Following Thomas’ Mentor in Jedburgh

Memorial window to Adam Mathieson now in Jedburgh Parish Church

It is difficult to pin down the exact details of Thomas’ early education after his family reached Scotland from famine-haunted County Mayo. It would seem that his family were living in a rural area in the parish of Bedrule, his parents working on the land, as evidenced by the Scottish census returns. Where did he go to school, and who was the schoolmaster or schoolmistress who noticed and fostered his eagerness to learn? He was able and apt to take on the study of French, Latin and Geometry in the garden bothy at Minto House when he commenced his apprenticeship there aged 16. His brother James, it would seem, did not benefit from much education, since he witnessed his father’s death certificate with a cross rather than a signature.

Bedrule parish, however, had a long tradition of passion for education. Jedburgh Grammar School was probably founded by William Turnbull (died 1454) a politician and bishop. He served as the Bishop of Glasgow from 1448 to 1454 and was the first Chancellor of Glasgow University. Bedrule was the seat of the Turnbull clan, and William, friend of King James II of Scotland one of its grandest luminaries.

With such a tradition of education over so many years, it is likely that the village school or schools of the Bedrule area were of a good standard. Jedburgh at this time was a particular centre of scientific and cultural endeavour. Did Thomas attend Jedburgh Grammar School? Although this is a pleasing idea: he did not begin his apprenticeship until he was 16, and does not mention any other work before that, but I feel it is unlikely. The School was at that time situated in the crypt of the Abbey, and I find it hard to imagine that Thomas would not mention such a prestigious place of learning, or such impressive and historic surroundings in the journal.

Scotland census of 1861. Thomas’ family at Bedrule. Note his sister is ‘scholar’. Thomas was already apprenticed at Minto.

He does, however, mention an important figure who guided him into his interest in Geology. Adam Mathieson was a millwright; one might assume that the need to source and inspect rocks for fashioning into millstones led him into an interest in geology. He was not the first Jedburgh man to have such an interest.

James Hutton – panel from Jedburgh Castle Museum.

Thomas writes of Mathieson that he was, at the time, curator of the Jedburgh Museum. This cannot be the present museum situated in the Castle, as at the time, the Castle was still the town’s jail. Was it perhaps the house now known as Mary Queen of Scots House? Mathieson lived only a few yards from this building.

Mary Queen of Scots House, Jedburgh

Thomas writes retrospectively of 1861:

On the first of January I went to Jedburgh. When there I visited the museum, where I got acquainted with the custodian, Adam Matheson. This man was a good geologist, and seeing me take an interest in fossils, he wished me to study geology which had been a wish of my own for some time. I had already PAGIS Text book [Planning and Geographic Information Systems], so from that day I went in strongly for geology, and from that day, Mr Matheson became my friend.

My search in Jedburgh for Adam Mathieson and the memorial window dedicated to him (above) was initially fruitless. The curator of the Castle Museum was uncertain, and could only direct me to a church recently made redundant in the centre of the town – which I was unsuccessful in locating. It was a grey drizzly day, and we returned disconsolately to our apartment.

Unwilling to be defeated, I set out to the large Victorian Parish church prominently located near the river and on the main road into town. On trying the main door, I found it, unsurprisingly, locked. A look round the back found another locked door, but finally a lighted window, and a door which proved to be open. I rather surprised the two mature ladies who were practising the organ.

They kindly switched on the main lights, and as I progressed round the church, there before me in the south aisle, was the window. It has clearly been re-sited from the older church, and stands a little proud of the plain glass window behind it ( see picture above). The two ladies showed great interest in my tale of Thomas and his friend and mentor Adam.

Adam Mathieson aged 71 and his family living at
50 High St Jedburgh in 1861

There is a final episode linked to this event. A few weeks after my visit a parcel addressed to me arrived at the home of the local vicar. When I picked it up, I found it contained a small framed postcard of the Adam Mathieson window. It had been sent to me by one of the ladies I met in the church. She had used all the clues she had to find me. Such kindness, linking people caring for one another across the ages, beginning with Adam’s mentoring of the young Thomas.

My gift from Isobel in Jedburgh

Jedburgh- in the steps of Thomas’ youth.

Duck Row, Jedburgh, where Thomas’ mother and siblings lived in 1871

In 1861 Thomas’ parents and siblings were living in Bedrule parish, four miles from Jedburgh, whilst Thomas had already embarked on his gardening apprenticeship at Minto House. His father died in 1865, and by the 1871 census his mother and his brother James were living in Duck Row in Jedburgh.

The address seems a very pleasant one, the short row of houses shown above currently command a higher than average sale price for the town. However, the census document shows that 1 Duck Row, now a Category B listed building called The Pipers house, with its own commemorative plaque to Robin Hastie, the last Town Piper, was in 1871 a house of multiple occupation. Four ‘households’ lived there; 12 people in all.

1871 census

A recent brief visit to the town suggested that this was a very appropriate area to nurture early interest in a budding geologist.

From the Castle Museum, Jedburgh

A successor to the ‘Borders Enlightenment’ scientists in the mid 19th century was local millwright and amateur archivist and geologist Adam Mathieson, who became a good friend and mentor to Thomas.

More of him in my next post.

Bedrule -in the steps of Thomas’ childhood

Houses at Bedrule hamlet’s centre

It is not possible to be certain exactly when and under what circumstances Thomas’ family left Ireland, although letters between Thomas’ daughter Caroline – ‘Carrie’ and a Ruddy relative still living in Westport Co. Mayo in 1916/17 confirm that the potato famine was the cause of their emigration. This retrospective reflection is prompted by my first visit to the Jedburgh recently. I thought I might have found Thomas’ childhood home ( picture above) but close examination of the census shows that a further visit will be necessary.

We pick them up again in the 1861 census, living in Bedrule. There are Thomas senior and his wife Mary, and Thomas junior’s siblings James and Annie. The youngest son John had died the previous year, aged 12, and our Thomas was already working as an apprentice at a Minto house. We find him there on the 1861 census, the only time he states Ireland as his place of birth on a census.

The census above details the family as living in Newton, part of the central hamlet at the centre of a larger parish area of the same name but to the north of the main hamlet.

Bedrule is a tiny village four miles from Jedburgh, but it has a proud and interesting history. Thomas senior and his son James are recorded as labourers. Several children from the census, including Annie Ruddy are recorded as scholars. Where did they go to school? For it was surely there that Thomas received the quality of education that prepared him to study confidently French, Latin and Geometry while living in the garden bothy at Minto House.

It also laid down the sophisticated writing style which characterises his journal, as in this reflection on his Bedrule childhood:

By this time we were living at Menslaws by the side of the Rule,
a little above where it enters the Teviot, and in sight of Minto, a famous garden of the seat of the Earl of Minto. It was on a pleasant May evening that I went with my father and Robert Daniel to see Mr. Williamson the gardener of Minto. He received us very kindly, took us through the garden, and explained everything. I looked on the inside of this grand garden with awe, I admired in silence; the feather-likeAsparagus astonished me – I was so pleased with everything, that I thought it must be very pleasant to be a gardener; and then there was Mr Williamson going about “dressed like a gentleman”, and the young gardeners looked so very neat and smart that I formed a high opinion of the whole.

Bedrule parish, showing Jedburgh to the east and Minto to the west. Newton is on the road and river, north of Bedrule hamlet.

Head Gardener at 25


Newtonairds Gatehouse

© Hugh Close (via Geograph)


Thomas set off from his home in Jedburgh to his first Head Gardener post on 28th February 1867.  At 25 he already had nine years’ experience in horticulture, including his eight months’ study in France.  Again supplied with a situation courtesy of Downie Laird and Laing of Edinburgh, he traveled to Newtonairds near Dunscore.  Thomas says of the situation:

The estate was not large but it was a nice place but out of the way. The owner was Mr. P Smith, formerly a Glasgow merchant. I soon found that he was not very popular, but he employed a great number of men in building a nice house in the Scotch castle style.

Typically, Thomas says almost nothing of the day-to-day work there, except that once again the main focus of his occupation was to be glass houses: ‘I had hothouses to erect and furnish’.  As was so often the case, never more so than at Palé, Thomas struck up a good relationship with his employer – at least at first!  ‘I got on uncommonly well with himself and his son Hugh, who was all the family. I found both to be original characters and full of anecdotes.’

As a Head Gardener, Thomas found time to follow his own hobbies, whist working in the gardens to his employer’s satisfaction: ‘During the summer I botanised the whole district, and found many plants new or rare to me.’

The servant class pursued their employment, whilst the upper classes sometimes led more exotic lives: ‘May 2nd  [1867] I went to sow some seeds in the garden of Stroquhan, a house rented by my employer. This is a nice old-fashioned place belonging to a fast young man who had to fly the country for bigamy’   Meanwhile, Thomas continued in his socially upwardly mobile trajectory by accompanying his employer on journeys to purchase plants for the garden: ‘May 7th Tuesday I went with Mr. Smith to Edinburgh to buy plants. We both stayed in the City all night, and I enjoyed my trip very much.’    ‘September 23rd Monday Mr. Hugh Smith and I went to Edinburgh for more plants. He made me travel in the same carriage as him, and to luncheon with him in the Café Royal. We got many rare plants. I stayed again two nights in the city. We got all our hampers of plants to the station to take with us, but when the station master saw them he said to Mr. Smith ‘You cannot take these as luggage’. Mr. Smith answered, ‘I can take an elephant if I pay for it! And all you have to do is get a van and put them in it at once!’ The station master soon did as told. We got home all right and I enjoyed myself very much.

However, it is clear that the Head Gardeners of the time, once trained and in post, were in a strong position when it came to employment, and could leave one position and take up another without detriment to their career path: ‘I found that this part was very rainy and disagreeable in autumn and spring, and during summer it was most uncomfortable to walk out owing to flies. I had to keep continually whipping them off. I determined to leave this place owing to the way that father and son disagreed about what was to be done. I had the offer to go to Derbyshire from the firm of Downie and Laird. The Smiths were very angry with me for leaving, but they knew the cause was of their own making. I parted as the best of friends in the end, Mr. Hugh shaking me heartily by the hand.  I left on Monday 11th November 1867′


Home from France


Adam Matheson window



Window in Jedburgh Parish Church dedicated to Adam Matheson


 (I can no longer find a reference to this window on line, and would be glad of any information)

After his return in June 1866 from horticultural study in Angers, France , Thomas immediately returned to his home in Jedburgh.  His father had died, but his mother and brother James ( and perhaps his sister Annie, who is hard to trace) still lived there.  He remained in the Jedburgh area until the 28th February, when he traveled to his first post as Head Gardener, secured for him through the Nurserymen Downie, Laird and Laing, who had branches both in Edinburgh and London.

Thomas spent his time revisiting old friends including his apprenticeship companion, Oliver Taylor, by now gardener at Sunlaws, [Now the Roxburghe Hotel and Golf Club].  While at home Thomas visited many local sites of interest.  A major part of the time was spent with his friend Adam Mathieson, curator of the Jedburgh Museum, whom he had first met in 1861 while an apprentice at Minto.  Read more about Matheson here

It does not seem that Thomas had any work during the more than seven months after his return from study.  Always cautious, he must have kept savings either from France or from his previous posts in Scotland and England or both.  No doubt he kept abreast of the many and rapid developments in horticulture at the time, perhaps from the pages of The Gardeners’ Chronicle.  The most significant aspect of this time in Scotland is his time ‘geologising’ with Adam Matheson.  Once again Thomas found himself in the right place at the right time, with a mentor who was to shape a significant aspect of his later life.


Minto Gardens – an apprenticeship for life.


Image from  Victorian gardeners had a great fondness for ferns.

The description Thomas gives of his three year apprenticeship in the gardens of Minto House shows how early in his life the pattern was laid down of the man he was to become.

You can read the full diary entry here

There are three ‘mentor figures’ mentioned; the Head Gardener Mr Williamson, the Revd. James Duncan and Adam Mathieson, who was the custodian of the museum in Jedburgh, and whose enthusiasm for geology led Thomas to his lifelong interest.  As he moved from place to place in his gardening career, Thomas constantly sought out people whose knowledge he could draw on.  In his final post at Palé it led to his friendship with William Pamplin and to his second marriage and family.

Also demonstrated is his naturally studious nature.  He had obviously studied the Linnaean system of plant names and learned to recognise plants in order to discuss them with experts and confidently seek out rare species.

Finally, there is his habit of becoming trusted by his employers or senior colleagues to mix with their families.  From being trusted to escort Mr. Williamson’s amiable daughters, he moves on to considerable trust and intimacy with the Robertson family of Palé.  He is also sometimes a bit of a prig!

Don’t expect ever to read of Thomas undertaking any day-to-day gardening tasks.  All of that is taken for granted throughout the diary.  He doesn’t expect anyone to be interested that he planted a row of cabbages or a rose bush!

A Gardening Apprenticeship at Minto House

Minto House  Minto House 1910, via
Thomas began his gardening apprenticeship at Minto House in November 1858.  As was usual at the time, he lived in the ‘bothy’ in the gardens – perhaps not as grand as the one at the National Trust’s Calke Abbey – see here.

Life in the gardens would have been hard, under the direction of the Head Gardener, but I was amazed to find out what went on after the day’s work was finished.  Here is Thomas’ description:

November came and I went to the garden on the 11th of the month to live in a “bothy” with other four companions; luckily these were sober and intelligent. …. During the long winter evenings, all of us instructed ourselves in geometry, mensuration, and in languages. My companions were Oliver Taylor, who used to read aloud to us when resting from study; he was a well instructed man and a distinct reader. Andrew Stormont was studying French, James Stables was studying Latin, and Wm. Nichols was like myself, studying botany and geometry. I took also to French and Italian. Our “bothy” was during the winter evenings more like a school than anything else.

You cannot now visit Minto House, as it was destroyed very unfortunately during 1992.   Read about this incident here

If you are interested in the education, lives and work of the Head Gardeners, I recommend:

The Head Gardeners, Forgotten Heroes of Horticulture,  Toby Musgrave,  Aurum, 2007




Jedburgh Abbey

Abbey Bridge End, Jedburgh (Stanley Howe) / CC BY-SA 2.0

It is not clear how Thomas and his parents, Thomas and Ann Ruddy, sister Annie and brother James arrived in Jedburgh either directly or indirectly from County Mayo in Ireland.  Most refugees from the potato famine arrived initially in Liverpool.  Nor is it certain when they moved from Ireland to Scotland; probably some time between 1845 and 1851.

What is most significant is the extent of Thomas’s educational achievement.  Both his father and elder brother James are listed as labourers in the Scottish censuses, and when Thomas senior died in 1865, James registered his death using a cross rather than a signature, suggesting he could not write.

In Jedburgh, Thomas came into contact with several influential mentors who influenced the course of his life, the first being a retired gardener and amateur botanist, William Hobkirk.  He met Hobkirk in 1858, in the interval between his decision to become  gardener and taking up his gardening apprenticeship.  Read Thomas’ diary entry here