Ewen Donaldson, A History of Glasgow Botanical Gardens - Evening Talk 9th March

On the 9th of March, Ewen Donaldson, who has run the Glasgow Botanical Gardens for many years, entertained and educated us with a fascinating glimpse into their history, and a look forward to their future.


I’m sure I was not the only member who didn’t realise the gardens didn’t start out in Kelvinside. They were originally sited in Sandyford, at the west end of Sauchiehall Street, in 1817.

The Royal Botanical Institution of Glasgow ran the gardens, and they supplied Glasgow University with teaching aids for medical and botanical classes. William Jackson Hooker was Regius Professor of Botany at Glasgow at this time, and his 20 years of enthusiastic involvement in the development of the gardens resulted in them becoming eminent in botanical circles. He left to become Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew.



The 8 acre site at Sandyford proved too limiting for the growing collections in the gardens, and the Institution purchased the present site at Kelvinside - some 25 acres. Some of the members were concerned that it was ‘too far into the country’ – but as we can see, Glasgow came out to meet it!


During that period, it was mostly members of the Royal Botanical Institution who had entry to the gardens, though on high days and holidays members of the public could get in for a penny.


The Kibble Palace, as many of us know was originally a private conservatory at Coulport House, belonging to John Kibble. In 1872 he dismantled it and had it towed to its new home on barges. This was not an entirely philanthropic act – he planned to make a profit by using it for concerts and exhibitions, and it certainly did see some use, with coloured gaslights for special effects, and many major events. Both Benjamin Disreali and William Gladstone were installed as rectors in the Kibble Palace, with great pomp and circumstance, and a large audience

It was dismantled, and beautifully restored between 2003 and 2006.



In 1891 the Royal Botanical Institution stopped running the garden and the Glasgow Council took over. The gardens were thrown open to the public. This is when the railings and gatehouses were built.


The Botanical Gardens are by no means just about the Kibble Palace, magnificent though it is. There are two other large greenhouses, and fascinating beds, including one of my personal favourites – the Chronological Bed. In one main range greenhouse a truly stunning collection of orchids can be found.


The Gardens house a huge collection of plants, from many, many different habitats, including several national collections – the begonia collection, and the spurges for instance.


Mr Donaldson showed us many fascinating photographs at this event, old and new, and was kind enough to share a few of them for our review. It seemed to this member of the audience that he knew the name and history of each and every plant in the gardens – an impressive feat!

Mr Donaldson’s description of recent cultural events, including a light show last year, and hints of what they plan for the future renewed my desire to revisit the gardens, to see what’s new and how some old friends are getting on: I saw my first ever Kapok plant there, and the giant lily pads. The gardens never fail to impress.



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