The Royal Mile closes (small alleys) have always been one of my favourite aspects of Edinburgh’s Old Town as there are so many hidden gems waiting to be discovered within them – plus they’re a great way to escape the crowds during peak tourist season! I’ve spent a considerable amount of time exploring the Royal Mile closes and it can be a bit of a hit or miss but one of my favourite closes I’ve come across is Dunbar’s Close. As you walk down the Royal Mile, from Edinburgh Castle, you’ll find Dunbar’s Close on the left-hand side once you enter the Canongate.
It’s very easy to pass the close without a second thought because despite a modest plaque informing visitors it is open to the public, it simply looks like an entrance to someone’s back garden. As you enter the cobbled close and emerge into the serene 17th century-style garden, the hustle and bustle of the Royal Mile is left behind and in its place is a canopy of lush trees and an elegant garden divided into eight distinct sections consisting of several knot gardens, a patch of grass perfect for picnics, and wild gardens. Dunbar’s Close is thought to be named after the Edinburgh writer David Dunbar who owned tenements on either side of this close in 1773 and like many closes on the Royal Mile, it is rich in history and has seen many changes over the years.
I’d recommend taking a moment to sit down on one of the many benches dotted around the garden and imagine that this is what most, if not all, the gardens on the Canongate would have once looked like in the 17th century as Canongate was home to Edinburgh’s nobility.
If you’re interested, there’s a fascinating map available via the National Library of Scotland by James Gordon of Rothiemay which shows a bird’s eye view of Edinburgh in 1647 and features the pristine, manicured gardens of Canongate.https://maps.nls.uk/towns/rec/2741
However, once the Monarch moved from Holyrood Palace to London and New Town was built, Canongate, unfortunately, turned into slums. In the 18th century, Mrs. Love’s oyster cellar was located nearby Dunbar’s Close, and it was rumoured that Robert Burns was known to have visited (which is fitting as Burns’ Monument is visible from the garden). Fast forward to the 1970s, and the land was acquired by The Mushroom Trust who recruited landscape architect Seamus Filor to design the garden, which was gifted to the City of Edinburgh Council in 1978. I found it interesting to learn that Filor wanted to pay homage to Patrick Geddes, a well-known figure in Edinburgh’s history, who insisted that the Old Town be improved by what he referred to as “pocket gardens” and created roughly nine community gardens by 1911.
Today, the garden is well-loved by many yet still manages to remain somewhat of a hidden gem. Whenever I find myself in Canongate, I can’t help but pop in to see what’s in bloom in the garden as they are so well-tended or sit on a bench and enjoy a moment of calm. If you’re interested in visiting Dunbar’s Close Garden it’s free to enter and open to the public every day.