Regent Terrrace Gardens

The Herald, Ediorial Notebook, c1993.

TO the east of Princes Street, on the flank of Calton Hill, lie graceful private pleasure gardens laid out by the great William Playfair. They are one of Edinburgh's hidden delights, concealed in the horseshoe formed by Regent, Royal, and Carlton Terraces.

They belong to the terraces’ householders who have the responsibility of keeping them up. Their proceedings are governed by a private Act of Parliament. For a short time in the seventies, as one of the stanceholders, I served on the gardens committee, and came to think that here, in microcosm, could be found some of the great issues of politics, society, and commerce.

My memories of those days were revived this week by the publication of a book by an old neighbour, Ann Mitchell

. With painstaking scholarship and manifest affection, she has set out a history of this delightful area and of the sometimes eccentric people who lived there.

In our own modest way we grappled with the problem to which the ebullient Ken Clarke is now addressing himself — how to overcome resistance to higher taxation and pay for public services. The Cabinet, we are told, has decided to cut the services rather than raise the taxes.

Our little local difficulty was how to give the gardener a living wage and pay for the equipment he had to have if he was to cope with the work of three. For many decades the garden sub had been restricted to #10. The private Act of 1970 made increases possible subject to the agreement of two-thirds of the stanceholders, and for a time this was very hard to get.

There was a real danger that the gardens would degenerate because of neglect. The annual meetings at which the dues were set became heated and even angry. Those of us from Regent Terrace found the Royal Terrace mob particularly intransigent.

By a mixture of soft soap and the ruthless use of proxies, more skilful chairmanship helped. Peter Fraser (now Lord Fraser of Carmyllie) here showed his political promise: the grippy old dames of Royal Terrace yielded before his charm.

Income rose but there was never quite enough. Some of the residents offered their voluntary labour; their incompetence often made its value nugatory. One day Ann’s husband, the distinguished civil servant Angus, led a working party to repair the tennis court fence.

Its other members were a prominent jurist and myself. We dug and laboured all day and finally gave up in the face of what might most kindly be called insuperable technical problems.

The scorn of the #25-a-week gardener when he surveyed our efforts next day was infinite. He remedied matters in a couple of hours and I came to the conclusion that the idea of voluntary labour, even if it were competent, breached the principle that a labourer is worthy of his hire.

Even the strategem of throwing open the gardens once a year to the public and holding a fete, dog show, and jumble sale caused controversy. Some of the residents found this vulgar affair inconsistent with their sense of social obligation and boycotted it.

That was all very well but not everyone was as ready to pay their dues. I ran the garden stall and was enormously proud of the #60 it raised in a day. The potato merchant who parked his lorry in the mews gave me a bag of tatties, and I priced them keenly. The shrewd Edinburgh wifies snapped them up. (Ann told me yesterday that the garden party has since reverted to a mainly social format.)

From time to time vandals would disturb the Arcadian idyll, and there was much discussion in the committee on how to deal with them. The maximalist school favoured extreme measures stopping just short of machine-gun nests on the perimeter walls and advocated the posting of draconian minatory notices.

Others argued for a low profile, a position I supported. The more elaborate our defences, the more threatening our posture, the more alluring and thrilling would the gardens be for the local apaches who climbed the wall to overturn the sundial or damage the tennis court.

I told the committee the cautionary tale of the newspaper editor who ran a campaign against vandalism.

Stop this outrage, a headline would say, and below would be given some particularly offensive example. The local vandals enjoyed the publicity. Their activities increased and they took to phoning the paper to suggest that it send out a photographer to snap their latest efforts. The campaign stopped abruptly.

By the time I did my stint on the committee the chairman was a retired military type. He was a delightful man but had served abroad and, I fancy, had convinced himself he was the governor of some insecure territory where the natives were habitually restless.

After its deliberations were over, he would lead the committee out on patrol. ”Let’s go out and see if everything’s tickety-boo up-country,” he would say, picking up his swagger stick and leading us forth to look for interlopers from the hostile tribes.

At other times in the gardens I learned an interesting social truth which I pass on to anyone who is lonely and in need of company. Buy a dog. It is a curious fact that dog-owners, while walking their dogs, talk to each other without the formality of introduction, as if ownership itself is sufficient testimonial.

The French consul of the day, I recall, had a poodle of exceptional intelligence who appeared to follow our long political discussions with acute understanding.

Ann Mitchell’s book is of mainly local interest and will give enjoyment to all who know the area. It reflects painstaking research but is written with a pleasing simplicity. I hope that her publisher encourages her to attempt a more discursive history of old Edinburgh: I am sure it would do well.