Updated: Aug 21, 2022
Reprint from The Gryphon newsletter, Winter 2020
by Roderick Gardner Baird
My sister Judith telephoned me one July evening, to tell me to watch that week’s episode of BBC Scotland’s popular weekly gardening programme ‘Beechgrove Garden’. The episode included a feature on the recently restored gardens of Saughton Park in the west of Edinburgh. As a member of the Saughtonhall line of Bairds, previous owners of the Saughtonhall Estate which included what is now the park, the article was of particular interest to me. In its heyday the park was recognised as one of the ‘finest public parks in Scotland’, but by the turn of the 21st century it had gone into a sad decline.
More recently with support from the Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society (who now have a permanent base within the park) as well as the City of Edinburgh Council and the Friends of Saughton Park, with funding from the UK Heritage Lottery Fund, the park has undergone a transformation and restoration. On Saturday 31st August the Friends of Saughton Park organised a very successful open day to which my wife Julia and I attended.
The story starts with my nine times great-grandfather, Sir Robert Baird 1st Baronet of Saughtonhall. Sir Robert was a younger son of James Baird, Commissioner of the Ecclesiastical Court in Edinburgh, who was the fourth son of Gilbert Baird 3rd of Auchmedden in Aberdeenshire. Sir Robert was born c1630, a successful Edinburgh merchant and during the seventeenth century Dutch Wars was a part owner of several ships trading across the world.
Robert Baird purchased the lands of Saughtonhall, consisting of some 98 acres, from a Janet Moodie in 1669, thus starting the Baird connection with Saughtonhall. Although the estate remained under the ownership of Sir Robert’s descendants until it was sold to the City of Edinburgh Corporation in 1900. The last Baird however to actually reside at Saughtonhall was my five times great-grandfather Sir James Baird the 6th Baronet. Sir James’s mother was Frances, daughter of Colonel James Gardiner who was killed in the 1745 rebellion fighting on the government (Hanoverian) side at the Battle of Prestonpans. He was immortalised by Sir Walter Scott in his first Novel ‘Waverley’; also his death was illustrated in one of the panels of the Prestonpans Tapestry. Sir James succeeded to the title as 6th Baronet in 1771. The following year he enlisted as an Ensign in the 17th Foot which was one of several regiments raised specifically to fight the American War of Independence. In 1776 he was promoted to Lieutenant and then Captain in 1777 fighting with the 71st Foot at Brier Creek on 3rd March 1779. He served throughout the American War, as well as two Campaigns in Flanders. In 1794 he was a Captain with 1st Battalion Scots Brigade and on his retirement in 1796 he was a Lieutenant Colonel with the 28th Light Dragoons. Between 1797 and 1827 he commanded the East Lothian Yeomanry a cavalry regiment which had been formed by volunteers in response to national fears of a Napoleonic invasion. I suggest that his long military service overseas was possibly one of the factors why Saughtonhall was rented out during his absence and following his retirement he chose to live elsewhere until his death in 1830.
In 1796 Saughtonhall was run as a private lunatic asylum, The Institute for the Recovery of the Insane, a private asylum exclusively for the “reception of patients of the higher ranks”. In 1807 there were thirteen male and five female patients and by 1875 this number had risen to a total of seventy-five. The asylum was renowned for its humane and innovative treatment of patients with many activities including outdoor relaxation in the gardens, it received glowing inspection reports and was seen as a model of good practice. Doctors visited the asylum from afar including the United States.
It was the 8th Baronet, Sir William Gardiner Baird (my great-grandfather), who sold the estate to the Edinburgh Corporation in 1900 (the house was sold 1907) which resulted in the asylum moving out of Saughtonhall to Mavisbank in Midlothian.
In 1907 the house and grounds were the setting for the Scottish National Exhibition which was officially opened on 1st May 1908 by Prince Arthur of Connaught, one of Queen Victoria’s sons. It was a resounding success attracting over 3.5 million visitors. Saughton Park and Gardens were formally opened to the public in 1910 and became renowned for its Winter and Rose Gardens as well as the Bandstand. As for the mansion house, sadly with neglect it began to fall in to disrepair and latterly suffered from damp, rot and woodworm. In 1952 the authorities decided to demolish the building.
The house of Saughtonhall was built in the mid-1600s possibly for Sir Robert Baird 1st Baronet, although it is likely that it was developed from an earlier building. From the 3D image of the house, as it would have looked around 1900, you can see the old turret and staircase in the middle of which would have formed part of the original seventeenth century building. Saved at the time of the demolition was the plaster ceiling from the first floor apartment which dates from c1660 – 1663 (around the time of Sir Robert’s tenure) and was probably dedicated to King Charles 11. Also on the gable end of the nearby Saughtonhall Farmhouse just outside the boundary of the Park (now a children’s nursery) is a plaque showing the Coats of Arms of the Baird and Gibson of Addiston families – the second wife of Sir James Baird 2nd Baronet of Saughtonhall (son of Sir Robert) was Elizabeth daughter of Sir John Gibson of Addiston. The inscription tells us that the plaque was removed from an earlier building and restored in the 1890s. All that remains today of the original property owned by the Bairds is the avenue of Yew trees which once lined the front drive to the mansion house. Scientific analysis tells us that these trees were planted around 500 years ago so they could well have been planted by Sir William Baird when he lived in the house.