Botanics lecture theatre roof uncovered by workmen

Restoration works are in full swing. Picture: Jane Barlow
Restoration works are in full swing. Picture: Jane Barlow
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A VICTORIAN engineered ceiling covered up during a brutal revamp has been unearthed by workmen at a famous city lecture theatre.

Covered up in the 1960s, the ornate ceiling has been uncovered at the Botanic Garden’s Lecture Theatre – and it looks as impressive now as when it was first built 120 years ago.

The Botanic Garden's lecture theatre trained botanists and doctors from the 1880s until the 1950s

The Botanic Garden's lecture theatre trained botanists and doctors from the 1880s until the 1950s

The theatre, which has seen several generations of botanists and doctors pass through its doors, was first constructed in the 1880s under the direction and watchful eye of then Regius Keeper, Alexander Dickson.

Graham Cochrane, head of estate management at the Botanics, said it was “no secret” the beautiful Victorian ceiling was up there as “you could actually see it through gaps in the ceiling that was fitted in the 1960s”.

He’s delighted it is back on show. He said: “It’s only now that we can view it in its full glory – work like this really does stand the test of time. We will be doing some work to reinforce the structure, but the design will be as it was when first constructed.”

The lecture theatre was originally designed and built by William Beattie and Sons, an Edinburgh business founded in the 1820s that was also responsible for the Fowke’s Museum of Science and Art and Bryce’s Fettes College.

The refurbishment is part of a wider work project made possible by a £1.5 million Scottish Government grant.

It is paying for a number of smaller projects, including maintenance of the Garden’s Glasshouses, which were damaged by storms which swept the country in January 2011.

Professor Stephen Blackmore, the current Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Regius Keeper, said: “The £1.5m has allowed us to start some essential enabling work. However, these are all important first steps in our exciting plans for Edinburgh. The masterplan will be one of the most significant developments in our long history, and its development will allow us to secure RBGE as a globally recognised scientific, public, education and corporate destination for generations to come.”

The masterplan, as it is referred to, is a £40m strategy to redevelop the north-east quarter of the garden.

The project includes the creation of the Scottish School of Botany and Horticulture, which would deliver a wide-range of programmes for learners of all ages, from primary school to post-grads, and a refurbishment of the iconic Glasshouses, which were built over the 1960s-70s and only expected to last 20 years.

While funding is yet to be found for these projects, the lecture theatre refurbishment is well underway and expected to be completed by June.

Jamie Bateman, of architects Smith Scott Mullan Associates, which is in charge of the refurbishment, said: “It is always a pleasure to bring an old building back to life, especially when it has been treated unsympathetically in the past.

“Many modern lecture theatres are like dark boxes, which would be a missed opportunity in a place like the Botanics – here you will get a sense of what the weather is doing outside even when the blinds are lowered. The new timber ceiling will show off the original metal trusses to good effect, but it also provides acoustic absorption to ensure speech can be heard clearly.

“Anyone who remembers the hard old seats will be pleased to hear that the new ones are comfortably upholstered and have more leg room.

“Unusually, this lecture theatre will be entirely naturally ventilated, as it was when it was built. This will use less energy than mechanical ventilation, which requires electric fans to blow the air in and out. We are adding thermal insulation in the roof, walls and under the floor, mixing modern insulation levels with sound Victorian principles of natural ventilation.”

Doctors were trained in the theatre up until the 1950s as it was in those days compulsory for medical students to study botany.

Garden secures ocean drive

Botanists from the Garden have received a grant for nearly £250,000 to help unravel the secrets of an archipelago known as “the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean”.

Scientists are studying Socotra, an archipelago of four small islands in the Indian Ocean, which they believe hold important clues to the ecology not only of the surrounding geographic region, but as far as the Mediterranean basin.

They face a race against time, however, as the once traditional land is now feeling the impact of 21st century development.

The RBGE has secured £237,426 from the London-based Leverhulme Trust, which will boost its bid to protect the unique environment said to be as valuable to science as Darwin’s Galapagos islands.

Tony Miller, director of RBGE’s Centre for Middle Eastern Plants, said: “Socotra is an extremely important area both, botanically and ecologically.”