House of the Binns

‘Granny’ the aged sea anemone

November, 1887 saw the demise of Granny, an aged sea anemone who had outlived the man who discovered her by over thirty years.

Allegedly named due to its prodigious powers of procreation – it could produce over 250 offspring in one night on a diet of the odd mussel – Granny’s death was marked in several leading papers of the day, including the Scotsman, the Times, and the London Daily News. Even the New York Times picked up on the story:

Nov 2nd, 1887: “A famous object of curiosity to the sight-seers who visit the Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh has just passed away in the person – if the term is admissible – of the old sea anemone popularly known by the affectionate nickname of “Granny.” This venerable specimen of the of the curious class of zoophytes which belong to the very borderland that separates the animal from the vegetable world was certainly 60 years old, and it may be that it was considerably older. It was found in 1828 by Sir John Dalyell, the well-known antiquary, among the rocks not very far from the promontory known as St. Abb’s Head, upon the coast of Berwick….It appeared to be in excellent health up to a few weeks ago, when it was attacked with the parasitic disease which finally proved fatal….”

Granny’s collector was Sir John Graham Dalyell, a distinguished advocate, antiquarian and naturalist. Born at the House of the Binns, Linlithgow, in 1775, he was lamed for life due to a fall as a baby. Dalyell initially trained for the bar, attending classes at the University of St Andrews and later Edinburgh, where he is said to have lectured Charles Darwin. Practising as a consulting advocate due to his delicate health, Dalyell developed his antiquarianism and naturalist interests through long periods studying the materials held by the Advocates’ Library, Edinburgh. He went on to publish widely on historical subjects, and became particularly interested in natural history, publishing the Rare and Remarkable Animals of Scotland, with Practical Observations on their Nature in 1847.

sea urchin

Sea anemone illustration from Rare and Remarkable Animals of Scotland

Dalyell’s time at Edinburgh University coincided with Walter Scott’s, and during the 1790s it is likely that the two young advocates would have discussed various antiquarian issues. Scott drew upon Dalyell’s Fragments of Scottish History (1798) whilst compiling the ballad collection Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border which first appeared in 1802 and cites Dalyell as a provider of historical sources. There is little evidence to suggest an actual friendship, however, and the relationship was certainly somewhat soured in later life when Scott decided to cast Dalyell’s ancestor, 17th century general Tam Dalyell, as the villain in his novel Redgauntlet. The family of the Binns were most unamused and made their displeasure clear. For his part, Scott appears to have been an early admirer of Dalyell’s, but was irritated by what he considered to be excessive pedantry on Dalyell’s part. He wrote to Lady Anne Barnard in 1823, the year before Redgauntlet’s publication:

“I think Dalzell’s criticism rather hypercritical, but very characteristic ; were I to reply to it in the manner of Shakespeare’s commentators, trumping each other’s nonsense, I would, in logical phrase, grant his premises and deny his conclusion.” (WS Letters, 14th July 1823.)

On Dalyell’s death in 1851, ‘Granny’ was looked after by a rota of naturalists at the Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh. The London Daily News noted in their ‘obituary’ that more than a thousand well-known tourists and scientist had noted their visits to Granny in an illustrious visitor’s book at the Botanic Gardens.


‘An Aged Sea Anenome’:

Dalyell, Sir John Graham. Oxford DNB entry.

Dalyell, Sir John Graham. Rare and Remarkable Animals of Scotlandwith Practical Observations on their Nature. London: Van Voorst, 1848.

Tam Dalyell (MP) has recorded an interesting anecdote on his ancestor John Dalyell and Walter Scott, on  The Edinburgh Sir Walter Scott Club’s website, available online at