The historical development of the landscape at Newbattle Abbey has not been researched in any depth to date. Nevertheless the major influences on its development can be discerned from consideration of both the known family history of the Earls of Lothian, and from the general architectural history of the estate.
The later, secular estate of Newbattle Abbey originated from the Cistercian foundation of Newbattle Abbey, the 'most important medieval monastic house in the Lothians' (McWilliam, 1978). The Cistercians, primarily farmers, generally sited their houses in fertile river valleys with easy access to water. Founded in 1140, the church was dedicated to St Mary in 1233, but was secularised by 1587. Mark Kerr (d.1584), abbot of Newbattle, renounced popery at the Reformation in 1560, but continued to hold the benefice in commendam, that is until a pastor was appointed. This was never to happen, thereby Newbattle Abbey, a premier Midlothian estate, passed to the Kerr family, and became a seat of the Earls of Lothian for the next 400 years. The remains of the conventual buildings, burned by the English in 1548, were incorporated into the mansion c1580 by the son of Abbot Kerr, Mark Kerr (d.1609), created 1st Earl of Lothian in 1604. His Newbattle lands were formed into a barony in 1587 and in 1589 Newbattle united with Prestongrange to become the lordship of Newbattle.
William Kerr (1605?-75), son of 1st Lord Ancrum, who married Anne Kerr, Countess of Lothian in 1631 and thereby became 3rd Earl of Lothian, undertook a Grand Tour in 1620. His travel journal survives. A leading Convenanter, he was Governor of Newcastle in 1640, Lieutenant General of the Scots army in Ireland and a member of the Commission at Breda who sought to invite Charles II to Scotland. 1st Lord Ancrum, Gentleman of the Bedchamber and Keeper of the Privy Purse, was a close friend of Charles I and it was probably through him that Newbattle's famous collection of books, pictures and sculpture originated. There is evidence that the house was aggrandised with a formal west façade with classical orders and it may be that the grand formal approach to Newbattle Abbey was first laid out for the 3rd Earl (McWilliam, 1978, p.348 mentions work by John Mylne of a new west front).
Important survivals from the 17th century gardens are two multi-faced sundials, (moved to their present position before 1889). By the 1720s there is a description of the gardens, which mentions a statue of a gladiator, known to have stood at the outer gate to Newbattle Abbey (Macky, 1724). This was probably one of a number of copies of the Borghese gladiator, part of the collection of Prince Borghese, a copy of which was made in 1631 for Charles I, possibly Le Sueur. (Another was commissioned by the 8th Earl of Pembroke for his garden at Wilton, and is now at Houghton Hall, Norfolk). This may also date to the 3rd Earl's time.
A Catalogue of some of the most considerable trees in Scotland (1789), itemises trees at Newbattle Abbey and this list was compared with measurements taken in 1874 (Laing, 1875 pp.535-6). The girth of the trees stated are considerable and although assessment of their age may well be misguided ('Many other Planes at Newbattle were planted before the Reformation…') some of these trees may derive from the mid-17th century formal landscape laid out by the 3rd Earl.
Robert Kerr, 4th Earl of Lothian (1636-1703), was appointed privy councillor to King William in 1689, Lord High Commissioner of the King to the General Assembly of the Kirk in 1692 and in 1701 created 1st Marquess of Lothian. Evidence that he was involved in laying out a formal landscape in contemporary fashion is attested by a letter, dated 1685, from him instructing Lady Lothian to have the canals completed, the rubbish removed and the ground levelled. Estate accounts for 1696 include the erection of an 'Eagle House'.
The earliest description of the gardens dates to 1724:
'This noble seat lies in a bottom, in the middle of a wood in a park encompass'd with a stone wall of about 3 miles circumference. The entry to the palace is as magnificent as can be imagin'd. In the area between the Avenue and the outer gate, is the statue of a gladiator; and on each side of the gate there is a large stone Pavilion; and through four square green courts you come to the Palace, each of the three first courts having rows of statues on each side, as big as the life, and in the fourth court the biggest holly trees I ever saw…. Underneath the great Stairs you enter a paved court which makes the centre of the house and carries you into the gardens.' (Macky, 1724).
By 1735, a park (possibly the site of a deer park) extended to the east of the River Esk and Newbattle Abbey, situated on the west side of the river, was approached by a long avenue to its west (Adair, 1735). Roy's Survey (1747-55) shows the landscape in more detail with woodland concentrated along the banks of the River Esk and clothing the ridge which runs north-east to south-west, to the north-west of the mansion. The Great Avenue approach led from Dalkeith road (now the A7), through the village of Newbattle clustered at the gates of the mansion, and then up to the south-west front of the mansion.
Robert, 4th Marquess of Lothian undertook extensive remodelling of the mansion 1770-5. At a cost of £4779 the house was battlemented, harled, and a conservatory with flanking grottoes and a hermit's cell were built. The next major period of change to the house and grounds was in the 19th century when the 8th Marquess (1832-70) employed William Burn (in 1836) and David Bryce (between 1856-66) to remodel and extend the house. The period of development was continued by the 9th Marquess (d.1900) during the 1870s. Although little is known of the design of the formal gardens laid out on the north-east front of the mansion at this time, one of the Nesfield family may have been involved in its design (for having inherited Blickling Hall, Norfolk in 1850, the 8th Marquess employed Matthew Digby Wyatt and Markham Nesfield, to create a new parterre there in 1870). The design for the parterre itself was by Constance, Marchioness of Lothian, and an intricate pattern of herbaceous beds, ribbon borders and hedges was completed by 1872.
Early 20th century photographs show the gardens in their hey-day. The south terrace gardens leading directly down to the river were formally planted and decorated with flights of steps and urns. To the east front a large formal parterre consisted of intricately cut scrollwork lawns, separated by gravel strips from box-edged segmental beds filled with contrasting patterns of bedding (Country Life, 1902).
In 1930, shortly after inheriting the estates of Newbattle, Monteviot, Ferniehurst and Blickling, the 11th Marquess of Lothian decided to hand over Newbattle Abbey, its contents and 125 acres of garden and parkland to a foundation that would run an education college. Newbattle Abbey College opened to students in 1937 and, apart from a break during World War II, its educational role continues to this day.