Family must pay £2k to keep Botanics memorial

Robert Aitken with the bench marked in memory of his grandparents, James and Grace Aitken. Picture: Jon Savage
Robert Aitken with the bench marked in memory of his grandparents, James and Grace Aitken. Picture: Jon Savage
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A family has spoken of its “anger and disappointment” after being told to pay £2000 to avoid having a memorial to its grandparents removed from the Botanic Garden.

The bench, which was purchased over three decades ago for £300, pays tribute to James and Grace Aitken, a couple who married in 1946 and lived near the gardens all their lives. Following James’ death in 1961 and Grace’s passing in 1978 the couple’s three sons, James, Ronnie and Andrew, decided to leave a lasting memorial to their parents in one of the places they loved the most.

However, the Aitkens’ grandchildren have now been informed that they must pay the Botanics £2000 by May if they wish the bench to remain – for another ten years, at least.

Robert Aitken, 48, of Blackhall, whose father, James, died in April last year, said: “We were very angry and disappointed when we discovered we would have to pay this fee, not least because it doesn’t even seem like most of the benches need replacing. And even if they did, £2000 seems awfully excessive. Plus, if we were to pay it, that only guarantees the bench would be kept for another ten years. Apparently after that we will be told to pay again.

“The bench has been a real focal point for our family. Many of us still live in the area and someone visits the gardens and the bench at least once a month. It’s horrible to think that soon it might not be there anymore. We’re really hoping we can reach some kind of compromise.”

Robert’s cousin, Janice Johnson, 64, who lives in Broughton, said: “I remember when my father, Ronnie, bought this bench along with his brothers, and the understanding was that this arrangement would exist in perpetuity.

“I have contacted the Botanics to express my displeasure and shock over this. They also claimed that they have to make room for new benches, but it’s a big park and I don’t think it would be that hard to fit in a few more.

“They did offer to return the plaque to us to have it placed elsewhere but we want it in the Botanics for a reason. It’s not that we’re not willing to pay anything if it’s really necessary, but £2000 is extortionate.”

James Salomons, development officer at the Botanics, defended the cost, saying it was a registered charity and the prices had been set after careful research, and pointed to Kew Gardens’ £5000 ten-year bench adoption scheme and Edinburgh City Council’s £3000 20-year adoption scheme.

“This particular bench adoption originates from the 1970s,” he said. “The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh as an organisation has undergone many changes since then. Whilst it is unfortunate that we do not have the paperwork relating to adoptions during this period, this was not intentional and we apologise sincerely for the problem it has caused.

“Bench adoption does have to be a time-limited scheme – as was the previous scheme to this one – otherwise it would not be possible for our charity to fund the maintenance and replacement of all old benches in the garden and it would be unsustainable as a fundraising or commemorative programme.”

The family has now contacted local MSP Malcolm Chisholm, who has written to Botanics bosses.

The Labour MSP for Edinburgh North and Leith said: “It was the understanding of the family and indeed myself that these benches are purchased in perpetuity. I am also not convinced that all the benches need to be replaced and even if they did, £2000 is a ridiculous amount of money to ask for to transfer a plaque from one bench to another. I’d rather people were not charged anything, but if a fee is required it should be much less.”