Gardens keeping their secrets

FOR centuries they have been out of bounds to the majority of Edinburgh residents; hidden behind high railings, tall trees and thick shrubbery.

The private gardens of the New Town have been the private playgrounds of the priveleged, jealously guarded green space in the centre of the city.

But recent row over the gardens of Queen Street East, West and Central revealed there was trouble in paradise.

Residents of the New Town streets facing on to the gardens said they had become places full of dog dirt, broken paving stones and overgrown flora and claimed too many people had keys.

But when East Queen Street Gardens keyholders tried to complain they found themselves lost in a Byzantine process more mysterious than the gardens themselves.

They found that the gardens were owned by private shareholders and run by anonymous commissioners..

First they were told to put complaints in writing, then leave the envelope at a "dead letter drop" solicitor’s address, from where it would be picked up by the clerk to the trustees - or "commissioners" - of the gardens, who would pass it on.

So just who runs the gardens?

The clerk for East Queen Street Gardens, Norman Williamson, is giving nothing away. He has carried out the role for the last ten years, but his own appointment is shrouded in mystery. "I pick up letters from prospective key renters from Taylor’s Solicitors on Moray Place," he says reluctantly.

"I was asked if I was interested in taking over the position when the previous clerk died. It was convenient because the solicitor’s firm was just next door to where I used to work, and my firm merged with Taylor’s last year. I now work elsewhere, but still go along to deal with the keys and deal with the administration, but I don’t have anything to do with the decisions made."

Ask him who the commissioners are, though, and he becomes even less talkative. "The commissioners aren’t anonymous, but it would be unfair to disclose their names without their permission. There should be 12, but at the moment there are only about six. It’s not a big secret, but I will get in touch with them and see if they want to talk to you," he says. Obviously, they didn’t.

Mr Williamson says many keyholders probably don’t realise that even they don’t have a say as to what happens in the gardens - that’s a right reserved for the shareholders. "Shareholders are people who have bought a share in the land, and they have a say, whereas keyholders simply rent keys. It was something that started a long time ago to generate extra revenue, and it has continued since then."

In an attempt to find out if the clerks for the other two gardens would any be more talkative, Morag Yellowlees, clerk for Central Queen Street Gardens, is contacted. Based at Aitken Nairn solicitors in Abercromby Place, she also denies there’s secrecy about the commissioners.

"The gardens are owned by the proprietors of Heriot Row and Queen Street. We are happy for people to have keys for the Central Garden, but it is for residents and families. There is a note on the gate which gives people my number, they approach me and I find out where they live to make sure they are entitled to one," she says. "The cost of a key depends on the address, but starts at 40 a year." And the commissioners? "It’s not up to me to give you their names."

Dismissed again. Perhaps it would be third time lucky with Andrew Williams, of Bennett and Robertson in Walker Street, clerk for Queen Street Gardens West.

"The gardens are the property of the houses or buildings around them," he says. "People who live in the houses surrounding the gardens pay a contribution which goes towards the upkeep of the gardens. There is a group of commissioners, roughly 24 for the whole area. There’s supposed to be eight for each garden, but there are six of seven at the moment. It’s quite hard to get people to fill the role."

Hardly surprising, given that no-one seems to know what the job is or who their fellow commissioners are likely to be.

"The shareholders know who they are. There is an annual meeting [he wouldn’t say when, and it doesn’t get publicised] and the shareholders are entitled to vote for new commissioners."

So who are they and how can you get the job? "I’ll get in touch with them and see if they want to talk," he says.

Another dead end. Thankfully, one person in Edinburgh is able to shed a little light on the gardens - even if she doesn’t know just who the shadowy commissioners are.

Historian Dr Connie Byrom’s book Blessings as well as beauties - the Edinburgh New Town Gardens (the title comes from a quote by Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus, who wrote Memoirs of a Highland Lady) will be published this year.

The 65-year-old from Spring Gardens says the gardens, which run the length of Queen Street, have been privately owned since an Act of Parliament in the mid-19th century attached them to New Town properties. "The Queen Street Gardens have a very long saga surrounding them," she says. "It was never clearly stated that they were to be wholly private.

"The land was owned by the Heriot Trust and when Queen Street was developed in 1766 people some living nearby decided they would like to have a private garden, so they approached the Trust. Then builders bought land in Abercromby Place and East Queen Street Gardens and decided it would be good to set the garden up for the benefit of residents and for the enhancement of Edinburgh.

"They decided to have a shareholding system and people could buy a share in East Queen Street Gardens. There is still a shareholding system today, but it’s more simplified. It became very complicated before, as they didn’t know what to do with a share when someone died or moved.

"To deal with the problems an Act of Parliament was passed. East Queen Street was under the act and a group of commissioners were brought in to manage the gardens. People who are shareholders elect a committee and there are a few faithful who have been involved for a long time. I think each garden is supposed to have 12 commissioners."

C ONNIE reveals that of the three gardens, the central one has the most interesting past. "Central Queen Street Gardens has had a mixed history, as at one time it was very down at heel. Farm animals used to be kept there and washerwomen would go there to clean their clothes. There is a reference from Elizabeth Grant saying how it was a shame to look out the window from her house in Heriot Row and see all the washing in the garden. If you look at old maps of Edinburgh they even show where the washing lines are."

And it was in the Central Gardens that Robert Louis Stevenson, who lived at 17 Heriot Row, played as a child. It is said that the little pond with its tiny island, where he sailed his toy boats, gave him the inspiration for Treasure Island.

Connie is unconvinced. "There are links with him and the gardens but I have not found anything to say he took his inspiration from the pond for Treasure Island. His father, Thomas, was a commissioner of the gardens and I think he was quite a strict one. I imagine young Robert had to keep to the gravel path, as many children did."

West Queen Street Gardens are the most unspoiled, according to Connie. They were designed by a landscape artist and part was owned by the Earl of Wemyss. "He cherished his part of the garden, but then the newly appointed commissioners approached him about selling part of the land to create these gardens for the good of Edinburgh. His first reaction was a bit huffy, but I’ve since discovered that he was a member of the Royal Horticultural Society and was allowing them to carry out experiments in the garden.

"They were growing cherries there, amongst other things. He was reluctant to sell it for this reason, but I think he was later offered more money and ended up selling it. Out of all the gardens it’s the most successful, it’s a very nice landscaped garden with lots of plants and trees."

Connie believes that although they are steeped in history and beauty, the gardens should remain under lock and key.

"The gardens have always been very well kept and I like the breathing space of being able to see them in the city centre. I don’t have a key, but if we didn’t have the gardens Edinburgh would notice a very big difference. The upkeep is expensive - things like getting rid of diseased trees costs a lot, as do new plants. People are getting a good service for their money.

"They are a valuable part of the Edinburgh landscape and are there to be cherished and loved. The Central Garden did open its doors to the Festival one year to display sculptures, but they were vandalised, so it’s hardly likely to happen again.

"When the sun shines in Edinburgh the gardens really fill up, and the fact children can play safely is a really good thing. They are private spaces, which means they are looked after. If the doors were opened to everyone this would change."

So the gardens will retain their mystery for the general populace of Edinburgh - and commissioners will continue to hide behind their clerks and aura of intrigue.

Devolution is delivering

. . but slowly

Public sector workers are frustrated by the slow progress of public services since devolution, says a new survey.

Nearly half (48 per cent) of public sector leaders believe the relationship between the Scottish Parliament and the Executive is ineffective, according to the poll of heads of public bodies.

The Eglinton Management Centre said its survey was "largely positive" about the devolution settlement, but there were reservations about the delivery of services.

Almost all those questioned (94 per cent) said devolution had made the public sector more accountable but less than two-thirds (62 per cent) believed the Executive had improved delivery.

Jim Rennie, a director of the Edinburgh-based Eglinton centre, said: "There were raised expectations about what could be delivered in the early stages of devolved government.

"But three years on there is still a sense of frustration in the public sector over what is still to be achieved.

"More positively, the achievements of devolution are perceived to be significant - stronger focus and confidence, specifically Scottish solutions for Scottish problems and greater accountability."

More than nine out of ten public sector figures believed devolution would eventually improve the quality of life in Scotland.

The Eglinton Management Centre received responses to its survey from 50 chief executives, chairs and senior managers in public sector bodies.

Cheque out a new art show

A BANK has turned part of its head office into an Edinburgh Fringe venue during the festival.

LLoyds TSB Scotland has teamed up with the East Lothian-based Stenton Gallery to host an exhibition of Scottish contemporary art in its atrium.

Although normal banking activities will continue, customers will be able to savour examples of contemporary art for free until the end of the month.

The gallery’s spokeswoman, Barbara Christie, said: "Our exhibition, Scottish Art Today, presents an opportunity to view and buy some of the most exciting art currently being created in Scotland."

The bank has already announced sponsorship of two exhibitions currently running at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, and the children’s programme at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which opened on Saturday.

The exhibition is open daily from 10am-6pm.

Accommodating more business

A LOTHIAN coastal town is set to receive a boost from new conference facilities.

The Marine Hotel in North Berwick is expanding with new function suites and leisure facilities. Its owners, MacDonald Hotels, claim the development will attract major conferences to the town.

A spokesman said: "It is hoped that the new features will allow conferences and other events to be held in the town, drawing in more trade for other businesses."

A meeting for local traders on the new development will be held in the hotel on August 26.

Anti-homes group’s fury as plan grows

CAMPAIGNERS against 4000 homes being built on greenfield sites in East Lothian hit out today as it emerged that plans are drawn for up to 2000 more.

Developers have earmarked a site at Ballencrieff, south of the Longniddry-North Berwick Road, for their first phase of a new town scheme which will see up to 1000 houses built. The aim is to create a self-contained community with town centre, able to cope with a second phase of up to 1150 homes.

Ballencrieff Development Limited insists around a third of the homes will be sold as low-cost housing and their plans will create an "attractive, safe and environmentally-friendly environment".

The developers have already snapped up land between the Edinburgh-London railway line and the Longniddry-North Berwick road, which it intends to use for park-and-ride facilities and a new railway station.

The news has sparked claims from an action group set up to campaign against previously-unveiled proposals that developers have declared "open season" on East Lothian.

Frank Gerstenberg, chairman of the Fendon Barns Drem Action Group, said: "We’d like to hear from anyone who wants to help us protect East Lothian from such new town proposals and stop developers from ruining the county."

Anything Goes in talent hunt

A CITY drama group has launched an appeal for budding thespians interested in taking part in a musical next year.

The Balerno Theatre Company needs people for Cole Porter’s Anything Goes.

For details of the auditions, at Balerno High School at 7.30pm on August 20, telephone 0131 451 5644