Walk a mile with Patrick Geddes
by Amy Bell,
What do you know about Patrick Geddes? There are many things in the city of Edinburgh that have credited with his name, most notably our very own Camera Obscura, but what else has he been linked to?
- Well, let’s start at the top of Castlehill at a place called Grannies Green, which can be found above the Patrick Geddes Steps (Castle Wynd South), by Johnston Terrace. This sloping area of green land at the base of Edinburgh Castle used to be part of a traditional wash-house and bleaching green. It has since been transformed into a green space to commemorate the work of Sir Patrick Geddes. Wildflowers, herbs and fruit trees have been planted, and new signage along with other original features have been restored.
Camera Obscura and World of Illusions
- When Geddes acquired the Outlook Tower in 1892, his vision was to create the world’s first sociological laboratory. He arranged exhibitions within the building in order of how he thought we should understand the world, with an emphasis on observation and study, with the Camera Obscura at the top being a means of looking in on the day to day life of the people of Edinburgh in real-time, in the hope this insight would give him the means to improve their standard of living.
- Just down the cobbled street of Ramsay Lane to the side of Camera Obscura, you will find Ramsay Garden. As part of his ongoing work to revitalise the city, Geddes started work on the former Ramsay Lodge in 1890. The area had fallen quite badly into disrepair, and in order to improve the living conditions for the working-class people living there, but also to bring in wealthier residents, Geddes set about turning the lodge into 16 apartments, with Geddes and his family taking up residence at number 14 for many years, even referring to the buildings in later years as the "seven-towered castle I built for my beloved".
Patrick Geddes Hall
- A short walk a little further down Ramsey Lane will bring you to Mound Place. Here just at the main entrance to the now named Patrick Geddes Hall, you will find a plaque dedicated to him. As part of his renovation work in the city, Geddes wanted to provide more living opportunities for students. In 1887 Geddes renovated and leased several apartments at no.2 Mound Place specifically for student use. During that time, he was also a lecturer in Zoology at the University of Edinburgh from 1880 to 1888.
- Up the small passageway of Milne’s Court just before North Bank street, you will find Mylne’s Court, originally opened by Robert Mylne in 1690. The two tall buildings that stand there were later developed into halls of residence by Patrick Geddes, the first known halls of residence for students studying at the University of Edinburgh.
- Just around the corner is James Court, where Geddes once lived. With his pregnant wife in tow, Geddes moved to the slums of the Old Town on a mission to transform the area. By cleaning and painting their new home to make it more attractive, they inspired neighbours to do the same.
- Across the road, through an archway, you will find Riddles Court, another property acquired by Geddes to be made into student living accommodation. Today it features a stone arch with the inscription "Vivendo Discimus", which means by living we learn, a motto of Geddes, the ceiling of the main hall is decorated with symbols associated with Patrick Geddes's philosophical ideas, and it is home to the Patrick Geddes centre for learning.
Lady Stair’s Close and Wardrop’s Court
- Though not a restoration of Geddes himself, he convinced the Earl of Rosebery to buy the property in order to repair and restore the structure of Lady Stair’s Close as part of his renovation plans for the Old Town. Just next door to this is Wardrop’s Court, where you might have noticed two pairs of dragons. Recently restored to their former glory, two of the dragons were carved by Geddes’ 16-year-old son Arthur, guided by the sculptor Alec Miller.
- Much of Geddes work was around providing places for people, taking disused areas of wasteland and turning them into green spaces where locals could sit and enjoy their surroundings. Hunter Square, which is located halfway down the high street at the junction with South Bridge, though not created by Geddes, was turned into a pedestrianised precinct in honour of his work.
- Continuing on down the High Street, tucked away opposite the Museum of Childhood is Trunk’s Close. Sitting here in amongst secluded garden sits a bust of Patrick Geddes. It is worth noting that although the garden is in a public space, the entrance to Trunk's Close is occupied by two businesses meaning access is only available Monday through Friday, during normal business hours.
Scottish Poetry Library and Dunbar’s Close
- Heading into the Canongate area of the Royal Mile, and down a little side street called Crichton's Close, you will find the Scottish Poetry Library. Just outside the entrance inscribed on the pavement is the phrase “by leaves we live”, a phrase often used by Patrick Geddes to describe the way in which life goes on. Fittingly just across the other side of Canongate, you will find Dunbar’s Close, one of 80 narrow lanes left over from medieval times, tucked in between shops of souvenirs and Christmas decorations. At the end of the close is one of Patrick Geddes green spaces. A quiet and tranquil little garden hideaway, free from the bustle of the main streets, a truly lovely little place to sit awhile. Sadly, Geddes died shortly after Dunbar’s Close Garden was completed.
“How many people think twice about a leaf? Yet the leaf is the chief product and phenomenon of Life: this is a green world, with animals comparatively few and small, and all dependent upon the leaves. By leaves we live. Some people have strange ideas that they live by money. They think energy is generated by the circulation of coins. But the world is mainly a vast leaf-colony, growing on and forming a leafy soil, not a mere mineral mass: and we live not by the jingling of our coins, but by the fullness of our harvests.” - Patrick Geddes
Why not try following in the footsteps of Geddes and enjoy exploring the city through his lens!