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28 Apr 2020

A history of the productive garden at Culzean

Written by Tim Keyworth, Gardens and Designed Landscape Manager, Ayrshire and Arran
A black and white photograph of Culzean Castle, taken from the garden in front. There are trees in the foreground and the walls of the court are covered in ivy.
Culzean Castle, taken in 1890 from Fountain Court
The productive garden at Culzean has a long and interesting past. Here we look at the history of the walled garden, with a focus on the 19th century.

The walled garden was first created in its current position in the late 18th century, the site chosen because of its location away from the castle and its immediate surrounds. The original walled garden at Culzean had been located at the base of the castle itself, but it was dismantled under the improvement works being undertaken by the celebrity architect Robert Adam for the Kennedy family.

The ‘new’ walled garden was enlarged to the size it is today during improvement works carried out across the estate in 1830. The hard structure of the walled garden has remained unchanged since this time.

The head gardener in 1836, John Davidson, was paid a direct wage of £60 a year, which equates to roughly £4,068 in today’s money. With this you could have bought 4 horses, 11 cows or 29 quarters of wheat! Produce then had to be sold back to the estate to cover the cost of the walled garden. The annual garden costs amounted to £250 (£16,950).

A black and white illustration from an old OS map, showing the Culzean estate. Various features, and fields, are labelled, including the walled garden.
An OS map from 1857, showing the Culzean estate and the site of the new walled garden.

By 1871 William Baxter had taken over as head gardener, and vegetables were produced exclusively for the castle. If the family were not in residence, the produce was sent in hampers by rail to London. However, in 1874 William Baxter was dismissed for tampering with the books and diverting funds for his own use. Amazingly, he later fled to Chile to escape paying back the debt!

Archibald Kennedy, 3rd Marquess of Ailsa had been unhappy with how the garden had been run for some time. David Murray, a lead foreman for the Duke of Buccleuch at Dalkeith Palace, was highly recommended and succeeded William Baxter. This was a significant moment for the development of the gardens at Culzean, for David Murray was a specialist in glasshouse work. He forged a strong relationship with the family and quickly became a confidant for the Marquess. He was instrumental in enabling Culzean to grow a collection of rare and exotic plants from across the globe.

In terms of the productive garden, perhaps David Murray’s greatest legacy is that in 1887 he bred what’s regarded as the most successful all-purpose onion, which is still very popular in production today. The onion ‘Ailsa Craig’ (Allium cepa ‘Ailsa Craig’) was named after the granite island that can be seen from the estate. It has become one of the most popular varieties for cooking and is a reliable grower for exhibitions.

An aerial photograph of the Culzean estate, showing extensive wooded areas. The castle can be seen on the cliffs in the top left of the image. The walled garden is around 4 times bigger than the castle area!
A view of the Culzean estate today, showing the scale of the walled garden.

In 1890, although money was tight across the estate, the gardening team had grown to 7 gardeners and an apprentice. This was 2 gardeners and an apprentice more than 10 years before, when budgets had been less constrained. The high standing of David Murray meant that building work was allowed to carry on across the estate. A new vinery was built, and the melon, cucumber and pineapple houses restored.

The garden continued to provide food for the family throughout the year. In 1893 the Kennedy family headed to Scandinavia on holiday and food hampers were sent to provide them with supplies. The feedback from the Marquess was that greener tomatoes should be picked and that the fruit needed to be sent in a separate hamper to the vegetables!

David Murray remained head gardener at Culzean until 1911.

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