“Neither the life of an individual nor the history of society can be understood without understanding both.” C. Wright Mills
History of Lord Moray’s Feu
FOUR elegant resident’s gardens grace Edinburgh’s West New Town. Beginning life as part of a much larger garden belonging to Francis Stuart, 10th Earl of Moray’s Estate of Drumsheugh. This originally included a mansion house, policies and parks bounded by Randolph Cliff, Randolph Lane, Glenfinlas Street, Saint Colme Street, Gloucester Lane, Doune Terrace, and a mill lade along the south side of the Water of Leith.
By the early 19th century, when the estate was being defined on three sides by new buildings, Francis decided to take control and Feu his estate. Demolishing Drumsheugh House itself, on the south-east of what is now Randolph Crescent, and opening the whole area for houses to sell. His architect, James Gillespie Graham, produced a grand layout plan for proposed houses, flats and streets (named after the Moray family), private gardens and three communal gardens, with the exception of Randolph Garden, which Francis had planned to build his own home on the plot. By 1867 he still hadn’t built and the land had lay in a neglected state to the dismay of Randolph Crescent Feuars. Francis’ plans had changed and he moved into 28 Moray Place, selling the plot to Randolph Crescent Feuars only, to have as a pleasure ground of lawns and trees. The oddity of ownership excluded it from being part of the Feu, but, it is not alone. Property on the southside of the Feu are not included in the Bank garden (although they are now invited to join) and the purpose built flats (corner properties) were excluded from all the gardens, thankfully this is no longer the situation.
Today these classical shapes remain almost exactly as they were built, though some older facilities have passed with time. Stables, and Cabmen’s shelters built in Randolph Gardens for instance, came along with the 152 stances for homes being sold for an annual feu duty. Each street carried a fixed rate, from 16 to 21 shillings a foot (and 5 shillings a foot for stables). So, the average annual feu duty payable to Francis was about £30. The cost of building one such house was between £2000 and £3000.
Until the Dean Bridge was completed in 1832, the stone to build the handsome Georgian houses had to be carted over the Water of Leith at the Dean Village, and heaved up Bell’s Brae.
A dozen stances were bought at a “roup” (auction) in August 1822, and by 1827 over half had sold. Though sales then slowed, and there were gaps until about 1858, the New Town’s spirit of aesthetic development eventually took strong root here, not least in the presentation of the gardens—Moray Place, Ainslie Place, Randolph Crescent* and the Bank—with feuars being happily obliged “to lay them down in shrubbery and walks, as shown by the plan.”
At first, the only tree was a single existing willow, and the new planting consisted solely of shrubs. Growth was the name of the game.
While Graham’s plan for Moray Place Garden (3.48 acres) might have impressed many, some feuars remained unconvinced. One was James Hope WS, who in 1832 offered “suggestions” for its improvement along with regrets “that more attention had not been bestowed in laying out the pleasure ground …it is conceived that it may be very considerably improved, not only in appearance, but also in utility.”
The gist of their scheme was to plant trees “here and there,” and to level the whole garden, “the advantages of which will doubtless be supported by all the younger inhabitants, and by such of the elder as have not forgot the pleasures of level play-ground.”
Points noted, and today its many trees, shrubs and level grass areas complement each other beautifully, while being woven through with interconnecting paths.
The existing connecting paths within and around the interior perimeter of Ainslie Place Garden represent a pleasing adjustment of the original plan, which showed a circular path in the centre and an oblong path near the outside. Randolph Crescent Garden, a stone’s throw away to the west, is unique among the group, standing high above the traffic that streams around it, while maintaining the others’ high standards.
Was the garden designed and built as a mound, or was the mound there first, possibly as a result of soil being dumped when the houses’ foundations were dug out? That was the intriguing question asked in 1958, at a public enquiry into an Edinburgh Corporation proposal to convert the garden into a roundabout. The scheme was dropped in the face of the feuars’ unanimous resistance, but the question was never answered. Nevertheless, that garden has had a colourful history, notably when a large air raid shelter was built in its centre—further raising its profile, as it were—and all the gardens’ railings were removed by the Ministry of Supply for the war effort.
Moray Place Garden, was not exempt from playing its part in the war effort, though the present holly hedge was planted round its perimeter to make up for the railings’ absence. After the war, new railings were designed. Until they were completed, wardens were employed to patrol the gardens.
Today, the architecture with its comfortable grandeur encircling (it’s shape is a duodecagon) mature gardens brings international admiration, whose visitors post Instagram shots in between sneaking peeks through windows into rooms as they pass by.
The Bank Garden (4.1 acres) with its rugged 45-degree angles and well-wooded areas tumbling down to the Water of Leith, beehives and pickable herb garden is nearer to nature than the others. Though it got off to a shaky start—and was closed
for much of its first 15 years after a landslip behind Ainslie Place in June 1825—its ground was stabilised by a picturesque row of 27 arches, with a walkway created above.
Although all four gardens are managed by one management committee (Randolph Garden also benefits from a Consultative Group who works with the Garden Committee), and looked after by the same gardeners, each has its own special qualities. These add immeasurably to Edinburgh’s unique offering of city-centre tranquillity.
Updated September 2021
Simon Laird’s bicentenary talk on the Edinburgh New Town and Moray Feu in context can be viewed here – https://youtu.be/GHxzqlMJ0kQ