Walter Nicol was born in Niddry, not far from Edinburgh. He was the son of a gardener but as a young boy stubbornly refused to follow his father’s profession, preferring an apprenticeship to a shoemaker.
It was during the time that his father, John Nicol, had management of the gardens of the Raith Estate, near Kirkcaldy, however, that Walter experienced a dramatic change of heart. Despite blindness in his right eye caused by a childhood affliction, Walter became a proficient land surveyor and draughtsman.
His first position as a gardener, in 1787, took him to Raynham Hall, the Norfolk home of the Marquess of Townshend. Two years later, he returned to Scotland to take charge of the gardens of Wemyss Castle, Fife, recently re-designed by his father, where he remained until 1797.
Walter made significant additions to his father's layout and drew up lavish designs for heated walls to enable the forcing of tree-fruit, his avowed aim being 'to provide stone fruit for almost every month of the year'. He also designed pineapple pits and mushroom houses. Nicol's friend and editor, Edward Sang, wrote later: 'No spot in the kingdom could exhibit a nicer display of horticultural skill'.
The decision for Nicol and his family to suddenly to leave Wemyss may have been due to the rising costs of the hothouse furnaces, which used 100 tons of coal per annum.
The Scotch Forcing and Kitchen Gardener, was published in 1797 and remained in print for the next 20 years. Nicol took to advertising within his own publications and came to regard The Practical Planter of 1799 as the work which brought him most favourably to the notice of a wide audience, particularly in Scotland.
His primary skills lay in the design and maintenance of hothouses, the maintenance of kitchen and flower gardens, as well as the profitable rejeuvenation of forestry plantations.
In 1800 Nicol began the improvement of the parkland surrounding the splendid mansion at Duncrub near Crieff, Perthshire for Lord Rollo. He undertook much of his work in that county and later worked at Invermay in 1802, Ochtertyre in 1805 and at Gartmore. In 1806 he travelled to Dalhousie Castle in Mid-Lothian where he redesigned the walled gardens and laid out the principal driveway to the north.
Nicol was of the opinion that several different kinds of soil could be necessary in the same garden, often removing thousands of cubic yards of gravel or clay and replacing the original substrate with more fertile soils to achieve a base for horticultural perfection. His methods have been emulated by landscape gardeners ever since.
Through the continuing success of his endeavours and the popularity of his reference works, Nicol was invited to become a founder member of the Caledonian Horticultural Society in 1809, appointed joint-secretary and nominated for the judging committee.
As with so many of his generation, Nicol was possessed of worthy ambitions and rigour of mind that over-exerted his constitution. Seemingly in his prime and having overcome a debilitating rheumatic fever just a few years previously, Nicol undertook the writing of The Planter's Kalendar and agreed to write a treatise on gardens and orchards for the Board of Agriculture. Intending to complete these objectives with his customary thoroughness, Nicol resolved upon an extended tour of the principal estates in England.
On 1 January 1811, upon his return to Scotland, he caught a severe chill, which duly developed into an oedema. He died on 5 March 1811, just short of his 42nd birthday. Fifteen years after his death he was described by J.C.Loudon as 'a Scotch horticultural architect and author of merit'. Patrick Neill, joint-secretary of The Caledonian Horticultural Society with Nicol, wrote of him in 1843 that he was, 'A most distinguished horticulturalist of his day, and eminent in his profession as a landscape gardener'.
"The Scotch Forcing and Kitchen Gardener" 1797
"The Practical Planter" 1799
"The Villa Garden Directory"1809
"The Gardener's Kalendar" 1810
"The Planter's Kalendar" 1812
Tait, A, A (1980) The Landscape Gardener in Scotland 1735-1835, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh
Byrom, C (2000) "Walter Nicol (1769-1811): A Life Revealed" RCHS Journal
Sang, E (2000) "Biographick Memoir..." RCHS journal 2000
McIntosh, C (1853) The Book of the Garden William Blackwood, London
Also with grateful thanks to Ms.Charlotte Wemyss, Wemyss Castle, Fife, and Mr.W.Duncan, Drumeldrie, Fife.
Contributor: Jonathan Cass