Thomas Edmondston and The Moray Field Club

MFC Paper 25 by Ian Keillar 1978

On 24th January 1846, a shore party from H.M.S. Herald was re-embarking after an exploration of Sua Bay near Esmeraldos in Ecuador. As the members were jumping into the whaleboat one of the party caught his trouser leg on the hammer of a heavy buffalo rifle. The hammer was pulled back and as it fell the rifle went off and a 1.25 ounce ball hit Thomas Edmondston on the temple. He died instantly, eight months short of his 21st birthday.

Thomas Edmondston was born on the 25th September 1825 at Buness, Baltasound, Unst, the most northerly inhabited island in the Shetland group. He was the son of the talented Laurence Edmondston and his Glasgow wife, Eliza Macbrair. Five years after Thomas was born, his father graduated M.D. from the University of Edinburgh and during the rest of his long life he was the much respected medical practitioner on Unst. His descendents live there to this day.

Thomas was apparently a weakly child and in his early days, with his father away in Edinburgh, he was brought up and much influenced by his mother. She may well have spoiled him, but she certainly encouraged him in his scientific studies. When he was but sixteen months old he could recognise all the letters of the alphabet and he taught himself to read by the age of four. At the age of eleven he had compiled a list of the plants of Unst and this list appears in Dr. W.D. Hooker‘s book "Notes on Norway". By the age of twelve he had prepared a Collectanea of the Flora of Shetland and in his early teens he travelled all over Shetland adding to his collection.

In 1840 his mother took Thomas to Edinburgh and introduced him to many of the leading scientists of the day. Thomas was fascinated and a year later he matriculated at Edinburgh University and was elected a Fellow of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh. He became assistant secretary of the Society and his early paper on the native dyes of Shetland appeared in Volume l of the Transactions in 1841.

Early in 1843 Thomas was accused of cheating by the Professor of Botany, Robert Graham. Without doubt Thomas was a genius and professors are not always too happy to recognise genius in others. Thomas left Edinburgh and took a ship to London. His father followed him and persuaded him to return to Shetland. During the summer of 1843 the young botanist gave lectures in Lerwick and some 40 people would turn up. However, probably due to parental pressure, he decided to return to formal academic life, and in 1843 he enrolled as a second year student at the University of Aberdeen.

The summer of 1844 he spent in Moray. In June he was giving lectures in botany 'to a select audience’ in the newly opened Elgin Museum. He met and made a distinct impression on Dr. Gordon of Birnie. Twenty years later Dr. Gordon wrote to Thomas' mother "I know not an instance in which the early death of an individual so much blighted the well founded hopes of his advancing the interests of Natural Science generally, for he was well prepared in almost all its departments"

The directors of the Museum allowed Thomas to use the Museum on condition that he also gave a lecture on zoology. Admission was 1/— (5p) with all the proceeds going to the Museum funds. The lecture was given at 3 p.m. on Wednesday 19th June "to a numerous and most respectable audience ~ the hall being crowded". Unfortunately, Thomas’ botanical lectures were not too successful in Elgin and only slightly more successful on alternate days in Forres. As the Elgin Courant noted "We beg again to impress on the young people of Elgin the advantage offered to them of acquiring knowledge from these lectures, and to urge them to avail themselves of it. We observed a lack of students both from the public  and private seminaries".

While at Forres, Thomas became very friendly with Dr. John G. Innes and later he wrote to him as "mon cher ami". Thomas made a distinctly good impression on the editor of The Elgin Courant and was noted as being amongst the distinguished visitors to the summer exhibition of the Elgin and Morayshire Horticultural Society, along with "C. St. John Esq., Invererne, and Lady."

In January 1845 Thomas was offered, and accepted, the position of Professor of Botany at the Anderson College or University in Glasgow. This college was founded in 1796 by money left by John Anderson. The medical section was eventually absorbed by Glasgow University, while the remainder incorporated with other institutions to form the West of Scotland Technical College. In 1912 it was renamed the Royal Technical College and in 1964 was chartered as Strathclyde University. Mercurial as ever, Thomas never taught in Glasgow. Early in May he was recommended to Prince Albert as the most suitable person to be appointed the naturalist on a government expedition to California. Thomas accepted the appointment and the gift of a silver mounted rifle from the Prince. Before sailing he arranged for the publication in Aberdeen of his "Flora of Shetland".

It is too much to claim that Thomas Edmondston founded the Moray Field Club. However, without doubt, his scholarship, enthusiasm and boundless energy must have had a considerable influence on his friend Dr. John G. Innes. In his turn Dr. Innes encouraged and influenced the Rev. Dr. Keith who became a mycologist of European distinction. In 1901 Dr. Keith was elected President of the newly formed Morayshire Teachers’ Field Club. In about 1919 the Club changed its name to the Moray Field Club and flourished until the second world war. In 1971 the Moravian Field Club was started and in 1976 it reverted to the old name, The Moray Field Club. Although we cannot honour Thomas Edmondston as the founder of our Club, we must be grateful that five generations ago he shot like a meteor across the skies of Moray, illuminating and inspiring all who met him, and leaving behind a legacy of scholarship which only now we are beginning to appreciate.

  • Anon Profile from the Past XVI in The New Shetlander 1962 pp7-9
  • Edmondston, T. The Flora of Shetland, Aberdeen 1845.
  • Edmondston, T. The Young Shetlander ed. by his Mother, Edinburgh 1868
  • Seeman, B. Voyage of H.M.S. Herald, London 1853.
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