Skip to main content
 

CLERK

Morag Martin

The Royal Scots Club

29 Abercromby Pl.

Edinburgh EH3 6QE

Email:- qsge@royalscotsclub.com

Tel:- 0131 556 4270

 

 

 

 

History of the Gardens

 

Early days 

James Craig’s 1766-7 plans for the original New Town included parkland to the north of Queen Street.  Much of this was used for the ‘second New Town’ comprising Abercromby Place, Heriot Row and further streets northward, built on land feued from Heriot’s Hospital.

There was a general acceptance that the area immediately north of Queen Street should be kept free of building development, though this policy was only formalised once developments had begun.  Until the late 18th century, the land had been used by the market gardeners and dairymen of Broughton Village, giving it a fertility that enabled creation of the Gardens without large-scale importations of soil.

Garden characters  

The personalities involved in the early Gardens are far better recorded than the various owners’ horticultural work.  One was Robert Ord (1700-1778) Chief Baron of the Scottish Exchequer from 1755 to 1775.  He employed the renowned Scottish architect Robert Adam to design 8 Queen Street, in which — to quote James Boswell — he lived ‘magnificently’.  Ord was interested in horticulture, and he purchased 2.5 acres directly across Queen Street from his home.  Due to his desire for household privacy, he constructed a tunnel to it beneath Queen Street; this is now blocked up, though you can still find its northern entrance in the shrubbery.

Another early character on the scene, in the early 1780s, was the Rt Hon. David Steuart, Lord Provost of Edinburgh, who lived at 5 Queen Street.  He was a typical speculative developer, showing drive and enterprise while causing grave concern to conservationists.  In 1781 he bought a plot adjacent to Ord’s, then in 1786 bought Ord’s garden too.  Steuart spent about £500 on laying out his grounds with a serpentine pool and a building (probably a summer-house), and a house for a gardener.  By 1788, he had let it to a nurseryman who held musical concerts and sold ‘pick your own’ fruit.  Eventually however, he found himself in financial difficulties.  He requested permission from the Heriot trustees to build houses on his land – which they refused – so he then sold it, some of it then sold on again to the residents of Duke Street (upper Dublin Street today) to enlarge their own long west-facing private gardens.  And, to the dismay of most local residents, part of his remaining land became the Queen Street Coal Yard, and a suggestion was made of constructing a road through the Gardens.

The move to create East Queen Street Gardens

It was hardly surprising, therefore, that by 1812 the residents of Queen Street and the newly-constructed Abercromby Place started to work together towards a joint purchase of land under a share system, then to establish the Gardens formally by Act of Parliament.  They purchased the land together, creating a ‘pleasure ground’, laid out by 1814 with the advice of the nurseryman and landscape gardener John Hay (1758-1836), who created numerous formal flower beds and paths.  There were still fruit trees growing against the northern wall, and the greenhouses appear to have continued in operation for some time.  

The basic design can be seen in Robert Kirkwood’s 1817 plan of  Edinburgh, showing the gardener’s house and Steuart’s pavilion, and Hay’s serpentine paths radiating from a central point.  But it is remarkably difficult to trace exact layouts before the 1850s, as even the most exact map-makers tended to recycle old garden information. Sometimes they just put in anything that looked garden-ish, as they hadn’t recorded the land between roads. Engraved illustrations in city guide books tend to be equally vague.  A rare early pictorial view is to be found in a guide book by William Whyte, the New Picture of Edinburgh (1817).  This shows a view along Queen Street, with trees in the East Gardens right up to the street [note 1].   

The Gardens established and evolving

The Act of Parliament, dated 15th May 1822, established and formalised the legal status of all three Queen Street Gardens:

An Act for regulating, maintaining, and improving the Premises in the City of Edinburgh, termed Queen Street Gardens, and for effecting certain other Improvements in the Vicinity thereof, and connected therewith.

While the residents of Queen Street were the first to use the Gardens, those in the newer Abercromby Place soon became just as interested in their development.  The curved street façade of Abercromby Place resulted from the need to avoid building on the Gardens, now firmly protected from any such development.  The curved form attracted great attention, and this helped to make the Gardens better known.  Local artist Alexander Nasmyth (1758-1840), an engineer and architect as well as a painter, lived in nearby York Place; around 1825 he painted a fanciful view of the Street from its east end, showing colonnaded buildings, and exotic domed pavilions on each side of the top of Nelson Street [note 2].      

The first Ordnance Survey plan (1849-53) provided very detailed information, the cartographers including each seat, rain gauge and pump – though hard evidence suggests that some of these features were only proposals and were never actually put in place.  The map shows how crowded together the trees had become, and indeed advice was taken in 1859 from James McNab, Curator of the Royal Botanic Garden, for selecting and thinning trees and for future development in general.

By 1868, much of the land had been cleared and re-planted, the gardener’s house removed, new railings built, and a shelter and storeroom with a verandah constructed.  Terracing was created along Queen Street, both as a buffer against the street traffic and a viewpoint from which to enjoy the Gardens and the landscape to the north.  The serpentine pool in the north of the Gardens had by this time been filled in, though it would appear that its lining was never removed – this area still gets very boggy after rain!

Throughout the 19th and much of the 20th century, flower-beds and paths were well maintained, with neat kerbs and well-constructed drainage channels. There was a bandstand in the north-west corner — a venue for providing regular concerts — a tennis court and a croquet lawn, and also children’s allotments.

Changing priorities since 1940

During the Second World War the Gardens were used for war-related activities, with allotments created for the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign.  The Nissen hut was constructed next to the tennis court; this was purchased for £5 after the war.  By 2009 it was in a sorry state, and a decision was taken to restore it, with the addition of a plaque detailing its history being placed on its façade.

In the post-war world, the Gardens could not support such labour-intensive maintenance.  There was little re-planting of flower-beds or upkeep of paths, though some of the original edging and drainage channels still survive today.  The tennis court disappeared, and the verandah shelter and storeroom went in the 1990s.

New threats relating to traffic raised their heads in the twentieth century.  In 1938 came the suggestion of using the Gardens for a bus station and car park (prompting angry letters to The Scotsman).  Then, in the 1970s, there was a proposal to raise the level of the Gardens to accommodate an underground car park. 

An unexpected but more welcome newcomer appeared in 1984, in the shape of a domed classical tempietto dubbed the Temple of Pluto, in reality a gas pressure-regulator (no other site was suitable for this essential structure in the city centre).  Historic Scotland insisted that any utilitarian structure must be in keeping with its surroundings, and provided the design.  It sits picturesquely on a grassy knoll surrounded by trees, creating a scenic backdrop for couples who cross the road from The Royal Scots Club for their wedding photographs.

Biodiversity

The increasing informality of the Gardens has become a great ecological benefit to the City, a haven for wildlife despite being surrounded by busy streets.  In 2009 the Biodiversity Officer of the City of Edinburgh Council undertook an Urban Biodiversity Assessment.  This highlighted a wealth of wildlife, giving the Gardens a type of value little regarded in previous centuries.  Over the past few years, bird-feeders have assisted in maintaining the bird population in winter, and a deliberate policy of leaving some areas ‘wild’ encourages further biodiversity.

Tree maintenance and planting is undertaken with assistance from specialist arboriculturists.  Some mature trees have been lost to Dutch Elm disease, and Ash Dieback is likely to take more.  Many now overhang adjacent streets, necessitating major pruning.  New planting takes all these considerations into account, and favours native rather than exotic specimens – though new trees must now be able to withstand climate change.    

Keyholders

Regulations were in place from the early years of the Gardens.  Well into the 20th century, these included instructions governing the behaviour of proprietors’ servants or nannies accompanying their charges in the Gardens.  But bad behaviour changes with the times: early Commissioners would not have had to deal with barbecues that burn grass and tree stumps, dogs out of control, or ‘wild’ camping.  Vandalism has alas been a problem since the start.  In the past few decades there have been dog levies for an increased canine population (with dog waste bins provided).  New seats have been created, and paths re-laid to create accessibility without losing the country-park look.

Formal recognition

Historic Environment Scotland (HES) has classified the collective values of the New Town Gardens as ‘outstanding’ works of art, and also ‘outstanding’ in their historical, architectural, and scenic value.  In terms of Nature Conservation, the New Town Gardens ‘collectively have high value in relation to their urban setting.’  They are also ‘high’ in Archaeological value, though only rated of ‘some’ value in Horticultural, Arboricultural and Silvicultural terms.  The railings and gates are all listed structures (category B).

The Gardens are also listed in HES’s Inventory of Gardens and Designed Landscapes in Scotland, and in Parks and Gardens UK. And the Gardens form part of the Edinburgh World Heritage Site.

Notes

1 & 2 these images can be viewed in the author’s article, ‘Changing Values…’, linked to below.

Further Reading

For a full history of Queen Street Gardens East, with reference to other gardens in the New Town, see Patricia R. Andrew, ‘Changing Values in a City Garden: Queen Street Gardens East’, The Pleasaunce (the journal of Scotland’s Garden and Landscape Heritage), no 6, February 2018, pp 8-13.  

For further information about the development of gardens in Edinburgh’s New Town, see Connie Byrom, The Edinburgh New Town Gardens: ‘Blessings as well as Beauties’ (Edinburgh, 2005).

For the history of New Town developments, see John Gifford, Colin McWilliam & David Walker, The Buildings of Scotland: Edinburgh, revised reprint (Harmondsworth, 1991).

The Edinburgh maps mentioned here, along with many others, are viewable on the website of the National Library of Scotland, https://maps.nls.uk

Text and photographs ©Patricia R. Andrew 2021

 
 
 

The Gardens Gallery

 
 

WE WOULD LOVE TO

KEEP IN TOUCH

Keep up to date with our news, events, vacancies and projects by signing up to our newsletter below.