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Issue 66 - Biblical Proportions

Scotland Magazine Issue 66
December 2012


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Biblical Proportions

Forbes Inglis meets the brains behind an extraordinary garden in Elgin

In Shaw’s Pygmalion, the play which gave rise to the musical My Fair Lady, Professor Higgins remarks ‘Happy is the man who can make a living from his hobby’ and in Forres I came across just such a man. Donnie McBean of Forres has spent a lifetime in horticulture and his knowledge is still in demand, despite the fact that he has officially retired twice.

Born in Inverness, Donnie’s family was living in Glasgow by the time he left school and, after a year as a garden boy, he started a formal apprenticeship with the City Council at the age of 16. Working in such a large organisation gave Donnie a breadth of opportunity which he put to good use and his undoubted talent saw him promoted regularly until, shortly after local authority reorganisation in 1975, he found himself in charge of 200 staff. He recalls the challenge involved in preparing George Square for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 but says he felt he had lost touch with the hands-on part of the job.

While on holiday in Forres he walked into the offices of the Parks’ Department at Moray Council, more or less on impulse, and asked if they had any job vacancies. He was pretty much offered a job there and then which, despite a substantial drop in income, he accepted.

The move proved to be beneficial for both parties as Donnie’s innovative and artistic flair soon brought a clutch of awards; the Scotland in Bloom title was captured eleven times in almost as many years, the best kept town in Scotland trophy, Britain in Bloom three times, and many more.

Donnie believes that virtually anything can be depicted in flowers and displays of peacocks and teddy bears, an angling scene and a horse, plough and ploughman all won awards. The peacock display attracted so much attention that there were traffic jams and near accidents as drivers and pedestrians tried to get photographs.

There were also competitive visits to the Ayr Flower Show where, in different years, floral displays featuring a Buckie drifter, a whisky themed exhibit, and a floral composition of giant vegetables, called ‘cock-a-leekie’s kitchen’, were rewarded with gold medals.

Of all the awards Donnie says the highlight was undoubtedly when Forres, representing Scotland, finished just two points behind winners Holland in the 1990 Entente Florale, effectively a Europe in Bloom competition. The Forres entry was a floral portrayal of the flags of the participating countries, with local girl guides, each dressed in the national costume of one of the entrants, standing behind their respective flags during the judging.

With so much changing in local government Donnie opted for early retirement in 1997 but he soon found that his expertise continued to be in demand. The local newspaper, The Northern Scot, asked him to write a weekly column and, despite his initial reservations about the role, Donnie has been doing that since 1998.

Moray College got in touch to invite him to become a part-time lecturer and he started doing six hours per week there but over time his hours increased until he was a full time member of the staff. Before long, BBC Scotland invited him to join the Beechgrove Potting Shed – Sunday lunchtimes on Radio Scotland - where once a month Donnie continues to dispense gardening advice along with some of his trademark humour.

After eight years at Moray College Donnie decided it was time to retire again. i.e. he reduced his hours to one day per week. At 71 he teaches a gardening class at Kinloss and is involved in community and volunteer gardening projects and still finds time to do a bit of fishing and painting in water colours as well as his media duties.

Donnie’s most enduring legacy is undoubtedly Elgin’s biblical garden, opened in 1996, which is certainly an appropriate attraction for a town which has a cathedral, founded in 1224, as its best known landmark.

Open from 10.00am to 7.30pm daily from May to September, the three acre site is a haven of colour which varies almost weekly during the summer months giving visitors an ever changing experience, while at the same time offering peace, tranquillity and a place of meditation.

The garden’s paved pathways form a Celtic cross with a sculpture, representing Jesus, the only figure depicted in white, meeting the Samaritan woman at the well, at its centre.

This wonderful garden is home to 73 of the 110 plants mentioned in the Bible with cross references to the relevant biblical passage and explanations as to their uses. So we learn that thistles and thorns, Genesis 3. 18, were used for animal fodder and fuel, while plants such as leeks, onions and garlic, Numbers 11. 5, could be used as food or medicine. Balm, Genesis 37. 25, was grown for its oils and perfume and Sycomore (sic), Luke 19. 4, provided building timber.

Additionally, the garden has several other life size figures portraying characters from Bible stories, such as Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, the return of the Prodigal Son and many others. Other parts of the garden depict the cave where Jesus’ body was laid, a pool and marsh area representing the Nile where the baby Moses was found and a magnificent floral representation of the rainbow seen by Noah after the flood.

During term time the garden is maintained by the students from Moray College UHI and at other times by Moray Council. As Donnie showed me around the garden we met a number of the students all of whom greeted him warmly yet respectfully, a tribute to his almost legendary status in horticultural circles.

Donnie’s pride in the layout, colour and variety found in the garden is obvious and he told me “It brings in people from all over the world who get comfort from it. Many visitors, particularly the recently bereaved, find the quiet and peacefulness spiritually uplifting, while for others the attraction is simply that of a garden”.

If Elgin and religion are closely intertwined then the same might be said about Donnie McBean and horticulture.

A man happy making a living from his hobby? Donnie says that if he had his time over he would gladly do it all again, exactly as before!

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