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Issue 39 - A touch of the Orient

Scotland Magazine Issue 39
June 2008


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A touch of the Orient

Ian Buxton discovers a Japanese garden in north Edinburgh.

Lauriston Castle, in Edinburgh’s leafy Cramond suburb, is one of the city’s unsung gems and home to a delightful surprise.

The castle was left in trust to the nation by its last private owners, Mr and Mrs William Robert Reid, who lived there from 1902 to 1926. Today it is maintained by the City of Edinburgh Council. Its Edwardian-period interiors have been carefully preserved, and reflect the taste of wealthy middle-class collectors of the period.

Originally a 1590s tower house, the castle was built for Sir Archibald Napier, and extended during the 1820s by the architect William Burn for its then owner, Thomas Allan. The tranquillity of its setting, overlooking the Firth of Forth, combined with its proximity to the centre of Edinburgh, makes Lauriston typical of the large suburban villas which once provided rural amenity for the powerful and wealthy of the city. Hence, over the centuries, it housed many notable Scots, including John Law, who rose to high office at the French Court during the 1720s.

Inside the castle, the interiors showcase Mr Reid’s lifetime work: prints, paintings, tapestries, textiles, porcelain, Sheffield-plate, Blue John, British and Continental furniture and many objets d’art assembled by him, are enhanced by the castle’s carefully-considered decorative schemes.

But, delightful though the castle is, the real surprise lies in the 30 acres of parkland and formal gardens. These include an Italianate rose garden (shortly due for a significant restoration) and the ‘Edinburgh Kyoto Friendship Garden,’ a major new Japanese garden completed in 2002. Today, experts rate it one of the top three in Britain.

Kyoto is the great centre of traditional gardening in Japan, and fittingly the Japanese Garden at Lauriston was developed in the closest partnership with Kyoto. Two senior members of the Kyoto Prefecture Landscaping Gardening Co-Operative Association visited Edinburgh to familiarise themselves with the site and subsequently briefed renowned Japanese garden designer Takashi Sawano who drew up the plans.

The former kitchen garden at Lauriston Castle was selected, as the Japanese experts were especially impressed by the setting, with the view to the north across the Forth to Fife.

Such ‘borrowed landscapes’ often form an important element in traditional Japanese garden design.

The final design combined elements of a number of traditional Japanese garden styles, particularly the ‘stroll garden’ and the ‘Zen garden.’ It also included a dramatic and striking water feature.

After a difficult construction period, due to adverse weather conditions, the garden was completed in August. The garden formed part of the city‘s entry to ‘Beautiful Scotland in Bloom, 2002’ and was awarded the David Welch Memorial Trophy for ‘Something SpeciaI.’ The Edinburgh – Kyoto Friendship Garden at Lauriston Castle, known in Japanese as ‘Castle garden of water to beyond,’ is a major achievement in garden construction – the largest project of its kind undertaken anywhere in the United Kingdom in recent years.

Since the opening of the garden, Takashi Sawano has returned several times to the site to supervise the very careful and precise pruning of the trees, which is so essential to the authentic Japanese garden, and to plant new features. The garden is now maturing well, though Japan’s gardening tradition is such that it is considered a newcomer. Not until the Edinburgh garden is many, perhaps hundreds, of years old can it be fully understood and appreciated.

To mark the garden’s fifth anniversary a kite flying festival was held and a number of new cherry trees planted. These will slowly come to maturity and further enhance the peace, tranquillity and beauty of this most surprising corner of Edinburgh – a traditionally Scottish house with a long and distinguished history partnered by a distinctively Japanese landscape.

This is truly a most civilized mark of friendship.