The History of The Caley

The Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society, known affectionately as ‘The Caley’, was established in 1809 by a group of seventeen Edinburgh worthies at a meeting held at the Royal College of Physicians, set up for the ‘encouragement and improvement of the best fruit, the most choice flowers and most useful culinary vegetables’. Since the beginning, the Society has welcomed skilled professionals, amateurs, nurserymen and other interested parties. 

The inspiration for the Society came from the Horticultural Society, founded in London five years earlier and there were many links between the two societies. In the early days, as it is now, the activities of the Society were focused on a mix of the theoretical and the practical sides of gardening and horticulture; medals and certificates were awarded, and shows were held.

The initial subscription was one guinea a year for ordinary members, but noblemen or gentlemen were invited to join free as honorary members. By 1829 a membership of 1,000 or so had been built up. Many of the well-known figures of the City joined, among them the artist Henry Raeburn, judge Henry Cockburn and architect William Playfair, and there were strong links between the Society and the creation of the gardens of Edinburgh New Town. 

Meetings were held in the Royal College of Physicians and one of the first prizes offered by the Society was a silver medal for the best radishes grown in open ground, awarded to James Thomson, from Duddingston, who sent 500 radishes to market on 12th April 1810.

The Society was ambitious and the creation of a garden, first mooted in 1810, was a high priority. It was partly to fulfil the role of giving advice on the best varieties and methods of cultivation, and partly to test, in local conditions, the many new plants arriving as a result of the travels of the plant hunters, that made the Society put so much of its energy into developing a garden. In 1823 the Society took on the lease of 10 acres of land in Inverleith, adjacent to the new site of the Botanic Garden, which was moving from the cramped quarters of its Leith Walk site. 

In 1825 William McNab, Curator of the Botanic Garden drew up a plan for the new garden which included something for everyone: orchards; a lockable experimental garden; a culinarium where ‘new and or little known varieties of culinary vegetables will be fairly tried’; an area for growing stocks for grafting and budding; nurseries; a wall for the finer kind of fruit trees; a rosary and compartments for perennials and annuals. The garden was known as the Experimental Garden and donations of plants were received from all over the world.

An Exhibition Hall (now the Caledonian Hall in the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh) in which the Society could hold shows as well as meetings was completed in 1843. The cost of running such an elaborate garden, plus the annual rent of £140, proved a heavy burden for the Society. In the late 1840s the membership went into a period of decline and in 1864 the Experimental Garden was incorporated into the Royal Botanic Garden in 1864.

In 1865 further relief to financial problems was offered by amalgamating with the Edinburgh Horticultural Society, which had many more members but a much shorter history. The name of the Society survived. Shows were the focus of affairs and, as earlier in the century, there were an astonishing array of classes and entries. Many of the competitors at these shows were gardeners to big houses or nurserymen, others were amateurs. This cross germination of horticultural knowledge between professional and amateur has always been one of the important functions of the Society.

Shortly after the First World War, the Society joined forces with the Scottish Horticultural Association; there was considerable overlap of both function and membership and both societies had suffered from the War. Although at the time the S.H.A. was the stronger society, the Royal Patronage was not transferable so once again the name of the Society survived.

Patron, HRH Princess Anne officially re-opens Saughton Park following an £8million refurbishment, with David Knott (Caley President) and Pam Whittle (Ho. Vice President). Photographed by Greg MacVean

Royal Patronage has been an important factor in the esteem in which the Society has been held. In 1820 the Earl of Hopetoun, who was President at the time, obtained the Patronage of George IV, and in 1824 the Society received its first Royal Charter. Since then there have been two more Royal Charters, the latest in 2008. The Princess Royal is now the Patron having succeeded her grandmother, the Queen Mother, who was patron for 50 years.

Whilst The Caley cherishes its past, it strives to maintain a modern outlook, helping as a registered Scottish charity, to promote, encourage and support a wide range of horticultural and gardening interests, including a range of educational projects. 

The Caley have recently moved into a new home base within Saughton Park in Edinburgh, with an office in the park along with teaching and demonstration gardens and offering an ever-expanding range of classes and workshops. Regular Saughton Sunday activities take place on the first Sunday of every month, full details of which can be found on the website. http://www.thecaley.org.uk. 

The Caley is always ready to welcome new members and offers a wide range of benefits to encourage you to join. From workshops and classes to talks and trips there is sure to be something to interest anyone in Scotland with a love of plants and gardening. To find out more about how to join Scotland’s National Horticultural and Gardening Society, go to https://thecaley.org.uk/join/.

With thanks to Anna Buxton for the historical information on the Society.

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