I’m Fran Gillespie, a free-lance writer with a particular interest in the natural environment, and was intrigued to discover, when I came to live in the Perthshire village of Fortingall in the early 1980s, that the great Scottish plant hunter Archibald Menzies was born not far away and had worked when a youth at Castle Menzies before leaving for Edinburgh and a career as a naval surgeon and plant collector that was to take him all over the world. I found that the Biblical saying that a prophet is not without honour save in his own country was very true – not many local people I spoke to had ever heard of Archibald Menzies -- so I decided to write about his life for a local magazine and hopefully get him better known. Several visits to the library in Perth and a trip to the archives at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh [RBGE], where staff showed me the collection of letters from Menzies to his former mentor, the director, Sir John Hope, gave me enough material for the article, which was published in 1983.
In 1985 I left to work in the Middle East for thirty years, and when I came back was pleased to discover that not only was Menzies now commemorated in the Scottish Plant Collectors Garden at Pitlochry but also had a room dedicated to him in Castle Menzies, with a display about his life and work. He was beginning to be recognized on his own patch, so to speak! Time for another article about his remarkable career – again for a Perthshire magazine. This was published in April 2016 and on a visit to London that month I decided to go along to Kensal Green cemetery to track down his grave and pay my respects. The first of the great London garden cemeteries known as ‘The Magnificent Seven’, Kensal Green was opened in 1833, only nine years before Archibald’s death at the great age of 88. His wife Janet had predeceased him and is buried in the same grave. The early graves lie in an unmaintained wilderness area along one side of the vast cemetery and I was appalled to discover that Archibald’s grave was a weedy hollow scattered with fragments of a broken headstone and ledger, any inscription on the soft Portland stone long since worn away by pollution. There and then I decided that something had to be done about it.
I contacted the Menzies Clan Society [MCS] and sent the board members photographs of the present condition of the grave. They immediately offered to make a donation for its restoration, but said that they could not undertake fundraising at present as they were fully committed towards raising money to restore the walled gardens at Castle Menzies, part of which is now named after Archibald and planted with some of his discoveries. However I received a lot of support and encouragement from the MCS when I set up the Archibald Menzies Memorial Appeal, and generous donations from many individual members.
I estimated a complete restoration of the grave would cost in the region of £5000, and hopefully there would be enough funding above that figure to allow for its maintenance for some years. There followed two years of fund-raising, ranging from crowd-funding sites and the writing of innumerable begging letters to companies and organizations, to cultivating and selling garden plants discovered by Archibald, such as Baby Blue-eyes. Atholl Estates contributed a very generous £1000 with which to start the ball rolling, and gradually the funds started to accumulate. A big break-through was when Henry Noltie, head archivist at the RBGE, put me in touch with Dr Nick Menzies, a botanist in California. He immediately offered to raise money in the States, and the final total raised by his GoFundMe site was a magnificent US$2000. Menzieses in Australia and Canada also contributed and raised funds.
This year I was introduced via a contact in the Forestry Commission Scotland to retired forester Syd House, who told me he was one of a singing duo named PlaidSong along with his partner Nicky Small. Syd offered to give a concert to help with the fund-raising, and suggested Castle Menzies as a venue. What a brilliant idea! The Menzies Charitable Trust which owns the castle willingly gave permission for a large public room in the building to be used, and on 4 August the concert took place with an enthusiastic audience of around 80 people. Syd and Nicola gave an account of the life and times of Lady Nairne, a staunch Jacobite and secret composer of songs who was an almost exact contemporary of Archibald Menzies, and performed some of her songs. The donations totalled £900, bringing the amount of funds to comfortably over the target figure. Home and dry at last!
Work on the restoration by Robertson Granite of Aberdeen is now going ahead and will be completed before the end of 2018. A natural schist boulder from Bolfracks Estate near Aberfeldy, where Archibald Menzies was born, will be engraved the names and dates of Archibald and Janet Menzies beside an engraving of monkey puzzle branch – the monkey puzzle was one of the many trees he is credited with discovering. The grave will be surrounded by an edging of York stone and planted with perennial shrubs discovered by Menzies, and at the foot will be a stone plaque engraved with the original 100-word inscription, subscribed to by his many friends, which appeared on the original headstone of 1842. Next year, when everything is complete, we plan to have a gathering at Kensal Green to celebrate the completion of the newly restored grave. Hopefully the Friends of Kensal Green, who conduct visitors on tours of the last resting places of the many famous names from all walks of life, may be persuaded to include that of Archibald Menzies.