The Lady of West Port Garden

In the early 1900s, Norah Geddes was a leading light behind several garden areas created within the city of Edinburgh.

Norah was a member of the Open Spaces Committee, based at the Outlook Tower on the Castle Hill (pictured below). In 1908, the group carried out a survey to locate sites within the city that could be used to provide outdoor recreation areas for the local residents and their children. Their research found seventy five sites between the Castle Hill and Holyrood, unsuitable for building, some of which could be rented for a shilling a year.

The group’s first garden, designed by Norah and Louise Mears, opened at Castle Wynd in May1909. The following year, inspired by her father, Norah designed the layout for a garden next to the Salvation Army Womens’ Hostel in the Grassmarket. Extending from the police box to the back of Edinburgh College of Art, the garden consists of 930 square yards of natural terracing.

Opened from early May until late September, and run by groups of women volunteers, the gardens containing sandpits and swings. The children were provided with dolls, wooden barrows and books. In addition to using the gardens as a play area, the children were encouraged to help plant the bulbs and seeds donated by the local residents and to assist with the weeding,

Norah Geddes was born at James Court, Lawnmarket, Edinburgh in 1887. Her parents were Professor Patrick Geddes the sociologist and town planner and Anna Morton the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Her brother Alisdair was born in 1891, followed by Arthur four years later.

Norah married Frank Mears her father’s assistant in 1915. An architect, Frank had worked with the professor and his daughter to design the layout for the Scottish National Zoological Garden in Corstorphine. Their eldest son, Kenneth, was born the following year; Alastair in 1918, and John two years later.

Norah’s marriage – unlike many of the time – did not slow down her work. A girls’ club, a toddlers’ group were held in the garden, and the 46th Holyrood Boy Scout troop started meeting in the garden’s wooden hut. In 1924, Sir William Sleigh, the Lord Provost, provided Norah and her volunteers with funding to buy equipment to start a boxing club

In 1952, Frank, who had now been knighted, and Norah, decided to visit their eldest son who had settled in New Zealand. Lord Mears died in Christchurch the following year. His memorial plaque can be seen on the south side of Warriston Crematorium. Norah, Lady Mears, continued to work in the garden until her death in 1967, and was then also cremated at Warriston.

The West Port Garden was revitalised by the Grassmarket Residents’ Association in partnership with the City of Edinburgh Council and Edinburgh World Heritage in 2013. Situated next to a busy thoroughfare, the trees and shrubbery continue to provide a sanctuary for blackbirds, chaffinches, dunnocks, goldfinches, robins, thrushes, tits and wrens. The local residents continue to meet in the garden which is still maintained by volunteers.

Well worth a visit if you’re in the area, the West Port Garden is open to the public on Sundays from 2-4pm. Remember to give a thought to Norah Mears whose legacy lives on.

Image of the Outlook Tower from Wiki Commons





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