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Issue 25 - Small and perfectly formed

Scotland Magazine Issue 25
February 2006


This article is 12 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Small and perfectly formed

Arnot Tower Gardens are a slice of history. Cate Nelson-Shaw visited them

They say the best things come in small packages.

Unobtrusively tucked away in a corner of Scotland’s Kingdom of Fife is a gem of a find. Built from the stuff of legends, yet relatively unheard of until recently, Arnot Tower Gardens are a true historical jewel and, thanks to their owner Helen Gray, have been restored and reinvigorated.

The 10 acres of gardens at Arnot Tower are the result of five years of planning and planting as well as a £200,000 investment. The result is stunning – sweeping herbaceous borders and innovative water features sit alongside cricket-perfect lawns and shady mature trees; and at the heart of the garden is the curiously ruined 15th century Arnot Tower, the walls of which shelter secrets to rival those from the most imaginative Scots bard.

The Arnot (or Arnott) name has been closely linked to the land on which the gardens now sit for more than 900 years. Since the start of the 12th century, the site has been the seat of the Arnot family; during the early 1400s the current tower was built, although it is thought earlier fortifications may have occupied the site.

At the same time, a charter was granted making the lands a barony for the Arnot family. Sadly, the tower has been a ruin for more than 300 years yet it still casts an intriguing shadow around the grounds and hints at its distinguished and colourful past.

There have been several Arnots whose names have gone down in history: David Arnot of Fyfe was one of 2,000 noble landowners who in 1296 were required to swear allegiance to England’s King Edward I. David’s descendent, Nicol Arnot, was a loyal supporter of Scotland’s King Robert the Bruce; and later Robert Arnot fought and died for his country during the Battle of Flodden Field in 1513.

Fought near Branxton, in Northumberland this bloody battle pitted the Scots against their English enemy and resulted in the slaying of an estimated 12,000 Scots.

However, the history surrounding Arnot Tower has not always been so torturous. During the years, the evocative ruin has been the source of inspiration for painters and poets alike; and none more so that the 18th century Scots poet and author, Michael Bruce.

Born in nearby Kinnesswood in what is now the region of Perth and Kinross, Bruce – who became known as the ‘gentle poet of Lochleven’ – was a gifted child, continuing his studies at the University of Edinburgh. However, plagued by ill health he died an untimely death aged only 21.

Bruce immortalised the Arnot name in his poem The Lovers (1760) in which Henry and Harriet – themselves less tragic reincarnations of Shakespeare’s star crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet – forsake their own families to elope and marry; but Bruce’s inspiration was not fictional – Henry and Harriet were the children of two of Scotland’s feuding families – the Arnots and the Balfours of nearby Burleigh Castle in Milnathort.

Today, while Arnot Tower Gardens has shaken off its feuding past, it retains its reputation among the most romantic destinations in Scotland; and this was clearly evident to Helen Gray as she developed her ambitious plans to regenerate the gardens.

“My husband and I were married in this garden which in 1997 was an impenetrable jungle, unmanaged for more than 40 years,” says Helen.

“With a background in horticulture and forestry, I originally planned to develop the gardens as an outside space to complement our home for our personal use.

“The manor house was crying out for a formal garden to frame it, and the position of the ruined castle dictated that a strong central axis was built in line with the house, and parallel to the castle.”

However, it wasn’t until Helen had completed the Italianate Terrace and the South Stair that she realised her garden would appeal to the public.

“I re-thought the garden design and decided to clear and replant some sections of the grounds,” says Helen. “So now we have a scented courtyard garden in the ruined castle, more than 60 metres of tall herbaceous borders and a contemporary water garden with fountains and jets.”

Helen’s hard work has certainly paid off as Arnot Tower Gardens have been afforded huge acclaim by industry experts and fellow gardeners, being likened – albeit on a smaller scale – to Northumberland’s famous Alnwick Gardens.

Helen has taken her gardens a step further and now not only is Arnot Tower Gardens accessible to the public, along with the newly refurbished Victorian manor house (built by Sir Charles Bruce in 1878), it has become one of Scotland’s most breathtaking event venues... and what could be more perfect than a wedding or a renewal of vows in this unique location steeped in romantic legend?

The intimacy of the atmospheric ruins makes them ideal as a venue for small civil and religious weddings, hosting from two to 30 guests for a ceremony in the castle’s scented courtyard garden. The grounds lend themselves well to wedding photography with dramatic long herbaceous borders, a tree swing, and impressive water features, as well as spectacular views over the Scottish countryside towards Loch Leven, a National Nature Reserve.

“One of the unforeseen pleasures of opening the Gardens is meeting so many Arnot descendants,” explains Helen.

“When the family’s fortunes declined in the 1700s, large numbers of Arnots emigrated to Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Every summer we meet dozens of visiting Arnots, each with another piece of the puzzle of the family tree.

“One lady has even booked her 80th birthday party here at the gardens next year – it should be quite a clan gathering.”

Helen remains ambitious for the future. “In time I plan to open as a full-time visitor attraction, complete with plant nursery, refreshment area and a visitor centre with exhibition space. I’d also like to offer courses, things that gardeners have told me they would enjoy – so everything from compost making to planting for cut flowers.”

However, until then, simply head to Fife to enjoy the gardens – they are a truly romantic experience.

The castle and gardens are open every Tuesday between May and October inclusive, from 10am to 5pm.

Visit for more on Arnot Tower Gardens.