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Issue 44 - Gorgeous gardens

Scotland Magazine Issue 44
April 2009


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Gorgeous gardens

I was seated at my desk and staring out of the window searching for inspiration when I suddenly noticed that the plants and trees in my garden were starting to bud. The global financial gloom of recent weeks vanished in a flash and it made me think of the logic behind our Celtic ancestors’ celebration of Beltane on 30th April, the midpoint in the sun’s progress between the spring equinox and summer solstice, a moment of re-birth, new beginnings and optimism.

Since the catalyst for this momentous annual event is the arrival of the Green Man and the flowering of plants, it also made me reflect on how Scotland’s gardens are so often overlooked on the radar of visitor awareness.

Historic castles, rugged mountains, lochs and glens carpeted in heather, broom and thistle feature everywhere, but Scotland in bloom, the woodlands, beds and rockeries packed with exotic shrubs, rarely get a look in.

Perhaps this is because other nations also have their gardens, but it should not be forgotten that Scotland has produced its fair share of botanists, notably the 21st Chief of Clan Brodie, who specialised in algae and mosses at Brodie Castle; Francis Masson who accompanied Captain Cook to South Africa; William Kerr who imported Kerria from China; David Bowman, who in the early 19th century brought orchids and ferns back with him from Colombia, and David Douglas who introduced the Douglas fir, Sitka Spruce and California poppy to Britain in 1827. Some of the finest collections of old rhododendrons and azaleas in Europe are also to be found on Scottish estates.

As a child I was taken by boat to see the gardens of Inverewe in Ross-shire, and have never forgotten the spectacular approach from the sea on that warm summer afternoon. I have to admit that I was also rather taken with the idea of the 19th century Highland laird, Osgood Mackenzie, replete with scraggy white beard and kilt, dedicating his life to creating such a place which at the time must have been thought of as being in the middle of nowhere.

On the same latitude as southern Greenland, as far north as Labrador in the west and St Petersberg in the east, it is the warm waters of the encroaching Gulf Stream that make Inverewe viable.

By the time of Osgood’s death in 1922, he had transformed a bleak, although admittedly striking, landscape into an oasis of colour and growth, and it is now one of the jewels in the crown of the National Trust for Scotland.

Osgood was certainly a pioneer in the creation of gardens on Scotland’s West Coast. Others followed his example at Logan and Crarae, and on Gigha, and, in 1931, a number of Scottish garden owners got together to form a charity to support the training of District Nurses, and the means by which they announced that they would be raising money through intermittently opening their gardens to the general public. Thus Scotland’s Gardens Scheme was born. Back in 1932, the gardens involved mostly belonged to large country houses, but since then the variety and size of property has changed dramatically, ranging from small allotments to stately homes. Today, Scotland is divided into 27 districts, each under the supervision of a district organiser supported by an area organiser and treasurer, with a director based in Edinburgh, and in total there are 400 gardens in the portfolio, with the number increasing by the day. With 40 per cent of the funds raised allocated to charities chosen by the garden owners, the balance is divided between the Queen’s Nursing Institute, Scotland; the Gardens Fund of the National Trust for Scotland; the Royal Fund for Gardeners’ Children; Perennial, the Gardeners’ Royal Benevolent Society, and Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres. The good created by Scotland’s gardens therefore goes far beyond mere visual pleasure.

“The money we raised in 2008 was up 12 per cent on all previous years,” said Paddy Scott who became SGS director three years ago.

“We had more than 200,000 visitors and we’re very much hoping that many of those who are participating in the Homecoming this year will be coming to see what we have on offer.” At a time when everything else in the world seems to be such a shambles, what better refuge can there be than a Scottish garden?

For a copy of Scotland’s Gardens Scheme’s Garden Handbook (£5 +p&p) Tel: +44 (0)131 226 3714 or visit