St Roque House

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Robin Gillanders, St Roque house, built about 1850, photographed January 2018

William Ivory (c. 1798-1868) and Robina Cox Ivory (1814-78)

William Ivory was a lawyer, who married Robina Cox, second daughter of the late Robert Cox of Gorgie Mills, in 1846. Her father had set up a leather working business, and his family developed a large-scale glue and gelatine factory, so she may have been an independently wealthy woman.

They bought and rebuilt the house of St Roque with a substantial garden. William was a member of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh, and it was noted after his death by the Professor of Botany, John Hutton Balfour, that he

had long taken a warm interest in the Society, and at whose hospitable mansion of St Roque many of the members had met on several occasions to inspect the trees and shrubs which ornamented the grounds. Mr Ivory was an early supporter of the Caledonian Horticultural Society, and took much pleasure in cultivating rare plants. He was long a member of the Council of the Botanical Society, and his loss will be severely felt. [Meeting of the Society, 11th June 1868, Transactions and Proceedings of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh, vol 9, p. 399]

The Ivorys’ pride in the growing garden is glimpsed from mentions in the Caledonian Horticultural Society’s Minute Book [Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh Archive]:

‘Thanks to William Ivory, Esq, St Roques, for a sprig of myrtle covered with fine ripe fruit from a plant in the open air, and specimens of a new hybrid Savoy [cabbage]’, and in the same year of 1854, similar thanks, ‘for beautiful Wallflowers and good Spinnage and Cos lettuce’; and, impressively, in a display for the Botanical Society in 1863, of ‘thirty-one species and varieties of plants which were in flower on 12th February, at St Rocque’ [Report of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh, Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal, 1863, p.325]

The St Roque garden is the focal point of the grand trees on the site – justifying the idea of an arboretum. Edinburgh was already provided with excellent plant nurseries, but this was the crest of the plant hunting enthusiasm. Following the great discoveries by David Douglas, including the magnificent Douglas Fir, which can grow to 250 feet (or 76 metres), the excitement grew. William Ivory joined a company, the Oregon Botanical Association, to send a botanist to America to collect plants and seeds, which were distributed to the members. The reports mentioned ‘a beautiful new pine’, which grew to 150 feet (named Abies Pattonii) and two spruces which grew to 250 and 280 feet high:

We can hardly realize the idea of such stupendous trees; but it may help… if I compare them with some familiar object here. The height of the brick stalk of the Gas Company’s chimney, from the stone pedestal, is 264 feet… the top of that chimney is five feet higher than the top of Nelson’s Monument; so that if we fancy a tree growing down in the valley between the Canongate and the Calton Hill… overtopping Nelson’s Monument by ten feet, we may form some notion of the monarchs of the forest which are now being introduced into this country.’ [‘Botanical Expedition to Oregon’, The Phytologist: a popular botanical miscellany, vol 4, part 3, 1853, p.1140]

This association came to a halt in 1854, when the botanist, John Jeffrey disappeared – he may have died, he may have joined in the gold rush. In 1862, the company was revived and Robert Brown was sent out to collect in the Rocky Mountains and Vancouver Island.

There is a strong possibility that the magnificent trees we see now were first planted by the Ivorys from these seeds.

Giant Redwood

Sara Stevenson, Giant redwood tree in the St Roque garden, January 2018