An interview with Shiona Mackie


An abridged version of the podcast.

Tell us a little about what you do.

Shiona Mackie

I was Convener of the Edinburgh Friends of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) from 2011 to 2016. During that time, I learned about the Association of Friends of Australian Botanic Gardens and thought that perhaps there might bescope to set up a similar organisation in the UK. I contacted colleagues, Chairs of the Friends of  Botanic Gardens in Scotland, about three or four years ago. We spent a couple of years working out how we might do this, developing a Memorandum of Understanding between the Friends’ groups in Scotland and then around the UK to form the Friends of Botanic Gardens Forum. We held our first meeting in September 2019, hosted by the Curator and Friends of the University of Durham Botanic Garden. Since then, we have been growing and evolving. We now have 16 Friends’ groups members and are constantly growing, with regular meetings), newsletters and a website in development. We’re sharing information and trying to provide as much support to our gardens as we can. Back in Edinburgh, I’m still on the Committee of the Edinburgh Friends, acting as a link between the Friends of Botanic Gardens Forum and the committee. I’m also a garden guide, which unfortunately is on hold: my last was a snowdrop tour in February 2020.

Can you tell us a little more about Friends’ groups and what they do?

Friends’ groups are all different and function in different ways. They all relate to their gardens and support their gardens in whatever way they can. Some raise funds to support the day-to-day operation of their gardens but many more fundraise for special projects in the garden, help raise the profile of their gardens and recruit new friends who can provide different types of support.  With COVID, we’re all much more aware of how important green spaces are and how climate change is affecting our gardens. Friends’ groups help to support them in engaging with their communities.

How did you get involved with the Friends’ group at Edinburgh?

I was approaching retirement, but still felt very energetic, so wanted to do something useful. It just so happened that the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh magazine came through the post and in the magazine was a letter saying that the Edinburgh Friends’ was looking for a new Chair. I thought I could do it  – so applied and was successful. I feel so privileged to have landed in this amazing resource. I’ve met so many people, members of staff, plants people. I did the RHS level two certificate when I took over the chair role which really helped to get to know all the wonderful staff and really helped develop the relationship between the Friends’ Committee and the RBGE.

How did you get into gardening?

I started at a very young age because my grandparents, particularly my grandfathers, were keen gardeners and I would help them in the garden – so it got into my blood. When I went to university [to read medicine], I didn’t really have an opportunity to garden but as soon as I could get a garden, I did and got stuck into growing vegetables. I chose where I live now because of the garden – and it has been wonderful to have the garden during these periods of lockdown. I tried to get my children interested and finally succeeded when my son moved to his present home and constructed and then planted up some raised beds.

What are your plans for the Friends of Botanic Garden Forum?

We’re starting to work closely with PlantNetwork and are looking to develop a webinar this spring focusing on the role of Friends’ groups. We are now on to our third newsletter and hoping to launch our website very soon. Meanwhile, we are recruiting more Friends’ groups to the Forum. Unfortunately, we had to cancel our 2020 conference at RBGE but we do intend to have a formal launch at some point to heighten the profile of what we’re doing. We’re all volunteers with other roles so things haven’t moved rapidly and COVID has created other issues for Friends’ groups which makes it difficult to progress at the moment.

What are your aspirations for the forum?

My aspirations are to have a vibrant, enthusiastic group that provide support to each other, share ideas and provide assistance to gardens with challenging issues. We could share beyond the UK too – into Europe and even the world.

Is there a particular area of RBGE that is a favourite?

The garden changes through the seasons so favourite areas change with the seasons. Now it is snowdrop season so I would recommend a visitor go to the Rock Garden. In the spring, I love rhododendrons and there are a lot of them in the garden, with camellias and trilliums. In the summer, we have some beautiful herbaceous borders and come late summer, the Queen Mother’s Memorial Garden has beautiful roses. There isn’t a specific spot. It’s the overall ambience of the place, with individual areas as you go through the seasons. And of course, there are all the magnificent trees!

As a garden guide, is there a lot of preparation required?

You have about six months training where a lot of the RBGE staff willingly give their time to come and talk to us or take us on tours around the garden. Then we undergo a testing process where we have to take test tours.  When you become a guide, you have a look around the garden a couple of days before a tour to see what is looking good; after a few years, you know what might be looking good! I’ve kept a diary during my time as a garden guide so I can go back and look at what was looking good or what happened in previous years which helps put together new tours. It is great to tell the stories behind the garden or the plants – and lots of people really engage with this so it becomes more of a conversation. We also keep a tour record at the garden, noting how many people took part, what types of questions they asked etc. We’ve probably got about 15years worth of records for someone to go through one day.

Have you had any horticultural inspirations in your gardening history?

While my career was in medicine and not horticulture, gardening has always been an important part of my life. It was only when I retired that I could indulge in garden visiting and this increased with the RHS certificate. I was very privileged with my tutors on the course, with Greg Kenicer who would take us around the garden after time in the classroom. Other tutors, including Phil Lusby and Joanna Lausen-Higgins who taught garden history, were very inspiring. It was just magic. I was in my element with plant idents, talking to the wonderful plants people on the course – very inspirational. I think you can do all these courses online, but you can’t beat doing it with a group of similarly minded individuals. I’ve tried to continue from what I learnt with plant labelling in my garden.

What plants or horticulturally related items would you take to a deserted island?

That is tricky. Hopefully, there’d be a few useful plants there that I could eat and use as shelter. So I think I will take a pair of Felco secateurs which would be very useful. I’d need a sun hat and I’d probably also take a Kindle loaded with gardening books for me to read.

Is there anything about you that might surprise people?

I used to do ballet and took it up in earnest in my 30s – first in Canada and then back in the UK. I actually sat my grade three exams and received a commendation. I’m quite proud of that.

Do you have any advice for anybody thinking of setting up or joining a friends’ group?

I think there are two things there. If you’re thinking about joining a Friends’ group, contact the Chair or the Secretary, ask what they’re doing and see whether that matches what you would like to bring to the friends’ group. Or you might suggest something that they’ve not thought about. Friends’ groups are always looking for new people and new ideas, and you will get to take part in a multiplicity of different events which would give you a variety of experience. If you’re thinking that a garden needs a Friends’ group, the first thing to do is to approach the garden’s horticultural team and ask them what they would think and how it could help them. A Friends’ group could really help a garden – providing much needed support.

With thanks to Bruce Langridge and Will Ritchie of National Botanic Garden of Wales for question format and original podcast idea