(Images: Urban Ghosts. West Port Garden, inspired by Sir Patrick Geddes)
Venture along West Port toward Edinburgh‘s historic Grassmarket, and you’ll pass a small community garden on a steeply terraced site. At first glance, the pleasant green space appears little more than a curiosity amid the capital’s bustling Old Town, a welcome break from noisy pubs and densely packed tenements. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that the West Port Garden has an important place at the heart of Edinburgh’s social history. West Port Garden Edinburgh
The West Port Garden was established in 1910 to provide a much-needed green space for residents, particularly children, living amid the crowded slums. Inspired by town planner Sir Patrick Geddes, and designed by his daughter Norah Mears, the garden was one of several to be found within the city’s Old Town during the Edwardian era, but more than 100 years later only a handful survive.
The Geddes’ recognised the importance of children playing outdoors and interacting with nature. Their garden, which incorporated a sandpit, swings and plants donated by local people, was maintained by a group of female volunteers, supervised by Norah until her death in 1967.
The West Port Garden became increasingly neglected over the years. Then in 2013 the Grassmarket Residents’ Association embarked on a project, funded by Edinburgh World Heritage, to restore Geddes’ vision to its former glory. Gazetteer for Scotland writes that the small garden now “provides a haven for nature” in one of the busiest corners of the city.
In an age when open green spaces are increasingly important within urban redevelopment, one can look to the tiny West Port Garden as being rather ahead of its time. But it’s also an intriguing glimpse into an older Edinburgh, where access to nature was scarce, and a key part of the Scottish capital’s hidden history.
Elspeth Wills of the West Port Gardening Group told the EWH website that visitors often stopped to chat when she was working in the garden. “They are fascinated by its history and how it started as an initiative of Patrick Geddes’ Open Spaces Committee”, she said. “The team of dedicated women volunteers maintained the garden as the equivalent of a play group for children living in the overcrowded slums. Thanks to support from Edinburgh World Heritage and Edinburgh Council we can now share that story with everyone who passes the entrance to the garden.”
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