Edinburgh Study Tour – Part II: Similarity, Difference and Conservation Decisions: Case Studies of Riddle’s Court and the Botanic Cottage

Written by Duncan Marks

While the motto of the 2016 YCAA study tour was ‘a city of contrasts’, unfortunately the weather on the opening day was relentlessly unchanging: cold, wet and very in keeping with Edinburgh’s epigram as “the windy city”. Fortunately, we were spared further exposure to the brisk Scottish weather by visiting two of Edinburgh’s most fascinating and current conservation projects in the city’s World Heritage Site domain: Riddle’s Court and the Botanic Cottage.

We were welcomed to Riddle’s Court, an A-listed 16th century courtyard tenement near Edinburgh Castle in the medieval Old Town, by Russell Clegg, the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust’s (SHBT) Learning Officer. Russell gave us a tour of the north block during the on-going £5.7m renovation work, which since 2015 has been undertaken by SHBT who took ownership of the site in 2011. The tour of this intriguing building was then swiftly followed up with a visit to the Georgian New Town to see the Botanic Cottage in Inverleith, which was very kindly arranged at the last minute by Dr. James Simpson OBE (of Simpson & Brown Architects) due to the inclement weather.

Fascinating in their own right, these conservation projects offered further opportunity to reflect on their similarities and differences, as well as the purpose, potential, and pitfalls of conservation in practice.

Riddle’s Court

Riddle’s Court has a rich history, having been the residence of King James VI of Scotland (King James I of England and Ireland), the philosopher Sir David Hume, and the town planner and polymath, Sir Patrick Geddes. This richness was visibly evident in the architectural fabric of the site during our visit, including a 16th century kitchen range, complete with salt press and bread oven, found by chance during the renovations behind 12 tonnes of rubble in the vicinity of the former downstairs ladies’ loo off a turnpike stair.

YCAA members investigating the depths of the 16th century kitchen range at Riddle’s Court. Source: Gill Chitty.
Russell Clegg giving YCAA members a talk in the ‘Geddes Room’. Source: Gill Chitty.

The highlight, however, were three rooms that included painted ceilings. One of these featured late 19th century painted ceiling panels by Thomas Bonnar, whom Patrick Geddes had commissioned to illustrate the history of the building, the city and its university. The ‘King’s Room’ then revealed painted beams in tempera from the late 16th century, featuring insignia and symbolism of the royal houses of James VI and his brother-in-law (and representative of the Holy Roman Emperor), the Duke of Holstein, which are rumoured to have been painted in preparation of the latter’s visit for a banquet of dynastic importance (and, one can imagine, full of political machinations and intrigue!). Further Jacobean painted beams in tempera were again visible in the attic space of the North Block.

Thomas Bonnar’s ceiling panels ‘under wraps’ during restoration in the ‘Geddes Room’. Source: Tracy Wilcockson.

The conservation challenge at Riddle’s Court is extensive. Externally, 1960s cement render has to be removed and new lime harling added, roofs require repairs or replacing; internally, timber floor beams need strengthening and decorative features, such as fireplaces, ceilings and panelling, are being repaired.

Steel beam and supporting brick pier, showing some of the conservation approaches that have been employed at Riddle’s Court. Source: Tracy Wilcockson.

Botanic Cottage

Through the kindness of James Stirling’s intervention, the study visit of Riddle’s Court was quickly followed up by a visit to the Botanic Cottage at Inverleith, as we were swept from the medieval Old Town through the Georgian splendour of the New Town in a fleet of awaiting taxis. Although somewhat a magical mystery tour until we arrived, with our destination a well-kept secret by James, Botanic Cottage did not disappoint!

The Botanic Cottage dates from 1764 and was designed by eminent Georgian architects, John Adam and James Craig (who was responsible for the plan of the New Town). A two-storey cottage, it was originally the home of the head gardener of the former 18th century Botanic Garden, which Professor John Hope, the King’s Botanist, had designed across 13 acres just off Leith Walk in Edinburgh. The cottage served as a frontage to those gardens, as well as a botanic classroom for Hope, making it one of the oldest known lecture theatres of the Scottish Enlightenment.

James Stirling holding a picture of an 18th century illustration of the Leith Walk Botanic Cottage outside the ‘new’ Botanic Cottage. Source: Tracy Wilcockson.

Unfortunately, the cottage fell into gradual deprivation once the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh was relocated in 1820-22 to Inverleith, just north of Edinburgh’s New Town. Since then, the cottage has served as a market garden, car rental office and (appropriately, being in the vicinity of the setting of most of Irvine Welsh’s novels) a drug den. Only in 2008 were attempts made to rescue the cottage from the threat of demolition.


What is remarkable about this conservation project, which was undertaken by Simpson & Brown Architects in 2015, is that the building has been entirely relocated over a mile across the city to the Royal Botanic Garden at Inverleith. This was required due to nineteenth- and twentieth-century urban development in the city threatening the cottage, which included the demolition of the southeast gable to allow the erection of an adjoining tenement building in 1912. Indeed, urban encroachment was to such an extent that from the street the cottage appeared to be a simple single-storey structure with its ground floor functioning as a basement. In 2008, the original cottage was carefully dismantled and its timbers and masonry stored away before being rebuilt, stone by stone, using traditional building techniques, at its new location.

The ‘original’ Botanic Cottage on Leith Walk, showing the south-east gable having been removed to accommodate a 20th century tenement building, and the ground floor of the cottage now appearing to be a basement due to the raised modern street level. Source: http://www.botaniccottage.org
First-floor ‘lecture room’, Botanic Cottage. Source: Gill Chitty.

The results are impressive. The cottage is a handsome Georgian structure that is, naturally, the physical embodiment of original 18th century illustrations of the cottage, this despite its relocation. It is now once more situated as the frontage to the city’s Botanic Garden, with a rear path leading up through mature gardens to the stately Inverleith House (designed by David Henderson in 1773). Internally, on the first floor, Professor Hope’s lecture room has been meticulously reconstructed in the cottage and decorated using evidence of the original fabric unearthed during the Leith Walk demolition. The ground floor is sympathetic to Georgian aesthetics, but also offers further education opportunities through the inclusion of garden workstations, demonstrating the important function the building is to serve in the community.


Ground-floor garden workstations, highlighting the intended educational function of the Botanic Cottage. Source: Tracy Wilcockson.

Similarities and Differences

In building profile and urban context alone, Riddle’s Court and the Botanic Cottage offer opportunities to reflect on their similarities and differences in this so-called ‘City of Contrasts’. The former is very much of a trope unique to Scotland: the early-modern tenement, while the latter, as a Georgian cottage to a larger estate, is commonly found across the United Kingdom. This perfectly demonstrates the architectural and aesthetic impulses that divide the city between its Old Town, which developed organically to provide housing befitting the unique climate and topographical conditions of the location and available construction materials and methods, and the New Town, which was effectively a denizen construct of Neo-Classicalist civic order stamped on the city.

The ‘Geddes Room’ floor joists (with flitch beam running across) are strengthened through the use of ‘stress skin’ resin (and later plywood) to help flatten the sagging floor. Source: Tracy Wilcockson.

And yet, the ravages of Edinburgh’s urban expansion have similarly consumed both buildings in recent centuries; their grandeur and importance have been all but forgotten, their accessibility to the general public compromised. The Botanic Cottage had been clipped by an abutting tenement and as good as reduced to a single storey by the modern street level; Riddle’s Court’s southern exterior was realigned in the late 1830s, requiring the fitting of a large flitch beam (which was exposed for us to see during our tour), to accommodate the new Victoria Street thoroughfare that runs from George IV Bridge down to the medieval Grassmarket. This is evident in the image to the right where the angle of the flitch to the exterior wall shows how the building’s southern elevation was altered.

Conservation Issues

A high degree of intervention was involved in conservation at both sites. The leading intervention at Riddle’s Court is connected with the planned use of the building as an educational centre (an aim very much befitting of its historic connection with Patrick Geddes!). Although the 1881 Census shows that 247 individuals lived in Riddle’s Court, and apparently made do with a shared stairwell, modern living standards are evidently more demanding and a lift shaft is being built through all floors with obvious repercussions on the historic fabric of the site. It was also a shame to hear that while the wonderful painted timbers of the top floor had been unearthed (and documented) a false ceiling would shortly hide them away from view once more.

The complete dismantling and rebuilding of the Botanic Garden in a location mile away from its original setting is evidently extreme conservation. Fortunately we had James Simpson on hand to explain the decision-making process that had led to this controversial decision. James explained that the original cottage was at high risk of demolition, with the urban expansion that surrounded it obliterating its original context and leaving it with very little opportunity for economic viability even if restored. Consequently, the decision to rebuild the cottage in the city’s Botanic Garden at least restored it in its original context, and the use of original building techniques in its rebuilding offered educational training for craftsmen involved.

While the ‘new’ 18th century cottage is an aesthetic enrichment for Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and the wider area, it does however raise issues of authenticity. Externally, within a few years of having been ‘weathered in’, the cottage could easily be assumed to have been always located on the site since the gardens opened in 1820-22 and be seen as original in both its fabric (which it is) and its context (which it is not). Indeed, it was interesting to note that due to the relocation of the cottage, stone by stone, it was considered a ‘new build’ in terms of being required to comply with building regulations, leading to the implementation of modern fixtures and fittings and needing a lift for disabled access. Arguably the Leith Walk cottage could have represented an as important, albeit different, form of historic significance in its original location: to help tell the story of how the city’s original Botanic Garden used to be located in the now-urbanised Leith Walk area and how botany was an important aspect of Scottish Enlightenment; the same vitality which propelled the creation of the New Town in the first place!

A further quibble, and one that follows the SPAB-line on conservation principles, might be which of the Botanic Cottages has been restored and what decisions underlay this selection? Evidently the new cottage is not the sorry-looking cottage that was demolished in Leith Walk; this despite the same timbers and stonework used in both, as the new one has complete gables on both ends (unlike the Leith Walk cottage which was missing its southeast gable) and is now rendered. Furthermore, as an external staircase was added to the rear of the original Leith Walk cottage in 1802, is there not a case to say that this should have been included when the cottage was relocated in Inverleith? Or should we only aim to restore a building to its earliest incarnation?

There is of course no immediate answers to such questions, and arguably what do ideas of authenticity matter if educational needs and the local communities are being served by the restored properties, as both the Botanic Cottage and Riddle’s Court aim to do. The questioning of such conservation projects does however serve to rekindle those ever-smouldering fires of what we want to do with historic buildings and why we do so, and what are the fine margins that separate preservation, conservation, restoration and reconstruction? Indeed, while the Latin inscription on the lintel above the alleyway that leads to Riddle’s Court relays Patrick Geddes’s educational ethos: ‘By Living We Learn’, the contrasting similarities and differences between Riddle’s Court and the Botanic Cottage, and the discussions they stirred amongst us on our visits, might be more aptly expressed as: ‘By Learning We Live’.


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