“Neither the life of an individual nor the history of society can be understood without understanding both.” C. Wright Mills
The four elegant gardens that grace the west of Edinburgh’s New Town – and attract the attention of many admiring visitors, despite being private – began life as delightful accessories to the Earl of Moray’s Estate of Drumsheugh.
This originally included a mansion house, policies and parks bounded by Randolph Cliff, Randolph Lane, Glenfinlas Street, Saint Colme Street, Gloucester Lane, Doune Terrace, and a mill lade along the south side of the Water of Leith.
By 1822, when the estate was being defined on three sides by new buildings, Lord Moray decided to complete the picture – by demolishing Drumsheugh House itself, on the south-east of what is now Randolph Crescent, and opening the whole area for homes. His architect, James Gillespie Graham, produced a grand layout plan for proposed houses, streets (named after the Moray family), private gardens and communal gardens.
The classical shapes of these remain today almost exactly as built, though some older facilities have passed with time. Stables, for instance, came along with the 152 stances for homes being sold for an annual feu duty. Each street carried a fixed rate, from 16 to 21 shillings a foot (and 5 shillings a foot for stables). So the average annual feu duty payable to Lord Moray was about £30; and the cost of building one such house was between £2000 and £3000. These days they fetch something closer to one million!
Until the Dean Bridge was completed in 1832, the stone to build the handsome Georgian houses had to be carted over the Water of Leith at the Dean Village, and then heaved up Bell’s Brae. A dozen stances were bought at a “roup” (auction) in August 1822, and by 1827 over half had sold. Though sales then slowed and there were gaps until about 1858, the New Town’s spirit of aesthetic development eventually took strong root here, not least in the presentation of the gardens – Moray Place, Ainslie Place, Randolph Crescent and the Bank – with feuars being happily obliged “to lay them down in shrubbery and walks, as shown by the plan”.
At first, the only tree was a single existing willow, and the new planting was solely of shrubs. Growth was the name of the game, but…
While Graham’s plan for Moray Place Garden (3.48 acres) might have impressed many, some feuars were not so convinced. One such was the New Town architect W H Playfair, who in 1832 offered “suggestions” for its improvement along with regrets “that more attention had not been bestowed in laying out the pleasure ground …it is conceived that it may be very considerably improved, not only in appearance, but also in utility”.
The gist of their scheme was to plant trees “here and there”, and to level the whole garden, “the advantages of which will doubtless be supported by all the younger inhabitants, and by such of the elder as have not forgot the pleasures of level play-ground”.
Points noted; and today its many trees, shrubs and level grass areas complement each other beautifully while being woven through with interconnecting paths. Likewise, the existing connecting paths within and around interior perimeter of the Ainslie Place Garden, which represent a pleasing adjustment of the original plan showing a circular path in the centre and an oblong path near the outside.
Randolph Crescent Garden, a stone’s throw away to the west, is unique among the group, standing as it does high above the traffic that streams around it, while maintaining the others’ high standards. Was the garden designed and built as a mound; or was the mound there first, possibly as a result of soil being dumped when the houses’ foundations were dug out? That was the intriguing question asked in 1958 at a public inquiry into an Edinburgh Corporation proposal to convert the garden into a roundabout.
The scheme was dropped in the face of the feuars’ unanimous resistance, but the question was never answered. Nevertheless, that garden has had a colourful known history, notably when a large air raid shelter was built in its centre – further raising its profile, as it were – while all the gardens’ railings were removed by the Ministry of Supply for the war effort.
Even Moray Place Garden, the most admired jewel in this necklace of gardens, was not above playing its part in the war effort, though the present holly hedge was planted round its perimeter to make up for the railings’ absence. After the war, new railings were designed and erected; and until they were completed, wardens were employed to patrol the gardens.
Today, the garden is respectfully patrolled again – at least on the outside – by international tour coaches whose passengers see it as the heart of a grand circle of Georgian architecture that takes the breath away in many languages
The Bank Garden (4.1 acres) with its rugged 45-degree angles and well-wooded areas tumbling down to the racing Water of Leith, is nearer to nature than the others, revelling in its absence of close-cut manicuring.
Though it got off to a shaky start and was closed for much of its first 15 years after a landslip behind Ainslie Place in June 1825, its ground was stabilised by a picturesque row of 27 arches, with a walkway created above. And more recently – in 1991 – such walkways and paths were repaired and improved to enhance this stimulating little walk on the wild side.
Although all four gardens are opened by the same key, managed by one management committee, and looked after by the same skilled gardeners, each has its own special qualities, and these all add immeasurably to Edinburgh’s unique offering of city-centre tranquillity.