Napiers: A Short History

Duncan Napier was an eminent Victorian herbalist and botanist. Born in Edinburgh, he was orphaned at an early age and brought up by the local innkeeper. A baker to trade, he developed a chronic cough from exposure to the flour dust and decided to take matters into his own hands in his search for a remedy. After coming across a book on herbal medicine at a local market stall on Nicolson St, he experimented with the herbal recipes it contained and made a Lobelia Cough Syrup. He vomited each time he took the mixture, but persistent as he was, and as his wife pointed out, after a few months he was cured. Lobelia is an emetic, and he had got the dose wrong, but the herbs had worked.

Duncan started to try his hand at making other herbal medicines, trying them out on his friends and family, collecting herbs and plants from the surrounds of Edinburgh and the Borders. He became a member of the Edinburgh Botanical Society and, encouraged by his contemporaries, opened his first herbal shop on Bristo Place, Edinburgh on the 25th of May 1860.

The first shop was not the present premises of Napiers. After 14 years of growing the practice and a growing demand for herbs, it was necessary to find a much bigger space, and in 1874 Duncan moved along the street to the current corner site at 18 Bristo Place.

That shop and clinic at Bristo Place remains open to this day and is now Scotland's oldest remaining herbal house. In the course of time, his sons went into the business with him, and it became D. Napier and Sons.

The National Institute of Medical Herbalists, of which Duncan Napier was a founder member, was set up in the middle of the 19th century. This is still the oldest professional organisation for herbal practitioners in the UK, with members of NIMH being recognised worldwide.

When Duncan Napier died at 91, the shop was taken over by his son and the business remained in the family for many years, passing down through the generations. The last family member to carry on the practice was John Napier, but when John died in the late 1970s the business virtually came to a stand still. Duncan Napier’s wonderful enterprise, the practice of herbal medicine in the community and the manufacture of his unique formula looked like it was at an end.

The business was then rescued by Jan de Vries, who managed to stop the haemorrhage of antiques and formula. Jan held the business stable for some years and eventually in 1988 passed the clinic side of it over to me. I was newly qualified, ambitious and passionate about plants, medicine and community.



Interested in learning more?

I really recommend a read of the following 2 books - they give an insight into life of Duncan and his Herbal Practice, his rise from orphan and drunk to philanthropic and renowned herbalist, as well as life in Edinburgh during the late 1800s, and a brief touch on the principles of herbal healing. 

This first one was written by my father, Tom Atkinson, (*who worked in Napiers alongside my mother as clinic receptionist? *) 

This one is written by a dear family friend Eric Melvin, who's wife is the grand-daughter and last remaining Napier?*)