The Laird of Livingston's Legacy

Article in Konect Livingston and Calders, June 2012

by Yvonne Macmillan 

Eliburn South’s Peel Park was once the location of the Laird O’ Livingston’s physic garden. 

Patrick Murray (1634 – 1671) had a passion for collecting and growing plants. Described as “one of the most promising men of science of his time”, Murray’s physic garden in the grounds of his home at Livingston Peel stocked 1,000 species of plants, and when he died this invaluable collection became the foundation for today’s Edinburgh Botanic Gardens.

Physic gardens were European medieval medicinal gardens where medicine, botany and gardening inter-linked and doctors were as well known and influential in botany as medicine. Botanic gardens followed physic gardens when whole continents began to be discovered and shiploads of new species were brought back to Europe for scientific interest.  

A botanical pioneer and “famous for collecting seeds, plants and exotica”, Patrick Murray was a good friend of Robert Sibbald (1641 – 1722) and Andrew Balfour (1630 – 1694), two Scottish physicians and botanists who went on to found the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh. The garden at Livingston inspired them to start a medical garden in Edinburgh – a place where supplies of fresh plants and herbs for medical prescriptions were on hand and medical students would study botany. 

Sibbald and Balfour wrote an official list for the medical profession of acceptable drugs and how to make them (The Pharmacopoeia, published 29 years later in 1699), a great advance in regulating medical care in the 17th century. Work on the first physic garden for physicians in Edinburgh began in 1670.

The following year, Patrick Murray, Laird O’ Livingston, died of a fever at the age of 35 in Avignon, France, whilst on a two year-long trip to France and Italy. Murray had bequeathed his precious plants to Andrew Balfour and the massive task of digging up and transplanting the collection got underway. Plants were carefully and painstakingly moved, cartload by cartload, to a rented 40ft x 40ft allotment in St Anne’s Yards, in the grounds of the Palace of Holyrood House - the site of today’s public car park for the Palace and the Scottish Parliament. Five years later with the garden flourishing, the plants were uprooted again, to a bigger plot of land leased from the Town Council - next to where platform 11 in Waverley Station stands today (a commemorative plaque marks the spot). A final move in the early 1820s to Inverleith Row, a change of name to Edinburgh Botanic Gardens and the journey of Murray’s plants was complete.  

The Murray family seat at Livingston Peel was a fortified stone tower on a large, earthen mound and surrounded by a moat built in 1124 by de Leving, a Flemish nobleman invited to Scotland by King David 1.* In return for military service to the king, de Leving was given a grant of land. Other more humble dwellings sprang up around the tower with the people attracted by work and its protection. The settlement became known as Leving’s toun, then as time passed this name became Livingston. A street sign near the entrance to Peel Park holds on to the old spelling - Leving Place – a connection with the past.

Originally from Elibank in Peebles-shire, the Murray family acquired Livingston Peel and surrounding lands in 1512. Livingston was a huge but sparsely populated parish (around 2,000 inhabitants), stretching 10 miles from Dechmont in the east to Fauldhouse in the west. Mainly, it was rough, open countryside, dotted with small patches of cultivated land and large areas of wet moorland like Drumshoreland, Easter Inch, Whitburn and Fauldhouse moors.

In 1995, Livingston Development Corporation (LDC) commemorated Patrick Murray’s contribution to the natural science of botany by recreating a physic garden in Peel Park, the site of Murray’s original garden. At the heart of the LDC’s garden, an information panel and diagram (sadly now hard to read) shows the layout of different beds – medicinal plants of 1670, culinary herbs of 1670, medicinal plants used from 1670 to the present day – although now, ivy swamps the other plants. Box and yew hedging give structure, dividing the beds and bordering paths and other larger, open spaces, tempting you to explore. Rows of lollipop-like trees line ramrod-straight walkways leading off in all directions like the points of a compass and give the garden an open, spacious feeling. The only survivors from the old estate are the mature trees.

About 30 paces from the information point, the LDC built a circular grass mound surrounded by a cobblestone moat, a wooden bridge and 16 steps take you to the top. This simple structure represents the original Livingston Peel. Although Patrick Murray lived in the Peel, his nephew who inherited the estate built a substantial manor house close to the Peel called Livingston Place. A low stone wall erected by the LDC on the line of the original manor house’s foundations give an idea of its size. A fitting tribute to the Laird O’ Livingston saw Lord Murray of Elibank plant Livingston’s 500,000th tree on the new town’s 10th anniversary in 1972 in the recreated Patrick Murray Physic Garden.

Plant collectors risked life and limb on their quests for new species. Like Murray, they had a thirst for knowledge and were driven by a need to explore nature and share their discoveries - our landscapes were shaped by their efforts.

*Historians have differing opinions on the origin of the name Livingston, and the identity of de Leving himself. The information here is just one of several possible explanations.

Information from West Lothian Local History Library and The Sibbald Physic Garden by Dr M A Eastwood