James Trail was born on Birsay, Orkney. Educated in Aberdeen, he followed the classical curriculum, completing an arts degree in 1870. Trail was then permitted to study medicine, which allowed him to pursue his lifelong interest in natural history.  During this time he was appointed as botanist on the Amazon Steam Navigation Company’s explorations of Brazil, spending two years in the Amazon. Trail went on to complete his study of medicine graduating in 1876.

Trail was appointed Regius Professor of Botany at Aberdeen University In 1877, and established the University Herbarium with his own plant collections and those bequeathed to him by his friend, George Nicolson, Curator at Kew (1886 -1901). The two men were also responsible for the planning and initial development of the Cruickshank Botanic Gardens at the University. Professor Trail died on 18th September 1919. A commemorative plaque to the contribution made by Trail to the University hangs within the Cruickshank Building.


Briza Media, Linn (Quaking grass).

Trail bequeathed an extensive reference collection of plants, bryophytes, fungus and algae to the Herbarium. Of particular significance is his collection of Scottish specimens, which relate to early investigations into the Scottish flora.


MS 668. Aberdeen flora notebook, c 1900

Trail also bestowed a large number of his papers to the University which are held at SLA. These include publications on the Palms of Brazil in the Journal of Botany, the “Flora of the city parish of Aberdeen” published in the Trail Memorial volume and transcripts and attendance records for his lectures.

The written material relating to his time in the Amazon offers an insight into Trail's experiences during the trip, ranging from the skin diseases he suffered to the list of botanical specimens sent back to Kew.

As a keen family historian, Trail undertook much research into the genealogy of the Trail family and those with links to it. From this research he produced a number of texts which are held within SLA, including the J. W. H. Trail Genealogical collections and the Descent of the Trails of Blebo.


For more information on the University museum and archival collections please search the online catalogue