BESIDE a small pond at the heart of what is now a forbidden garden sat one of Scotland’s most famous authors, gazing at the tiny island at its centre and dreaming of a story that would enthral readers for years.
Hard today to imagine the connection between a private garden in Queen Street, Robert Louis Stevenson and Treasure Island – particularly as for most of us the opportunity to share the view he enjoyed all those years ago is off limits.
For to sit beside the picturesque pond in the heart of Queen Street Gardens usually means taking up residence in one of the most desirable parts of town, then asking politely to be among those allowed a key to unlock its gates and, once all that’s done, there’s a three-figure financial contribution to find to help pay for the area’s upkeep.
Much better, perhaps, to wait until the end of the month, when the forbidden garden – where Stevenson played as a child – will open its locked gates and allow visitors inside for free.
For just a few hours at the end of this month, the gates that enclose the central swathe of Queen Street Gardens – at Heriot Row – will swing open, the first time in recent years that the landscaped private garden has opened to the public as part of Doors Open Day weekend.
Then visitors, who normally can only gaze wistfully upon the gardens from outside looking in, will have three hours to wander around its manicured greenery, enjoying the view of the pretty pond which is said to have inspired one of Scotland’s greatest authors.
The private park will open on Saturday, September 28, followed the next day by its neighbour Queen Street Gardens East, at Abercromby Place. Together they are among dozens of fascinating venues shrugging off their normally deeply private façades to reveal their inner secrets for the popular two-day event.
According to Marion Williams, director of the Cockburn Association which organises the annual event, the gardens are expected to among the most popular destinations for visitors.
“We are very pleased to be able to include it,” she says. “It’s one of the places that we get a lot of calls about from people asking how they can get inside.
“But it can take two or three years of planning to get everyone involved to agree to take part in the event – there are committees to go through and people need to give their approval.
“So it’s nice that we can include the central part of Queen Street Gardens this time around.”
The locked gardens, she adds, have a fascinating history – originally established in 1822 by an act of parliament which, ironically, decreed the gardens should be communal open space to be enjoyed by everyone.
“The proposal at the time was to safeguard open space along Queen Street,” she explains. “Landscape painter Andrew Wilson designed the gardens in 1823 and there are some curious features, such as a Doric pavilion within the central gardens which is actually a tool shed.
“The pond is said to have inspired Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson lived in Heriot Row.
“While in Queen Street Gardens East, visitors will see a Temple of Pluto which was actually designed to hide a gas station in 1984.”
Some 130 venues are taking part in this year’s Doors Open Day, the largest number in its 23-year history. And with this year’s theme of Natural Edinburgh, many venues have been chosen to reflect their green credentials – from the sprawling New Town private parks to humble allotments, even an “eco house” in Currie, designed to be low energy with a super-insulated air-tight structure and heat recovery system that circulates heat generated by cooking and showering.
And as well as the chance to go behind the scenes at public and private buildings, there will be a series of guided walks and talks focusing on the great outdoors. They include a chance to learn how the human impact has shaped Edinburgh’s landscape, a fascinating exploration of the River Almond, and what promises to be an intriguing glimpse into the Old Town of years gone by when children’s gardens were created in the grim slums.
Bringing the theme up to date is a modern allotment hut, built recently for the India Place Allotment Association and created to reflect the New Town environment. The hut is a quirky single-storey wedge-shaped timber building, created to complement its World Heritage Site location.
Many of the properties which will open for business are rooted in the past – such as a Victorian schoolroom in the grounds of Leith Walk Primary School, packed with objects from bygone days; the Fire Service Museum at Lauriston Place, and the Old Observatory House at Calton Hill, designed by James Craig in 1776.
Meanwhile, recent work to clear pathways and choking weeds from monuments at the Victorian garden cemetery at Warriston means it, too, has been included in the programme which also includes favourites such as the Royal Observatory, the Sheriff Court, theatres and churches.
Perhaps most intriguing are the ordinary family homes and their owners who are keen to throw open private rooms for public inspection.
“We do warn them that it can get very busy on the day,” says Marion. “One house in Portobello that opened two years ago had queues of people all the way down the street. We bring volunteers along to help, but quite often the owners find they are so busy on the day there’s not even time for a quick trip to the loo.
“One interesting and slightly different property this year is at Circus Lane Mews, a small intricate maisonette which is linked to previously inaccessible vaults beneath,” adds Marion.
The award-winning property features sections of glass floor and walls, with deep cuts into the vaults which allow light to stream into the subterranean rooms.
And with the possibility of several thousands visitors pouring into your home over the weekend, the idea of opening it for inspection may seem daunting, but, according to Marion, many homeowners are proud to show off.
“Sometimes these are properties that have won awards and the owners feel very keen to share that with people. One house in Portobello that’s opening for the first time this year is the Ramp House, which is an architect’s own home and has been designed with a wheelchair access that is quite unique.”
Indeed, the house – featuring stone shingle and copper cladding – is built on a tight urban site and based around an unfolding 28-metre long ramp that is described in the Doors Open Day brochure as “a design that is both open plain and complex, with spaces connecting while still feeling separate and able to be used for different purposes”.
Other fascinating venues included in the programme are two traditional 19th century flats in Montgomery Street, transformed into unusual duplex apartments to show how two similar spaces can be completely transformed into different living spaces.
According to Marion, there’s never a shortage of properties that could be included – and the organisation is rarely disappointed when it approaches venues it particularly wants to include in its programme.
“When Doors Open Day started 23 years ago, we had a tiny wee pamphlet with a few places in it,” she recalls. “Now it’s gone quite crazy and so many people want to be in it that we’ve had to introduce a theme each year so we don’t disappoint too many people.
“There have only ever been a couple of places we’ve wanted to include but couldn’t – such as Governor’s House, which turned out not to have any flagstones on the floor which meant it wouldn’t be safe for people to visit.
“And New St Andrew’s House, which hasn’t been used for so long that it, too, might not be safe.”
Still, with 127 properties to visit – including the normally locked gardens in Queen Street, the only difficulty might be getting round as many as possible in a single weekend.
“We think there’s a quite delightful mix of places to visit this year,” adds Marion.
• Doors Open Day in Edinburgh is on the weekend of September 28 and 29. For details, go to www.cockburnassociation.org.uk
PEEK PERFORMANCE FOR EARLY BIRDS
If you can’t wait for a peek behind the scenes of some fascinating places, then head for West Lothian and Midlothian next weekend.
Doors Open Day in both areas is held over the weekend of September 14 and 15 .
Ten venues will open up to the public in Midlothian, including Dalkeith fire station, the town’s masonic lodge, Dalkeith House and Dalkeith Corn Exchange.
For the first time visitors can enjoy a guided tour of historic Cousland village, with its population of just 300 and dating back to the 12th century. It has connections with Mary, Queen of Scots, witch hunts and the Bronze Age.
Linlithgow’s Civic Trust has organised West Lothian Doors Open Day over the same weekend, with ten locations involved, including for the first time 17th century Craigton House. The formidable B-listed property was owned by the Ewings of Craigton before becoming part of the Hopetoun Estate. In the 19th century, it had a bowling green and summer house. Today it is used as a base for clay-pigeon shooting.
Other properties include 18th century Blackburn House, built by George Moncrieff – a merchant who made his fortune in the West Indies. The house fell into disrepair in the 1970s, but is now restored.