The 4-hectare Palace gardens are encircled by the Queen’s park and set against the spectacular backdrop of Arthur’s Seat.
The first gardens associated with the site were granted in Holyrood Abbey’s foundation charter and belonged to the community of canons. They were established at the foot of Edinburgh Castle, where Princes Street Gardens are today. Over time several more gardens and orchards were created around the Abbey.
Holyrood Abbey offered the right of sanctuary for those who could not pay their debts. The debtors, known as ‘Abbey lairds’, found shelter from their creditors within the Abbey boundaries, which included Holyrood Park. As the debtors were only allowed to leave the sanctuary on Sundays, tradesmen saw the opportunity to set up business in the vicinity. Several of them occupied buildings that still survive today in the Abbey Strand.
In 1503, James IV built the first royal palace on the site, and Holyroodhouse became the main royal residence in Scotland. The gardens provided the setting for tournaments, hunting, hawking and archery, and there was a tennis court to the west, near the Abbey Strand buildings.
The area around the north wall of Holyrood Abbey was the site of the Palace menagerie, a common feature at European courts. Tigers (in the reign of James IV), lynx, bears, gamecocks, an ape (given to James V in 1535) and a camel (in the reign of James VI) were housed here. A lion yard and stone lion house were built in 1512.
By the time Mary, Queen of Scots was resident at the Palace, there was a series of enclosed gardens, including a walled Privy Garden to the north, and areas for cultivation and recreation. Mary practiced archery, hawking, hunting (for which wild boars were brought from France), bowls and tennis in the garden. A young sycamore that she brought with her from France was planted by the Abbey cloister. It grew here until 1819, when it was blown down and its wood made into trinkets. A Scottish sycamore grows in this part of the garden today.
One of the garden’s earliest features is Queen Mary's Sundial, made by John Mylne in 1633 for Charles I's coronation in the Abbey. It carries the insignias of Charles I and his grandmother, Mary, Queen of Scots. Sundials were popular in 16th- and 17th-century Scotland – it is thought that they were more common in Scotland at this time than in any other country in Europe.
Charles II’s expansion of the Palace in the 1670s originally included a new Privy Garden with gravel walks and statuary. The newly created State Apartments would have overlooked the garden, but the plans were never carried out.
A small physic garden was established at the Palace in 1670 and became the origins of Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden. Its purpose was to teach students the rudiments of botany and the medicinal properties of plants, and to provide pharmacists with fresh material. The garden was still flourishing in the early 18th century, when Daniel Defoe described it as ‘tolerably well stored with simples, and some exotics of value’ and having ‘a rhubarb tree, or plant…which throve very well’ (A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain of 1724).
At the height of its occupation as a sanctuary, Holyrood sheltered around 6,500 debtors, including members of the aristocracy. Among them was the Comte d'Artois, younger brother of the French king, Louis XVI. In exile since the beginning of the French Revolution, the Comte led an army against the French revolutionary troops. Defeated and unable to pay his soldiers, he arrived at Holyrood in 1796, having been granted refuge by the British government. In 1830-32 he returned to the Palace, this time as the deposed Charles X of France and accompanied by his two grandchildren. His grandson, the Duc de Bordeaux practised archery in the gardens, irritating locals by shooting on a Sunday. Before he left Edinburgh for good, Charles X was seen taking seeds from the flower garden that he had tended for two years. Although imprisonment for debt was abolished in 1880, the ancient right of sanctuary within the grounds of Holyrood has never been repealed.
By the time Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their family stayed at the Palace, the gardens were overgrown, and the surrounding area consisted of slums and industrial buildings. Prince Albert created a new carriage approach to the north of the Palace, sweeping away the Privy Garden in the process, and established new planting areas to the north and south. A garden wall to the east provided the same effect as the original 18th-century ha-ha, or hidden ditch, giving the impression that the Palace garden flowed into the expanse of Holyrood Park beyond.
The Palace gardens have been improved and updated during the present reign. The Jubilee Border was originally planted with silver flowers and plants to mark The Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. In 2002 the planting scheme was changed to celebrate the Golden Jubilee and now includes yellow roses, potentillas, coreopsis and verbascum.
Every year 8,000 guests attend The Queen’s Garden Party at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, a tradition established by King George V and Queen Mary. On such occasions The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh are accompanied by the Royal Company of Archers, which since 1822 has served as the Sovereign’s bodyguard in Scotland. The Royal Company was originally formed as an Archery Club in 1676, and the longbow is still its principal weapon. They practise archery in the Palace gardens three times a week during the summer months and compete for The Queen's Prize each year before the Garden Party.
During The Queen’s Garden Party the bandmaster stands on the garden’s famous mound to conduct the band. The mound was always thought to be a manmade landscape feature, until an archaeological dig by Channel 4’s ‘Time Team’ in 2006 revealed it to be the remains of a 17th-century kitchen midden.
Today seven greenhouses supply the Palace of Holyroodhouse with flowers for the visits of The Prince Charles, Duke of Rothesay and the Lord High Commissioner, for Royal Week and for many other official events that take place throughout the year.