One of my kinsmen slept with a loaded gun underneath
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 bed...in 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
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
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
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
Robert Cross was a real Boy Own character.
NEW BOOK TO COME IN 2006
FORGOTTEN LEGEND : ROBERT CROSS – NATURALIST
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 ..my 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.