Ewen Donaldson Blog

Ewen was talking to an audience who are closely familiar with the Botanic Gardens and have a deep love for it by virtue of living in the West End.  By the time he finished his talk, members had added respect and pride to their love of the Botanic Gardens given its history and its national and international stature.  It was a pleasure to be led by Ewen through the origins of the Gardens in Sandyford, where it started, to its current West End location which all know so well.

The founder of the Gardens was Thomas Hopkirk who was a descendant of a Tobacco Lord and, therefore, independently wealthy.  He was extremely interested in botany and had catalogued over a 1,000 plants along the banks of the River Clyde in 1813 as a young man.  He had amassed a large collection of plants in his garden at Dalbeth, East of the City.  Hopkirk joined with others to form a botanical society in 1816 and, in the following year, it received a Royal Charter and became the Royal Botanic Institution of Glasgow.  Their objective was to establish a botanical garden for learning and teaching.  To this end in 1817 land was purchased in Sandyford, between Sauchiehall and Argyle Streets.  To start the botanical gardens off, Hopkirk moved his Dalbeth collection there.  It involved a total of 3,000 plants.

Two horticultural giants from the early 19th Century are associated with the Gardens.  WJ Hooker and David Douglas.  In 1820 WJ Hooker, Professor of Botany at Glasgow University, became the Director of the Gardens.  He corresponded on botanical matters worldwide.  Plants and seeds from around the world were sent to him and the Botanical Gardens became a world leading centre.  Ewen managed to convey the excitement of the times, describing seeds of unknown plants being planted, grown and their flowers being seen for the first time in the UK.  This is when it became important to have skilled botanical artists to provide illustrations to share with botanists everywhere.  In time WJ Hooker moved down to the Kew Gardens where he became the first director.

David Douglas, still remembered for his plant hunting and, indeed, immortalised in the Douglas fir briefly worked at the Gardens.  He was brought to the gardens by WJ Hooker.  Douglas started as a gardener in Scone.  He was tough and smart but as his potential was quickly recognised, he was soon shipped off to London where he started his career as a plant collector.  Many of us will have the Lupins, Lilies and Flowering Currants which he brought to the UK to fill our gardens.

In the early days of the botanical gardens, there had been very close ties with university.  Indeed the Gardens supplied specimens for the students’ use.  However, this has decreased in more recent times much to Ewen’s disappointment.

In its early days the Botanic Gardens was very much a private venture.  The layout incorporated a Victorian Promenade, where those who could afford it, enjoyed strolling arm in arm about the fashionable setting decorated with many exotic plants.

Almost ten years after establishing the gardens, the site came under development pressure from the expanding city.  In 1839 the site was sold and started the move to its current site, then outside the City boundary.  It took three years to complete the relocation.  Ewen showed a photograph of Fitzroy Place on Sauchiehall St, one of the earliest developments on the former Sandyford site.  The terrace is still there today.

In 1871 John Kibble, a Victorian entrepreneur sold his ‘glass palace’ to the Botanic Gardens.  It was shipped from Coulport on Loch Long to Glasgow where it was extended, including the addition of the circular dome.  The Gardens still very much functioned as a commercial enterprise and many events took place.  These included the evangelists, Moody and Sankey in 1874 and the inauguration of Lord Gladstone in 1879 as the Rector of the University of Glasgow.  The evangelists’ event is said to have had 7,000 people in the Palace matched by an even larger number outside.  The Palace held frequent music concerts and Ewen showed a photo of an 1876 programme of the Glasgow Choral Union which had the support of both an orchestra and a military band.  However, the cost of purchasing the palace ultimately created financial problems for the Board and the Glasgow Corporation took over in1887.

By the end of the last millennium, the Palace was in a state of physical distress and it closed in 2003 for refurbishment.  The work took three years to complete.  Most of the glass in the Palace has been replaced but a strip of the original glass has been retained as a link to the past.  Ewen observed that old photographs had proved of great value during the restoration and many details which had been lost over the years were replaced to give the Palace back its original splendour.

The original teak framed glass houses from Sandyford have also been refurbished.  Although they look the same, the frames are in fact now aluminium.  The technology is much better than the original.  However, through faithful replication, the building has retained its ‘A’ listed status.  Ewen took members through the various habitats created in the glasshouses.  Many familiar and unfamiliar plant names tripped off Ewen’s tongue. He mentioned Pelargoniums, Fuscias, Orchids, etc with a hint of disappointment of the public’s high expectations to see flowers rather than appreciate the full spectrum of plants on offer.  Begonias got a special mention as it is one species for which new varieties continue to be found to this day.  Over a thousand varieties have been found and the list keeps growing.

In the grounds there is a large tree collection increasing the botanical value of the Gardens.  It contains many significant trees from around the world including the ‘pyramid’ Redwood, the Monkey Puzzle and the largest specimen of Fitzroya in Scotland.  The influence of the Friends of the Glasgow Botanical Gardens is to be found throughout the Park.  The Teaching Gardens, the replacement bench seats with the squirrel detail and assistance with the design and placing of interpretation boards which are becoming more widespread throughout the Park.

Ewen’s talk was very comprehensive and it’s not possible to cover it all here such as the evolution of the original gateway to the Gardens, changes due to road widening and their restoration for the two hundredth anniversary.  This is not to mention the important restoration of the bridges over the River Kelvin.  The talk was followed by a lively Q&A session demonstrating the members’ interest in all aspects of the Gardens.  Many thanks are due to Ewen for this enlightening talk.

Ewen Donaldson Blog