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January 25, 2012

The Geddes gardeners

Architect, planner, sociologist, environmentalist and much more, it was Patrick Geddes who gave us the slogan ‘think global, act local’.  In the late 19th century he was instrumental in regenerating Edinburgh’s historic Old Town. His grand plan was to create 75 gardens amidst the slums in response to the needs of children ‘starved of nature’ (he completed 10) A local group of gardeners has picked up on his legacy with restoration work on one garden site already started.



A LONG-abandoned 17th century town house garden that belonged to a wealthy politician is being brought back to life to commemorate the works of a visionary Scottish urban planner and social activist. 

The walled garden at Acheson House in the Canongate – part of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile – is being restored by the Patrick Geddes Gardening Club and will open to the public in the spring. 

Geddes, a pioneer of the environmental movement whose slogan was “think global, act local”, galvanised local residents, artists and architects in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to regenerate the historic Old Town, where he was a resident. He also drew up a grand plan to create 75 gardens – he succeeded in creating 10 – in what was then a slum area to help children being affected by what he called “nature starvation”.

Now members of the gardening club are following in Geddes’ footsteps by restoring the grounds at Acheson House to their former glory. The garden will be laid out in the traditional Scottish parterre style and will have an orchard, flowers, vegetables and herbs as it would have had in the 17th century. 

The south-facing garden, left overgrown for more than 20 years, has now been leased for free to the Edinburgh World Heritage Trust (EWHT) by Edinburgh City Council, which owns the building. 

Acheson House, built in 1633 for Sir Archibald Acheson, Secretary of State for Charles I, has been empty since 1991, when it was last used as the Scottish Crafts Centre. The trust moved into its new headquarters in November.

Cat Grant, a member of the gardening club which will be responsible for the maintenance of the garden, said the plan was to move towards Geddes’ target of creating 75 gardens in the central area of the Old Town. “We’re working on the garden at Acheson House at the moment inspired by what was growing in the town house’s kitchen garden but our long-term idea is to turn scraps of land into gardens and give people somewhere to meet and just enjoy the peace and quiet. We also want people to think about window boxes and using any bit of land they can.”

The gardening club, set up by the Edinburgh Old Town Development Trust, is teaching members gardening skills such as pruning and composting. “Over the years, residents in the Old Town were fed up with not feeling included in what was going on around us. There has been some insensitive development and we got fed up moaning and decided to do something,” Grant said. 

Chiara Ronchini, of the EWHT, said the basic details for the revival of the Acheson garden were being provided by the Rothiemay map of 1647, by James Gordon of Rothiemay, who drew an artist’s “bird’s eye” impression of the still separate burghs of Edinburgh and the Canongate.

“In the 17th century, wealthy families built town houses down the ‘spine’ of the Canongate with long, narrow, walled formal gardens behind them to provide food, fruit and herbs for their households,” Ronchini said.

“We have an idea of what the garden looked like from the Rothiemay map which shows all of the Royal Mile and the gardens with wonderful graphics. We have an area 240 metres square which is a portion of the original garden.”

Geddes, born in Ballater, but brought up in Perthshire, was a pioneering international town planner who believed changes in society and giving people decent space to live in were interconnected.

He and his wife, Anna Morton, whom he married in 1886, lived in the Old Town for over 40 years – initially in slum housing in James Court and later in Ramsay Gardens, near the Castle, which he himself commissioned in 1892-3.

Geddes’ overseas work included being commissioned by the British Mandate in 1919 to draw up a masterplan for Jerusalem, designing the core of Tel Aviv and founding the Collège des Écossais in Montpellier, France. 

Jean Bareham, owner of Greenyonder tours, which organises walking tours of the Old Town’s gardens, said: “Geddes was always frustrated that he didn’t make as much impact as he’d wished. But he left us a lot of inspiration and it is historically very exciting to be revamping what would have been the garden of a wealthy 17th-century owner which is still in the heart of the community.”