PART OF THE The Christmas Issue ISSUE

‘Henry must have exhibited an early fascination with flowers.’

Part biography, part plant atlas, The Sweet Pea Man tells the story of the Victorian plant hybridist Henry Eckford and his life as a breeder of the famous Grandiflora sweet peas. A must read for all fascinated by plants, we go back to Eckford’s beginnings in Edinburgh in 1823.

Extract from The Sweet Pea Man
By Graham Martin
Published by Scotland Street Press

Henry Eckford was born on Saturday 17th May, 1823, the seventh of the eight children of James and Isabel Eckford. In 1810, with Isabel possibly already pregnant the two had run off to nearby Edinburgh to marry. There was, however, a problem… ‘Married irregularly at Edinburgh July 31st, 1810 James Eckford and Isabel Perie both of this parish they compeared before the Session September 9th 1810 paid a fine for their irregularity and the modr. [moderator] declared them married persons.’ So runs the Cockpen Parish Register for 1810. An irregular marriage was one that was, or was considered to be, contrary to Church of Scotland rules. Perhaps the banns hadn’t been read to the congregation on consecutive Sundays. Pregnancy is an unlikely cause. If it had occurred it was extremely recent, was probably unknown and could be hidden if it was. Although it was customary to marry in one’s parish, it was common enough here for couples to go to Edinburgh to be married. For one thing it was cheaper. It was usual to seek permission to marry from one’s parents or employers, permission that James and Isabel may not have had. James was thirty and Isabel sixteen, just, which gives us a clue; perhaps James had a past that he hadn’t quite managed to keep covered? A few years before, one James Eckford had been fathering illegitimate children down in the borders, at Traquair Mill. Perhaps too, the gentle loosening of the church’s grip on the nation’s affairs saw the church zealous where its writ remained.

The couple’s first child, Elizabeth, was born the following spring, at Shiels in Cockpen. They had a further three boys before moving to Stenhouse in Liberton, (not to be confused with the larger Edinburgh suburb of Stenhouse) in 1818. Here they had another four children, Henry being the third. Their last child, Isabella, was born in January 1826. If all the children survived, Henry as one of the youngest would have had a lot of siblings to make a fuss over him. Unfortunately, his father couldn’t have done. At some time between April 1825 and January 1826, James Eckford died. Isabel now had eight children to bring up alone, though almost  certainly with the help of the extended family. Henry must have exhibited an early fascination with flowers. Still in his cradle, his grandfather told his parents “if you make that boy anything but a gardener you’ll spoil him!”.


Monday the third of December, eighteen-hundred and thirty-eight. Edinburgh braced itself for winter. The Edinburgh Evening Courant was reporting storms off the coast, with the loss of many valuable lives, cargoes and ships. The month was to prove colder, too, than last year’s, whose winter had been one of the coldest on record. And in the winter before that one the city had experienced forty-nine days of snow. A snow-storm was already brewing as the passengers alighted the Defiance stage-coach at the east end of Princes Street, Edinburgh’s beautifully set thoroughfare that runs east-west along the southern edge of the ‘new town’. The journey began opposite The Crown hotel, where the Defiance was waiting. Here was the crowded travel hub of the city, which it still is. A few yards south from where the stage-coach stood now lies the main railway station, with the bus station just north across St. Andrew Square. Some buses also leave from Waterloo Place, the road that Princes Street runs into going east. In the 1830s, things were even closer at hand. The Crown, its proprietor Archibald Stewart and the Defiance were surrounded on all sides by coach-hirers, coach-builders, coach-makers, saddlers and coach-offices.

Henry Eckford, fifteen years old, had boarded a cheaper outside seat on the Defiance for the two day journey to Inverness and horticultural apprenticeship at Beaufort Castle, the seat of Lord Lovat at Beauly. Safely in his pocket lay a silver sixpence, a good-luck token from his mother to ensure that he’d never be short of money. He was to keep it all his life, together with the memory of the blinding white morning sky, and of the extreme coldness of the journey. The party spent the first night in Aberdeen, arriving safely in Inverness around 7 o’clock the following evening. The journey loomed so large in his memory that in later life, where he’d written ‘two days’ in his Curriculum Vitae he pencilled ‘three’ over it. Surely, he thought of the impressionable event, it must have taken longer? By 1830 however, the Edinburgh – Aberdeen coach could cover the one hundred and thirty-four miles in, at a pinch, fourteen hours and twenty-two minutes, including the ferry crossing of the Firth of Forth at Queensferry. Even slowed by the snow, the shorter distance from Aberdeen to Inverness is unlikely to have taken twice as long as that.


The Sweet Pea Man by Graham Martin is out now published by Scotland Street Press priced £24.99. At 470 pages in length, it features 60 full colour images.

Scotland Street Press launch The Sweet Pea Man at Blackwells in Edinburgh on 17 January 2018. Book your ticket here.

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