John Hardie Wilson photographic collection

Scope and Content

That part of the John Hardie Wilson photographic collection which is held within the Cowie collection is made up of 195 4x4 inch glass lantern slides, covering largely topographical subjects relating to the St Andrews area. Wilson's original categories of arrangement have been retained and expanded.

That part of the John Hardie Wilson photographic collection which is held within the Botany Department Deposit is made up of glass plate negatives, lantern slides (ca. 5,000 in 54 boxes) and photograph albums and scattered prints. Also represented within the botany department deposit, but not described here, is the photographic work of Ellis Crapper and Professor JA MacDonald. The majority of the images contained in this part of the JHW collection are of botanical subjects used as University teaching aids (lantern slides) and specimen images from his experiments in plant hybridology (ca. 1890 -ca. 1916). There are also images of JHW's experimental planting installations and locations in and around St Andrews, principally Greenside Nurseries (including Wilson family members and nursery staff), land to the south of the Kinnessburn and the University botanic garden site. The local topography of St Andrews is well represented in these slides and there are also images of continental Europe (ca. 1890 - ca. 1900) and of both botanical institutions and specimens in the United States (1900) (principally trees in California) as well as 1910 visit to Australia.

Three personal photograph albums (ca. 1898-1920) cover a broad range of subject matter and have extensive autograph captions in Dr John Hardie Wilson's hand. They are of particular use in the study of Dr John Hardie Wilson's experimental agriculture at St Andrews; St Andrews town and hinterland during the period and the University's original botanic garden.

Administrative / Biographical History

Dr John Hardie Wilson (1858-1920) was born in St Andrews, educated at Madras College, St Andrews and thereafter worked as a plantsman in Edinburgh, possibly at the Royal Botanic Garden. While in Edinburgh he began to study Botany at Edinburgh University. In 1886, he returned to St Andrews to study natural history under W.C. McIntosh. In 1887 Wilson began to teach as a Demonstrator in Botany while still an undergraduate. He graduated in Zoology and became lecturer in Botany in 1888 and attained his D.Sc in 1889. Wilson was also a prime mover behind the establishment of the University Botanic Garden which opened in the summer of 1889. In 1889-1890 Wilson was also one of the founder members (and first president) of the University Science Club. In 1890, however, Wilson left his teaching post within the University partly due perhaps to a reluctance on the part of the University to commit adequate funding to his teaching.

From mid-1890 to September 1893 he appears to have been employed as 'Curator of the Herbarium and Library of the Royal Botanic Garden'. Wilson is known to have taught extra-mural classes at Heriot Watt College from 1891 In 1892, he is known to have applied (unsuccessfully) for the curatorship of the Glasgow botanic garden. In 1894 he was at St Andrews again as extra-mural Lecturer in Agriculture and was then appointed Lecturer in Botany at Yorkshire College, Leeds remaining in post until College restructuring saw funding for his post end in 1897.

During the 1890s Wilson established himself as a plant hybridologist of international renown. In 1891, his paper Observations on the fertilisation and hybridisation of some species of Albuca was published by the Royal Belgian Botanical Society. His principal area of research was disease-resistant food crops, most especially potatoes, oats and soft fruits. Throughout his career, much of his experimental planting took place on family-held land around St Andrews. It was this work, coupled with his proven teaching abilities, which lead to Wilson being appointed lecturer in Agriculture and Rural Economy at the University of St Andrews in 1900. John Hardie Wilson styled himself a practical botanist, stating that the motive of his research was to provide more useful and productive plants. In this he sought hybrids both within and across plant species. Amongst many honours, he received the Royal Horticultural Society's Banksian Medal for this work.

In 1901-1903 and 1905-1906 the University of St Andrews sought unsuccessfully to establish a Department of Agriculture under Wilson. However, his Agriculture classes were well-attended and highly regarded. He was also heavily involved in botanical outreach within the local community. The Great War saw student numbers dwindle and, after 1916, funding for Wilson's experimental potato beds came to an end. Wilson turned his attentions to tending to the University Botanic Garden for the duration of the War, the head gardener having been called-up for active service. It was commented at the time of his death in 1920 that the strain of this work, which he undertook largely single-handedly in the absence of additional manpower during the War, had been contributory in his death. Thereafter the Agriculture section of the Department of Natural History was wound up with most specimens, together Wilson's assistant Robb, being transferred to Edinburgh.

Wilson was a keen antiquarian and became a prominent member of the St Andrews Literary and Philosophical Society. He was also a skilled photographer, taking many striking and significant images not only of botanical specimens but also of St Andrews and the East Neuk of Fife. Finally, he was also a competent geologist, applying this discipline to the study of East Fife.


The GB 227 JHW glass lantern slides are arranged in the following categories: archaeology; portraits; the city of St Andrews; Eden; Tentsmuir; Step Rock to Castle; Harbour; The Links; East Sands; Kinkell Braes; Beyond Rock and Spindle; Kinness Valley; Drumcarro Craig; Miscellaneous; Social History; Students and Botany.

Access Information

The photographic collections are currently the subject of a major digitisation project. It is the intention to have the entire archive captured in electronic form, and available (with sophisticated searching facilities) on line via the web. A full version of the software can be accessed in the Library and researchers are welcome to visit the library to use it but it is important that appointments are made in advance. Access to original photographic material may be restricted.


GB 227 JHW is part of the Cowie Collection (GB 227 GMC) but is referred to by the name of the photographer not the collector.

Description compiled by Rachel Hart, Archives Hub Project Archivist.

Other Finding Aids

Catalogue of the slides of John Hardie Wilson within the Cowie collection. A list to the Botany Department collection was compiled during a History of Science and Technology RSLP funded project. It is available on the St Andrews University Library Special Collections departmental website.

Conditions Governing Use

Copies of images held in the photographic collection (with the exception of any photographs which are held either without copyright or under other restrictions imposed by the donor or photographer) can be ordered. Photographs thus provided for purely personal or research purposes are not subject to any fee beyond the photographic costs (for which a scale of charges is available). Prior written permission must be obtained before any further reproduction is undertaken of images supplied, for commercial or non-commercial purposes. Reproduction fees may be charged.

True photographic reprints of most images can be provided, or computer-generated prints of an increasing proportion of the collection at low, medium or high resolution. Given the fragility of the original material our preference is to provide computer prints where possible. We can also provide transparencies and a range of electronic formats.

Custodial History

GB 227 JHW was part of the accumulation by George Middlemass Cowie of earlier examples of his art and forms part of the Cowie collection. ms37852/15-16 and ms37785-87/2 etc. are part of the Wilson Bequest, 1933, within the Botany Department deposit.

Related Material

GB 227 mss37783-37852 et al.: Non photographic holdings from Botany Department deposit.


Nature study rambles round St Andrews, J H Wilson, (St Andrews, 1910).

Geographical Names