Restoration of The Botanic Cottage is one of the most exciting conservation projects in Scotland today, and recalls the Royal Botanic Garden’s second location off Leith Walk to which it migrated in 1763 from the site of the original Physick Garden where Waverley Station now stands.
Regius Keeper Dr John Hope’s new Garden was of a radical design, with curved lines and a mix that included woodland, a pond and beds for medicinal plants, and for the entrance he commissioned John Adam and James Craig to design a two-storey cottage containing the entrance to the garden, the Head Gardener’s home and upstairs a classroom through which every medical student of Edinburgh’s Enlightenment would pass – for it was believed that honing one’s senses through a knowledge of plants made one a better physician. Many original lecture notes by John Hope and 150 teaching drawings survive from this era, and the Garden soon became so popular that entry had to be controlled through the issue of tickets by three apothecaries to “persons of knowledge or curiosity”.
Sutherland Forsyth of The Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh.
By the 1820s the landlocked Leith Walk site had reached the limit of its potential, and after consideration had been given to turning part of Salisbury Crags into a rock garden a three-year move took place to the present Inverleith site, leaving the Botanic Cottage behind to a new life as a builder’s merchant and then in the early twentieth century as his foreman’s home. A long decline saw the lower storey buried as Leith Walk was raised, the harling come away and the gable-wall lopped off, and by 2007 it was abandoned and had been set on fire.
Faced with demolition, local people launched a campaign which obtained a stay of execution while research funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund found the names of many people who had lived there, but with no listed building status the end seemed assured despite its being one of Edinburgh’s oldest teaching classrooms. Then conservation architects Simpson and Brown produced a plan to move the building, and the firm behind proposed redevelopment of the Leith Walk site said that if the campaign could find a new home for the building they were welcome to it. Each individual stone had to be numbered before they could be dismantled and moved, and a new location was found in the Demonstration Garden which had been revived in recent years but lacked any covered area. Work began in September 2014 to the same schedule as that to which the Cottage had been built 250 years before, and in May 2016 it opened as a community and education centre.
Demolition had revealed much of archaeological interest including the outline of the old garden with a path and market garden, and with Hazeldean stone from Northumberland supplementing the original Craigleith material the developer offered the old perimeter wall which allowed provision of two new side wings creating covered courtyards. Additional facilities at the back are in traditional red brick with a pantiled roof, and use of timber from a felled chestnut helped complete the unique mix of rebuild with new lathe and plaster. While the walls are mostly rendered, two internal ones have been left exposed to show the original stones. A plaque placed on the Cottage by Hope to commemorate his first Head Gardener John Williamson, also a customs officer murdered by unknown smugglers, has been reunited with the building. Now the Cottage recreates its original domestic character, with a kitchen providing a family space where groups can cook and eat together. Users already include schools, reading, memory and dementia groups, and the potting shed on the other side accommodates workshops – the focus on community groups means that the Cottage is not open on a day-to-day basis, but every month or so its doors will be opened to all-comers, with 30 May a gala day. Having undergone more a botox than a mere makeover, the Cottage looks set to enjoy another 250 years of useful existence : its arrival at Inverleith was hailed by the present Keeper as completing the move from Leith Walk, making it at once the garden’s oldest and newest building, and a point worth reflecting on is that had it been listed, relocation might not have been possible.