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Dawyck Botanic Garden lies just off the B712 near Stobo, some eight miles south west of Peebles and a similar distance south east of Biggar. It is one of three specialist gardens in different areas of Scotland that form part of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. The others are Benmore Botanic Garden near Dunoon and Logan Botanic Garden south of Stranraer.
The garden comprises some 60 acres or 24 hectares of north west facing hillside that rises, steeply in places, from 500ft to 850ft on the south bank of the River Tweed. The land to the south rises steadily to the summit of Pykestone Hill, at 737m or 2416ft. The garden is about as far as you can get from the sea in Scotland and this, together with its aspect and its altitude, help give it a climate that is much colder than most of the country. It is never entirely free of the risk of frost, and winter temperatures have fallen to as low as -22°C.
Dawyck Botanic Garden is one of the best arboretums you will find anywhere in the world. It is the result of over 300 years of tree collecting by three different families, a process now actively continued by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. It is not just trees, though. Dawyck is also home to magnificent collections of flowering shrubs and plants which, depending on the time of year you visit, can usually be relied on to brighten up even the grayest of days.
The Dawyck Botanic Garden was given to the nation in 1978 by the Balfour family. The surrounding estate, Dawyck House, and the chapel within in the garden all remain private property. The story of the garden began over three centuries earlier, however, with the Veitch family who owned the estate from 1491 to 1691.
When they first moved here from Jedburgh, the Veitch's home was described as a "lonely mansion in the bosom of a gloomy mountain". They planted trees as windbreaks to make their home and estate more habitable and welcoming, and in 1650 they introduced Scotland's first exotic tree, a horse chestnut native to eastern Europe. They also planted a large number of silver firs in the 1680s, and though many of these were destroyed in a storm in 1968, a few still stand in the Heron Wood Reserve, towards the top of the garden.
But it was after the Naesmyth family took over the estate in 1691 that things really started to take off in earnest. Sir James Naesmyth, 2nd Baronet of Dawyck and Posso (1704-1779), trained as a botanist under Carl Linnaeus and did much to turn the garden into an arboretum. His grandson, Sir John Murray Naesmyth (1803-1876) went even further, planting a total of 2000 acres of mixed woodland. It was Sir John who recognised that a beech growing at Dawyck was actually a distinct species, since known as the Dawyck beech.
Sir John was also responsible for commissioning the architect William Burn to build the Dawyck House you see today after its predecessor was destroyed by fire in 1830. He also landscaped the area above the house, either side of the Scrape Glen, and planted many specimen trees sent back to the UK by plant collectors such as David Douglas. In large measure the garden you see today was first established by Sir John.
The estate was purchased by Mrs Alexander Balfour in 1897. Her son, Fred Balfour, travelled widely and sponsored many plant collectors to send back trees from, in particular, North America and Asia. He also planted hundreds of rhododendrons and millions of daffodils beneath the trees. He left the estate to his son, Colonel A.N. Balfour, in 1945, who in turn gave it to the nation in 1978.
The 60 acre garden given to the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in 1978 carried the heritage of three centuries of tree collecting. It also bore the scars of a serious storm in 1968, and another in 1973, and suffered from a serious invasion of salmonberry, innocently introduced by Fred Balfour as game cover in 1908. Dead and dangerous trees were removed; windbreaks were replaced; paths and tracks were built; and the salmonberry was fought back. By the end of the 1980s, the garden was ready to receive newly planted trees, and a series of plant collecting expeditions were launched to Asia.
At one level, the Dawyck Botanic Garden you see today can be appreciated simply as a magnificent and large scale hillside garden to be enjoyed for its own sake, and whose complex network of paths and numerous and varied distinct areas make a map an essential companion for any first time visitor. At another level it can be appreciated as one of the finest collections of trees you are likely to find anywhere, especially trees originating in North America and Asia. And at a third level, it is fascinating to wander round and begin to appreciate what can be achieved by commitment and enthusiasm over three centuries of development.