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Edinburgh's 250-year-old Botanic Cottage was a forgotten ruin until the Royal Botanic Garden moved it stone by stone and gave it a new life.

The Remarkable Survivor

Edinburgh's 250-year-old Botanic Cottage was a forgotten ruin until
the Royal Botanic Garden moved it stone by stone and gave it a new life.

BY JIM GILCHRIST

Some years ago, in a quiet, non-public corner of Edinburgh's Royal Botanic Garden, one of its botanists, Dr. Henry Noltie, showed me an unprepossessing accumulation of random-looking masonry, stockpiled on numbered palettes, fronds of buddleia, that great colonizer of building sites, sprouting pinkly between the stones.

Since then, one of the most extraordinary Scottish heritage projects of recent years has come to fruition with the relocation and reconstruction, stone by stone, roof timber by roof timber, of the 18th-century Botanic Cottage, not only one of the oldest botanical buildings in the country, but also one that had a far-reaching influence during the "hot bed of genius," as 18th-century Enlightenment Edinburgh was known. Now described, paradoxically, as "simultaneously the newest and oldest building" in the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, the cottage's story takes in pioneering botanical thinking and teaching, famous Scottish architects...and a murder.

Not only has the cottage been reconstructed, having been carefully demolished from its original site off Edinburgh's Leith Walk, where the Edinburgh botanic garden was situated between 1765 and 1822, its stones numbered and transported to the garden's present extensive site at Inverleith, but also it has been rendered fit for purpose in the 21st century, to provide a centre for education and community use within the garden.

The Botanic Cottage was built during the mid-18th century as a head gardener's house and public entrance to the Leith Walk garden, but, as painstaking research has revealed, its upper Great Room also served as a lecture theatre for the garden's visionary Regius Keeper during that period, Professor John Hope, who Noltie describes as "an unsung hero of the Scottish Enlightenment."

The influence of that upstairs room stretched far and wide. The many hundreds of medical and other students who passed through it included: Sir Lucas Pepys, who went on to become a physician to "mad" King George III; Nathaniel Dimsdale, who helped inoculate Catherine the Great against smallpox and was made a Baron of the Russian Empire; William Roxburgh, who became an influential superintendent of Calcutta Botanic Garden; and even a young American medical student by the name of Benjamin Rush, who would become a signatory to the American Declaration of Independence.

The full text of this article is available in the Autumn 2016 issue of Scottish Life.

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Photos © Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh