The historical development of the garden is well documented through the Minutes and Accounts of Cowane's Hospital, recorded from 1637 to 1980. Throughout a period of almost 350 years, the garden was adapted to meet the changing needs of the Hospital brethren: created first as a walking green, subsistence and domestic physic garden in the mid 17th century; laid out as a fashionable designed landscape with bowling green and parterre in the early 18th century; modified as a civic public space for recreation and promenading in the 19th century; and becoming the main focus for the activities of the Guildhall Bowling Club in the 20th century. The present design reflects the original intention of the mid 17th century layout, embellished by fashionable design in the early 1700s, with alterations in the 19th century and 20th century.
John Cowane was born in 1570, the third generation of a wealthy family of merchants based in Stirling since 1520. His grandfather had traded with Dutch suppliers and supplied honey, prunes, saffron and spices to the Court of James V. At this time the Dutch were importing large quantities of Scottish goods including fish, coal, salt, wool and hides, goods coming and going via small vessels navigating to Stirling bridge on the Forth or from East coast ports. In the seventeenth century Stirling was thriving, Royal Burgh status bringing lucrative foreign trade and travel opportunities to the merchants of the town. Successful and influential, John Cowane became a wealthy Protestant burgher who took full advantage of the social and economic circumstances of the time, as a merchant and trader, money lender and local farmer. He was highly influential and trusted, negotiating on behalf of the Convention of Royal Burghs regarding oversees trade, and as a Dean of Guild and Member of Parliament. He died a bachelor, in 1633, having amassed huge sums of money. He left small sums to needy local causes, such as five hundred merks to the Church of the Holy Rood, and, in contrast, forty thousand merks for the provision of a 'hospital', charitable Christian housing where 'twelve decayed guild brethren' could live rent-free in a community with familiar and common values.
The site chosen for the Hospital was prestigious, adjacent to the Church of the Holy Rude and near the mansions of rich merchants and nobility. The land was transferred to the Council via John Cowane's brother and executor, Alexander Cowane, and included a house (Auchmitie's) and two tenements, positioned on a close or path, and a well. The typical arrangement of tofts, strips of land running back from the main street, allowed rich burgesses to acquire and combine adjacent tofts creating large plots for redevelopment. The site was a challenge to building, with many constraints to resolve including difficult geology and topography with the alternation of rocky outcrops and hollows, a tapering constrained footprint on the edge of a steep escarpment and the presence of the closely contiguous Town Wall, already part of the Burgh's defences for 90 years in 1637.
At a time of great uncertainty and gathering conflict, it seems likely that the Hospital was conceived as part of these existing defences, the building forming one of a number of regular bastions within the Wall. The Trustees employed the royal master mason, John Mylne, to draw up plans for the house and plot. Early in 1637, the old buildings were demolished and the master mason, John Rynd, used a technique of burning peat and coal to fracture the solid rock to prepare the site for building. By May 1637 the site was cleared and stone and timber from the old house was put in store for re-use and John Rynd began excavating the foundations.
The building, completed in 1660, was a fitting outcome for John Cowane's aspirations to support Guild brethren for posterity as well as a celebration of his life and times. In scale and size it was typical of contemporary civic buildings and in style and details reflected the wealth of the Scottish mercantile class. It incorporated many features typical of burgh architecture and of the influence of trade links, through, for example, the Dutch inspired crow-stepped gables and embellishment with inscribed panels of biblical quotations, typical of Scottish and Dutch custom. The centrepiece of Mylne's building was a classically detailed bell tower with a pedimented niche occupied by a carved memorial to John Cowane, declaring its high status to the Royal Burgh of Stirling. The simple E-shaped plan provided an adaptable template to accommodate different functions at different levels.
The grounds of the Hospital were first levelled in 1661, when the Masters caus level the yaird of the said hospital, plant it about with plain trees, make walking green, pavement the closse and oute walk with hewin stones (Burgh & Cowane's Minutes 1659-80, 18 April 1661). This arrangement provided for the basic needs of the guild brethren - a place to walk and an area to grow vegetables, fruit and flowers with probably an informal 'physic' garden for the growing of herbs. 20th century aerial photographs suggest that the garden may have been laid out at that time in a regular series of strip beds. The garden was enclosed on the exposed east and north side by a hedge of '300 thornes', evident on the John Laye map of 1725, and a sundial, carved in stone by the local mason John Buchanan, was set up in 1673 and provided a focal point. The recorded entry, in 1701, of 'ballisters' erected on the high walk suggests that by that time an arrangement of terraces had already been established. The terraces and garden would have offered a commanding and airy position from which panoramic views of the surrounding landscape could be enjoyed. Thus, in 1707, Sir Robert Sibbald describes Cowane's Hospital with a very fine garden adjoining it…from whence…there is a very pleasant prospect to the King's Park, as also to the country east, south and west (Sibbald, 1707). An account of trees and flowers imported from Holland, ordered by William Stevenson, who was the first recorded gardener at the Hospital and appointed in 1667, included: 2 apricot trees; 2 peach trees; 2 double yellow roses; 2 Amigdalas pumila (dwarf almond); Amigdalas pumila flore plena (double flowering dwarf almond); Jasminum luteum (the 'Yellow Jessamy' or yellow jasmine); and 'July' flowers or gilly flowers – pinks for the borders.
By the early 1700s, as an inducement to encourage more Guild brothers to take up residence in the Hospital, a decision was made to improve the gardens according to contemporary taste and fashion. In 1712, on the advice of one of the Hospital gardeners, the Masters commissioned Thomas Harlaw, gardener to the 6th Earl of Mar, to prepare plans for the Hospital Yairds. Harlaw, a practical and knowledgeable man and favourite of the Earl, was part of the prestigious team that included Alexander Edward, James Gibbs, Alexander McGill and William Boutcher (head gardener), who had collectively executed an elaborate layout in the Earl's gardens at Alloa. The design at Alloa, captured on the Sturt and Lens map of the garden dated 1710, displays a fusion of French and Dutch influence, with vistas and avenues, parterres, wilderness and statuary and includes a small enclave close to the house incorporating a fine terras and Bowling Green adorned with the largest evergreens you can see anywhere (Macky, 1723). This part of the ornamental layout incorporated a bowling green and terrace walk and was enclosed on three sides by box hedging.
The arrangement at Alloa may have influenced Harlaw's approach at Cowane's Hospital although there is no documentary evidence to confirm this. The Minutes state that a bowling green was laid out and new borders created, incorporating a fashionable parterre, in the Dutch style, with winding paths and box-edged enclosures, furnished with medicinal herbs such as thyme and hyssop and seasonal flowers such as marigolds, hellebores, pansies and stocks. The Dutch influence found in the details of the architecture of the building, had now found its way into the gardens. The bowling green was an innovative element and, laid out in this formal way, was possibly the first of its kind in Stirling. As a new feature it would have attracted Guild brethren as well as interest from the wider community.
During the creation of the bowling green, completed 31 August 1713, John Buchanan's sundial was dismantled and reassembled as a focal point within the Dutch parterre. In 1727 the carved stone face of the sundial was chiselled off and replaced by a circular engraved bronze dial, the design of Andrew Dickie, a tradesman in Stirling, specialising in making watches, clocks and sundials. The dial showed a table of equations, taking account of the discrepancy between solar time and clock time, and bore the inscription A Table of Equations, Andr. Dickie Stirling, 1727.
The John Laye map of 1725 shows the forecourt of the Hospital surrounded by an enclosing wall, the north boundary defined by a wall, the south boundary wall on the line of the Town Wall and the east boundary as hedge. In 1724 Cowane's Hospital is referred to as the Guildhall and through the following decades the Minutes record not only the gardeners involved and subsequent improvements and alterations but they also provide a unique insight into the typical issues that had to be addressed and even detailed notes on the equipment used for maintenance. For example, in 1726 there may have been some work to the terraces, as the stone flags had subsided in places. In 1737 a timber rail was erected, with lock and key in the middle, to protect the holly hedge and flowers on the north side of the grounds as they had planed a great variety of fine flowers therein (Minutes & Accounts, 7 May 1737 & Lizar, c1790). The bowling green remained a focus of interest and care, with seating provided, bowls bought on a regular basis and, in 1739, banks created around the green and 'salt turf' laid. More urgent repairs included work in 1754 to the 'dyke' or wall next to the back walk, which was in danger of falling down, and necessary repairs to the balustrades recorded in 1784. In 1791 the Back Walk was extended to the 'Barras Gate', signifying the expansion of cultural and recreational activities in the area, and around this time a connecting path was created leading from the Hospital forecourt to the north gable of the building, descending down to the Back Walk below.
In 1840 a high wall was established on the south-east boundary of the garden in anticipation of the building of the Town Jail beyond, a striking building with crenellated parapets and round tower, completed in 1847. Although previous open views to the east and south-east were now obscured, the wall added to enclosure and shelter, enhancing a pleasant enclave that in succeeding decades would become the focus for public enjoyment and civic pride in promenading, quiet games of bowls, listening to military bands and Highland Society dancing festivals. Throughout this time the garden, with stone terraces on two levels, embankments surrounding the bowling green and seating on perimeter walks, continued to provide a flexible and popular platform for public use. At this time various embellishments were made to the garden, including the introduction of two Crimean cannons on the terrace in 1858, a fountain (later removed) sited on the north-east side of the bowling green in 1862 and a flagpole erected in 1894 to attract tourists. A summerhouse, later removed, was erected against the high wall to the south-east.
News of the garden was reaching a wider audience, its importance recorded in 1897 by the writer J J Joass, who listed Cowane's hospital garden with Barncluith, Balkaskie, Edzell, Crathes and Fordel, as six old surviving formal gardens unrivalled in Scotland. Cowane's Hospital garden also features in H Inigo Triggs book, 'Formal gardens in England and Scotland' dated 1902. Triggs provides a written description and accurate measured drawings that can be usefully compared with the OS large scale town plan of Stirling of 1858 to detect any changes to layout in the interim. Further detailed comparison with a sketch provided in J J Joass dated 1893 suggests that between 1893 and 1902 the bowling green was extended to the south-west. This is substantiated by minutes recording that in 1898 electric light cables were laid under the green with a subsequent relaying of 30 yards of turf and then a further 200 yards of turf being laid. Comparison of the extent of the parterre on the H Inigo Triggs measured drawing with what remains of it today bears close relationship, confirming that it was between 1893 and 1902 that there was a significant encroachment on the parterre.
In 1903 the Guildhall Bowling Club leased the green for exclusive use by the club and Guild members. The Club agreed to put the green in order, adopted its maintenance and agreed to employ a greenkeeper on condition that the bowling green, 'Bowl house' and adjoining gardens would all be for the private use of Club and Guild members. In 1911 it was recorded that the Bowl House would be better placed at the NE corner of the bowling green. Between 1912 and 1946 the minutes of Cowane's Hospital either ceased to be kept or were lost.
Following proposals, originally tabled in 1946, to enlarge the bowling green in accordance with the Scottish Bowling Club rules, a proposal that would affect the fabric and character of the building and garden, Cowane's Hospital, the terrace, Dutch Garden and Bowling Green and a portion of the old town wall were given Scheduled Monument status in December 1948, in recognition of their national importance. Throughout the coming decades, proposals to extend the bowling green to meet regulation size were resisted. From 1955 the Town Council Parks Department maintained the bowling green and garden and, at various times, carried out planting improvements in the surrounding flower beds and 'Dutch' garden. In 1965, Cowane's Hospital including the adjoining terrace to the bowling green and Cowane's Hospital sundial were listed category A and category B respectively. In 1986 consent was granted for an extension to the clubhouse and an extension to the bowling green. The bowling green was extended slightly to the south-west, with no intervention into the parterre but a reduction in path width, and extended to the north-east by c15 feet, as confirmed by comparison between the Triggs plan, later OS maps and evidence on the ground.
By 1997 the bowling green had fallen into disuse and, in 1999, the Old Guildhall or Cowane's Hospital and grounds were descheduled. As a recent initiative, the present Master and Factor has involved local schools in planting part of the surviving parterre and compost bins have been installed in the south corner of the garden.