Articles - Borrowed Landscape
From its eminent position on a foundation of ancient volcanic rock, Edinburgh Castle’s massive, fortified doors open onto a flat parade ground known as the Esplanade. This square is always busy. Many visitors head for the Castle during the day. Others arrive for evening concerts or the displays of precision drills and musical skills at the annual Military Tattoo.
After the Esplanade, the Royal Mile slopes gradually downwards with a series of roads, narrow lanes and tight alleyways falling away to either side. These alleyways or ‘wynds’ and ‘closes’ running through and between properties have long witnessed the day-to-day lives of people in the densely populated tenements.
On either side of the road, other well- known landmarks including St. Giles Cathedral and John Knox’s House have also known the mundane as well as occasional sensational events down through the years. You can almost sense the history in the old stones.
At the bottom of the hill, the Royal Mile continues into Abbey Strand and stops at the impressive gates of the Palace of Holyroodhouse , residence of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth when she is on official business in Scotland.
A few yards back from the gate, where the modern tarmac meets the old cobblestones there’s a large brass S fixed into the road. This letter marks the place where there was once a prominent painted line. Creditors were not allowed to cross this line. For those in debt who owed money, getting across that line meant they had reached safety, a place affording sanctuary!
Just as today, there were always lots of people in debt. To provide for their needs, a number of establishments offering accommodation with booths selling food and drink sprang up in the area. The few buildings of Abbey Strand are all that remain from the time.
If the Queen is in residence, the Scottish variant of the Royal Standard of the United Kingdom will be fluttering on a flagpole above the Palace rooftop and the place will be closed to the public. However, if a flag bearing the Royal Standard of Scotland is showing, visitors are welcome to visit the Palace, the ruins of Holyrood Abbey and the gardens.
Away from the crowds on the Royal Mile the gardens are a haven of peace for much of the time, though down the ages, long before these acres were so lovingly tended, this was a backdrop for many moments of high drama.
Such a moment happened on a day in 1127 when King David 1 of Scotland was out hunting. At that time, a forest covered the land. When his horse was startled by a deer stag, the king was thrown to the ground. According to one variation of the legend, as the stag charged, he saved himself from being gored by grabbing the beast by the horns. Just then, the king saw a holy cross descending from the skies and the stag reared away.
As an act of thanksgiving for his escape, David 1 founded Holyrood Abbey on the site in 1128. ‘Rood’ is an old name for a crucifix or Christian cross. Augustinian monks were gifted the Abbey with rights to work the land, to pasturage and to draw rents from the villages within their bounds. For his endowment, King David expected prayers for the protection of his kingdom, his government and his hoped for heavenly salvation.
During the 15th century the Abbey guest house was developed into a royal residence until James 4th constructed a Royal Palace adjacent to the Abbey cloister a few years later.
There’s very little known about the garden around this time, but it’s been written that Mary, Queen of Scots (1542 -1587) did enjoy games of real tennis (a bit like the game of squash). She also enjoyed archery for which she wore a velvet glove. She also played croquet, golf and liked hawking.
It was Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria, who had the garden laid out much as we find it today. He was also responsible for getting rid of most of the untidy buildings that grew up nearby to provide shelter for sanctuary-seeking debtors. On occasions their numbers could reach 6500, including members of the aristocracy, fleeing from creditors.
The wide garden path beginning near the ruins of the Abbey leads alongside deep borders studded with mature trees, backed by hedges and a wall on one side. The first notable piece of sculpture is a stone sundial carved by John Mylne in 1633 to commemorate Charles 1’s Coronation in the Abbey. It carries the insignia of Charles 1 and his grandmother, Mary, Queen of Scots.
As we follow the path round a corner, the next stone sculpture to come into view is a much weathered, slightly hunched fiddle player. Supposedly, Queen Victoria didn’t like this particular figure and it has been moved within the garden a few times.
It’s not long before we turn the next corner and are facing south. Now the views over the large area of grass are expansive and lead over mature trees to the top of Arthur’s Seat. This is Edinburgh’s very small mountain, the remains of another volcanic plug surrounded by wild land. It’s a popular walk, minutes from the centre of town.
To the east, the lawn appears to stretch for a vast distance over flat parkland to distant houses. This deception has been created by an effect known as a ha-ha. Here the grass reaches up a gradual incline to end on top of the unseen high boundary wall.
We’re now passing the foundations of what were once monastic buildings on one side and the ruined Abbey on the other. The Abbey was a magnificent building, worked on by craftsmen from abroad. Inside it was richly painted and furnished. Now the walls are open to the sky.
Near the ancient sunken foundations of other monastic buildings there is a grass covered mound that was once a source of intrigue. Could it be concealing some dark secret? However, on investigation, the lump proved only to be hiding an old kitchen ‘midden’. Now it serves as a podium for the conductor whenever a band plays here during receptions.
Every year, usually in early July, the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh host a garden party on the grassed area. They arrive from a room at the back of the Palace and come down a red carpeted flight of steps in the corner where the ruined Abbey is joined on to the Palace.
Over the course of the afternoon, many of the 8000 guests will take the chance to admire the gardens, brought to their best for this particular occasion by a team of up to 14 gardeners.
Some of the guests will be presented to The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh as the Royal couple proceed down an avenue formed by the Queen’s Royal Company of Archers- the Sovereign’s ‘Body Guard’ in Scotland. When they are not practicing their archery skills in the garden, they add an extra dash of colour to ceremonial occasions.
Over hundreds of years there have been many changes worked in the gardens. The mulberry sapling that was recently planted for Charles, Duke of Rothesay appears to be thriving. When King James 1 of England and 6th of Scotland had 10,000 mulberry trees imported, they didn’t grow so well. They were the wrong variety. His hopes of creating a silk industry came to nothing.
It may be helpful to know that even in a Royal garden things don’t always go as planned.
We may not all be invited to the garden party but a visit is always a delight.
First published in The People’s Friend
Though the weather will often be at its worst in the early days of a new year, it’s a joy to spot the snowdrops that begin to appear at this time in gardens across the country. Like tiny pinpoints of light, they are often thought of as the harbingers of spring.
Spotted in the gloom, they may be cause for a little optimistic smile, but for a proper pick-me-up, for confirmation that spring really is on its way it’s worth travelling a few miles west of Glasgow to Finlaystone Country Estate. There the snowdrops, mostly the common Galanthus nivalis, grow in glorious abundance.
Most visitors drive to the estate but others take the train from Glasgow’s Central Station to the village of Langbank. It’s a twenty minutes journey that leaves the city behind and allows passengers to see out over the widening River Clyde as far as the distant peak of Ben Lomond, about twenty miles away and northwest to another mountain range known locally as the Arrochar Alps. These peaks can be snow covered at any time of the year.
The walk through the village of Langbank is pleasant, then a further few minutes of pavement walking alongside the M8 leads to the estate’s entrance gate and approach road.
Pick up a map from the visitor centre and the Snowdrop Stroll can be followed easily on a way marked path.
My first visit of the year coincided with one of those occasional, bright days that come like a glad tiding and seem to announce the approach of spring.
I followed the Burnside Path leading alongside the course of a small river. A bench has been placed in an ideal spot for visitors to sit and enjoy the sight and sounds of a waterfall dropping from a height over a wall of rock. Sunlight filtered by the trees makes the water sparkle. Poking above the ground cover of dark leaf mould, the clusters of snowdrops beneath the still bare trees appear to be glowing.
But as the poet Henry Van Dyke said, ‘the first day of spring according to the calendar is one thing and the first spring day is another. The difference between them is sometimes as great as a month’. This is usually true, but no matter. Even if the weather reverts to wintry we should keep in mind that spring is sure to follow.
Get out for even a short walk and your spirits will be lifted on seeing someone’s flower filled window boxes, or an array of flower pots set on an outside stair. In the West End of Glasgow, containers of vivid red and orange pansies with black centres are popular. Other plant pots are filled with mixtures of pale yellow, bright blue or shocking pink primulas.
As the days lengthen, Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens offer a succession of cheering carpets of gold and purple crocuses, followed by yellow daffodils that come each year in spite of the earlier wintry weather.
While the daffodils and cream coloured narcissi nod in the wind, red rhododendrons and white and red magnolia blossom add their own particular beauty to the displays. Sadly, a sharp shower of hailstones can cause their petals to fall all too soon. Yet after each April blast of wind and cold rain the tulips in the formal beds still stand tall, reaching for the sun.
By this time at Finlaystone Estate, the cherry trees, smothered in pink blossom, look their loveliest against the occasional deep blue of a spring time sky.
There’s still not much in bloom in the walled garden but it’s a pleasure to sit for a few minutes and watch the play of water falling into the pool of the fountain, newly switched on for the season.
In the aptly named Smelly Garden – now there’s an invitation to get close to the plantings - the rockery contains a few aubretia, the low masses of flowers adding daubs of mauve amongst the varied greens of other plants and greys of the rocks.
Further into the main garden, other interesting features include the low-lying bog area and the Celtic knot outlined with brickwork on the ground.
The bright yellow of Forsythia blossom and the brilliant red bract tips above the white flowers of Pieris Japonica look particularly stunning but arguably can’t compete with the walls of striking red rhododendrons which even this early in the season prove attractive to big fat bumble bees and elusive small birds.
From a path in another area of the garden, visitors can look over a grassy area planted with daffodils and through a gap in a wall of the same red rhododendrons. This view appears to continue seamlessly out over the River Clyde to the far shore and hills beyond - a landscape gardener’s technique that makes use of ‘borrowed landscape’.
Further along this path there’s a sunken garden bordered by a hedge trimmed to look like the battlements of a castle. Nearer the main house in a private part of the garden visitors can see the yew tree under which John Knox is said to have celebrated the first reformed communion in the west of Scotland in 1556.
I wonder if Mister Knox would have agreed with the American gardening author Ruth Stout who said, ‘I love spring anywhere, but if I could choose I would always greet it in a garden.’
First published in The People’s Friend