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Edinburgh World Heritage Trust Journal no 4, May 2012: Hidden Gardens of the Royal Mile

by Jean Bareham    May 2012

Today has been one of those clear, bright, cold days which are a feature of an east coast January, and I have just returned from a bracing couple of hours' gardening off the Royal Mile, with half a dozen other volunteers. Although most people don't associate the Royal Mile with gardens, the Old Town is in fact greening up, and each garden has a story to tell.

Today's effort was in a secluded courtyard on the south side of Acheson House, built in 1633. In the 17th century, while the neighbouring burgh of Edinburgh was full to the gunnels, the wealthy owners of Canongate townhouses such as Acheson House enjoyed large, walled, formal gardens, laid out with parterres and lavish orchards. Now owned by Edinburgh Council, Acheson House is taking on new life as the offices of Edinburgh World Heritage (EWH), who are cultivating the courtyard along with a local community group, the Patrick Geddes Gardening Club. The courtyard will include plants likely to have been grown in the original 17th century garden, yet laid out for the 21st century as a peaceful space for community gardening, socialising and relaxing, just a few yards from the Canongate.

'Children's gardens in the dark places of the Old Town'

By the early years of the 20th century, the Old Town had become one of Europe's worst slums. Two pioneering movements created gardens to counter what Patrick Geddes - urban planner, biologist, environmentalist - called 'nature starvation'.

in 1903, the first nursery school in Scotland, the Edinburgh Free Kindergarten, opened in Galloway's Entry in Canongate, moving in 1906 to Reid's Court (now restored as Canongate Kirk's handsome manse). Over the next three decades, the Free Kindergarten Movement created seven 'child garden nurseries' in the Old Town. A garden where children tended plants, cared for class pets, and followed much of their daily routine outdoors, was a central part of the Free Kindergartens' philosophy.

Over 1909 -10, Geddes's colleagues surveyed the whole of the Old Town, mapping 75 potential garden sites, mainly in gap sites left by demolition. About ten of these spaces were made into gardens for local children, now called 'the Geddes gardens'.

Gardens as community space

We still need such green spaces in the city. Sited very near to two Geddes gardens, Johnston Terrace Wildlife Garden is managed by the Scottish Wildlife Trust. It's planted to form a variety of habitats including a pond, a hedge of native trees, a wildflower meadow, log piles, and a compost heap. It attracts frogs, bees, butterflies, hundreds of insects, the odd grey squirrel, an urban fox, and many birds.

The garden is enjoyed by all sorts of groups, including Cowgate Under Fives Centre who use the garden for regular outdoor play. Staff member Jane Garven says: 'Such a small place of nature becomes like the world. Everything there becomes really precious. I do think that the children learn a deep respect of the natural world.'

The current greening of the Old Town began in the 1970s with the wonderful Dunbar's Close Garden, a tranquil spot developed by the Mushroom Trust and then gifted to the City. This was followed by several community gardens. One of the most interesting developments over the past few years has been the greening of public space, begun by residents wishing to bring colour and greenery to courtyards and closes, then nurtured by Edinburgh Council (Chessels Court, Campbells Close) and EWH (Coinyie House Close).

Gardens remind us that, among the street theatre and tartan shops, people actually live and work in the Old Town. Catriona Grant, Chair of the Patrick Geddes Gardening Club, believes that gardens will show the Old Town in a new light: 'We're seen as a night-time economy, a tourist destination, not a community. I'd like to see a network of gardens, windowboxes, roof gardens, courtyards and backgreens. I'd like the gardens to be our community halls, where we chat to our neighbours, where visitors can feel safe and where they can find out that the Old Town is more than just the Castle!'

Catriona quotes Patrick Geddes's most famous phrase: 'We really do "Think global, act local". The Old Town is a World Heritage site, valued by people all over Scotland, and all over the world. It doesn't belong to us even though we live in it. We are custodians.'


Jean Bareham is the owner of Greenyonder Tours which runs regular 'hidden garden' walking tours in Edinburgh, and author of a guide book 'Hidden Gardens of the Royal Mile'.

Membership of the Patrick Geddes Gardening Club is open to anyone interested in gardening in the Old Town.


page created:25 May 2012