Mr Botanic Gardens retires after 46 years in the West End

Ewen Donaldson
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The man who made Glasgow Botanic Gardens his work and home has retired after 46 years at the park.

Ewen Donaldson has been the Garden’s manager since 1992 – but had worked at the Garden in one capacity or another since 1972.

Bar three years studying horticulture at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh and two years on the Southside, Ewen has spent his working life in the West End.

A school leaver at 15, Ewen started his apprenticeship at Glasgow’s parks in 1970.

His first two years were spent working at Bellahouston Park and Rosshall Park before he made the switch to the Botanic Gardens. 

And for 39 years he has lived in the Garden grounds in one of the lodges by the main gates – making the house a family home.

He spoke to Glasgow West End Today just before he was due to finish up.

“It feels a bit strange, a bit overwhelming, because it’s been such a long time,” said Ewen.

“I have become part of the West End and I have made friends with a lot of the staff here.

“Some have worked here for a little bit longer than me.

“One gardener has been here 46 years continuously.”

Ewen Donaldson is presented with his leaving gift. Photo: Friends of Glasgow Botanic Gardens.

He said: “My family were brought up in the gatehouse, and I have lived in the Botanic Gardens for 39 years.

“It’s a nice house. People think it might be noisy next to Great Western Road, but it’s a great place to stay.

“We have had two children raised there and they are now grown up and elsewhere.

“It was a great family home and an unusual place to live.

“But of course very handy for work and good for dealing with crazy things that might happen out of hours.

“Things like dealing with boilers (for the Glasshouses) that break down in the middle of the night!”

“It feels a bit strange, a bit overwhelming, because it’s been such a long time”

Ewen Donaldson

Ewen grew up in Milton of Campsie where his parents had a smallholding. 

Plants, gardening and the outdoors were in his blood at a young age.

“I helped my parents in the garden and had my own garden and I propagated plants as a child.

“We had plants and I didn’t even know what some of them were.

“And it was only later in life that I began to find out what they were.

“I was never interested in school to be honest. I wanted out and I left when I was 15.

“My mum was determined that I would get an apprenticeship.

How it all began: Ewen in the early years.

“And I applied to Glasgow and at that time they would take people from outside the city.

“Now they tend not to do that – so I was fortunate.”

He recalls the daily commute by bus from Stirlingshire to his first post at Bellahouston Park.

“It was quite a long when you are 15 – and that was every day.

“After my first year, they moved me to Rosshall Park which I loved but was even further out, towards Paisley.

“I would get the bus in from Milton of Campsie and usually another bus out to Bellahouston.

“That took about an hour and a half.”

“I was never interested in school to be honest. I wanted out and I left when I was 15. “My mum was determined that I would get an apprenticeship”

Ewen Donaldson

Of his wage back then he said:  “When I started as an apprentice I was earning £4 17s a week.

“My mum took the money and gave me a ten shilling note back – 50p nowadays – and she said that’s yours, the rest is for keep!

“Later on my wages went up and I agreed to pay her a certain amount.”

Ewen was in charge of 30 members of staff at the Gardens, including gardeners, rangers and tearoom staff.

During his time, the glasshouses and the famous Kibble Palace have been fulled restored.

The collection of plants and trees both inside and outside in the grounds has also increased.

“People often think that the Botanic Gardens is the glasshouses. It’s not, it’s the whole thing.

“It’s a scientific collection of plants that are displayed indoors and outdoors.”

Ewen oversaw the restoration of the Garden’s glasshouses, including the famous Kibble Palace. Photo: Friends of Glasgow Botanic Gardens

The pandemic has proved the value of Glasgow’s parks and open spaces.

Glaswegians have taken to their favourite green places to exercise and escape the pressures of life.

“It’s been so busy over the last year during the pandemic, so many people have been coming in, walking and enjoying their exercise,” says Ewen.

“People have said how much they have enjoyed getting into the gardens.”

Curator Andrew Sinclair has taken on management duties at the Gardens temporarily.

His challenge will be to get the Gardens fully open to the public as restrictions ease over the coming months.

The Gardens will then have to consider how it welcomes school parties again, education being one of its big purposes.

Ewen said: “For years we had very large numbers of schools coming in and that might not happen for a while.

“The gardens will be reviewing how it does education for schools.”

Ewen and his wife Fiona are looking for a new home in the south of Scotland.

They will take the next few months to look around – and get on the property ladder for the first time!

Ewen said: “We have an idea to go down to Dumfries and Galloway, and we are looking there.

“That is the next project for me and my wife.

“That will be a big change for us.

“I have never owned a house, and I have been very fortunate. Since the age of 23 I have lived in tied houses.

“I have paid rent but I have not owned a house, so this is a new experience.

“I would like a garden and probably a small glasshouse to grow Alpine plants which I am very interested in.

“I would like to get back into hillwalking as well which I have done over the years.”

‘Fantastic service’

He received a send-off last week from colleagues and the Friends of Glasgow Botanic Gardens.

The group posted a message on Twitter which read: “Ewen Donaldson will retire as Botanics manager on Friday and head off for another adventure.

“All staff and regular visitors wish him well for the future.”

A spokesman for Glasgow City Council said: “Ewen has given fantastic service to Glasgow over the course of an extensive career with the council.

“His expertise, passion and commitment to the Botanic Gardens has helped make it one of the most loved parks in Glasgow, if not Scotland, and he will be sorely missed.

“He will take with him the best wishes of everyone at the council and will fully deserve a long and enjoyable retirement.”

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