THE Patrick Geddes Collège des Ecossais and gardens in Montpellier are tucked away in a leafy suburb of the French town. Were he alive today, the Scottish philanthropist would barely recognise the land he bought more than 80 years ago and turned into a meeting place for international students. Back then, Montpellier was still a few miles away, and under Geddes, the Scots college was a small Mediterranean oasis with fragrant flowers and gently sloping terraces.
Today, the three buildings, now used by a teaching-training college for the town’s university, are badly in need of restoration. The gardens, once covered with splashes of colours and filled with aromas of lavender and thyme, are completely overgrown.
But all this is set to change. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of Patrick Geddes’s birth this year and the centenary of the entente cordiale, part of the gardens are being restored to their former glory. The renovation project, driven by a tireless French-Italian-Glaswegian Scot, Viviano Rossi, who is Scotland’s "honorary" ambassador in the south of France and the president of the France-Scotland association in Montpellier, will start in September.
"I felt the 150th anniversary of Geddes’s birth was the ideal opportunity to recreate the gardens," said Rossi. "Many people have contacted me over the last few years; there is greater and greater interest here. Often, the sons of Scotland are honoured more abroad than they are in Scotland."
For the last ten years of his life, Geddes, a fervent Francophile, botanist, ecologist, town planner, teacher and, some would go as far as saying, peace warrior, settled in France to pursue his dream. One of his greatest ambitions was to revive the tradition of academic exchange between Scotland and France which had existed as early as 1315, when the first Scots college was established in Paris.
With this in mind, Geddes built three houses on his new land and founded the Collge des Ecossais. Here, he would welcome students from abroad, including Indian visitors for whom he built a college, the Collge des Hindous. A small plaque in the garden, carved with excerpts from a letter written by a student to his mother, gives an idea of what the gardens must have looked like at the time.
"What a magnificent place this is. It dominates the countryside," wrote Charles Taylor. "The house itself is modest, but is extremely picturesque with its veranda and balconies. In the garden we have fig trees, olive trees, bramble bushes, vines of course and all sorts of shades of flowers, unknown to the invaders to the north, but which present a blaze of colour in the spring."
The main building, the outlook tower where Geddes lived with his second wife, mirrors his outlook tower - the Camera Obscura - in Edinburgh. Rooms here still go by original names such as ‘the Scots’, ‘the Picts’ and ‘Shetland’. Incrusted on the outside walls are Scottish coats of arms, insignias and sun-dials.
After Geddes died in 1932, the buildings were taken over by Montpellier academy. They were used briefly during the Second World War by the Vichy government, as a country retreat for the families of German officers from Paris. A statue of Joan of Arc put up at the time still stands. Today, unfortunately, the gardens and buildings are not listed as historic monuments and are currently closed to the public.
The garden restoration project is being funded by the Scottish Executive, as part of the Scottish programme of the entente cordiale. It is set to be completed by the end of September, in time for the official opening in Montpellier on 2 October. "The ancient Scots College in Montpellier is an excellent example of a suitable celebration of the friendship and intellectual exchange between two cultures," a Scottish Executive spokesman said.
Mr Rossi, who has been appointed an MBE for his work in forging Franco-Scottish relations, has chosen three sections of the gardens for renovation. Limited funds will not allow for the restoration of the entire gardens, which covered seven hectares in Geddes’s time and included an elegant row of cypress trees which still stands today (although in great need of a trim).
"It took a year to get funding, and so I reduced the project to the minimum necessary," explained Mr Rossi. "But I hope when people see these gardens, they will be encouraged to do more."
Local flora will be planted and landscaped by the park and garden association of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, with the help of Rossi’s France-Scotland association and the academy of Montpellier. Viviano Rossi hopes the garden project will stimulate a wider restoration scheme for the Collge des Ecossais and lead to bigger and better things in the region.
"I hope the funding will change things for the better," he said. "There is a fantastic wealth of goodwill towards Scotland here, and my greatest wish is for Scotland to twin with the Languedoc Roussillon."
But in the spirit of Geddes, the gardens are the place to start. "How many people think twice about a leaf?" Geddes once said. "Yet the leaf is the chief product and phenomenon of life: this is a green world, with animals comparatively few and small, and all dependent on leaves. By leaves, we live."