Duncan Napier: Godfather of Scottish Herbalism

Ask anyone outside of Scotland about Napiers the Herbalists and they’ll probably answer you with a blank expression.

In the 21st Century, Homeopathic and Herbalist treatments are the source of much derision.

Despite these treatments coming under close scrutiny, the industry is still a thriving one, turning over an excess of $100 billion a year across the world.

Back in 1860, when Duncan Napier opened his first shop in Edinburgh, the use of herbal medicines was seen in a much different light. At the time, Victorians had a much greater respect for herbalists. Their advertisements pasted the walls and clung to the pages of magazines, newspapers and journals, giving them legitimacy by pure dint of being in print. The buying public were by no means stupid, they simply accepted the purported efficacy of these medicinal treatments with little persuasion.

As you can probably guess, there was a fair amount of charlatans operating at the time, all too happy to abuse the trust of the British public – luckily for the good people of Edinburgh, Duncan Napier wasn’t one of them.

Abandoned by his mother at an early age, Duncan was adopted by a publican who put him to work in his establishment at every opportunity. The young Napier (a surname he took from his adoptive father) was beaten by his step-mother regularly, however, this abuse did not go unnoticed by the patrons of the pub. A local farmer and regular at the pub befriended Duncan and persuaded his foster parents to allow him to stay with him for the summer periods, these months of respite from city life allowed him to develop a fascination with plant life.

By the time he reached age 14, his step-mother had passed away, freeing him from daily work in the pub and allowing him to pursue his childhood interest in plants.

His first job came as a gardener, but a year later he had found a new career as a baker and was soon to discover a new drink that would transform his life forever: water.

Up until the age of 16 Duncan had never drunk water. Like many Victorians he had consumed beer for the entirety of his life. Public drinking water back then was rife with disease and beer was guaranteed to be free of anything harmful, whilst still providing enough hydration to keep a hardworking baker going. Whilst in the midst of baking a batch of rolls, the young Napier was informed of the damaging effects of alcohol and within a year he had enrolled as a member of the British Temperance League and vowed to never again taste tobacco or alcohol.

With the aid of his new found mentor, Duncan enrolled in evening classes so he could learn how to write and was soon enlisted in a Scientific Botany class. A new found interest in healthy living and a chronic cough, likely caused by the flour dust that he had spent his working life surrounded by, led to him developing his first herbal remedy, a cough syrup using lobelia as an active ingredient. Within half a year he had cured his illness and formulated his first product for sale, a product that continues to be sold to this day.

Despite trading for well over 150 years, Napiers have not expanded beyond their two locations in Scotland – the Glasgow branch has been selling variants on Napier’s form of Herbal Remedies since 1874, making it the oldest surviving herbal shop in Scotland.

In recent years the company has suffered from financial issues. Napier went into administration in 2012 after a downturn in the retail sector led to a drop in sales. Thankfully, after some downsizing, the company that Duncan Napier began back in 1860 continues to develop, produce and sell herbal remedies, providing relief to thousands on a daily basis.

Herbal remedies may be derided by the scientific community today, but the work that Duncan Napier undertook in the 19th Century laid the groundwork for many of the medicines that exist today.

His gravestone can be found in Grange Cemetery in Edinburgh, obscured by an overgrown yew tree, an intrusion that I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.