Unearthing the tiny secret gardens that tell the turbulent story of the Royal Mile
BETWEEN the high houses and narrow alleyways that lead off the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, green shoots are stirring. From the Castle Esplanade to Holyroodhouse, the street throngs with life. Tourists cram the pavements and fill the shops, street performers draw the crowds, advocates head for the High Court, politicians, journalists and petitioners bustle around the Parliament and art lovers queue for exhibitions at the Queen’s Gallery at Holyroodhouse.
It may not be as crowded now as during the 17th century, when 50,000 people lived in cramped conditions in its tall houses, but it is still a teeming thoroughfare. Yet just a few steps away from the frenzy of the High Street and the Canongate are some small yet fascinating green spaces. These are the Hidden Gardens of the Royal Mile and they have been sought-out by Jean Bareham of Greenyonder Tours, whose walking tour is a Festival Fringe five-star event.
Bareham began the tour when she stumbled on one of these gems herself. In the following months she explored the many closes and back courts of the area until she had identified every garden, green patch and window box and she then spent long hours in the National Library of Scotland researching their roots.
These gardens, says Bareham, tell the history of the Royal Mile, from the volcanic eruption 350 million years ago that formed Castle Rock, through the years of English invasion and the overcrowding that led to the creation of the New Town Plan, then the descent of the Royal Mile into a slum before restoration and Unesco World Heritage status. Through all this gardens have been made and swept away, a few survived, more were revived and today individuals and community groups are once more greening even the tiniest of spaces.
“If you look at the Rothiemay map of the Edinburgh of 1647, where the city is laid out like a filleted haddock, you can see how densely populated the High Street was, yet behind the Canongate, which was a separate borough at the time, large gardens and orchards stretched out behind fine homes,” says Bareham.
Today if you walk through many of the closes off the Royal Mile you can find lawns, wild flowers, formal gardens and ponds. Size has proved no hindrance to the creativity that has gone to create them.
You don’t have to delve deep into the history of gardens along the Royal Mile before the name of Patrick Geddes surfaces. Geddes (1856-1932) was an environmentalist and town planner whose ideas on the importance of green spaces to city dwellers resonate today. He commissioned architects to open up More inspiring gardening ideas in the 48-page Scottish Gardener magazine free with next Saturday’s Herald courtyards and add balconies. The Witches’ Fountain beside Ramsay Gardens, which Geddes commissioned and where he lived, features in another of Bareham’s tours, The Patrick Geddes Garden Tour.
From here, close to the castle, Bareham has identified 15 gardens down the length of the Royal Mile, including Tron Square where residents fill the space with summer colour; Coinyie House with its communal borders and individual plots; Moray House, where remnants of its 17th-century garden can still be found; White Horse Close, almost every available space in which has been filled with pots brimming with flowers and edibles, and the wildflower meadows of the Scottish Parliament.
“There are lots of wee nooks and crannies where people have found ways to grow things,” says Bareham.
When she began to lead tours into these spaces she thought there would be a limit to the number of enthusiasts who would want to follow her, but instead the tours, which run in August during the Festival Fringe and are also by arrangement throughout the year, have sold out for seven years in a row.
“It is astonishing how many Edinburgh residents have no idea that there are gardens along the length of the Royal Mile, but once they discover that there are, they want to explore them,” says Bareham.