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Issue 82 - Osgood's Garden

Scotland Magazine Issue 82
August 2015


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Osgood's Garden

Following on from the last issue of Scotland Magazine, John Hannavy explores the inspirational gardens of Inverewe in Wester Ross

We left the story of Osgood Hanbury Mackenzie, last time, in 1863, as he came of age and planned to move to his new estate at Inverewe – where he had decided to build a house and, around it, to develop a garden. Later, writing in A Hundred Years in the Highlands, he had noted that ‘with the exception of two tiny bushes of dwarf willow about three feet high, there was nothing in the shape of a tree or shrub anywhere in sight.’

The site was known in Gaelic by the very descriptive name of Am Ploc Ard – ‘the high headland’ or ‘the high lump’ – and, with the exception of the northernmost tip of Lewis, there is nothing between Inverewe and Labrador except for the often violent Atlantic Ocean. Given that fact, the survival of even two stunted willows is remarkable.

Creating his garden would occupy the entire remaining sixty years of his life, during which time he not only created one of the most magnificent gardens in Scotland – further developed over the past 90 years, first by his daughter and later by the National Trust for Scotland who took it over in 1952 – but also advised on, and influenced the creation of, other great Scottish gardens.

The rocky promontory on which the gardens sit was created during the Ice Age, and is known, geologically, as a ‘raised beach’. A naturally inhospitable place for plants to grow, Mackenzie had to import considerable quantities of soil and blast away vast tonnages of rock to create his garden. There had once been a thick covering of peat but, he noted, that had been stripped away and burned as fuel by generations of crofters over the preceding centuries.

Walking around the estate today, it is impossible to imagine that once there was nothing but those solitary stunted willows. Today, majestic Scots and Corsican pine trees dominate the skyline, providing shelter for the flowers and shrubs which now thrive there under the usually benign influence of the Gulf Stream – or the North Atlantic Drift as it is otherwise known – which touches this remote and once barren corner of north west Scotland. That does not add up to a completely benign climate – although the average winter temperatures are much milder than the rest of the Highlands, and in summer it can be very warm. However, over 60 inches of rain falls annually on the gardens, but thanks to the carefully managed planting of hundreds of trees, soil erosion is controlled.

Mackenzie would, perhaps, be surprised at the enduring success of his garden. More than a century ago he was already concerned, not about global warming, but about quite the opposite, believing that the average temperatures around Poolewe had dropped considerably during his own lifetime, and even more during the combined lifetimes of his uncle, Dr. John Mackenzie, and himself.

‘What far happier times those good old days were than these we are living in now,’ he wrote in his old age. ‘Even the seasons seemed more ‘seasonable’ and the summers far hotter. What an abundance of cherries there were at Gairloch even in my days in the 40s and 50s, and these crops were supposed to be degenerate in comparison with the grand fruity years of the 20s.’

But is that perhaps no more than everyone’s skewed recollection of childhood? I could describe my own experience of Scottish summers 60 years ago in just the same way – as did Osgood’s uncle when reflecting on the seasons a century and a half before me. He wrote, ‘What long, hot days we used to have then compared with the present short, lukewarm ones, that no sooner begin than they end disgracefully.’ We could probably all use exactly the same words to describe our own memories, no matter where we come from. Three months of summer, when one is eight, account for three per cent of one’s entire life experience. At nearly 80, as Osgood was when he wrote those words, those affectionately-remembered three months accounted for just a tenth of that.

Writing in 1882, uncle John did concede that ‘Astronomers tell us their registers show that the present seasons are just the same as, say, 1812 – 70 years ago’ but he dismissed them summarily with ‘What stuff and nonsense! In those happier times everybody has summer as well as winter clothing. Who dreams of such extravagance now in the north?’

‘No need for warm clothing on our visits to Inverewe, with balmy breezes wafting in from the Atlantic.’

Osgood Mackenzie kept precise records of the development of the gardens, and careful maps of his planting, and the garden today still strictly follows his original concept – albeit with a few nods to the needs of visitors and of conservation, such as better baths and so on. The extensions to the original gardens, and the collection and planting of ever more diverse shrubs and flowers, not only enhances the ‘year round’ appeal of the place, but also continues Mackenzie’s original vision. As a result, the horticultural importance of the place grows annually – as do the number of visitors from all over the world who make their way to this remote corner of Wester Ross.

The first year the garden was opened under the husbandry of the National Trust for Scotland – in 1952 – it welcomed 3,000 visitors, a figure which had risen by the end of the 1960s to over 100,000. In the 40 years since then, that number has doubled, so dealing with that huge increase in footfall without losing the intimacy of Mackenzie’s original vision has been a monumental challenge to the NTS, and one which they have achieved remarkably.

One of the many remarkable facts about Inverewe is that Osgood Mackenzie was a self-confessed gardening novice when he started out. ‘I was very young then… and perfectly ignorant of everything connected with forestry and gardening.’ Having been brought up surrounded by dramatic wooded landscapes and beautiful gardens on the continent, however, he was determined to turn his estate into his ideal vision, despite the barren and exposed nature of the site. ‘My mother undertook the whole trouble of house-building,’ he wrote in his memoir, ‘and I set myself to the rest of the work with the determination to succeed if possible.’ The mock-baronial house his mother supervised the construction of is no longer there, having been destroyed in a disastrous fire in 1914.

Shortly before he died, he wished, as most gardeners do, that he could have started back at the beginning again, but taking back with him the accumulated experience of his lifetime, and a clear understanding, then, of the mistakes he had made in the 1860s and 1870s. He need not have worried – during his lifetime he had created a masterpiece and, like any other masterpiece, whatever imperfections it has, they are part of its heritage and its charm.

First challenge, after clearing the site, was the planting of trees to create a protective screen for the rest of the garden, and there he admitted making mistakes. His first planting of young native trees did little more than provide food for the local animal life, but a second planting of hardier, and presumably less tasty, European varieties proved much more successful, growing faster and providing shelter from ‘the south-westerly gales which are so constant and so severe in these parts.’

Even with all the careful creation of screening woodland, Inverewe can take a battering from the Atlantic. In 1984 it suffered the worst gales on record – the highest windspeed being recorded at 120mph before the gale blew away the recording device.

Mackenzie found that Corsican pines were ideally suited to the environment – they grew quickly, not only providing shelter for the whole garden, but also protecting the many varieties of other young trees with which he dressed the surrounding slopes.

Today, azaleas and rhododendrons provide spectacular displays. The Rhododendron Walk to the north of the house is probably where those first plantings took place back in the 1860s and 1870s, and probably also the site of the original stunted willows.

By the early years of the 20th Century, Osgood himself was being recognised as a bit of an authority himself – and many other gardners came to him for advice, including James Arthur Campbell who opened a garden at Asknish Farm and called the garden Arduaine.

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