Kirknewton - the countryside retreat for a famous eighteenth century Edinburgh doctor

by Jane Corrie

Article in the Konect Directory, Calders edition, April 2011

The prominent memorial in Kirknewton's small graveyard is for a little-known Enlightenment professor of medicine at the University of Edinburgh, William Cullen, who was born just over 300 years ago and had a particular connection with Kirknewton.

At the beginning of the 20th century a fine plaque, showing his very distinctive profile, was placed above the entrance to the walled enclosure surrounding the tomb of his son, the judge Lord Cullen. This plaque was put in place to commemorate Cullen as a former President of the College by members of the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh. It has turned bright green over the years so is easy to find.

In the year 1778 William Cullen bought some land and a house on the shoulder of the Pentland Hills, south west of Kirknewton. Whenever he could get away from his professional duties in Edinburgh it was his delight to cultivate his garden here and to work on developing the surrounding farm. He particularly enjoyed growing a range of exotic plants in the picturesque miniature glen running down the hill from his house. He extended the house too. In fact he was a thoroughgoing scientific ‘improver’, to use the term current in the 18th century. As a doctor he worked to cure people and to understand the nature of disease, and in his country retreat he applied a similarly analytical and caring attitude to his land, his plants and his animals.


In his time William Cullen was renowned as a lecturer in Agriculture and Chemistry as well as Medicine. Initially he was reluctant to publish but copies of his lectures printed in editions pirated from student notes persuaded him otherwise. It was partly the income from his writing that financed his country pursuits at Kirknewton. He also added to his wealth, and became even more famous, as a result of his private practice as a physician.


This practice was carried out mainly by letter. He would receive a written request for advice and would reply very promptly, often enclosing a prescription to be made up by a local surgeon-apothecary. This service was charged at a starting rate of one guinea (£1.05p). Of course it was usually only available to the wealthy. A skilled workman of the time would be lucky to earn a shilling (5p) a day. Sometimes letters would also come to Dr Cullen from the patient’s doctor, or more than one doctor and sometimes from concerned relatives as well. The network of communications set up seems almost more like our internet-based times than the pattern of surgery visits and home calls familiar in the 19th and 20th century. Such was William Cullen’s increasing fame letters would sometimes go back and forth across the world, reflecting the movement of people from Scotland to such places as the New World and India.


Much of this fascinating correspondence has been preserved and is now in the Sibbald Library of the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh. After 1780 Professor Cullen was able to make copies of his own letters. This he did using a very new technology. His friend and colleague James Watt invented a machine that used chemically impregnated paper to run off single copies of documents, and William Cullen was among the first to make use of this machine. An example of one of James Watt’s copiers can be seen by request in the Library of the University named in his honour, the Heriot Watt. It remained an invaluable bit of equipment for busy professionals for many years to come.


Very recently letters to and from James Boswell and William Cullen have been found by a researcher in the Sibbald Library. When he brought his friend and mentor Dr Samuel Johnson to Scotland Boswell took the opportunity of consulting three of the most eminent physicians of the time about Dr Johnson’s multiple health problems. The doctors he wrote to were Drs Cullen, Munro (the second of that name) and Hope.


Like William Cullen, John Hope was an active and successful teacher and practitioner of Medicine. But Hope’s main interest was the newly emerging science of Botany. He was responsible for setting up a fine new Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, out in what was then the countryside on Leith Walk. This garden flourished for 60 years and is the predecessor of the present Royal Botanic Garden at Inverleith. And John Hope is finally receiving better public recognition through the naming of the beautiful new interpretation and visitor centre at the Botanics - ‘the John Hope Gateway’.


The achievements of the physicians of the 18th century have been overshadowed by the more dramatic advances in the understanding and practice of medicine of the 19th century. Although the 17th century saw some major developments in our understanding of anatomy and physiology, it was only in the 19th century that doctors got to grips with cell biology and disease processes.


The be-wigged physicians of the 17th and 18th centuries still clung to the ideas of antiquity about the importance of balancing the body’s ‘humours.’ This was the reason for their obsession with bowel movements and their reliance on bleeding the patient for many different kinds of illness. The film ‘the Madness of King George’ gives a grisly but accurate impression of these methods at work. 


But William Cullen encouraged his students to observe their patients’ symptoms very closely, and to pay close attention to their own experience of which treatments worked and which did not. His teaching centred on theories about the nervous system which were later found to be inadequate (he invented the word neurotic). But his attention to the actual patient was part of the emergence of what we would now recognise as evidence-based medicine. And his pupils, whether they became ship’s doctors or country-based physicians, remembered the teaching and the man himself with gratitude and great fondness. He was also very highly thought of by his private patients with whom he dealt very carefully, often conservatively, because they were at a distance. His advice to them rang the changes on themes that sound very modern: do not eat too much, drink with moderation and take plenty of exercise.


William Cullen’s retreat at Kirknewton enabled this very busy, successful professional man to lead a healthier life himself in his later years.

Jane Corrie is a Garden Guide and Research Associate at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. She is currently involved in a project to re-construct the gardener’s house from John Hope’s 18th Century Botanic Garden in the present Royal Botanic Garden. See www.botaniccottage.org.

With thanks to local resident Charles Young.

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