Not a member?
Register and login now.

Issue 6 - The great outdoors

Scotland Magazine Issue 6
February 2003


This article is 15 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.

Copyright Scotland Magazine © 1999-2018. All rights reserved. To use or reproduce part or all of this article please contact us for details of how you can do so legally.

The great outdoors


The capricious nature of Scotland’s climate would seem to make it an unpromising place to garden. Four seasons can be experienced in one day is the boast, and often the reality. The coolness and the rain in fact favour many plants. Drought is not a factor, and the long summer days create extra growing time, albeit offset by the short, dark winter days. The main enemies of the gardener in Scotland are the biting wind, the rabbits and the deer.

These factors, along with geographical differences in soil and rainfall, dictate the variety and types of gardens to be found. Weather and predators also account for the huge numbers of walled gardens that have been created from the earliest times, and are still in use today. For year-round interest, this strong architectural element can be an asset.

To choose just a few gardens from more than 500 officially open, it is necessary to find a unifying element, so I have concentrated on gardens that are open either all summer, or all year round, and in particular those that tell an historical story. The plants within these gardens may have changed over the centuries. Some plantings have tried to remain true to their heritage while others have simply been gardened within the historic boundaries and around the historic buildings. The relationship of a garden to the house and the immediate environment is always a crucial element for aesthetic appeal. How a garden was shaped by the human condition of the time is quite another. Planting in gardens is a fluid art-form and a matter of taste and fashion, but if the garden visitor wishes to trace the history of Scottish gardens from the mediæval period to the present day, they will find more relevance in the structures than in the plants. Wandering around these gardens, one can imagine the
pageant of history unfolding in the landscape.

The most significant gardens in the 15th and 16th centuries were those around the Royal Palace of Holyrood House in Edinburgh. Originally monastic gardens tended by the Abbey monks, they were taken over and given a major revamp for the wedding of James IV to Margaret Tudor (The marriage of the Thistle and the Rose). In importance, the gardens were rated alongside the early royal gardens of Hampton Court in London and the later Het Loo in Holland. They were symbols of royal power, but were also essentially ‘outdoor rooms’ where the court of the day could function away from the cold, dark and often smelly interior of the palace. To this end they contained many enclosed areas known as
yardis’ (from the French jardins): court-yardis, privie yardis, salad yardis, King’s yardis, Queen’s yardis, areas for jousting, archery, bowls, tennis and even yardis containing exotic wild beasts: lions, tigers and leopards. Much used by Mary Queen of Scots for fêtes and events, her bathhouse clings perilously to the garden’s edge at the foot of the Royal Mile.

Badly neglected after the Union in 1603, Holyrood’s gardens languished until they were redesigned by Prince Albert in the 19th century. Today the royal family still uses them for entertaining on a lawn vast enough to host twice-yearly garden parties, surrounded by a ‘low maintenance’ Victorian shrubbery. With a new devolved parliament next door it would be good to see them returned to their mediæval glory. However, the abbey ruins and sense of history engendered by the surroundings makes it well worth a visit. Holyrood is administered by Historic Scotland.

Edzell Castle garden (Angus) was created in 1604 at the start of James VI and I of Scotland and England’s reign. The Renaissance had taken hold of Europe, not least in gardening. The creator of this walled ‘pleasuance’ garden was the much-travelled David Lindsay, the embodiment of the cultured and aesthetic gentleman. Religious belief was in turmoil, with Catholic and Protestant division. The profoundly spiritual approach of Mannerist garden design explored nature with a view to learning about the divine, so different interpretations can be placed on Edzell’s allegorical features. These Mannerist gardens were hymns to the new sciences and often contained elaborate mechanical inventions
such as talking statues, water organs and other perpetual-motion machines that somehow transcended different religious beliefs. The bas reliefs of the seven Planetary Deities and the seven Cardinal Virtues on the walls would have been seen as magic manifestations of nature, both symbolic and scientific, not least as the number seven was used.

A Templar and scholar, Lindsay’s coat of arms embodied the ‘fess cheque’ (chequered squares) of the Templar Order and these are also incorporated into the walls at Edzell along with representations of the Liberal Arts so admired at the time: Grammar, Rhetoric, Dialectic, Arithmetic, Music and Geometry. All of these would have been practised in the two-storey banqueting pavilion built into the corner of the garden.

Edzell is open all year round and is administered by Historic Scotland.

Sir William Bruce, owner and architect of Kinross House (Kinross-shire), designed and built the garden layout in 1679, before he built the house. The influence came very much from France where Le Nôtre was designing the formal gardens at Versaille in the second half of the 17th century. The philosophy was that the elaborate formality was part of a single composition that included the house while reflecting the wealth and the control of the environment by the owner. If you stand on the roof of Kinross House and turn 360 degrees, it is possible to appreciate the massive scale of this design and its perfect proportions. The whole is a double square, dissected by the house, measuring 1,300 feet by 650 feet. As you enter the gates at the top of the avenue, if the front door of the house is open, as you drive down you can see through a corresponding door on the other side of the house. The line continues right down the centre of the garden, through the fish gate, across the water to Loch Leven Castle, all in perfect alignment. It is the ultimate example of ‘borrowing’ the landscape and setting the house and garden within it. Daniel Defoe described it as “the most beautiful and regular piece of architecture in Scotland.” It is privately owned.

The history of the gardens at Blair Atholl in Perthshire reflects the history of grand-scale gardening towards the end of the 18th century. Walled gardens attached to houses were, in the main, swept away and vistas and rides created to connect to the wider landscape. James Murray, the 2nd Duke of Atholl, began work on his new Hercules garden in 1744. Placed at the end of one of his new rides, it covers nine acres. It was 10 years in the making and now, 250 years later, it is taking 10 years to restore what is probably the largest walled garden under cultivation in Scotland.

James laid out the garden around two huge ponds, containing a series of islands and peninsulas that took teams of workers years to dig by hand. Water was fed into them through stone-lined underground channels with the depths regulated by a system of sluices. Walls were built incorporating a head gardener’s house in the north west corner and two small pavilions (one of which survives today as a potting shed) in the west wall. The garden was later embellished with chinoiserie railings and a bridge, numerous statues, and more recently McGregor’s folly. This small summer house also doubled as a curling pavilion in winter but now houses a display on the history and restoration of the garden. Blair Atholl Castle and gardens are open every day from 1st April until late October.

Kellie Castle (Fife) is a magical example of a fortified Scottish tower house with a history that dates from 1360, when it was the home of Sir Walter Oliphant of Gask and his wife Elizabeth, natural daughter of Robert the Bruce. By 1878 it was a gaunt ruin that took the fancy of Professor James Lorimer, a retired lawyer. Lorimer took a long lease on the castle and spent 10 years restoring it in the spirit of the 17th century.

This was highly unusual at a time when the Victorians built vast gothic wings on houses. Even more unusual was the recreation of the 17th century gardens, planned and executed by his son, Sir Robert Lorimer, the famous architect. Of it, Sir Robert wrote: “One of the characteristics of Kellie is the fact that one enters the walled garden direct out of the house, and that the flowers, fruit and vegetables are all mixed up together.” A banqueting house in one corner is so faithfully executed as to blend seamlessly with the castle. The gardens, containing clipped yew hedges and arches, trellis walks supporting rambling roses and box-edged beds are all faithfully maintained today.

Above the entrance to the castle are written (in Latin) the words: “This dwelling, having been cleared of crows and owls, has been devoted to honourable repose from labour.” It is a National Trust for Scotland property and the gardens are open all year.

There are hundreds of gardens open to the public in Scotland, some all the year round, some just in summer, some for a day or so a year for charity and some by appointment. The majority of these are privately owned. The Scottish National Trust looks after 28 gardens and Historic Scotland administers a handful attached to historic buildings.

Books listing garden opening details (available at most large bookstores) are very useful : The Good Gardens Guide and Gardens of Scotland are both updated annually and contain maps, opening times and other relevant information. Happy visiting.