V: Duncan Napier (1831 – 1921)

To the memory of Joan McKay for over 60 years the beloved and devoted wife of Duncan Napier herbalist, who passed away 10th Feb. 1915 in her 81st year; Duncan Napier passed away 9th March 1921 in his 91st year; son Walter Glendinning who passed away 1st Aug. 1934 in his 62nd year.

There are two other family stones very close by in the same row: six stones to the west:

In ever loving memory of Joanna Napier beloved wife of James H. Jamieson, born 28th July 1863, died 31st July 1931 “Ever gentle ever kind”

and to the east on the other side of the yew bush:

In affectionate remembrance of my dear husband John Robertson born 10th February 1868, died 16th August 1928; wife Helen Paterson Napier born 8th March 1869, died 25th March 1945.

There is also a marker stone in the SW area of the main cemetery:

In loving memory of Andrew Nelson Napier, Herbalist, and of his wife Janet Melrose; also their children May and Eric.

Duncan Napier’s name still lives on for many Edinburgh residents in the shape of Napier’s herbalist shop on the corner of Bristo Place and Teviot Place.  Duncan started the business in 1860 and it was run by members of the Napier family until the sudden death of Duncan’s grandson John (Jack) Napier in 1978 at the relatively early age of 64 led to his widow selling it.  However, the business is still known as Napier’s.  

Duncan Napier left two journals in which he recorded the story of his earlier years and the establishment of his business.  Two books have been published based around these journals – one in 2003 by Tom Atkinson, father of Dee Atkinson who took over the business in 1990 and ran it till 2012, tells the history of herbalism as well as of Napier’s; the other in 2021 by Eric Melvin, whose wife, Lynda Napier, is John Napier’s daughter, concentrates on Duncan’s life and nineteenth century Edinburgh. 

Duncan Napier was born in Edinburgh on 3 February 1831, the illegitimate son of a widow, Helen Paterson or Alexander.  He was adopted as a baby by James Napier, who was probably his father.  James Napier (1795-1852) was proprietor of the Blackhall Inn in the 1820s but then moved to Morningside in the 1830s to run the Crown Inn (on the site of the current Morningside Library).  About 1840 he moved to Coltbridge (Murrayfield), and then in the late 1840s to the West Port and finally around 1850 to the Crown tavern in the Abbey Strand at Holyrood.  

James Napier married three times.  His first wife was Janet McGlashan, who he married in Cramond in 1822.  She bore him three daughters, two of whom survived infancy. She probably died in 1827 soon after the birth of her third daughter, Jemima.  In July 1831 James Napier was described as a spirit dealer residing in Blackhall when he married his second wife, Catherine Allan, daughter of the late James Allan, feuar in Corstorphine.  Catherine died in August 1841 and was buried at Corstorphine.  She appears to have had a son, Robert, who was much the same age as Duncan, and proved a harsh and violent stepmother for Duncan.  James’s third wife (no actual marriage has been found) was Mary Scott, widow of John McEwen, whose daughter, Mary McEwen, also joined the Napier household.  Both Catherine Allan and Mary Scott were addicted to alcohol and Duncan Napier’s journals reveal an unhappy and difficult childhood, although some respite was provided by summer holidays with the Nelson family at Penicuik for several years in the later 1830s.

In 1846 Duncan was apprenticed to John Binnie, a baker at Coltbridge, and it was while out delivering freshly baked rolls and bread to customers that he met John Hope who was to have a major influence on Duncan’s life.  John Hope (1807-93) was an eminent lawyer and a Writer to the Signet but he was also an active advocate of the temperance movement, a committed member of the Church of Scotland and a vehement anti-Catholic.  He set up evening classes to enable young men to learn to read and write and continue their education long before elementary education became compulsory in Scotland in 1872.  Hope encouraged Duncan to attend evening classes to make up for the minimal education he had obtained as a boy – he had learned to read but not write – and persuaded him to become a total abstainer.  Duncan also joined the Free Church of Scotland, worshipping at Free St John’s (now St Columba’s Free Church), on the corner of West Bow and Johnston Terrace, where another Grange Cemetery Notable, Dr Thomas Guthrie (1803-73), was the minister.

The early 1850s were important years for Duncan.  He continued to work as a baker but also found his mother, married and started a family, and began the serious study of plants which led to his change of career.

When Duncan was 16 and helping in the family pub at the West Port, a chance comment by a Napier relative led to him discovering that his mother was alive and living nearby in Home Street keeping a grocer’s shop.  He visited the shop for some three years without making himself known to her but eventually appears to have written to her not long before his marriage in 1854 with the result that he discovered some information about his birth which his mother belatedly had recorded in St Cuthbert’s parish register the following year.  In that entry she is described as Helen Paterson, which was her maiden name.  However, she had married Alexander Alexander, a cooper in Leith, in 1824 and was known by her married name, Helen Alexander.  Alexander Alexander died in February 1829 leaving Helen to bring up their two sons – her younger son, George, born in 1826, died of scarlet fever in 1835, but her elder son, also Alexander, was a silk mercer’s assistant and living with his mother in 1851. No later trace has been found of him and Helen’s death in 1872 was registered by her nephew, Alexander Low. 

In August 1854 Duncan married Joan Mackay, who he had first known when he was living in Coltbridge, but had not seen for some six years until he began to think seriously of marriage and got in touch with her and her parents, John Mackay, a wright, and his wife Elizabeth Ross, who were then living in Bothkennar, Stirlingshire.  It proved a highly successful choice!

While at Coltbridge Duncan had for a time grown vegetables and fruit to sell in Edinburgh and worked for a farmer but he first became interested in botany when John Hope encouraged him to attend a herbarium class he had organised with scientific botany being taught by Charles Lawson, the son of Peter Lawson, a well-known Edinburgh seed merchant. A continuing interest in plants led Duncan to buy second-hand copies of Brook’s Family Herbal and Dr Skelton’s Medical Adviser in the 1850s.  These led Duncan to begin using the remedies he found in them on both himself and his growing family – he and Joan had nine children beginning with Andrew Nelson Paterson Napier (1856-1917), Elizabeth Ross Napier (1857-1942) and John Hope Napier (1860-1872), whose births were somewhat confusingly all registered as Paterson rather than Napier – from 1861 onwards Duncan reverted to using the surname Napier.  One of the most successful medicines Duncan experimented with was Lobelia Syrup which cured him of a chronic cough which he had had since boyhood.  The journals that Duncan left behind contain many tales of cures but few details of the recipes by which they were effected.

While continuing to work long hours as a baker, Duncan also found time to collect the herbs he needed for these remedies from the hills and countryside around Edinburgh.  The growing demand from neighbours for his remedies led him to take on the lease of a shop in Bristo Street in May 1860 with financial assistance from John Hope.  Soon afterwards he gave up his work as a baker to work full-time as a herbalist with the help of his wife in the shop.  Fourteen years later, in 1874, the business had grown to such an extent that larger premises were required and he moved the shop to its current location at 18 Bristo Place.

The business thrived.  Duncan was joined in 1870 by his eldest son, Andrew Nelson Napier (1856-1917), and later by his youngest son, Duncan Scott Napier (1879-1952). In the First World War Duncan Scott served in the Royal Garrison Artillery from August 1916 until June 1918 when he was discharged as unfit for further service having been gassed while serving with the 335 Siege Battery in Europe.  

As a result of Duncan Scott volunteering to serve in WW1, Duncan and Andrew were joined in the business by Duncan’s third surviving son, Walter Glendinning Napier (1872-1934).  Walter had been educated at George Watson’s College and Edinburgh University.  He graduated with honours in Mathematics and Natural Philosophy in 1902 and worked as a tutor in classics and mathematics until he had to take an active part in the family business.  He died very suddenly as the result of a cerebral haemorrhage in August 1934.

Andrew Nelson Napier married Janet Melrose in 1881 and they had five children, one of whom died in infancy, but none of them followed their father into the family business.  However, Duncan Scott Napier married Margaret Robertson in 1905 and it was their younger son, John Robertson Napier (Jack) (1914-78) who in due course took over the business as the third generation of the Napier family to run it.  

As well as their two sons John Hope Napier and Duncan Phillips Napier who died from smallpox in 1872 aged 11 and five respectively, Duncan and Joan had four daughters, who all married. Their eldest daughter, Elizabeth (1857-1942), married David Cuthbertson in 1881.  He retired as Sub-Librarian in Edinburgh University Library in 1925 after working in the library for 45 years.  Joanna (1863-1931) married James Jamieson, a School Secretary, in 1894;  Helen (1869-1945) married John Robertson, a law clerk, in 1896;  and Agnes (1874-1962) married William Mackay Budge in 1902.  Budge taught history at George Watson’s College for many years and died suddenly as the result of a heart attack in 1931 shortly before he was due to retire.

From 1883 Duncan and Joan Napier lived at Ruby Villa, 5 Sciennes Gardens, and it was there that they celebrated their Diamond wedding in August 1914.  Joan died less than a year later in February 1915 and Duncan in March 1921. 

Tom Atkinson, Napiers History of Herbal Healing Ancient & Modern (2003) 

Eric Melvin, The Fresh Air of the Summer Morning. The Story of Duncan Napier the Herbalist (2021)


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