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Issue 61 - Green Fingers

Scotland Magazine Issue 61
February 2012


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Green Fingers

Roddy Martine looks at some of the nation's horticultural delights

It is the time of year when the annual Scotland’s Gardens guide book becomes available, a medium-size tome illustrating the astonishing diversity and richness of the tamed Scottish landscape. In its 81st edition, Scotland’s Gardens – Growing and Giving directs you to the 600 properties which are open to the public throughout Scotland, highlighting such communal events as the Fife Diamond Garden Festival (18th to 20th May), and such individual gems as the Scotland’s largest roof garden in New Lanark.

Gardens do not appear by chance, especially when they give the appearance of having done so.

That is the great secret. A glorious garden should always give the impression that it has come about through the accident of time, but that has rarely if ever been the case. There has always been somebody in the background with the skills and passion to nurture the land and to bring it to life, the classic example in Scotland being at Inverewe, transformed in the Victorian era from a rocky coastline into a tropical paradise by the wealthy Victorian landowner Osgood Mackenzie.

It was Mackenzie who proved that anything was possible with a bit of imagination. Having acquired the remote estate, he imported soil from inland and stubbornly set about excavating the glacial raised beach to construct a vegetable, fruit and flower garden which serves as a memorial to his genius.

The National Trust for Scotland, which today owns Inverewe, is enormously proud of the 35 castle and country house gardens in its care: for example, at Crarae and Arduaine in Argyll; at the Castles of Mar in Aberdeenshire; at Culzean Castle in Ayrshire, and Malleny Gardens on the outskirts of Edinburgh. At Threave, in Dumfriesshire, the National Trust for Scotland operates a School of Heritage Gardening, providing training facilities for student placements.

Not only is the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, sponsored by the Scottish Government’s Rural and Environmental Research and Analysis Directorate (RERAD), a blessed haven of peace in Scotland’s Capital, but it supervises outposts at Benmore in Argyll; at Dawyck, in the Borders, celebrated for its dazzling display of daffodils every summer, and at Logan, on the temperate coast of Dumfries & Galloway. A recent addition is a memorial garden for the Queen Mother, designed on the motif of the historic Eassie Cross near Glamis Castle.

In Glasgow, the Botanic Gardens, administered by the City Council, are situated in a large parkland featuring several huge and historic glasshouses.

Most notable among these is the Kibble Palace.

The many faceted features of the gardens of Scotland are a joy to explore. At the Castle of Mey on the Dornoch Firth, the late Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, against all the odds, created a wonderful walled garden in defiance of the seasonal winds; at Portrack House, near Dumfries, the landscape architect Charles Jencks has conceived “The Garden of Cosmic Speculation” which features a wealth of sculptures by top artists, alongside a geometric Kitchen Garden of the Sixth Senses and a Time Garden.

At Little Sparta, in the Pentland Hills, the poet and artist Ian Hamilton Finlay in his lifetime set out to illustrate his pre-Socratic views of the nature of the world and the Second World War by imaginatively decorating his pathways and shrubberies with a series of eclectic sculptures. At Kailzie, near Peebles in the Scottish Borders, Angela, Lady Buchan Hepburn has created a sequence of riverside and woodland walks.

Some of my favourite gardens are to be found in the islands off Scotland’s west coast, washed by the passing Gulf Stream and thus enabling a dazzling infusion of tropical vegetation. I have rarely seen a more colourful sight than the blaze of rhododendrons planted in the last century by Sir James Horlick at Achamore on Gigha.

Although closed to the public over the last season, there are promising signs that the world acclaimed garden at Jura House will re-open this year, and on Arran, at Brodick Castle in the shadow of Goatfell Mountain, there is a spectacular walled garden and an ice house, and visitors are invited to explore the “Duchess’s Bathing Pool. For another special island treat, there are the 40 acres of woodland and lawns at the Clan Donald Centre on Skye with breathtaking views.

Climatically, Scotland is famously unpredictable with its weather, but with the dramatic contrasts of the rain and the sun come the inspirational glories of the scenery. Over the centuries, Scottish explorers and plant hunters, notably Victorians such as Frances Masson, James Drummond, George Forrest and Archibald Menzies have exploited this reality by importing species which took instantly to the damp soil and are nowadays as natural to our indigenous environment as moorland heather.

The debt that Scottish horticulturists, and not least ourselves, owe to these pioneers is immeasurable because what they have left behind them are the brilliant herbaceous borders, sumptuous ranks of rhododendrons, magnolias, dahlias, geraniums, hydrangeas and violas, and orchards full of summer bluebells.

The legacy is humbling.

For countless thousands of visitors, Scotland’s gardens are a yet to be discovered secret.