24-27 June Gardens and Abbeys of Edinburgh and the Scottish borders
by Barbara Boize
This study tour visited four unique houses, two botanic gardens and three abbeys and focussed on the area of Tweeddale between Peebles in the west and Kelso in the east. The most prominent features of this landscape are the three peaks of the Eildon Hills. (The nearby Roman fort was named Trimontium). They consist of igneous rocks, about 350 million years old, which are harder and so have weathered less than the surrounding sandstones.
Floors Castle is the largest inhabited mansion in Scotland and home to the Dukes of Roxburghe. It consists of a central block, built between 1721 and 1726 for the first Duke by William Adam, and two large wings, stretching along a terrace above the River Tweed. Among other alterations, William Playfair remodelled it 1837-1847 into the massive, ornately turreted building it now is. Its collections include artwork and tapestries and also over 300 stuffed birds, mostly European birds but including two examples of the extinct American passenger-pigeon.
Mellerstain house stands on a terrace overlooking formal gardens, a lake and woodland with views to the Cheviot Hills; its grounds are the home of the Borders Sculpture Park. It is another William Adam house, completed by his son Robert and said to be his masterpiece. Begun in 1725, only the wings were complete by 1738, and occupied separately by, respectively, the family and servants. In 1770, Robert Adam was engaged to design the central block to join the wings. It was completed in the “castle style” in 1778. The interior is in the neo-classical style and exquisite, especially the ceilings. The main rooms lead enfilade-style from one to the next. They are well-proportioned and retain Adam’s original delicate colour schemes.
Traquair House, said to be the oldest inhabited house in Scotland, dates from around 1107. It has been lived in by the Stuart family since 1491. The house was extended in the 16th century but no significant alterations have been made for 300 years. The earliest part, a royal hunting lodge, has the appearance of a defensive tower with a high door and narrow spiral staircase. The walls are six feet (1.83 m) thick and covered in traditional harling, a slaked lime and coarse aggregate mortar. Stone spiral staircases give access to all floors. There is even a priest hole.The house was famously visited by 27 Scottish monarchs. Prince Charles Edward Stuart came in 1745. The story is told that when he left, the Bear Gates, formerly the main entrance, were locked and were not to be opened until a Stuart king was again on the throne. They remain locked to this day.
Abbotsford, Sir Walter Scott’s house, exhibits a fantastical fairy-tale appearance. The interior is no less astonishing. The forbidding entrance hall contains dark paneling; suits of armour; weapons; relics from the battlefield of Waterloo, and skulls (some human) amongst the many objects on display. The library, with its ornate ceiling, contains thousands of books on subjects which most interested him and which he used for inspiration.
The two botanic gardens visited were the Royal Botanics in Edinburgh (RBGE), and Dawyck – home of the Naesmyth family, known to the YPS for Sir John’s designs for the Museum Gardens.
In Edinburgh, two spectacular woodland plants were in flower: Meconopsis, Himalayan blue poppy, and Cardiocrinum giganteum, giant Himalayan lily. The gardens owe much to plant hunter Ernest H. “Chinese” Wilson, who collected in central and southwest China, Japan and Korea. Some plants are now becoming extinct in China. RBGE has developed expertise in growing and reintroducing them to China. Similarly, in parts of the Scottish hills, browsing pressure from red deer endangers some species of native plants. These are being cultivated in the Scottish Heath Garden and reintroduced at sites inaccessible to deer.
Dawyck arboretum and woodland garden are on a steep north-west facing slope with a difficult cold, dry climate, looked after by the RBGE since 1979, but for over 300 years was owned by only three families. The first of these was the Veitch family who owned it until 1691. A silver fir dating from this period is the oldest tree in the garden. Next came the Naesmyth family, distantly related to the Veitches. Sir James Naesmyth, 2nd Baronet (1704-1779), studied under Linnaeus and turned the garden into an arboretum. In 1725, he planted European larches, then almost unknown in Scotland. Sir John Murray Naesmyth (1803-1876) acquired new and exotic trees, many from plant hunter David Douglas’ expeditions. The Douglas fir is from seed Douglas collected in 1827. He discovered the noble fir in 1825. It survives in wet, acid conditions and has become important to forestry in the west of Scotland. Sir John also found the original seedling of Fagus sylvatica “Dawyck”, the Dawyck beech.
During the tour, we visited the ruins of three Border abbeys: Tironensian Kelso, Cistercian Melrose (based on Rievaulx), and Premonstratensian Dryburgh, and, later, passed Jedburgh. Two of these 12th-century foundations house important remains: Melrose cherishes Robert the Bruce’s heart; Dryburgh contains the graves of Sir Walter Scott and Field Marshall Haig.