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19 Mar 2021

Brodie’s blooming marvellous springtime display

Written by Jacky Brookes
Daffodils carpet the grounds in front of Brodie Castle. The trees in front of the castle are bare.
Major Ian Brodie, the 24th Laird, became one of the world’s most successful daffodil breeders, raising tens of thousands of daffodils in his walled garden at Brodie Castle.

Spring is here and the annual spectacle of daffodils bursting into bloom is creating a wonderful display at Brodie Castle. The gardens, estate and woodland walks surrounding the castle are simply stunning when the daffodils are carpeting the grounds. Brodie is home to the one of the UK’s seven National Daffodil Collections recognised by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS). Carefully developed over the years in partnership with Plant Heritage and now cared for and nurtured by the Brodie gardening team, the collection is invaluable in maintaining the heritage of daffodils.

Portrait of a man in army uniform.
Major Ian Brodie, 24th Brodie of Brodie

Major Ian Ashley Moreton Brodie, 24th Brodie of Brodie and clan chieftain, was born on 26 September 1868 to Hugh Fife Ashley Brodie, 23rd Laird, and Lady Eleanor Reynolds-Moreton. Ian Brodie’s fascination with daffodils began in 1899 and he became influential in the breeding of new daffodil varieties in the first half of the 20th century, at first cross-breeding from around 49 different bulbs. His work came at a very significant time and many modern daffodils have Brodie varieties in their parentage.

This green-fingered Scottish soldier has left a global legacy, which is still enjoyed by visitors today. But almost as soon as he started experimenting in breeding daffodils it had to be put on hold, as he joined the Lovat Scouts in 1900 to fight in the second Boer War. In 1902, he returned home wounded, having been decorated with the Distinguished Service Order, and took up where he left off – that year he made 375 daffodil crosses, bearing 501 seedlings.

On 28 April 1904, at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Fortrose, Ian Brodie married Violet Hope, who was to become a great support to her husband in his daffodil breeding endeavours.

During the daffodil season he was rarely seen at any Royal Horticultural Society meetings – such was his interest in this work that nothing but the direst necessity would draw him from home at that time. For many years, Mrs Brodie, who entered wholeheartedly into her husband’s pursuits, sat on Narcissus and Tulip Committees of the RHS. Ian Brodie seldom personally exhibited any of his flowers, but was content with his achievements, leaving others to reap the fruit of his work.

On the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Brodie again joined the Lovat Scouts, serving in the Dardanelles, Egypt and Palestine. He was awarded the Military Cross, was mentioned in dispatches and retired, holding the rank of major, due to ill health. While he was away on service, from 1915 until July 1917, his stud-book records that Mr J M Annand, Brodie’s head gardener from 1911–38, continued to make crosses and to sow some seeds, some of which were later to receive awards.

After he retired from the army, as well as resuming his work in breeding daffodils, Brodie maintained the family tradition of public service: he was Vice-Convener of Nairnshire County Council for 28 years and also Lord Lieutenant of the county for many years up until 1934. His work on breeding daffodils was held in high esteem, which was marked when the RHS conferred on him their highest award in 1942 – the Victorian Medal of Honour. After his death on 15 February 1943 at the age of 74, Brodie’s widow Violet continued to maintain and distribute his seedlings. Further seedlings were raised by Brodie Gardens Nursery and 14 cultivars were registered up to 1959.

Black and white photograph of four men standing next to each other in a field of daffodils.
From right: Ian Brodie, Lionel Richardson, Guy Wilson and William Dunlop

During his life, Ian Brodie particularly associated with daffodil enthusiasts in Ireland, including J Lionel Richardson and his wife Nell, and Guy Wilson – and they routinely exchanged cultivars for breeding. There were only four daffodil breeders in the UK when Major Brodie started out, so when the collection belonging to Walter Ware was struck by narcissus fly, almost wiping out the Fortune bulb, he sent the four remaining bulbs to each breeder. The bulb he sent to Ian Brodie was the only one to survive. Many of the daffodil variants of Brodie origin were cross-bred from that last surviving Fortune bulb.

The Red Hackle story

Ian Brodie chose to name the daffodils he created after places he visited during his wartime service, including Gallipoli, Istria and Red Sea, as well as local places like Tain, Rosemarkie and Dallas, and people he knew around the local area. He also named one of the Brodie daffodils ‘Red Hackle’ after the military headdress of the Black Watch.

The red hackle is the clipped feather plume attached to the military headdress of the Black Watch, 3rd Battalion, Royal Regiment of Scotland. Originally thought to be a reward for their achievement at the Battle of Geldermaisen in 1794, in fact there’s evidence to show that the red hackle was worn by the regiment during the American War of Independence (1775–83).

Close-up of a daffodil. It has white outer petals and a deep yellow trumpet, which is edged in orange.
​Daffodil ‘Red Hackle’

‘His love of and enthusiasm for the Daffodil had a delightful schoolboy quality of intensity and eagerness to the very end of his life ... He would conduct his Daffodil friends ... to the great old walled garden where time was forgotten as one revelled in the beauties and wonders of beds of seedlings selected in the last few seasons which were being grown on for further trial of their merits. Most of the time of one’s visits to Brodie when the Daffodils were out was spent in pilgrimages from the library to the garden.

[from Guy Wilson's obituary notice for Ian Brodie, published in 1946]

A mass of daffodil planting in the Playful Garden at Brodie Castle.
Daffodils in the Playful Garden

Today the daffodils are cultivated under the careful watch of Brodie Castle’s head gardener Ed Walling and his team, who are always on the hunt for more Brodie daffodils to add to the collection, which continues to expand and evolve. In 2019, two daffodils that hadn’t flowered for eight years made an appearance in the Playful Garden National Daffodil Collection – Debutante and Egg Nog – which was an exciting time for the team! Debutante is a Lionel Richardson cultivar with Wild Rose (bred by Ian Brodie) as one of its parents and Egg Nog was raised by Nell Richardson and also has Brodie cultivars in its ancestry.

Ian Brodie’s walled garden is now our popular Playful Garden and is where the National Daffodil Collection of Brodie daffodils is based. First opened in 2018, the Playful Garden is home to a fascinating menagerie of characters, all inspired by stories from the Clan Brodie, who called the castle home for over 400 years. Centre stage is Brodie Bunny, a giant 6.5m-high white rabbit relaxing on the grassy slopes overlooking the National Daffodil Collection beds and many of the features in the Playful Garden reflect the daffodil names.

A large white sculpture of a bunny lies on its back in a walled garden with a number of daffodil beds.
Brodie Bunny overlooks the National Daffodil Collection

The National Collection in the Playful Garden is made up of six daffodil beds which are 45m long by 10m wide, each producing around 70,000 bulbs. Each row is planted with 30 bulbs of the 116 cultivars bred by Ian Brodie that still remain here, as well as another 86 varieties which have a connection to Brodie.

At the end of each season the Brodie gardening team dig up and dry out the bulbs on the original racks in the daffodil shed, before they’re replanted or sold on site, as well as around 20,000 bulbs that are distributed to other Trust properties. The Brodie team are keen to spread the bulbs around as this is vital in preserving the collection, which is vulnerable to disease and pests.

The 116 Brodie daffodil varieties that survived are direct descendants of the 428 that Major Brodie bred between 1899 and 1942. Many of these were lost over time, gifted to others or not documented, and the team is now attempting to track down any that were sent abroad – some as far away as America, Australia and New Zealand. Thankfully, Ian Brodie kept detailed records of his hybrid successes and failures, and of where he sent bulbs and to whom, in his stock book, which is still at Brodie Castle. His meticulous records show how much work he put into this – he made around 12,500 crosses between different daffodils in his day. We’re very lucky to have these records as many other breeders didn’t bother to document their work.

A page of a handwritten logbook describing various daffodils.
Ian Brodie’s logbook

A detailed booklet about Ian Brodie’s career as a cultivator, written by Duncan Donald and published by the National Trust for Scotland can be obtained for £4.99 plus postage by emailing or you can pick up a copy at the Castle Café when it’s open.

Images: Mark Appleton Photography, Ray Cox Photography, NTS Photo Library

A smiling man in a  blue fleece is sitting among daffodils in front of Brodie Castle.

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