Geddes in Edinburgh’s Old Town


Six months married, Patrick took Anna, pregnant with Norah, from the comfort of their Princes Street apartment to live in James Court, not far from Riddle’s Court. Shoeless children with dirty faces characterised the overcrowded slum that this part of town had become. The Geddeses were on a mission. They started cleaning and painting their new home, making it habitable and attractive, encouraging their neighbours to do likewise. Geddes then started to employ his approach of ‘conservative surgery’ keeping and restoring the best houses “weeding out the worst that surrounded them…widening the narrow closes into courtyards” letting in light and air.

Working with the residents he transformed some of the spaces he had cleared into community gardens. Gardens were vital for Geddes, not just as an aesthetic, but as the source of oxygen and life or, as he famously said, “by leaves we live”.

He also bought Riddle’s Court at this time, turning it into a self-governing students’ hall of residence.

Image at right: Layout for King's Wall Garden by Norah Geddes (University of Strathclyde)

Champion of the arts

Alongside this inspired utilitarianism he furthered his beliefs in incorporating culture and learning.

He commissioned a huge narrative painting on the ceiling of the dining hall in Riddle’s Court; worked with artist John Duncan to produce Evergreen, a publication endorsing the values of the Celtic Renaissance, and commissioned the design and building of Ramsay Garden in the tradition of the Arts and Crafts Movement. 


In the same period as all this he lectured in Botany at both Edinburgh and Dundee Universities; held summer schools in Edinburgh and London and set up The Outlook Tower. This innovative project encouraged people to observe the relationships between place, work and people within Edinburgh. Geddes himself was often the enthusiastic guide, bounding two steps at a time, to the top where a panoramic view of the city was revealed. 

Image at left: Wardrops Court and Lady Stair's House ca. early 1900s