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Robert McKenzie Cross: Botanical Explorer, Kew Gardens

Forgotten Legend : Tribute to Robert Cross- Sample
Home | Forgotten Legend : Tribute to Robert Cross- Sample | Further Reading : Some Books, Journals and Web Sites | Early Life in Kilmaronock Loch Lomondside 1830s and 1840s | While Robert entered Kew Gardens, London 1850s his siblings flew the nest too! | Chronology : The Years Robert Cross spent at Home and Abroad | Chinchona Missions : First Trip to South America 1859 | Robert Cross's Report on his travel to South America in 1860 | Spruce's Journal First Chinchona Mission | Chinchona : Later Trips to South America | Rubber Trees : Mission to South America 1876 | Para Rubber Images | Clements Markham, Richard Spruce and Henry Wickham | Achievements of Robert Cross | Publications of Robert M Cross | Last Years at West Cottage Torrance of Campsie | Last Will and Testament of Robert McKenzie Cross

Picture the Scene


West Cottage : Last residence of Robert Cross

One of my kinsmen slept with a loaded gun underneath his pillow!

Picture the scene..the year is 1910. We see a dark-skinned, bearded man, aged in his mid-70s. In his prime he has been rebust in stature, but now he is rather thin and willowy. He is dressed in a collarless shirt and ill fitting waistcoat, hanging loose ( both undone and unbuttoned ); he also wears leather breeches and laced black boots. He lies on a plain, single, white the deep throes of a malatrial attack. The room is dimly lit, sparsely furnished and smells musty. An oil lamp hangs in a dark, dusty, corner, but gives very little illumination. The man's head rests on a brown pillow, with duck feathers poaking out. Clearly visable, alongside the solitary figure is a REVOLVER!

There are noises off, insects chirping, the shadow of moths; a bird of prey sounds out other passing nocturals, in between a carriage clock in a cabinet ticks incessantly.

We might be in the tropics, the Far East, India or South

The man is sweating profusely. He moans, tosses and turns, cries out and goes back to his terrible, lonely moaning. He is hallucinating, he hears loud threatening sounds of the jungle all around him. He sees frightening images, wild savage-looking natives, painted up for some ceremony. They taunt him. Coco leaves are being passed round, he knows he will have to take his share and consume these without giving offence. He hears drums beating, all overpowering him, haunting him......the noise is deafening

Who is the man? Why is he acting this way? Where are we?

The last of these questions, first!

We are not in the jungle! What we are witnessing is a regular occurrence in the later life of my great great uncle and a fully authenticated family story.

In fact we are in Scotland, at West Cottage, Balgrochan, Torrance of Campsie. A wee house among the heather in its own way, to quote the song made famous by Sir Harry Lauder. In 1910, this was the home of Robert McKenzie Cross, sometime naturalist, traveller and botanical explorer, today, an almost forgotten legend....

Robert Cross was one of the proverbial back room boys of history!

As a lad I was told of a relative who had brought quinine from across the Andes, who was a pioneer of the Caoutchouc Industry ( Rubber ) in the Far East; a man who always carried an traditional British umbrella ( but what else would one use to kill deadly spiders and snakes!! ) in the unhealthy tropical forests of South America
and who always slept with a loaded gun under his pillow, even 20 years after his return home to his native Scotland.

Robert Cross was a real Boy Own character.





This book will celebrate the life and work of Robert McKenzie Cross 1834-1911. He was a remarkable man – a Scot from Loch Lomondside who went on to play a part on the world’s stage. A real example of true-grit.  The value of his work is not well known outside of a  few academic circles. But his life reads like a series of boys own adventures with dangers galore around every single corner. Robert was a botanical explorer and veteran Victorian plant collector. He was one of a small band of pioneers who were involved in the two great transfers of plants from South America to India and the Far East supervised by Kew Gardens, London, in the second half of the 19th century. The plants transferred were chinchona ( from which the malaria –fighting drug quinine is extracted ) and rubber – upon which in the latter case so many industries depending for generations.


We can all cite the name of a great explorer own favourites would include David Livingstone and Charles Darwin, in our time Sir Ranulph Fiennes; these names are known to most school-weans. But the names of folk like Richard Spruce ( who? ), Charles Ledger ( who? ) Clements Markham ( who?) and Robert Cross are not  remembered. These men were among the great pioneers – boldly going where one had gone before – collecting chinchona plants and seeds – which changed history – their work saved millions of lives in the huge fight against malaria and other fevers.


The same names of Spruce, Markham and Cross ( add to that Henry Wickham and Henry Ridley ) were involved in the other great Victorian venture of plant collecting – rubber plants and seeds. Wickham pipped Cross at the post in terms of getting credit ( and a knighthood ) for his remarkable exploits of 1876 – which led to the development of the Rubber Industry in the  Far East.  The jury is still out on whether Wickham or Cross provided the spark – that one single germ, seed or plant – that was the genesis of that massive industry.


Centre stage for the action – South America – the Andes – The Rain Forests. The transfer of these plants and seeds to Southern India and Ceylon. The prime motive in all of this - for the sake of Empire – to enable the British to have control or influence over the world supplies of quinine and rubber.

From Forgotten Legend - to be published in 2006

Robert McKenzie Cross of Kew Gardens