The Botanic Cottage


Building owner/client:

Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh

Architect or lead designer:

James Simpson

Local Authority Area:


Nominating Body:

The Cockburn Association

Project Description

From 1763 until 1822, the forerunner of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE), was located on Leith Walk. This Garden was established by the sixth Regius Keeper of the RBGE, John Hope, a key figure in the Scottish Enlightenment and Professor of Materia Medica in the University of Edinburgh. John Hope commissioned the building of a two-storey cottage, designed by the eminent Georgian architects John Adam and James Craig, which stood for over two centuries on Leith Walk, the gateway to a long lost incarnation of the city’s renowned Royal Botanic Garden. It served as the home of the Head Gardener for six decades and contained one of the oldest known classrooms of the Scottish Enlightenment, where Professor Hope taught medical students about botany in the late 18th century. This building became known as the Botanic Cottage. Remarkably, this small house survived. With the Botanic Garden having long since moved to another site, this important building was eventually abandoned and vandalised. Stripped of its plaster and some of its detail, half sunk below the raised level of Leith Walk, it was dominated by a tenement three times its height. A proposal in 1998 to erect an office block at this location was granted and the cottage was threatened with demolition. Fortunately the Botanic Cottage Trust was established to secure a future for this small building with such architectural merit and very considerable importance for the history of the science of Botany, both in the context of the Edinburgh Enlightenment and for the Royal Botanic Garden itself. Funding was initially secured to carefully record and dismantle the building and its stones and timber were carefully numbered and stored in the RBGE Nursery. This process was overseen by the Cottage Project team and the experts from GUARD, RCAHMS and Simpson & Brown architects who studied and carefully documented each feature. In 2012 ownership of the Botanic Cottage formally passed from the Trust, to RBGE and, inspired by initial research discoveries concerning the significance of the building and the surprising amount of original fabric that remained, an ambitious scheme to conserve the building emerged. Thanks to the passion of a broad group of enthusiasts and financial support from The Heritage Lottery Fund and other funders, in 2013 permission was granted to re-erect the Cottage on a new site, within the RBGE at Inverleith, to provide a new education and community hub within the Garden. Maxi Construction were awarded the contract to rebuild the Cottage and work began on site in late 2014. The Cottage design was enhanced by Simpson & Brown with the addition of two wings providing a classroom and potting shed. Traditional construction materials, methods and skills were used throughout the build with the addition of renewable technologies incorporated into the design where possible. The build was completed at the end of 2015 with the first users welcomed in early 2016. Since then a diverse range of groups have utilised the building, with over 7000 visitors crossing the threshold to date.

Supporting Statement

The cottage has been moved, stone by stone, across Edinburgh, and rebuilt in the RBGE Demonstration Garden, where schools, students and community groups have plots. It was rebuilt with all of the stones and timbers going back in the correct places, and finished so that it looks as good as it did 250 years ago. The Botanic Cottage now hosts a wide variety of education and community sessions, as well as public events, throughout the year. The cottage is used for pre-booked groups and on selected dates each month RBGE put on events which can be enjoyed by the wider public. The Botanic Cottage can be booked by external organisations for non-commercial activities which have a focus on learning and engagement. There is no charge for the use of the building, and in return, any activities run by external organisations must be free or donation-only for people to attend. It was a challenging project that took a great deal of grit and determination to pull off. The historic building was saved by a community campaign, led by the Botanic Cottage Trust. The result is a building located in a glorious setting, with unique craftsmanship that will inspire groups involved in education and community work for years to come. It features a spacious gathering room upstairs, where lectures used to be held, and downstairs, the heart of the “home” has a kitchen along with a potting shed and additional education space housed in the wings. Groups of all ages will be able to use the lime-washed Cottage for classes, workshops, demonstrations, talks and meetings. Sue Whittle, partner with Simpson & Brown Architects, and the lead architect on the Botanic Cottage rebuild, said it had been a “once in a lifetime project'. “I doubt I will ever again have the opportunity to help rebuild and reinvigorate a building with such wonderful and extensive history. The Cottage has come home at last and long may it serve the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and be inspirational to people of Edinburgh.” Lord Hope, of the Botanic Cottage Trust, said: “My kinsman, Dr John Hope, had he been alive today, would feel humbled by all the care and attention so many people have given to its preservation and reconstruction. He would be pleased by the way it has been so neatly adapted to the way we work in the modern world. And he would be delighted on being told about the use to which it is to be put. It is, as he would have wished, a place to be enjoyed by everyone.”