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Issue 54 - Scotland's gardens of delight

Scotland Magazine Issue 54
December 2010


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Scotland's gardens of delight

John Hannavy explores more of the rich heritage passed down to us by our ancestors

While most of the ‘marks left by men’ which we have considered so far in this series have been made of stone, some of the most beautiful marks are much more ephemeral and, but for the dedication of generations since they were created, would have disappeared almost without trace. Scotland’s gardens are testaments to the personalities, enthusiasm and dedication of their creators, and some of them seem to fly in the face of everything we know about Scotland and her climate.

Regular readers of Scotland Magazine will know already of the great Osgood Hanbury MacKenzie, and the gardens which occupy the headland at Poolewe were his inspiration in the middle of the 19th century. When MacKenzie arrived at remote Gairloch and Poolewe, the hillside was a bare and forbiddingly bleak place. A curtain of pine trees to create shelter was ‘all’ he needed to get started. Once the headland was protected from the wind, he turned it into a spectacular, and large, garden with more than 2,500 species of plants, shrubs and trees, a maze of paths and tracks and, especially in the spring, a riot of colour. Today the National Trust has maintained MacKenzie’s original concept and developed it further. Numerous feature gardens and areas along the miles of pathway make Inverewe a challenging and thoroughly absorbing day out.

James Arthur Campbell, the creator of Arduaine Gardens south of Oban once travelled to Inverewe to stay with McKenzie, and no doubt learned a lot about coastal garden design from him.

At the opposite end of the country – about two hundred miles as the crow flies, but twice that distance as the Highland and west coast single track roads meander round the edges of sea lochs and inlets – the Galloway peninsula offers several striking gardens each with their own individual character and attraction. At Logan is perhaps the most spectacular of them all.

The area around Logan is unusual. The Mull of Galloway is, at that point, only just over three miles wide – and Logan garden is therefore less than a couple of miles from either the west coast and the Irish Sea, or the calm beauty of Luce Bay to the east. The Gulf Stream ensures a climate which is unusually even and mild –perfect for the propagation of plants from the warmer parts of the world. Like those other fine west coast gardens, Culzean and Inverewe, Logan enjoys what might be described as a singularly ‘un- Scottish’ climate. Here too clever planting on the site has further moderated the wind effect creating a quiet placid and delightful corner. But periodic severe winters still remind plants and keepers alike that Scotland is several thousand miles north of the normal habitat of many of Logan’s species!

Threave, the National Trust for Scotland’s huge site near Castle Douglas, combines a spectacular series of inter-connecting gardens with a training school for budding gardeners. Threave has a proliferation of rockeries, and thousands of different plant types, together with rose gardens, herbaceous gardens and an excellent visitor centre.

Another common element in many of the great gardens of Scotland is that of surprise. At Drummond Castle near Crieff, the relatively flat driveway up to the castle, and the flat surrounding countryside creates an expectation of the garden itself – an expectation which is in fact completely misplaced. Unseen from the entrance, Drummond Castle actually stands on a cliff edge. Through a small door at the side of the castle, the visitor is suddenly and dramatically confronted by the garden itself, an elaborate Italianate parterre, laid out a hundred feet or so below. It is almost like viewing it from a low flying helicopter!

It is that hidden and unexpected character of many of Scotland’s gardens which is their charm.

As you sweep round Perth on the network of motorways, the grey stone houses of the city – especially when seen on a dull day – seem to deny that any colour could possibly survive here. But tucked away just off what was until a few years ago the main road north, a small garden – less than two acres in area – offers a blaze of colour.

Described as the finest two acres of private garden in the country, Branklyn Garden, now owned by the National Trust for Scotland, was established seventy years ago by Dorothy and John Renton, and established almost by accident. They had bought the land from a local nursery and it was, at the time, a long abandoned orchard. There they built a house, and the garden was designed originally as no more than a shelter for their house which, so close to a main road, was somewhat exposed. With stone from local Kinnoull Hill Quarry, they turned the hillside into a rock garden, with the help of steam engines and crowbars to move the huge rocks into position. Once the basic structure was in place, the Rentons and their gardeners set about the task of completing the garden – John was the designer and his wife the plant collector. What emerged was a personal garden – a private garden which, by virtue of the Rentons’ success, is now trying to reconcile itself with its public popularity. That is its Achilles heel – it was never designed for the numbers of visitors it now welcomes!

But not all Scotland’s gardens are still marked by the hands of their creators. At Pitmedden near Old Meldrum, Sir Alexander Seton’s great 17th century parterre looks authentic, and has that air of history which suggests it has always been there.

However, when the National Trust took over the site in the 1950s, all that remained on the site were the outer walls. The ponds, gazebos and pavilions were in ruin, and the great garden had completely disappeared. Working from old illustrations and other contemporary sources, the Trust completely reconstructed the garden to convey the spirit if not the precise detail of the original.

The garden at Falkland Palace, despite being created around the ancient Royal Hunting Lodge of Scotland’s medieval Kings, is a completely modern creation rather than a recreation of past glories. It is not set in any period except perhaps today’s, but with the spectacular backdrop of the part-ruined Palace, and one of the most visually satisfying. It was, in fact, recreated just 60 years ago – the site having been ploughed up and used as potato fields during the second world war!

Each of Scotland’s gardens is unique, and each proudly carries the marks of either its creator or its restorer.