National Records of Scotland

Preserving the past, Recording the present, Informing the future

Bear's Breeches

Bear's Breeches

Acanthus spinosus, family Acanthaceae
July to August

Bear's Breeches was introduced into cultivation from Italy in 1548. The name acanthus is derived from Acantha, a nymph loved by Apollo who is said to have turned her into the flower. The distinct shape of the foliage has inspired many.

Their first use in architecture is said to have been by the Greek Sculptor Kallimachos (5th century BC). According to myth, he witnessed a basket of toys being placed on a child's grave and covered with a cloth. Passing by the grave the following Spring he noted the basket was still present, but plants of bears breeches had pushed up the cloth and foliage now caressed the sides of the basket. This gave Kallimachos the idea for what became the classic Corinthian column favoured by the famous Scottish architect Robert Adam (1728-1792) who was particularly fond of the Corinthian Order.
Born in Kirkcaldy, Robert Adam studied in Edinburgh and Italy. By 1758 he had established a practice in London which, for more than 30 years, dominated the British architectural scene, transforming London and other major cities, as well as country houses.

One of his most famous works in Scotland, apart from General Register House and the 'Old Quad' at the University of Edinburgh, is the vast oval staircase at Culzean Castle in Ayrshire.

If you look closely at the tops of the classical columns designed in the Corinthian manner by Adam at the front of General Register House and his other buildings in the city you will see carved in the stone multilayered acanthus leaves. These can also be even be found in the ornate plaster work ceilings inside the buildings.

Bear's Breeches. Image credit: Luc Coekaerts from Tessenderlo, Flickr. Public domain
Bear's Breeches. Image credit: Luc Coekaerts from Tessenderlo, Flickr. Public domain