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25 Feb 2018

500 years of Scottish garden history

Written by Robert Grant, Former Head of Gardens & Designed Landscapes
A view of an avenue of clipped yew trees on either side of a manicured lawn. A stone fountain stands at the centre. Woodland can be seen in the distance.
Gardens, whether large or small, their policies and wider designed landscapes are dynamic works of art comprising a series of widely different characteristics.

These characteristics include land-form, buildings, physical environment – soils, altitude, microclimate; the influence of people through personal taste and fashion; and living beings, which themselves are forever changing as a result of natural ageing, and changes in trends, fashion, availability and use of plant components. Combined, these factors form contrived ecosystems and interdependent communities that, like buildings and countryside, need to be managed if their continuity is to be ensured.

It’s essential therefore that successful long-term planning is undertaken to guarantee the succession of management and conservation of a garden as a work of art, for the benefit of the property and the general public. To avoid undesirable change, the conservation process – including maintenance, restoration and adaptation – must be carried out as part of a clear long-term plan for the garden, based upon an understanding of its full cultural significance, history and character. Likewise, gardens can be promoted and marketed as ‘products’ in their own right as well as being a series of components that can each be separately ‘sold’ or promoted through effective market planning.

The Scots people have been referred to as a ‘nation of gardeners’ but this tag can only be applied to Scotland’s horticultural pursuits since about the 1750s. Unlike the wider world, Scotland cannot boast a thousand or more years of garden cultivation as is the case in Syria, Iraq, Italy or Japan; in fact, Scotland came to gardening relatively late even compared with England. In the beginning it was only practised by the monastic establishments, the very wealthy and by royalty from as early as the 15th century. Scotland had medicinal and ‘physic’ gardens during the Middle Ages though it’s thought that many of these were destroyed during the Reformation. In his History of Great Britain John Major wrote of the Scots in 1521 that ‘Neither do they plant trees or hedges for their orchards, nor do they dung the land’. This may have been the case in some situations, but we know from the Exchequer Roles that, as early as 1483, onions by the barrel-load were grown at Falkland Palace. In 1593 Dene Macho Tachet of Culross Abbey was recorded as growing ‘Plowm trees’, probably bullaces, and in 1597 George Bruce of Culross constructed his grand lodging in the village around which he almost certainly had a garden of some sort. If this had not been a fully fledged ornamental garden, it would most likely have supported a tethered pig, some free-range hens and a kale yard.

16th-century gardens were more commonplace and a number survive with more recent overlays. The former walled enclosures immediately adjacent to Drum Castle and Fyvie Castle almost certainly supported an ornamental scheme that was viewed from the south-facing long galleries; documentary evidence has shown that these gardens were well established in the mid-17th century as records show that the garden at Drum was ransacked by the Duke of Montrose in 1644. Scotland’s first gardening book published in 1683 was John Reid’s The Scots Gard’ner, which summarised the need for order and discipline in gardens.

A stone statue of a lion stands in a rose garden, with beds surrounded by box hedges. A lady kneels in the background, examining a rose.
The rose garden at Drum Castle

A century later and, between 1748 and 1755, Scotland’s great designed landscape improvement programme was well established, following the trend for large naturalistic landscapes. The majority were illustrated on General Roy’s Military Survey which, in some cases, showed remarkable detail in the grand plans; some of these can still be traced on the ground today.

By the early 19th century Scotland was a very proud nation of gardeners, with the greatest activity being undertaken by the wealthy and landed classes. John Claudius Loudon (1783–1843) wrote the influential Encyclopaedia of Gardening (1822) that captured the state of gardening fashions of the day and advocated the development of ‘gardenesque’ and woodland gardening. This work was followed by the influence of John Ruskin, William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll, examples of which can be traced through the development of the Trust’s gardens portfolio.

The Industrial Revolution saw huge profits being made by many of Scotland’s entrepreneurs who, in turn, established their own townhouse and country estate gardens. Industries such as publishing, jute manufacture and shipbuilding led to the creation of the Hill House, Helensburgh; Hill of Tarvit, Cupar; and Geilston House respectively.

Following the two World Wars there was a significant decline in the numbers of people available to work in country estate gardens. With ever-increasing costs of managing such places – many of which had been ravaged through military requisitioning – the Scottish country house was in danger of being lost. Organisations such as the National Trust, National Trust for Scotland, English Heritage, Historic Scotland and the Landmark Trust came to the rescue of many great estates, houses and landscapes, but many more have since been lost to expanding towns and cities. Following the austere years of WWII, there was a surge of interest in developing new towns and Garden Cities as well as the general public’s keenness to garden for themselves, influenced to a great part by television gardeners. The second half of the 20th century saw a massive garden boom, which has ensured that gardening remains both Britain’s, and Scotland’s in particular, most popular pastime.

Elaborate clipped box hedging displayed across Pitmedden Garden. In the foreground, a mixture of pink, purple and white bedding plants fill a swirl of hedging.
Pitmedden Garden, a 17th-century garden recreated by the Trust in 1953

The Scottish horticultural legacy of garden making, restoration, renewal and making afresh, supported by intrepid 20th-century plant hunters and botanists who introduced a huge amount of ornamental plants into cultivation and commerce, is one of the most significant in the world.

This fact is recognised through the work of both Historic Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage (and their predecessors) in the development and revision of the Inventory of Gardens and Designed Landscapes in Scotland (1987–2011) that currently includes 386 of the most important gardens and designed landscapes in Scotland. Through this work, the gardens benefit from minor legislative protection in so far that local authorities are required to consider their significance when considering planning applications that could impact on the historic setting. These 386 sites, together with many thousands of others included in regional surveys, demonstrate that Scotland really is a nation of gardeners. The National Trust for Scotland supports 70 gardens and designed landscapes, ranging from small museum gardens of a few square metres to landed estates with tens of hectares of gardens, policies and designed landscapes, and includes representatives of every phase of Scottish garden history.

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