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The historic physic garden at the Palace of Holyroodhouse

Release date: Tuesday, 21 March 2017

The 17th-century physic garden in the grounds of the Palace of Holyroodhouse was the first of its kind in Scotland, and the second botanic garden to be established in Britain. The origins of the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh can be traced back to this historic garden, which was created to teach students about the medicinal properties of plants and to provide pharmacists with fresh materials. The garden will provide the inspiration for a new public physic garden at the Palace.

The first recorded gardens at the Palace of Holyroodhouse were the medieval gardens cared for by the monks of Holyrood Abbey. In 1503 James IV built the first royal palace on the site, and the gardens took on a recreational function, providing the setting for tournaments, hunting, hawking and archery. The gardens even boasted a tennis court and a menagerie, home to tigers, lynx, bears, gamecocks, an ape, a camel and a lion. By the time Mary, Queen of Scots was resident at the Palace in 1561, there was a series of enclosed privy, or private, gardens, including a walled garden to the north of the Palace Forecourt. It was this plot of land that was later developed into the physic garden.

A view of the gardens at the Palace in 1647.

A view of the gardens at the Palace in 1647. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland

Established in 1670 by two founding members of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, Sir Robert Sibbald and Dr Andrew Balfour, the physic garden measured just four square metres and was planted with around 90 medicinal plant species. Several of Edinburgh's physicians came together to assist with the design of the garden, and contributed an annual fee for its cultivation and for the importation of foreign plants. A young, self-taught gardener, James Sutherland, was hired to care for the plants.

Five years later the garden was moved to a site around six times larger at Trinity Hospital, now Platform 11 at Waverley Station, and it started to divert from a purely medical interest to a botanical interest as well. In 1695 James Sutherland re-rented the original physic garden plot at the Palace, which became known as the Royal Garden or the King's Garden, and grew melons, oranges, lemons, myrtles and exotic plants. Four years later he was made the first ever Regius Keeper, a title now given to the head of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

A view of the Palace in 1835, showing where the historic physic garden was located.

A view of the Palace in 1835, showing where the historic physic garden was located. ©

Sutherland recorded the plants that grew in the physic garden at Trinity Hospital, many of which were transported from the Palace, in Scotland's first botanical publication, Hortus Medicus Edinburgensis. He lists species from parts of the world as distant as Egypt and the southern tip of Africa, and describes plants such as the Hairy Kidneywort (believed to cure epilepsy), the Spotted Lungwort (thought to cure pulmonary infections), and the Common Hounds-Tongue (used to treat everything from piles and persistent coughs to baldness and madness).

In 1763, the plants from Trinity Hospital and from Sutherland's garden at the Palace were combined at a new site on the road to Leith, away from the city's pollution. The garden was moved once more in 1820 when it was established at its present site at Inverleith, where today the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh covers over 70 acres and displays more than 13,000 plant species.

The new public garden at the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

The new public garden at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. ©

The new physic garden at the Palace will be created behind the Abbey Strand buildings, which will house a new Learning Centre. It will have raised flowerbeds laid out in a geometric pattern, reflecting the design of early botanic gardens. The year-round planting will include both indigenous and exotic medicinal plants that would have been grown in the 17th century, such as Birthwort (said to assist with childbirth), Feverfew (thought to reduce fever), and Scurvy Grass (a remedy used by sailors after long voyages). Alongside the reimagined physic garden will be a flowering meadow evoking the 15th-century monastic garden of Holyrood Abbey, the Palace's first recorded garden.

Find out more about the Future Programme developments at the Palace of Holyroodhouse.