In 1661 the Hospital Masters “caus level the yaird of the said hospital and make a walking green thereof and plant it about with plain trees and the like, and to pavement the close and outwalke (terrace) with hewin stones” A gardener was appointed in 1667 and flowers and fruit trees flourished. A hedge of “300 thornes” was planted in 1670 on the north and east sides. Visible traces of rectangular plots can be seen on an1997 aerial photograph suggesting that beds typical of the late 17th century may lie under the present bowling green. In 1673 a sundial was set up.
In 1701 the ballasters in the high walk (upper terrace) were erected and trees and plants including walnut, apricots, peaches and double yellow roses were brought from Holland. Little regard was given to the growing conditions in Scotland which meant that some of the plants were planted in baskets that could be moved indoors over the winter months. In 1707, Sir Robert Sibbald testified that Cowane’s Hospital had a “very fine garden adjoining to it.” In 1712, Thomas Harlaw, gardener to the Earl of Mar, was paid £25 to design the garden and in 1713 was paid for directing the levelling of the Hospital yards for a bowling green. The formal layout of the garden dates from this time and may be compared to the plans for the Earl of Mar’s “Great Garden” at Alloa. Work also involved re-siting the sundial and making up new borders and the new parterre garden.
A parterre meaning “on the ground” was fashionable in the 16th and 17th century and is designed to create compartments or beds surrounded by box hedging similar to the pattern of a Persian carpet. It is infilled with colourful bedding plants and coloured gravels or sands. Over time the plantings at Cowane’s changed from purely medicinal herbs such as thyme, hyssop, wormwood, chamomile, rue, sage and lavender to garden flowers such as marigolds, gilly flowers (pinks), hellebores, anemone blanda, forget-me-nots, pansies, stocks, hardy geraniums and mixed hardy annuals. Later in the 18th century, standard roses, small topiary trees of holly or yew clipped into ornamental shapes gave height and interest as a central focus to the parterre beds. In 1746 features of the parterre garden can be seen on a Board of Ordnance map by Dougal Campbell.
In 1779 stringent rules had to be drawn up to prevent “all and sundry” (boys and maidservants) from making a thoroughfare of the garden.
In 1842 (and 1936), the Guildry gathered on the green with clergy, magistrates and town councillors for royal visits. When Cowane’s Hospital was transformed into a Guildhall in 1852, the garden reflected this change. With the terrace for viewing, it offered a quiet place
for the public to enjoy a game of bowls, the military band, or the Highland Society dancing festivals. A fine setting for a civic ceremony, civic pride led to the installation of further garden furnishings including two Crimean cannons exhibited in the garden, a fountain and a flagpole to attract tourists. At this time, the garden provided cultural and recreational activities where “numbers of the beauty and the fashion of the town and neighbourhood are to be found promenading”.
In 1946 Cowane’s parterre garden came under threat as the bowling club sought to enlarge the green for its official games. The Ministry of Works objected that any encroachment would cause the sundial to be removed and “adversely affect the historic features of the buildings and the amenity of the garden”. Finally, in 1986, after prolonged pressure from the bowling club, the bowling green was allowed to extend into the parterre. Thankfully, not all of the parterre was lost.
The Gardens have recently been listed by Historic Scotland in their Inventory of Gardens and Designed Landscapes in Scotland. To view the Historic Scotland listings follow these links: