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Issue 23 - In a Scottish country garden

Scotland Magazine Issue 23
October 2005


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In a Scottish country garden

The Scottish Gardener is a new book from Suki Urquhart. Here are some extracts about private gardens, with pictures by Ray Cox

Garden lovers visiting Scotland will quickly find the many and varied gardens that are open to the public daily.

What they may not realise is that every week (except in deepest winter) there are many private gardens that hold open days via 'Scotland's Gardens Scheme'.

Open for charity, they offer a glimpse of how the gardeners of Scotland go about their craft.

In my book The Scottish Gardener (Birlinn October 2005) many of the gardens described open under the scheme. I have chosen three that combine history with horticulture.

The first is Wemyss Castle in Fife. Wemyss means 'cave' and was named for the network of caves on the beaches below. It was first built in 1240, burnt by Edward I and re-built in the 14th century. Macky describes his visit there in 1723: "About a mile from Dyzart, still on the sea coast, is the Castle of Weems, the Seat of that ancient family, that is built upon an eminence, and with awful look hath a commanding prospect of the firth, in East Louthian, to the South to the bass (rock), to the West: its gardens and spacious park run to the North. This palace is above 200 foot front to the South, with a terrace on the top of the rock, as at Windsor; and, like it being of free-stone and white, is seen at a very great distance. It hath two wings to the North, and a great area between the castle and the gardens, which is the entry into the house."

When Charlotte and Michael Wemyss inherited the estate it looked much the same but the five and a half acres of walled gardens were derelict and consisted of three geese, a redcurrant patch and some very ancient and mainly dead fruit trees.

For the last eight years Charlotte has been gradually bringing this garden back to life.

Everything at Wemyss is on a big scale: miles of drive down which Michael has planted an avenue of Crimean limes, at the end of which is a dramatic view of the sea through enormous elaborate gates, before you sweep around to the castle entrance.

You cannot plant a few of anything here, bulbs have to be planted in thousands if they are to compete with the vast scale of the place.

The erythroniums in the woodland garden were planted by Michael's grandfather, Charlotte has added to the carpets of erythroniums, narcissi and bluebells, planting rivers of chionodoxas in amongst the many species of holly.

The bluebells, house Aconites and snowdrops are routinely split and moved around every year and Charlotte personally planted 5,000 crocus bulbs down the drive.

April is when the woodland garden is at it's best. The walled garden is fast maturing at that time and hedges, trees and borders will soon be of a size to compete with the 14- foot high brick walls.

Today the planting is romantic and exuberant combining Charlotte's love of colour and unusual plants. Some of the walls have bee boles set in them, others are vented', which would have allowed heat from stoves to be carried to the peaches and nectarines that were grown against their sheltering warmth.

In the early 19th century orangery, Charlotte found a tangle of weeds. This has now been transformed into a knot garden planted with clipped dwarf box around a fountain.

Its roof went during the Second World War when the castle was used as a hospital, but the climbing roses she has planted grow up the walls and along overhead wires, providing a scented ceiling in summer.

Unusually the walled garden is divided into four sections by more walls with arches and gateways leading from one part to another.

In the centre is a pair of magnificent 17th century scrolled iron gates that were bought in Italy by Michael's great-grandfather in 1904.

Most of all Charlotte loves to grow climbers through shrubs and trees, everywhere I could see arching stems of roses and delicate trails of clematis pouring out of the tops of hollies and the old fruit trees that were retained. Climbers jostle for position up walls and hedges and along chains looped to wooden supports.

When Queen Victoria used to dine with her neighbours at Tillypronie, Aberdeenshire, her faithful servant, John Brown, would accompany her.

Brown, too grand to eat with the servants but not grand enough to eat with the Queen, took his meals in splendid isolation in a special wooden hut in the garden. The present owner of the house, Phillip Astor, has not met his neighbour Billy Connolly, who played John Brown in the award winning film Mrs Brown, but if he does he will sadly not be able to show him the hut, which has disappeared.

There are stories in abundance at Tillypronie, which was bought in 1951 by Philip's father, the late Lord Astor of Hevor.

The house's royal connections began with its purchase by Sir James Clark, physician and close personal friend to Queen Victoria and are still maintained during the royal family's annual migration to neighbouring Balmoral today. Clark was the son of the Earl of Findlater's butler at Cullen house and his meteoric rise from 'Banffshire loon' to royal confidant is a tale in itself.

He is credited with introducing Victoria and Albert to Balmoral in 1848. Four years later they bought the estate and completed building the castle in 1856.

Clark and his wife always stayed at Birkhall while attending the royal family and although he bought Tillypronie in 1855 it was his son Sir John Clark who built the present house in 1867.

The lintel, laid by Queen Victoria, is above the front door and at the same time she planted an Abies magnifica across the gravel sweep, opposite the front door. This tree blew down in the great gale of 1953 and in 1960 the present Queen planted a copper beach on the same spot.

Commemorative trees are a big feature at Tillypronie. The pair of giant Californian Redwoods planted by the front gates in 1867 are now 100 feet high.

Previous owner Sir Thomas Royden planted another two for the silver jubilee of George V in 1935 and Gavin Astor continued the tradition on the centenary of the house. Other luminaries who have planted trees in the gardens include Sir Harold Macmillan in 1958.

A wander around the pinetum reading the plaques on the trees provides a horticultural visitor's book of past guests staying at Tillypronie as well as memories of past and present members of the Astor family.

The pinetum was planted in 1958 and contains 300 different named varieties of conifers laid out in an ordered pattern.

On his travels Lord Astor would pick up pinecones and bring them home in his sponge bag. The trees raised from these were planted in the gardens, adding memories of his travels.

Royden laid out the rock gardens below the house, built the water garden and had plans drawn up for the heather beds, but never made them.

The water garden was left to the Astors to interpret these plans and they planted great pools of heathers, using 40 different varieties, in the shape of clouds, complimented by more than 150 species of dwarf conifers.

The house and gardens are 1125 feet above sea level so the conditions for growing heather are perfect and are at their best in late August.

Whether or not herbaceous borders make you weak at the knees, the visual impact of the garden created from an old limestone quarry at Carnell in Larnarkshire is dramatic.

The gardens were laid out from 1904 by Georgina Findlay-Hamilton after she inherited the property and have been continued by the next two generations.

Carnell was originally a 16th century building called Cairn Hill, owned by Wallaces, descendants of the heroic Sir William Wallace of Stirling Bridge fame, but was re-designed in 1843 by the architect William Burn.

As you enter the quarry garden from the west, a wide grass strip runs down the middle with, on one side a 16 foot deep herbaceous border at the foot of the wall and, on the other, a water garden.

The entrance to the Quarry Garden has been continuously maintained for 100 years, and the planting has remained much the same.

Delphiniums dominate the scheme providing a link plant throughout the length complimented with graceful Veronicastrum Virgincum, Salvia Pratensis, Artemesia Lactiflora, Astrantia maxima and Spirea gigantea together with many old fashioned favourites such as hollyhock monkshood, campanula, scabious, lupin, geranium and evening primrose.

The water garden opposite is, in effect, a long pond with islands at intervals down its length running about two thirds of the way along the space.

From different angles the water reflects the plants on both sides of the grass giving a vibrancy and richness to the whole scene.

The genius of the planting here is in the texture, colours and height of the plant material.

Reflecting the blues of the delphiniums, pale blue campanulas rise eight feet running riot through the creams and pinks of giant cephalaria, ulmaria (filipendula), aruncus, achillea and astilbe.

Contrasting with the feathery flowers of these are leaf shapes, great clumps of hosta and rodgersia and of strap-shaped iris.

Looking down on this waving jungle of herbage is a Bhudda house complete with ornamental dragons, acquired by the family on their travels in the Far East.

Garden owners raised more than £300,000 for charity in 2004 through 'Scotland's Gardens Scheme' which began in 1931, to help finance district nurses with special training and pensions, before the advent of the National Health Service. Today it supports not only Macmillan cancer-care nurses, but also a charity of the owners choice. Details of dates, location and special features can be found in the famous SGS Yellow Book that is published yearly, and on-line at

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