At the very end of Princes Street in Edinburgh, a busy street full of shops and cafes, is ScotlandsPeople Centre, the official government resource for family history research. This library of archives consists of two buildings, the General Register House and the New Register House. While these beautiful old buildings are fascinating both in their architecture and in what they hold inside them, between the two is something equally fascinating and mostly over-looked. People from all over the world roam the shop lined street every day, but very few know that hidden in a pocket between the two buildings that make up the family history centre is a little known gem of a garden, The Archivist’s Garden.
From the street and even from the building, you wouldn’t know this garden exists. The entrance to it is through a gate around the back of The General Register House and it’s only alluded to directly before you enter. Like the many secrets and revelations waiting to be found inside the People’s Centre, this garden sits patiently and mostly un-looked for.
What I really love about this tucked away area of plants, flowers, shrubs, and quiet seating, is the concept behind it. It is a peaceful and secluded place to spend a little time, but it is also intricately thought out, intelligent, and very creative.
Designed by David Mitchell, curator of the RBGE, in 2010, the Archivist’s Garden aims to offer a direct contrast to the dull stone of the buildings and the ordered structure of the archives inside. Apart from an information display detailing plants connected in folklore with death, birth, marriage etc, the garden appears a free flowing scattering of grasses, trees, and mosses. But there is a point behind this apparent chaos. The garden seeks to mimic the randomness of thought, memory, and even people’s lives and family. While inside the building the concern is with finding information and tracing family history, outside the emphasis is on the wildness of our memories, actions, and our brains themselves. The shuttlecock fern is sited as a perfect example of this, following the form of a human brain.
Every plant in this garden is there for a reason, from the obvious thistle as a symbol of Scottish identity, to the hazel tree, planted in memory of the music hall entertainer, Harry Lauder, who always carried a walking stick made of hazel as part of his act. The rowan tree is included as a nod to Scottish folklore – the tree was an important symbol traditionally used for fending off witches and evil spirits.
But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Archivist’s Garden is the garden itself. Situated as it is in the centre of the busy city, surrounded by old stone buildings and concrete, amid shops, bars and restaurants, this hidden little garden is a quiet haven, a sanctuary, a moment’s peace for shoppers, tourists, or those searching and studying inside the Register House…if only it was looked for.
Samantha Priestley is the author of the Folded Word short-fiction chapbooks Dreamers (2014) and the forthcoming Orange Balloon (August 2016). She’s a novelist, playwright, and essayist who spins words into gold from her home in Sheffield, UK.