Duncan Napier

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The overgrown grave of Duncan Napier in Grange Cemetery

Duncan Scott Napier (3 February 1831 – 1921) was a Victorian botanist and herbalist.

Early life[edit]

Duncan Napier's diary records that his early start in life was hard as he was a foundling, abandoned by his mother soon after his birth and adopted by a publican, Mr. Napier, in Blackhall. He was baptised by the Rev Duncan Scott whom he was named after. He was told later by his stepfather that his surname was originally Orchard.[1] His stepmother was an alcoholic and beat him severely. An Penicuik ploughman, Andrew Nelson, who frequented the pub was aware of the cruelty. He took an interest in Duncan and, from the age of five, Duncan spent the summers with his adopted 'grandpa' and the Nelson family in the countryside around Penicuik, where he became fascinated by plants and nature. While his stepmother was alive he had to work in the pub but after her death in 1845, at the age of 14, he started working as a gardener for Adam Dunn, a local farmer in Coltbridge. In 1846, he was apprenticed to a baker, Mr Binns in Coltbridge, where he obtained as wages "three pounds per annum and a pair of shoes". To earn extra money he bred pigeons and Russian rabbits, and delivered letters.

Like many in the Victorian era, Duncan was brought up on small beer as water was often unclean. His diary, written in the third person, records that "The evil habits of Duncan were soon about to receive a check. Up till this period when he was sixteen years of age, he had never tasted water as a beverage. While going with his rolls one morning he met in with a gentleman to whom he owes his rescue from the shadow of drink."[2] This was Mr John Hope of 31 Moray Place, Edinburgh who became his mentor and close friend. He became a pledged member of the British Temperance League in May 1846 and from that period never tasted alcoholic liquors or used tobacco. He became a Christian two years later at the Free St John’s church.

His early education was very basic. He could read but at 16 he joined John Hope's evening classes to learn to write. This was followed by classes in Scientific Botany from Mr Lawson of Rose Street. He married Joan McKay in 1854 at the age of 23. His interest in herbal medicine started a few years after his marriage in 1858 when he found a copy of Brook's Family Herbal on an Edinburgh market stall. During his time as a baker, possibly because of the flour dust, he had developed a chronic cough. After reading the book's recipes he experimented and made a Lobelia Cough Syrup that cleared up his cough within six months.

Encouraged by this success, Duncan bought many medical and herbal books. He started to make other herbal medicines and try them out on his friends and family, collecting herbs from the surrounding areas of Edinburgh in the Pentland Hills. Soon he was sought out by people in the neighbourhood and started to practice as a herbalist.

Bristo Place Shop[edit]

Duncan became a member of the Edinburgh Botanical Society, proposed by Mr Kaistrey a Polish herbalist that he had met while gathering herbs and was encouraged by his contemporaries to open a herbal shop. His mentor John Hope gave him a gift of money that provided the security for the landlord, his initial stock and also allowed him to leave his job as a baker soon after his new business opened. Duncan Napier opened the first Napiers herbal shop at 17 Bristo Place, Edinburgh, on 25 May 1860, so that the local community could benefit from herbal medicine. The shop and clinic at Bristo Place remains open to this day and is now Scotland's oldest herbal house.

Duncan Napier collected herbs and plants from Edinburgh and the Borders, often rising before dawn and returning in time to open his shop to the waiting queue of people. Bunches of herbs were dried in the basement to be made into syrups, tinctures and ointments. Some of these formulae are still manufactured today. The family lived in Ruby Villa, Sciennes and family holidays were spent with his sons walking the Scottish Highlands and collecting plants and herbs. His son, Duncan II recalls "We had to go into the country and gather herbs for my father's business: yarrow, eyebright, comfrey, agrimony, wormwood, tansy, elder flowers, woundwort, hawthorn berries, to name only a few;..."[3]

D. Napier & Sons[edit]

Duncan Napier had nine children in total: Andrew, Elizabeth, John (died after smallpox vaccination at 10 years old), Joanna, Duncan (died at 4), Helen (Nellie), Walter, Agnes and Duncan (junior). His sons went into the business with him and it formally became DS Napier and Sons in 1905. His eldest son Andrew Nelson Napier (born 1856) worked with his father as a herbalist from 1870 until his death in 1917. Andrew's daughter Eva joined in 1917. Walter Glendinning Napier (born 1872) joined the firm in 1914 and stayed until his death in 1934. Duncan Scott (born 1880) joined in 1900 and except for his years of service in the First World War stayed in the business until 1949, when Napiers was taken over by his son John.[3]

In the mid-19th century, British herbalists banded together into the National Association, which became the National Institute of Medical Herbalists. This is still the oldest and major professional organisation for herbal practitioners in the UK, with members being recognised worldwide. Duncan was a founder member. He was also a member of the Pharmaceutical Society.

When Duncan Napier died at 91, the shop was taken over by his son; the business remained in the family for many years, passing down through the generations. The last family member to carry on the practice was his grandson John Napier, a member of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists, but when John died in 1978 the business virtually came to a standstill. It was owned for a time by Gerard House, who then sold it to pharmacist Jan de Vries, who built up the business and gave consultations.[4]

When Medical Herbalist Dee Atkinson MNIMH took over the Napiers' business in 1990 she found antiques and historical materials that had been left untouched for many years. Dee immediately started to research the traditional old recipes such as Duncan Napiers 'Lobelia Cough Syrup' and built the business back up. Nowadays there are two traditional herbal stores—one in Edinburgh[5] and one in Glasgow—each with herbal and complementary therapy clinics. There is also a central dispensary and a mail order service run by Research Herbalist Monica Wilde MSc FLS that still sells Napiers' unique traditional herbal products. Napiers has been exporting since 1885 when Napiers Tapeworm Remedy was featured in the New York Weekly for the price of one dollar.[6]

Napier's grave is obscured by a yew but lies in the south-west section of the western extension to Grange Cemetery in Edinburgh.


  1. ^ Napier, D.S. (1854). Letter to Mrs H. Alexander, 24 July 1854. Private collection, Edinburgh: United Kingdom.
  2. ^ Napier, D.S. (1871). Untitled journal. Private collection, Edinburgh: United Kingdom.
  3. ^ a b Atkinson, T. (2007). Napiers History of Herbal Healing, Ancient and Modern. Luath Press Ltd; 2nd edition edition (1 Sept. 2007). ISBN 978-1905222018
  4. ^ Jan de Vries (13 May 2011). Jan de Vries: A Life in Healing. Mainstream Publishing. p. 29. ISBN 978-1-78057-186-7.
  5. ^ Dee Atkinson (8 November 2002). "What Can I Eat to Boost my Mood?". Feature Articles (aka Opinion). The Times. London. (Subscription required (help)).
  6. ^ Napier, D.S. (1917). Case histories. Private collection, Edinburgh: United Kingdom.

Other sources[edit]

  • Nelson, M. (1853). Letter to Duncan Napier, 11 March 1853. Private collection, Edinburgh: United Kingdom.
  • Nelson, M. (1853). Letter to Duncan Napier, 01 August 1853. Private collection, Edinburgh: United Kingdom.
  • Nelson, M. (1854). Letter to Duncan Napier, 08 October 1854. Private collection, Edinburgh: United Kingdom.
  • Nelson, A. (1857). Letter to Duncan and Joan Napier, 18 March 1857. Private collection, Edinburgh: United Kingdom.

External links[edit]