patrick Matthew Memorial Project and Trail. A project which wouldn’t have happened without the enormous effort from my fellow office bearers at the CoGSG: Coral and Ian Bell. The event, also, included an exhibition by the JCs (some of the artwork is below) of their project on Matthew.
Six months earlier to this, I was contacted by another 'Zeitgeist' Peggy Edwards – the Californian botanist, teacher and redwood aficionado. I understood by then about the connection between the Californian mountain redwood and PM. We started a busy ping ponging of emails, which is still the case today – she is simply my SRT co-pilot. I’m naturally a connector and facilitator, probably from 20 odd years as a producer/director in factual television, so I often see ‘an angle’. When Peggy mentioned she was coming to Scotland, I immediately asked her if she would speak at a lecture. Using my ‘little black book’ I persuaded the Dundee Botanic Garden to be the location. The event was fully booked, such was the appetite to hear Peggy speak about redwoods and living amongst them in Santa Cruz, California. This was the first time, and only time, I met Peggy Edwards – but post-Covid will change that.
In the back row of the lecture, sat a man, someone I vaguely knew but had never met. As my eyes drifted across the room to take in the audience, for a moment my eyes rested on this man, as he intently listened to Peggy, hardly shifting position. As I watched him, I had absolutely no idea how instrumental he would become to the SRT. Whilst appearing a little shy in nature, at the end of the talk, he determinedly moved towards the front to speak directly with Peggy. That man was John Lamont, now the Vice Chair of SRT, redwood cultivator and prolific ‘spotter’. This was the first time I met John Lamont.
Photo: The Inchture Redwood Avenue, a SEGI cone and John Lamont's early seedlings.
It’s his great success as a propagator, which is drives our conservation programme at the Trust, to create new glades across Scotland cultivated from PM’s original trees. This work aims to promote PM’s legacy and create a Scottish redwood seed reserve. The first three projects are planned at Bannockburn House, Gillies Hill and Dronley Community Woods, scheduled for planting in March 2022.
Many of you probably know, that when I refer to the ‘PM original trees’ they came from seeds sent to him to by his sons who were out in California gold prospecting. In the search for gold, there is often one common denominator between gold and redwoods – they are found in near quartz. PM, was the first person in the UK to receive and cultivate the Sequoiadendron giganteum outside California in August 1853. And see an excerpt from the letter his sons sent with the seeds below. He immediately wrote to the Gardener’s Chronicle to inform them. It is documented that from those seeds that he cultivated 11 trees: Gourdiehill (2, one remains), Megginch Castle (2), Ballindean (2), Kinnoul Nursery, Newburgh, Balbirnie, Inchyra House, Eglinton Castle in Ayrshire.
Photo: Excerpt from a letter written by John Matthew to his father Patrick Matthew, August 1853
Here, is where history repeats itself for Matthew, again this accolade was not recognised, and was seized by plant hunter Lobb, working for the Veitch Nurseries in Exeter. Lobb had returned to England, and presented his redwood seeds in December 1853 – four months after PM. The Gardener’s Chronicle editor, a friend of Veitch’s, withheld PM’s letter, claiming the glory for Lobb and Veitch. It wasn’t until 1866, when a new editor finally gave PM the credit, although by that time ‘tales of the redwoods and gold rush excitement’ had become tomorrow’s fish n’ chip paper.
….to be continued….
Fiona is a community activist and practitioner who has been involved in numerous projects about climate change, the environment and creating community orchards since 2010. She graduated from Dundee University, in 2017, with an MSc with distinction, in Climate Change, Sustainability and Low Carbon Futures. Her previous career, as a producer/director in factual television, started after she graduated from the Royal College of Art in 1989, with an M.A in Film and Television. After travelling the world, and twenty years of being based in London, she retrained as antique furniture restorer, and moved back home to Scotland in 2008 to find a more sustainable life.
Written by Fiona Ross, April 2021