Following Hugh Cleghorn to the Western Himalaya

Monday 4 August 2014
Henry Noltie

Another in our occasional series of blogs from those using our collections in our Reading Room …

For about five years I have been working on the life and work of Hugh Francis Clarke Cleghorn (1820–95), an East India Company Surgeon and important player in the history of Forest Conservancy in India. This forms part of a series of studies of Scottish Company Surgeons and their botanical researches that arose because at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE), where I work, we have many collections (books, herbarium specimens and above all botanical drawings) made by these surgeons – of which Cleghorn’s forms the largest of all. One of the joys and challenges of this sort of work is drawing together material widely dispersed not only between different libraries, museums and archives, but even within departments of a single institution.

Thanks to the generosity of the Sprot family (Cleghorn’s indirect heirs, as he himself had no children) the Special Collections Division of St Andrews University library holds a pre-eminent collection of family papers relating to two Hugh Cleghorns. The elder one (1752–1837), a truly Enlightenment character, started his career as Professor of Civil History at St Andrews, but, being struck with wander-lust, played an important role in acquiring Ceylon as a British colony. But my own interest is in his eponymous, Victorian grandson. The collection also owes much to Aylwin Clark, who wrote an excellent biography of the grandfather and meticulously catalogued the whole collection. For many years I have visited St Andrews to see the collection and made notes, which have been gradually enriched with information gleaned from the India Office Records of the British Library, the University of Edinburgh and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (letters to William and Joseph Hooker) in addition to the rich materials at RBGE (especially Cleghorn’s letters to John Hutton Balfour).

Watercolour of Tribulus terrestris made for Cleghorn in Shimoga, Mysore in 1846 (RBGE)

Most of Cleghorn’s career was spent in South India and I have followed in his footsteps there, including in 1997 a trip to Mysore, where he was stationed in the 1840s and where each day he commissioned an artist to draw a different plant species. I started to write up a biography in December and have now reached the period of his life when, in 1862, he was summoned north by Lord Canning, Governor-General of India, to make a survey of the forest resources of the Punjab – a large area to the north and west of Delhi now split between India and Pakistan. The 1860s were a crucial time, with extensive development including railway-building, but when supplies of timber for construction, and sleepers, was causing concern, as uncontrolled felling had been allowed to occur. What Cleghorn was instructed to investigate were forests of deodar (Cedrus deodara), which grew on the precipitous Himalayan slopes of the valleys of four of the five great Punjab rivers – the Beas, Sutlej, Ravi and Chenab. He, probably reasonably, claimed to Balfour that what followed was ‘one of the most extensive and adventurous journeys ever made in the Himalaya’.

Moravian Mission House, Keylang, Lahul (Edinburgh University Library)
Table of Trees in Botanical Gardens of Calcutta, an extract from Cleghorn's diary, msdep53/9/6
Table of Trees in Botanical Gardens of Calcutta, an extract from Cleghorn’s diary, msdep53/9/6
Cleghorn’s MS Map of the Punjab (RBGE).
Map detail of the area that I will visit (RBGE).

At RBGE is Cleghorn’s own heavily annotated copy of his published Report upon the Forests of the Punjab and the Western Himalaya (1864), which includes an exquisite manuscript map drawn on silk, showing his routes. This gave me the idea of retracing these journeys to see the landscapes known to Cleghorn, and how they have changed in the last 150 years. Looking back over my notes made at St Andrews several years ago I found summaries of the contents of two pocket books kept by Cleghorn during these journeys in 1862 and 1863 and realised that I needed to have another look – by now knowing much more of the background then when I first saw them. So for three days last week I transcribed the notebooks and found, despite the difficult handwriting, riches beyond anything I could have imagined. Not only lists of plants, notes on medicinal and other useful plants (such as Gerbera, the wool on the undersides of the leaves being used as tinder), instructions for paper making with Daphne bark, notes on items of trade (from borax to agates) and birds, but also anecdotal elements including named individuals scrupulously excised from his formal reports submitted to the Government of India. One of the most interesting glimpses relate to the Moravian Mission station at Keylang in Lahul, of which I have recently discovered an exquisite watercolour in the Edinburgh University collection. Many other fascinating connections can be made, not least with some of the very plant specimens collected on these trips that are preserved in the RBGE herbarium and a few drawings of the cones of the conifers made for him by amateur British artists in the RBGE archives.

Specimen of Gerbera gossypina collected by Cleghorn – in the Notebook he recorded the use of the wool on the leaf undersides as tinder (RBGE)
Specimen of Daphne mucronata, collected by Cleghorn, with label written on birch bark – in the Notebook he record the use of Daphne bark in paper-making (RBGE)
Drawing of cone of Pinus roxburghii made for Cleghorn in Simla in 1866 by Michael Antony Shrapnel Biddulph (RBGE)

I set off for Delhi on 7th August, and then take a bus to Manali in the Kulu Valley, to start on Cleghorn’s trail. Hopefully more posts will follow ….

Henry Noltie
Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh

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3 thoughts on "Following Hugh Cleghorn to the Western Himalaya"

  • Following Hugh Cleghorn to the Western Himalaya – Part II | Echoes from the Vault
    Tuesday 2 September 2014, 10.56am

    […] from Henry Noltie who is currently retracing the journey of Hugh Cleghorn to the Western Himalaya (Following Hugh Cleghorn to the Western Himalya).  Henry has sent us the following update on his […]

    Wednesday 3 September 2014, 11.01am


  • John L B Bell
    John L B Bell
    Sunday 24 July 2022, 9.16pm

    The great scholar Henry Noltie has made a study in depth of Dr Hugh Cleghorn's life in India, and he draws attention to the realisation by men of calibre in those far off days, that the state of Forests is of the first importance in any study of Climate Change, and its bearing on the future of life on earth. But Henry Noltie brings to his studies a poet's grasp of the fascination of lives, like his own, which have a special affinity with, and love, for all living things. His travels alone are a great story in themselves. We are privileged in our time to be the beneficiaries of his matchless exertions and learned commentaries.


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