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14 Apr 2021

Crarae Garden versus the forces of water

Written by Simon Jones, Gardens and Designed Landscapes Manager – South and West
A small waterfall tumbles into a burn. On either side are large rhododendron bushes and other trees and shrubs.
Crarae is a fine example of an exotic Himalayan-style woodland garden. Set beside the banks of Loch Fyne, this unique 40-hectare garden is planted around the steep-sided gorge formed by Crarae Burn.

Crarae Garden was started by Grace, Lady Campbell (aunt of famous plant hunter Reginald Farrer) in 1912 and includes a National Collection of southern beech (Nothofagus), as well as excellent examples of rhododendrons, maples, mountain ash and eucalyptus. A Neolithic chambered cairn stands in the ‘lower garden’ and adjacent to this is a medieval kirkyard. The Campbell family gifted the garden to the Crarae Garden Charitable Trust in 1978, whose ownership lasted until 2002 when the garden was acquired by the National Trust for Scotland.

Close up of a pink flower on a rhododendron bush.
Rhododendron fulvum

To maintain the naturalistic displays of trees and shrubs, the hillside has to be managed to allow the water to flow down, through and off it into the burn. Water is channelled through a series of ditch networks, which are hand dug and cleared of leaf debris by the gardeners each winter – not a task for the faint hearted!

The burn then absorbs the water and it’s discharged, as one of many freshwater contributories, into Loch Fyne. But our story doesn’t end there. The burn has been in existence for millennia, changing direction and shape, carving out the gorge through the eroding forces of water. This is nature at its persistent best, unfettered by anthropogenic activities.

However, over the last 110 years this landscape has been shaped by various garden and woodland developments. Crarae Garden today is a classic example of how garden design creates something and subsequently attempts to work with, and in part control, at least one aspect of nature – in this case water.

The visitor experience in this area of the garden is mainly focused on walking alongside and crossing the burn, which offers numerous photogenic opportunities, particularly when the plants are at their floristic best. But in 2004 the path here experienced ‘wash out’ (where rainwater washed away the path), which was duly repaired, and more recently in 2020 the same path’s profile was further exacerbated by the increasingly intense storm events that washed many boulders down the burn. The gardeners on site thought that they were hearing loud thunder, but they were in fact hearing the large boulders smashing into each other!

When considered in the face of a changing climate, these events, augmented by additional burn wall-edge erosion issues, could mean that we will experience more frequent and potentially more damaging erosion to one of our key natural heritage assets. So, I feel that we’re entering a time of adaptation at Crarae Garden, and probably at many of our other designed landscapes. The Trust must lay down the practical steps needed to ensure these assets will still be here for future generations to experience. To that end, we will be taking immediate action at Crarae to repair the washed-out section of path, while making strategic decisions to create long-term practical solutions in mitigation of and adaptation to gardening in a changing climate.


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