How one small square of Scotland influences global politics
In Simon Milne’s office stands a very unremarkable sideboard, that nonetheless tells the remarkable story of the Regius Keeper and the centuries-old organisation he protects.
There’s a glimmering statue of an oriental dragon – a gift from the Prime Minister of Nepal, in recognition of the two centuries of ecological activity between the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, and the Himalayan region.
There’s also a silver platter, emblazoned with Arabic writing, thanking Milne for the RBGE’s work in Qatar, and a framed map of Tajikistan, recognising the garden’s research programmes in Central Asia.
The garden’s royal connections are proudly displayed too – a portrait of Queen Elizabeth denotes the RBGE’s royal patronage, flanked by a photograph of Milne and Prince Charles walking through the gardens.
Sitting in his office, the Regius Keeper – analogous to chief executive – begins by describing his tenure as the guardian of 350 years of RBGE history as “wonderful” adding, “We've enjoyed and will continue to ensure and continue to make a really strong contribution from Scotland to the rest of the world.”
We are the custodians of a global botanical collection with very few rivals in the world.
Picking each item up from the sideboard and turning it over in his hands, each plaque, memento and certificate tells another chapter of the RBGE’s story, and how the garden’s roots have spread firstly across Scotland, and then the world.
With a small medal in his hands, depicting the Great Seal of the United States of America, Milne said: “There was a chap called Benjamin Rush, who was one of the secretaries of the US Declaration of Independence. He started here.
“So back in the 18th century all medical students had to learn botany, because of the importance of plants to medicine, and he was one of those students. And then he went back to America and ended up being one of the signatories of Declaration of Independence. So our reach stretches back to world-changing events.”
Simon Milne is his office at the RBGE
There are other stories too, of international significance. Between 1750 to 1850 Russia was making a fortune from trading rhubarb root, which was used in medicine. Russia supplied the world, and effectively had a monopoly on the product, as it banned the export of the seeds. At one point, it was worth more than gold. However, Dumfriesshire-born physician James Mounsey, who operated a surgery in Moscow, smuggled several pounds of the seeds out of the country, where they found their way to the RBGE, where they were successfully cultivated. Russia’s monopoly was broken, and the UK made millions from the exportation of rhubarb.
“Mounsey worked at high levels in Russia,” said Milne, “and he learned he was going to be arrested and put to death. He escaped and took rhubarb seed with him, which was then propagated here in Edinburgh, when the garden was based on Leith Walk.
“That was quite a source of income for the botanics, until the rest of Europe also got hold of the seed, that is a product of history.”
These days the RBGE’s global reach is focused more firmly on altruism, and in particular saving the planet’s damaged eco-system.
“For us, obviously, plant espionage is a thing of the past,” said Milne, “but addressing the losses of plants is not a thing of the past. There's still a lot of plants being ripped out in the wild these days.”
Milne has been Regius Keeper for nine-and-a-half years, before which he ran the Scottish Wildlife Trust for a decade. His first career, after graduating from St Andrews University, was a Royal Marine for 23 years.
“These days,” said Milne, “I consider myself a conservationist, and the leader of this extraordinary organisation that has been around for 352 years.”
Today, the RBGE works in partnership with organisations and communities in more than 40 countries, to “conserve and restore biodiversity, support sustainable livelihoods, and co-create learning opportunities”.
This “plant diplomacy” positions Scottish horticultural expertise at the centre of a global network of conservation.
“We are one of the leading botanic gardens in the world,” said Milne, “and that is based on the breadth and depth of our collections, and our expertise.
“We have an irreplaceable plant collection of 13,500 species from all around the world. We have a herbarium that has got three million specimens, with the first one dating back to the 17th Century, plus a technical library and archives.
“We are the custodians of a global botanical collection with very few rivals in the world.”
Simon Milne on a field study in Nepal
Founded in a small 40ftsq garden near Holyrood Palace in 1670, the ‘physic garden’ – so-called because it was first used to grow plants for medicine – moved to the current 70 acre site in Inverleith in 1820. This small square of the capital city has projected Scotland onto the national stage many times, and provided the UK’s diplomats with “soft power”, according to Milne.
In Milne’s office sits a large visitors book, containing the signatures of the powerful men and women who have visited the gardens.
“We've got heads of state, kings, queens, a huge array of ambassadors, top experts in the field, and a lot of politicians as well, as you'd imagine,” said Milne.
“And that's just here, rather than us going out around the world. We have a chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, we have the prime minister of Nepal, we have royalty from various countries.
“An example of that would be during COP26 in Glasgow, we hosted a number of heads of state and diplomats here.
“It is more than just coming to visit a beautiful garden, this is about further collaboration, because we are seen in many aspects as setting the benchmark for botanic gardens.
“A number of countries are very keen to work with us to develop their own capacity, or to work in collaboration on projects.
“One such example would be Nepal. Often our links start at the very highest level, which will sometimes include presidents and prime ministers, and the President of Nepal has been here.
“It's simply putting Scotland on the map with that particular country. If you mention Scotland to the Nepalese ambassador to the UK, he will think, ‘Royal Botanic Garden’, and that's because of the extensive collaboration we've carried out.
“Examples would be working, leading and advising on the production of the flora of Nepal.”
The garden, nestled in the centre of an Edinburgh suburb, harbours some of earth’s rarest and most fragile treasures. There are species growing in Inverleith that exist nowhere else in the world, and many more that threatened with extinction in their natural habitat.
“Previously, there were only one or two trees of the small conifer ‘amentotaxus argotaenia’ remaining in Hong Kong,” said Milne.
“We propagated it here from our material, and that material has gone to Hong Kong and has been planted back out into the wild. It's fantastic.”
I have seen bad things in my time, particularly in the Marines, I've seen what humans can do to each other, and they carry on doing that.
According to Milne, “the China/Botanic Garden relationship is very strong, particularly with the Chinese Academy of Sciences”. As an example of Scotland punching above its weight, the RBGE has a shared field station in Kunming, in the Yunnan province – a city which has three million more citizens than the entire population of Scotland.
Milne is also the safekeeper of historical artefacts, including flower cuttings that Charles Darwin took while in the Galapagos Islands in 1835, while a passenger on board HMS Beagle.
On Milne’s sideboard of international gifts and certificates, however, there is one object that sticks out from the others, for all the wrong reasons – a decorated wooden box, gifted to him by Russian botanists.
“It is soft diplomacy,” said Milne, “it is not controversial.
“This is all about experts coming together to meet a global problem without the political rhetoric and avoiding all the nasty things that are going on the world at the moment. So whilst relations with some countries may be challenging for whatever reason, we are working away with our opposite numbers, keeping lines of communication open within our field. And doing good, actually.
“Very often I'll say that we are on a different plane to politics. I'm not saying we're superior or inferior, we're just in a different space to politics, which was true until the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine. So it was the appropriate thing to do to suspend our formal links with the institutes we had agreements with in Russia. However, we are still conducting one to one research projects with individuals, rather than state institutions.”
When asked if that was difficult decision for the RBGE, Milne said: “Yes, because it sort of goes against our values to a certain extent. However, it was the right decision to take, considering the severity of the issue.
“We could be criticised for working with countries which don't have a particularly good human rights record. But I think that can be justified because we are going back to the point of working together for a common good purpose, which is to address biodiversity loss in the world, to everybody's benefit.
“Whatever we do, we will never compromise our own values overseas. And in fact, in many ways, we are helping because equality and inclusion is very important to us. Training people from around the world on our courses is very inclusive.”
Propagated plants from the RBGE arrive in Singapore
The successes of the RBGE can sound like science fiction, bringing near-extinct species back from the brink, sending 3D models of plant specimens around the world and discovering new species at a rate not seen since the new world was discovered, ushering in the Age of Exploration. Last year, the organisation discovered 72 new species of plants which were previously unknown to science.
“I think in this relatively small part of Scotland,” said Milne, “is the collective ability to mobilise our expertise, and work in collaboration with so many people around the world, for the good of society and the planet.
“I have seen bad things in my time, particularly in the Marines, I've seen what humans can do to each other, and they carry on doing that. I can see what we do to the planet, see what's happening and personally, it gives me enormous satisfaction to be part of an organisation, a Scottish organisation, that is doing good in the world. And at a time when the world is not necessarily in a good place, that is valuable.”