On this day in history….13th April 1880

On this day in history : 13th April 1880 – The death of Scottish botanist and plant hunter Robert Fortune – who brought to us some 250 new species of ornamental plants – and tea to India….

Public domain

Fortune was born in Kelloe, Berwickshire on the 16th of September 1812…. Little is known of his early years and to those who knew him he volunteered little information…. However, we do know he was an apprentice in the gardens of Moredun House and showed promise from the start…. He managed to gain a place at Edinburgh’s Botanic Garden and trained under William McNab, a man who was not easy to impress…. But impress him Fortune did – and with McNab’s backing around 1840 he became Superintendent of the Hothouse Department at the Horticultural Society’s garden at Chiswick, London….

A few months later fortune was granted the position of the Society’s new species collector in China…. He was sent off to find, amongst other things:- double yellow roses, blue peonies, true mandarin oranges, tea plants and information on the peaches that grew in the Emperor’s garden – which were said to weight 2lb each!

Arriving in Hong Kong on the 6th of July 1843 Fortune wasted no time in starting his search…. Over the next three years he made excursions deep into the northern provinces of China…. As plants and seeds were seen as property of the Chinese Empire Fortune would not have been particularly welcome…. He was to encounter many hazards including being threatened at knifepoint by angry crowds, as he went about collecting species such as wisteria and weigela…. He also faced horrendous storms and even pirates on the Yangtze River…. To blend in and avert suspicion he disguised himself as a local Chinese merchant…. He learnt to speak Mandarin, shaved his head and even sported a pigtail…. With this disguise Fortune was able to collect his species to transport back home…. He did this by using Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward’s Wardian cases, an early type of terrarium….

Public domain

He finally returned to London in May 1846 and the following year published his book ‘Three Years’ Wanderings in the Northern Provinces of China’…. Using the journals he had kept he detailed Chinese gardening and agriculture and the history of China’s tea culture…. He had brought back with him a vast array of beautiful exotic ornamental plants and flowers, which were subsequently introduced to the gardens of Europe, the USA and Australia….

Fortune was to set off for China again…. This time for the East India Company, with the mission of securing the best possible tea plants with which to establish plantations in India…. Once more he disguised himself as a local merchant…. He hired an interpreter and ventured into the tea regions of China…. He managed to collect over 2,000 plants and some 17,000 germinating seeds, which were taken to the Himalayas to establish India’s tea industry….

Fortune was to make a further two trips to China and a trip to Japan…. He was to introduce hundreds of trees, shrubs and flowers to us…. From the Kumquat….to many varieties of azaleas, tree peonies and chrysanthemums…. Even the Dragon tree – and camellias, including the ‘Robert Fortune’ which was named for him….

Public domain

Fortune died in London and was buried in Brompton Cemetery….

On this day in history….5th January 1993

On this day in history : 5th January 1993 – The oil tanker MV Braer runs aground off the coast of the Shetland Islands, spilling its 84,700 tons of crude oil….

Location of the wreck – Eric Gaba, NordNordWest, Uwe Dedering CC BY-SA 3.0

The 800ft ship, which had been built in Japan in 1975, did not have the more modern double hull, which would have offered more protection from spillage…. The Liberian-registered tanker was travelling from Bergen in Norway to Quebec in Canada when it ran into trouble after being caught in Force 11 gales…. At 5.19am the Lerwick Coastguard was first notified that the vessel had lost power….

Desperate efforts by salvage teams were made to try and avert disaster…. Anchor handling vessel Star Sirius was brought in to attempt to tow the stricken ship….but was unsuccessful – and so the crew of the tanker had to be airlifted to safety by helicopter….

At 11.19am MV Braer was confirmed at having run aground on rocks at Quendale Bay, at the southern tip of Shetland…. From the moment of impact oil could be seen pouring into the sea – in an area renowned for its sea birds and marine wildlife…. A week later, during the most intense extratropical cyclone ever recorded in the northern Atlantic, the tanker broke up….

Bow of the Braer visible in June 1993 – Mike Pennington CC BY-SA 2.0

A later report into the disaster chiefly blamed bad weather but also held the Greek captain, Alexandros Gelis, to account for lack of basic seamanship….

On this day in history….28th December 1734

On this day in history : 28th December 1734 – The death of Robert MacGregor – a Scottish outlaw and folk hero of the early 1700s – better known as ‘Rob Roy’….

Engraving of Rob Roy by W.H.Worthington – Public domain

Born in February 1671, in Glengyle, Trossachs, on the southern edge of the Highlands, Rob Roy was the son of Colonel Donald MacGregor – one of the MacGregor clan – and who won his commission through loyalty to King Charles II….

Robert MacGregor acquired his name ‘Rob Roy’ at an early age – on account of his mop of curly red hair – which he inherited from his mother’s side…. At the age of 18 he joined the Jacobite rising of 1689, along with his father – whom he fought alongside with the aim of restoring King James VII, the last Catholic King, to the Scottish throne…. Rob’s father was caught and imprisoned for treason for two years….during that time his mother suffered ill health and subsequently died…. Rob moved to Glen Shira, living under the protection of the Duke of Argyll – and was permitted to build a house upon land granted to him….

The Duke of Argyll – Public domain

In January 1693 Rob Roy married Mary Helen MacGregor of Comar – his cousin – and they had four sons…. He became a cattle drover, buying and selling Highland cattle…. The MacGregors were a wild clan – cattle rustling and running what was effectively a protection racket…. By the early 1700s Rob Roy had established his own flourishing protection racket….charging landowners around 5% of their annual rent to ensure their cattle remained safe…. Those who didn’t pay could expect to lose everything…. Nowadays this would be seen as criminal – but in those times it was actually considered a respectable way of making a living….img_4923

In 1711 Rob Roy borrowed £1,000 from the Duke of Montrose, a land owner at Murdock Castle, north of Glasgow – he planned to purchase cattle for the following year’s market – and had taken investments from various local chieftains…. In early 1712 he gave his head drover the task of purchasing the cattle on his behalf…which he did…. But the drover then sold the cattle on….and disappeared with the proceeds….

Rob Roy returned home to find he had been made bankrupt and outlawed by the Duke of Montrose…. His land had been seized – and his wife and young family evicted from their home – thrown out into the depths of the savage Highland winter – their home burned to ashes…. The Duke of Montrose was also settling an old score with the Duke of Argyll – who was his sworn enemy….

What remains today of Rob Roy’s home at Upper Glen Shira – CC BY SA 3.0

Rob Roy set out to seek revenge – he had never even been given the chance to repay the original loan….he felt he had been unfairly treated…. He set out on a campaign of ‘cattle lifting’, targeting Montrose’s stock…. He became an expert – he excelled in theft and banditry…. He even kidnapped Montrose’s rent-collector, who happened to have £3,000 of rent money upon him at the time…. He was a thorn in the side for the Duke of Montrose – and all the time he had a powerful ally in the Duke of Argyll…. Gradually his attentions began to turn to other landowners in the area and he started to target them too…. Those not willing to pay him protection money would find themselves relieved of their stock…. Now a fully fledged outlaw the ‘law’ were out to find him….but he roamed the hills of Loch Lomond, always in hiding – rather like a Scottish Robin Hood….

Kneller, Godfrey, 1646-1723; James, 1st Duke of Montrose (1682-1742), Secretary of State for Scotland (1714-1716)
The Duke of Montrose – After Godfrey Kneller – Public domain

During the November 1715 Jacobite Uprising Rob Roy was used as a guide for the Jacobite army – as it marched from Perth to Stirling….resulting in the Battle of Sheriffmuir – with the Jacobites against the government army, led under the Duke of Argyll…. Eventually the government army prevented the Jacobites from reaching the Lowlands…. Rob Roy was torn between his Jacobite beliefs and his loyalty to the Duke of Argyll….

The Battle of Sherriffmuir – John Wootton – Public domain

At the end of this escapade he emerged with a price on his head – both for his earlier banditry and now for treason for his part in the uprising…. He was captured several times – but always managed to escape…. Tales of his exploits began to circulate….

In 1722 he was finally caught and imprisoned for five years…. But his tale had spread to those with influence…. In 1723 Daniel Defoe published ‘Highland Rogue‘ – based upon his story….and so his popularity rose…. Just before he was due to be transported to Australia Rob Roy was granted a Royal pardon…. After which he settled down, gradually returning to live a normal life among his own people in Balquhidder, north of Trossachs….

Rob Roy died on the 28th of December 1734, in Balquhidder Glen – and was buried in the Kirkyard – later to be joined by his wife and two of his sons – who were buried beside him….


Since then, in 1818 Sir Walter Scott wrote the novel ‘Rob Roy’ – and he has been the subject of two Hollywood films….

On this day in history….22nd October 1877

On this day in history : 22nd October 1877 – An explosion at the High Blantyre Colliery sees Scotland’s worst ever mining disaster…. At least 218 men and boys are killed, the youngest just 11-years-old….img_4365

It was a gloomy Monday morning….230 men went down the mine to start work as usual at 5.30am…. At 8.45am a huge underground explosion occurred that could be heard from miles around, an explosion that lasted between 4 and 5 minutes…. Flames could be seen coming from 2 of the 5 pits….

The pit horn would have signalled the disaster….women would have rushed to the scene fearing for their menfolk…. As the news spread workers from neighbouring pits hurried to help… The rescue effort was led by James Gilchrist, manager of Mr John Watson’s Colliery – he had formerly been employed at Blantyre and so knew it well….

The presence of carbon dioxide and debris caused major difficulties but the rescuers persevered throughout the day and into the night….before eventually being forced to suspend the rescue mission due to ‘bad air’…. The search resumed the following morning – those that were brought out alive were so badly burnt or suffering from the effects of ‘choke-damp’ (carbon dioxide) that they died either on the way to or in Glasgow Infirmary….

The bodies recovered from the pit were taken to ‘the death house’ – a temporary mortuary…. They were washed and tended to by the women of the village…. It was here the womenfolk came to identify their husbands, sons, sweethearts and fathers…. For some women it meant several trips to find their loved ones – for many the entire male family members were taken from them…. The disaster left 106 widows and 300 fatherless children….img_4364

Once identified the bodies could be taken home – often in a handcart – so that funeral preparations could be made…. Little did they know that less than 2 years later, on the 9th of July 1879, another disaster was to strike at pit no.1 – claiming another 27 lives….

On this day in history….3rd September 1954

On this day in history : 3rd September 1954 – The National Trust buys Fair Isle, the remote island situated between Shetland and Orkney, in a bid to help secure its future….img_3803

Fair Isle, which is just 3 miles long and 1.5 miles wide, is probably the most remote inhabited island of the British Isles…. and is located 24 miles from the Shetland mainland…. The population of around 60 mostly live on the south end of the island; there is a shop, a community hall, a fire station and a primary school – which typically has between 5 and 10 pupils at any one time…. Older children generally tend to receive their secondary education off the island….


Fair Isle is not connected to the National Grid – but has its own Fair Isle Electricity Company…. From the 1980s this consisted of two diesel generators and two wind turbines…. Since 2018 24-hour electricity has been supplied by three wind turbines, solar panels and batteries….


The main occupations of the islanders include fishing and crofting – and of course the island is famous for its Fair Isle knitwear….which was made popular in the 1920s by the Prince of Wales, who frequently wore a Fair Isle jumper whilst playing golf….img_3805

Ownership of the island had changed hands many times over the centuries; in 1900 it had a population of around 400 – but this number was to dramatically dwindle…. From 1948 Fair Isle belonged to George Waterson, an ornithologist from Edinburgh – and it is he who set up a bird observatory, which became recognised worldwide…. Fair Isle is home to many rare species of birds…. Using a grant of £5,000 from the Dulverton Trust the National Trust bought the island with plans to continue research into migratory bird life…. At the time of the National Trust taking on ownership the population of Fair Isle had fallen to an all-time low, with just 45 inhabitants…. In 1956 a conference organised by the National Trust was held on the island to discuss ways of saving its economy…. Nowadays tourism plays a major part….img_3802

In 2010 a new observatory was built at a cost of £4m, consisting of a two-storey wooden lodge, capable of accommodating 30 guests…. It even boasted a small bar for the evenings – no doubt proving popular as there is no public house on the island…. Tragically this new observatory was destroyed by fire on the 10th of March 2019…. But the people of Fair Isle are resilient – plans are already well underway and all efforts are being made to reopen in 2021….img_3806