Dr Neil’s Garden at Duddingston, Edinburgh

Nigel Neil wites:

Dr Neil’s Garden, which some GHS members visited after the AGM & Summer Conference in 2007, has been called Edinburgh’s Secret Garden. Lying beside a twelfth-century Kirk, where the lower slopes of Arthur’s Seat meet Duddingston Loch, this beautiful place of artistic, literary, and spiritual inspiration is the result of the imagination, and sheer physical effort, of the late Drs Andrew and Nancy Neil, who both died in 2005. The Dr Neil’s Garden Trust, a registered charity founded in 1997 with grant-aid from the National Trust for Scotland (NTS), employ a full-time gardener, Claudia Pottier, who worked closely with the doctors in their later years, and open the garden to the public.

In 1963 the doctors (husband and wife general practitioners, with a house-cum-surgery half a mile away), began the project, on what was then waste glebe land rented from the Church of Scotland, when their allotment was redeveloped as a car park. The site was daunting, being steep with rocky outcrops, no vehicular access, and no services. Hedges and changes of level keep each part of the garden distinct, and largely secluded, from the next. The planting highlights are conifers, heathers, alpines, primulae, magnolias, rhododendrons, and azaleas.

The garden has featured on BBC Scotland’s Beechgrove Garden and Channel 4’s Garden Club, and has won several awards. In 1991, the doctors were jointly awarded the Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother Medal by the Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society, the first amateur gardeners to receive the medal.

A historically important attraction for visitors is the elegant, octagonal, Thomson’s Tower, designed by famous Edinburgh architect William Henry Playfair in 1825 for the Duddingston Curling Society. In 2008–09, The Dr Neil’s Garden Trust restored the Tower from dereliction, with grant aid from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Historic Scotland, and NTS, totalling over £250,000. It now contains fascinating exhibitions about curling past and present, Playfair and his contemporaries, and the garden.

In the very cold Georgian and Victorian winters, the loch was Edinburgh’s favourite place for skating and curling. Duddingston Curling Society had an elite membership including peers, baronets, judges, advocates (Scottish barristers), Writers to the Signet (solicitors), and churchmen. The Society is famed for being the first to publish rules for the sport, which were subsequently adopted nationally and internationally. Curling stones and other equipment were stored on the lower floor of the Tower, and the cosy upper room doubled as a meeting-place, and as a studio for amateur artist the Rev. John Thomson, minister of Duddingston 1805–40. Though now sadly neglected, Thomson was once dubbed ‘the father of Scottish landscape painting’. He entertained his wide circle of friends in the manse, including Sir Walter Scott, J. M. W. Turner, and Henry Raeburn (whose iconic The Rev. Walker skating on Duddingston Loch is in the National Gallery of Scotland). Turner, Thomson, and others collaborated to illustrate Scott’s The Provincial Antiquities and Picturesque Scenery of Scotland, serialised in 1819–26.

Dr Neil’s Garden is open to the public (donations box), and it and Thomson’s Tower can be hired as venues. The Dr Neil’s Garden Trust welcome pre-arranged visits from schools, horticultural societies, wedding and other photographers, artists, and other groups. An accessible route for visitors with reduced mobility has been created, with funding from the WREN (Landfill Tax Credits) scheme.

Dr Neil’s Garden is open every day including weekends from 10am till Dusk. Entry is free of charge (except during advertised events) but a donation of at least £1 per person would be greatly appreciated.

Thomson’s Tower will be open to the public every Saturday & Sunday during July & August from 1 to 4pm. Entry: Adults £2

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Painswick Roccoco Gardens, the Red House, Photo © Joab Smith