One of the things that I love most about living in Edinburgh is that there are always more historical sites to visit. Even though I volunteer as a tour guide at The Georgian House and have visited most of the major historical sites in the city (Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace etc.), I’m a little embarrassed to admit that, until last week, I’d never been to Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden.
This is a particularly striking omission on my part given that 1 – I love learning about Edinburgh’s history and 2 – I love gardens. I used to spend lots of time in Glasgow’s Botanical Gardens, when I lived there, and I’ve even co-led a writing workshop there, a couple years back. Basically, it was high time that I checked out ‘the Botanics’ (as everyone here calls the garden) and as soon as they opened back up after lock-down, I booked a slot to go and visit. (Side note: It’s free to visit, but you do have to book a time slot at the moment).
The history of the garden dates back to 1670, when it began as a small patch of ground in Holyrood Park, overseen by two intellectually curious and well-travelled doctors, Robert Sibbald and Andrew Balfour (Sibbald was also the first professor of medicine at the University of Edinburgh). As you might know, Edinburgh was a site of Enlightenment learning and particularly medical expertise in the 17th and 18th centuries.
In 1683, James Sutherland wrote a catalogue of all the species of plants in the garden at that time: Hortus Medicus Edinburgensis : or, a catalogue of the plants in the Physical Garden at Edinburgh.
If there’s one thing that I know about the Enlightenment, it’s that those guys loved – for better or for worse – to find and catalogue stuff. So it’s really no surprise that, as the British Empire expanded, the gardens expanded too. It changed locations twice and ended up at its current location, at Inverleith, in 1820. Imagine having to transport all those plants!
I wish that I could tell you that I learned lots more about the Botanics’ history during my trip there, but, quite frankly, I was too busy enjoying being surrounded by all the diverse plant life and catching up with the friends I met, who I hadn’t properly seen for months (we had a long period of strict quarantine in Scotland). It is truly an immense garden – and you could easily spent a half-day (or full day!) wandering around.
A hedge maze in the gardens. Apparently the little building on the other side of it is full of all kinds of shells (my friends told me), but it’s closed at the moment.
I particularly enjoyed seeing the enormous tree fossil, outside a Victorian greenhouse (which was, wisely, still closed!).
Another highlight for me was the Chinese garden and I found the bridge and the tranquil waterfall so relaxing.
There were plenty of benches for sitting and socially-distanced chatting, as well as some lovely fountains.
And you could also find helpful historical tidbits scattered throughout too, for those, like me, who enjoy that kind of thing.
I’m certain that I only scratched the surface of the garden (the top layer of soil, if you will) and its 350-year-old history, so I’ll definitely be going back soon. I also have a historian friend who studies 18th century botany, so let me know if there’s anything in particular you’d be curious to learn about.
If you’re ever in Edinburgh in the future, it’s well-worth a visit and I know I’ll be taking the next group of friends or family who come to visit me here.
Hello from the Botanics!
I hope that you’re keeping well and that you’ve been finding things to take solace in and enjoy, during this strange time.
‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!