Searching for secret gardens

Marilyn Brown who has written a book on forgotten gardens
Marilyn Brown who has written a book on forgotten gardens
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‘GARDENS,” says Marilyn Brown, “are fragile things.”

Of course, she isn’t only talking about the few weeks of neglect that can see years of green-fingered labour go to wrack and ruin amid a tumble of weeds and grass. Her perspective goes slightly further back than that.

“I remember coming to Edinburgh to work,” she continues. “I went to see Hopetoun House and, although they had changed, I could actually make out the pattern of the flower beds in the gardens as they would have been laid out centuries earlier – in the 1700s.”

The sudden glimpse of a hidden past was a spark for the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) archaeological investigator, who embarked on a three-decade tour of Edinburgh, the Lothians and Scotland, unearthing a horticultural history that stretches over 1500 years but has often been dismissed and ignored.

The fruit of Marilyn’s research, which involved taking a series of stunning aerial photographs and saw her accessing rare and newly available archive material, is Scotland’s Lost Gardens – the most authoritative history ever produced and a startling insight into a lost and hidden world.

“All you need to do is run a shallow plough across a garden and you churn up all the soil,” says Marilyn. “The layout of your garden is in the soil so as soon as that happens you no longer have the layout.

“Yet, as ephemeral as gardens are, there’s a degree of resilience there. I think my particular interest in historic gardens in Scotland comes from the aerial survey that I carried out for the 

“I was seeing traces of gardens where there were no longer gardens, or very different from the gardens that were on the surface.”

And the discovery, she argues, is key to our understanding not only of society but also of 

“Gardens were, as they are now, a place where people could find themselves. By delving into gardens and their history, we are coming closer to how people in the past saw themselves and the world around them.”

• Scotland’s Lost Gardens is published by RCAHMS and out now priced £30.

Holyrood House/Sundial

LAND at Holyrood has been used and enjoyed by Scottish monarchs for centuries.

The kings of Scotland used the abbey at Holyrood as an occasional royal lodging throughout the middle ages, with the abbey employed for major ceremonies and the adjacent park for hunting.

Detail of a formal garden at Holyroodhouse can be found in the map of Edinburgh and the Canongate produced by James Gordon of Rothiemay and printed in 1647.

Among the garden’s highlights was a costly and imposing sundial.

“That was a garden really built for Charles I and was very cutting-edge for its time,” says Marilyn. “It was following the latest fashion, as set by the French gardens of the period, which were very popular everywhere. Our earliest maps of the garden were produced in 1647, although it was probably developed earlier than that.”

According to Marilyn, much of the garden’s formality has since been lost.

“A lot was done to Holyroodhouse when Queen Victoria made it a royal residence again,” she says. “You can see a lot of grass and trees where previously there was a more formal design.”

Yester House East Lothian

THE transformation of what were elegant and elaborate grounds at Yester House in East Lothian is one of the most dramatic in the history of the Scottish garden.

The house was originally a four-storied tower, probably built in the late 16th century by William, fifth Lord Yester, before being extended at different times in the 17th century.

The gardens which lay in front of the house were particularly grand. They were subdivided into squares surrounding a central fountain, with each section containing a statue inspired by the art of classical Greece and Rome.

“The first time we get a proper idea of what the house gardens looked like was when a map was produced in 1682,” explains Marilyn. “The grounds would have been surrounded by a wall containing square gardens which also included a circle point with a fountain.

“The English writer and journalist Daniel Defoe also wrote about it during his travels in Scotland and was very impressed. But nothing of the main gardens or the rest of the grounds at Yester House is there today. It was all naturalised in the late 18th century and it’s now just grass and trees.

“It’s very pleasant but it’s an entirely different style from the kind of garden you would have been confronted with in the 17th century.”

Heriot’s Hospital garden

GEORGE Heriot’s School began life as an orphanage for the Capital’s “puir, faitherless bairns” in the 17th century – and was home to one of the city’s most impressive gardens.

Built with £25,000 left by royal goldsmith George Heriot, its construction and opening were interrupted by the century’s turbulent history.

“Because of Cromwell and the civil war, it wasn’t until about 1660 that the completed building really got going as an orphanage,” explains Marilyn. “But after it opened, everyone who came to Edinburgh was taken to Heriot’s to walk round the gardens, which always received a favourable mention from them.

“We have good views of the building and gardens as they would have looked in the 17th century, with Slezer’s view of the hospital the most prominent.

“They were very elaborate with lots of different shapes within the main boundary – circles, squares and triangles, and little maze-like arrangements on the west side of the grounds. It was regarded as an ornament in the city and, in a sense, was a kind of public park.”

However, with the expansion of Heriot’s School in the 19th and 20th centuries, many of the gardens’ original features were lost.

“Lots of school buildings, playgrounds and so on were built over the gardens,” says Marilyn. “And over time, more trees and grass were planted in the grounds as well, in the Victorian and Edwardian style.”

Kirk O’Field/Old College

THE oldest drawing of a Scottish garden is that of Kirk O’Field, which lay on the present site of the Old College of Edinburgh University.

The drawing of the garden and its surroundings was made because the site was the scene of the murder of Mary Queen of Scots’ second husband, Henry, Lord Darnley, on February 10, 1567.

The importance of the event meant a sketch of the scene had to be made for Sir William Cecil, Elizabeth I’s secretary of state.

The sketch shows a garden adjacent to a collegiate church where Darnley was staying at the time of his murder, and depicts fruit trees, grass and flower beds.

“That really has all gone now,” says Marilyn. “As a collegiate church on the edge of Edinburgh you would have had resident priests there – it was something like a monastery, and would have had orchards and vegetable gardens.

“When the Flodden Wall was built after the Battle of Flodden in 1513, it cut right through the garden. Then the area changed completely when the city began to build a university there.

“The university would have started with some of the buildings that were already there and which were turned into academic buildings,

“Then, in the 18th century, Robert Adam designed what became the Old College and that was a major change.”