Edinburgh has been at its best over the Easter Weekend. After a damp Friday; Saturday, Sunday and Monday saw sun and warmth enveloping the city in an energising, comforting cloak. Pubs put chairs and tables outside where folks sat happy, smiling and noisy. Picnics in the park, kids at last divested of heavy coats running on the grass, there was laughter in the air. Even the New Town grey stone buildings seemed to be softened in the sunshine.
Not for the first time I took a trip around Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden (RGBE). Along with three other gardens in Scotland, Benmore, Dawyck and Logan these four hold one of the world’s largest living collections of plants from home and around the world. And they are a marvel to behold.
RGBE was founded way back in 1670 as a “physic” garden, barely the size of a tennis court. Two Edinburgh physicians, Andrew Balfour and Robert Sibbald, dissatisfied with the state of medicine in the city decided to establish a Physic Garden for the cultivation of medicinal and other plants. The site which they procured was a small plot of ground not far from Holyrood Abbey and, with the assistance of James Sutherland the first Intendant, it proved a great success. From there they acquired a second garden which was at Trinity Hospital near where Waverley Station now stands.
There the Garden remained for almost 90 years, serving for experiments, the supply of specimens to students of medicines and the training of physicians and apothecaries. In 1761 John Hope Professor of both Botany and Materia Medica at Edinburgh University, was appointed to the post of the King’s Botanist in Scotland, and also, at a salary of £50, to the superintendentship of the Royal Gardens (Regius Keeper).
It was clear that more space for the Royal Garden was needed and a new ‘out of town’ site off Leith Walk was secured. And so, in 1763 the plant collections from Trinity Hospital and Holyrood Gardens were moved to Leith Walk. Hope also obtained a permanent endowment for the new garden of £119. 3s and this was to greatly influence botanical education in Scotland. The area around this garden is now built over. Nevertheless RBGE and the Friends of Hopetoun Crescent Garden have instrumental in excavating the Botanic Cottage and it is now being rebuilt stone by stone in the RGBE. If you are interested you can read more here.
However there is little to suggest in this great mechanised world of trade and commerce, where cost is the only criterion of viability, that nowadays we could create anything approaching this amazing space in the centre of a great city. With the honourable exception of the Eden Project we seem to be at a time where governments and companies know the price of everything and the value of nothing. While both the Eden Project and the RGBE are supported by charitable donations we look to spend billions on nuclear weapons at the taxpayers’ expense. While we ravage our planet in the name of profit we ignore the value of green spaces for children to have fun in the sun.
Our values are twisted; we have been convinced by, big business and a compliant media that more money is the road to happiness. Tell that to the kids climbing a 200 year old oak tree in RBGE.
(Much thanks to the RGBE for the historical detail.)