The Robert Dick Herbarium

Tullibody To Thurso

Robert Dick (January 1811 – 24th December 1866) was born in Tullibody, Clackmannanshire to Margaret Gilchrist and Thomas Dick. Very little is known of his mother, except that she died shortly after giving birth to her fourth child.  Thomas Dick was an Officer of Excise at the Cambus Brewery, Tullibody.  In 1821, Thomas Dick married the daughter of Mr Knox, the brewer whose premises he inspected.  Because he could not inspect the premises of his father-in-law, the family had to move to Dams Burn, a village in the foothills of the Ochils.  Robert’s stepmother prevented his father from sending him to college, so in 1824, Robert returned to Tullibody to be apprenticed as a baker to Mr Aikman.  From this time onwards Robert continued his own education as best as he could.  After completing his apprenticeship in 1828, Robert began 3 years of work as a baker in Leith, Glasgow and Greenock.

In 1826, Thomas Dick was promoted to Supervisor of Excise and moved to Thurso. He advised his son to set up a baker's shop in Thurso as at that time there were only 3 bakers in Caithness. In 1830, Robert took his father’s advice and moved to Thurso.  Robert opened a baker’s shop opposite his father’s house in Wilson Lane (now Street), his initial supply of flour coming on credit from Mr Aikman. Having completed his baking, Robert would go and explore the Caithness countryside leaving his sister, Jane, to look after the shop.  In 1832, Thomas Dick was promoted and the family moved to Haddington. With no family to help him Robert employed Annie Mackay as his housekeeper.  She served him faithfully until his death.

Geology & Botany

It took Robert 3 years to pay for his initial supply of flour.  Once his debt had been cleared, the small profit he made was spent on buying books of a scientific nature.  Robert was considered a good baker by the people of Thurso, largely on account of his biscuits. But his dress aroused comment as even his best clothes were very old and out-dated.  His long walks around Caithness were also a topic of conversation.

Robert’s first serious area of study was that of entomology.  In 1835, he attended lectures on astronomy, phrenology and geology.  He studied them each in turn.  But his passion was soon ignited by the study of geology and botany.  Robert discovered fossils in local rocks and demonstrated that his textbooks were incorrect, for they stated that no fossils were to be found on the Caithness coast.  He also began a herbarium collection.  One of his primary achievements was the discovery of Holy Grass (Hierochloe odorata) on the banks of the Thurso River.  This plant was believed to be extinct in Britain.  He published a paper on his discovery in 1854, and subsequently received numerous requests from other botanists for specimens.

It was common practice for professional and amateur botanists to swop specimens. In 1836, the Botanical Society of London was started to help with these exchanges.  When a specimen was exchanged, the original collector added their own name and herbarium label to the specimen sheet.  Specimens in the Robert Dick Herbarium include items exchanged with William Lowndes Notcutt from Fakenham, Norfolk and James Backhouse Jnr from York. He also exchanged specimens with Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker who was Charles Darwin’s best friend and the Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Scientific Friends

In 1840, Hugh Miller’s book The Old Red Sandstone appeared in serialised form in the Witness newspaper.  In 1845, Robert wrote to Miller via a mutual friend.  Thus began a correspondence that was to continue until Miller took his own life in December 1856.  Hugh Miller of Cromarty was a very influential geologist.  He was also a staunch member of the Free Church of Scotland.  He edited the Witness newspaper on behalf of that Church. In those times these interests conflicted, and much of his geological work was influenced by the Book of Genesis.  Robert had great respect for Miller and could never do enough to help him with his research.  Miller was ever mindful of Robert’s generosity and frequently made grateful acknowledgements in his books both for new information and for corrections to his earlier work.  Miller visited Thurso in 1845 and Robert located fossils for him to cut from the local rocks.  The friendship between him and Miller was such that Robert did not hesitate to disagree with Miller when he saw fit.  He accused Miller on several occasions of attempting to bend geological facts to suit religious arguments.

In 1853, a Coastguard Officer named Charles W. Peach arrived in Wick.  He had spent his early service in the Coastguards in Norfolk and Dorset where he studied the Old Red Sandstone of those counties at the same time that Robert was studying the rocks of Caithness.  Peach, a self-taught geologist and naturalist, already knew of Robert from Hugh Miller’s books.  In September 1853, he travelled to Thurso to meet Robert.  Peach was to become one of Robert’s closest friends.  They would go for walks together and a lively correspondence went on between them.  They frequently sent specimens to one another to identify or to express an opinion on.  

Poor Health & Financial Ruin

In 1855, whilst visiting Charles W. Peach, the distinguished Scottish geologist Sir Roderick Murchison travelled to Thurso to meet Robert.  Robert was busy at his oven when Sir Roderick called, so the two men did not meet.  Sir Roderick, however, did not forget Robert. In 1857, he wrote seeking to buy a number of his fossils.  He received the fossils as gifts.  Although Robert was by no means comfortably off, he never considered his studies as anything more than a hobby.  Sir Roderick returned to Thurso in 1858 and this time met Robert, who showed him his collection of fossils and his herbarium.  Addressing a public meeting in Leeds later that year, Sir Roderick stated that Robert “knew infinitely more of botanical science than he did”.

In 1862, Robert’s business was failing.  He wrote to his sister saying that there were no fewer than 6 master bakers and 13 apprentices in Thurso.  Robert’s health was also declining. He was troubled by rheumatism in his feet, and his eyesight was failing.  Robert’s flour was transported by ship from Leith to Thurso via Aberdeen.  On the 9th March 1863 the vessel the Prince Consort, which had flour purchased by Robert in her hold, broke in two when attempting to enter Aberdeen Harbour.  Although the incident occurred in calm seas with a half-drunk helmsman, Robert had to sustain the loss himself.  Desperate, he wrote to his sister Jane seeking a loan.  He also sold his fossil collection in order to raise funds.  Several bags of flour were retrieved from the wreck and sent to Thurso, but they were contaminated with sand. The poor quality of the resulting bread caused many of Robert’s customers to leave him.

The End Of Robert Dick’s Life

In 1864, Robert resumed his botanical studies and strived to complete the grasses, mosses and ferns in his herbarium.  At the start of 1866, Robert was in a sorry state, as rheumatism was affecting both his arms and legs.  On 29th August 1866 Robert walked to a local quarry in search of fossils, but giddiness and nausea overcame him.  This was to be his last walk, but he continued to work at his oven until two weeks before his death.  Robert Dick died on 24th December 1866. 

Immediately following Robert’s death, a Wick newspaper, the Northern Ensign, published an obituary written by the editor, referring to Robert as “the mad Thurso baker” and scathingly attacking the Thurso people for letting him die unattended and in poverty.  The ensuing uproar was phenomenal, with the other Wick newspaper, the John O’ Groat Journal, and Thurso’s Caithness Courier hitting back at the Northern Ensign.  The outcome of the publicity was a sudden demonstration of respect for Robert in Thurso. This resulted in a public funeral attended by virtually everyone in the town.  Following Robert’s death the people of Thurso, realising their neglect of a great man who had lived in their midst, set up a memorial fund.  The proceeds were used to raise a granite obelisk in memory of Robert in Thurso Cemetery.

Conservation Of The Robert Dick Herbarium

The Robert Dick Herbarium contains over 3,000 botanical specimens mounted on sheets of hand-cut paper.  Most of the specimen sheets have a degree of discolouration from light and from contact with other specimens.  Many of the specimens are cracked and crumbling.  Others are broken or detached from the specimen sheets.  Some of the specimens have been attacked by insects.

Caithness Horizons Museum has secured grant aid from the Association of Independent Museums (AIM), Museums Galleries Scotland and the Gordon Fraser Charitable Trust to start a rolling programme of conservation in order to:

  •   Improve the condition of the specimens
  •   Improve and standardise storage methods, for better long-term preservation, and for safer access to the specimens
  •   Devise a safe and effective method of display for the specimens

As the Robert Dick Herbarium contains over 3,000 specimens, the project to conserve it will take place over many years when funds become available.  To date, 200 of the most important botanical specimens have been taken to The Scottish Conservation Studio for conservation treatment by Helen Creasy ACR (Paper and Photograph Conservator).  Some of the conserved specimens are on display in this exhibition. In order to preserve the specimens each one can only be displayed for a period of 3 months every 5 years.

Artistic Inspiration

In 2012, thanks to an Iconic Artists in Iconic Places grant from Museums Galleries Scotland and Creative Scotland, Caithness Horizons was able to work with Dunnet based artist Joanne B. Kaar on a project to interpret the Robert Dick Herbarium.  The result was the creation of a Portable Museum of Curiosity loan box/travelling exhibition. The Portable Museum of Curiosity is designed to be both an art object in its own right and an interpretation device for the Museum to tell the story of Robert Dick. It was created to look like Robert Dick’s moss collection box, which is in the Museum’s Collection.  It was constructed utilising part of an old washing machine that was being disposed of.  Inside the Portable Museum of Curiosity is a board game, information about the life of Robert Dick and drawers containing a variety of objects such as a replica of an Australian Spider Beetle – a species that was responsible for eating part of the Herbarium in the 1990s!  During the course of the project new contacts were made with the Herbarium Department at the University of Manchester Museum, the Education and Research Department at the Royal Botanical Garden Edinburgh, the Botanical Society of The British Isles and also the Botanical Society of Scotland.  

The Portable Museum of Curiosity is available for Museums, schools and community groups to borrow. Please contact the Museum Curator via the Reception Desk for further information.