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27 Apr 2022

Crathes Garden blog #12: A Victorian legacy

Written by Susan Bennett, garden guide at Crathes Castle, Garden & Estate
A view inside a glasshouse with a white wooden frame and many glass panels in the roof and walls. Inside are a variety of potted plants, including one with bright red flowers in the foreground.
The Mackenzie and Moncur glasshouses at Crathes, dating from around 1886, are still in good use.
Our expert garden guide has been sharing a blog offering a behind-the-scenes glimpse at what the team are working on in the garden at Crathes. This month, Susan takes a look at the history of the much-admired glasshouses.

There have been glasshouses at Crathes since the mid-19th century. A large, rather fancy one that used to grace the north end of the Croquet Lawn was demolished in 1884. The present five stepped glasshouses inside the walled garden are by Mackenzie & Moncur (M&M) and date from around 1886.

The Victorian firm of M&M was established in 1869 in Edinburgh by two friends: Alexander Donald Mackenzie from Appin and George Greig Moncur from Arbuthnott. Both were joiners, but they soon became famous for their foundry work and their glasshouses. Sandringham, Windsor, Kew and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh were among the many clients. Andrew Carnegie commissioned a magnificent swimming pool at Skibo Castle in Sutherland, which has recently been restored to its former glory. The archives of the firm are now held at the University of Glasgow.

A row of glasshouses in a garden. They are attached to each other but each house is a little lower than its neighbour on the left. In front of the glasshouses is a fenced-off pool and some flower beds.
The five stepped glasshouses and the dipping pool, which may have been part of the original 1886 design.

The glasshouse design at Crathes is a three-quarter lean-to, simple and functional. Over the years the woodwork has been renewed many times, the glazing replaced by strengthened glass, and modern technology is now used to open the windows, but many of the old features still remain. The distinctive ironwork is a joy – the black painted brackets contrast with the parallel lines of white painted woodwork.

Apart from the vinery (house three), each house has a water tank under the staging which fills with rainwater from the roans (gutters), with a standpipe taking away the excess. Andy remembers the difficulty of collecting water from these reservoirs with a watering can; I can imagine it would be hard on the back. Today, hoses are used for watering but the tanks still have a use because the water helps to stabilise the temperature.

A lady stands inside a glasshouse using a yellow hose to water the very many plants on the shelves around her.
Joanna is pleased that she doesn’t have to water all the plants with a watering can.

Originally, the houses were heated by coal or coke from the boiler in the stove house below house six – which is outside the wall in the gardeners’ yard but still connected to house five. Some of the vents that regulated the heat can be seen in houses four and five.

Various plants grow under the floor grills. A pretty little plant that grows profusely in nooks and crannies in houses one and two turns out to be Kraus’s clubmoss (Selaginella kraussiana). It was introduced from South Africa and is commonly found in glasshouses; sometimes it naturalises in warm, damp areas of Britain. The fern that grows in house five looks to be the ribbon fern, sometimes called the Cretan brake fern (Pteris cretica), but I am not certain about this – again it is not a native, but occasionally naturalises.

A green moss-like plant grows in the corner of a glasshouse, on the damp floor beside a white stone wall.
Kraus’s clubmoss in the glasshouse

Finding M&M glasshouses has become one of my random hobbies, though as yet the collection is rather small. Brodie Castle had until recently a derelict, simple, three-quarter lean-to range in the walled garden. At the time of my visit I didn’t know about M&M glasshouses, but I can just make out the distinctive brackets from photos.

A much grander glasshouse was discovered overgrown and completely derelict in Glendaruel on the Cowal Peninsula.

Gordon Castle has two free-standing M&M glasshouses which they have restored. In 2016 we visited the castle for the gardeners’ outing and managed to choose the wettest and stormiest day of the year. We sheltered in the glasshouses where Zara Gordon Lennox kindly took our photograph. You can just see the distinctive iron work above our heads.

Chris Wardle, our previous head gardener (on the right in the photograph at Gordon Castle), was visiting Crathes this week in his role as Gardens and Designed Landscapes Manager, North East. We were talking about M&M glasshouses and he told me that the glasshouses at Dunecht House are M&M, though no longer in use. I took a trip to Dunecht at the weekend but I could not get into the walled garden, which now belongs to wholesale Springhill Nurseries, although I could see just a little of the glasshouse range. However, CANMORE, a website of Historic Environment Scotland (HES), has over 50 photographs of the glasshouses taken in 2018. From these I could see that the houses are huge in comparison to Crathes, with a rather grand central house that reminded me of the Glendaruel glasshouse design. [1]

Thinking about the Dunecht glasshouses at the height of their splendour, I remembered the story of J Fraser Smith, an apprentice at Crathes in 1864. His career had taken him to some of the big estates in Scotland and to conservatory work at Alexandra Park, London. He also worked for Veitch Nurseries. When he returned to Scotland he became head gardener at Pitcaple Castle, and later Dunecht House. He died in 1897/8 after a period as head gardener at Cullen House. He was at Dunecht in 1887 as the judge of cut flowers at the Horticultural Society of Aberdeenshire show. Although I do not know the date of the Dunecht glasshouses, I like to imagine they signify the magnificence that Fraser Smith commanded at a time when large numbers of gardeners were employed and money was no object (not forgetting that the gardeners worked long hours for little pay).

Restoration of these glasshouses is extremely expensive – the Skibo swimming pool restoration cost over £4 million. Then there are the maintenance costs and the question of sustainability, with heating being a big issue (see my earlier blog ‘Challenges’ from November 2021). We are therefore fortunate to have our Mackenzie and Moncur glasshouses at Crathes in good order and able to deliver important garden requirements. They were nearly replaced by aluminium houses in the 1970s, the same time that house one was reduced from five to three bays. James has been concerned about the deterioration of the woodwork during the pandemic, and a local firm has now been contracted to look after ongoing problems. Any rot will be dealt with quickly before it spreads; the question of heating is the subject of a continuing conversation.

Rows of potted seedlings stand on a shelf inside a glasshouse. Larger potted plants stand behind them. In the foreground a plant has a bright orange flower,
Potted plants in houses four and five

March and April are busy months for the glasshouses: seeds are sown, cuttings nurtured, and plugs potted up. Everything is geared up for the new season. The glasshouses are run on an organic regime and biological control is essential to limit pest problems (see my earlier blog ‘Seven years’ weeding’ from May 2021). This year, a new pest control will be introduced to help deal with the mealybug – a sap-sucking insect that not only attacks plants but also secretes honeydew, which attracts sooty mould. Chrysoperla carnea is a green lacewing, the larvae of which eat mealy bugs and aphids. 500 larvae will be delivered in weeks 18, 21 and 24 (from the beginning of the year). This lacewing is common in Britain, although it is not often recorded in North-East Scotland. Any adults that escape into the garden will be a bonus, as they will serve as both pollinators and food for the birds.

In the yard, pots and pots of daffodils are lined up ready for planting in the Woodland Garden. These daffodils have come from Brodie. I lived in Moray for the larger part of my life and knew that Brodie was famous for its daffodils, but I had never visited in the right season and I only knew bits of the daffodil story. Since we were back in Moray on the glorious weekend at the end of March, we made a daffodil detour on the way home. The helpful staff provided me with a booklet about Ian Brodie of Brodie (1868–1943) and his daffodils – thank you, Jenny! [2]

Neat rows of daffodils, just about ready to come into bloom, grow in a bed in front of an old stone garden wall.
Part of the daffodil collection in the walled garden at Brodie Castle

Major Ian Brodie, whose main career was in the army, developed an interest in breeding daffodils at about the age of 30. His cultivars were all carefully recorded from 1899 to 1942 in his stud-books. Over 12,500 crosses are recorded. Each cultivar would have involved the removal of the anthers to prevent cross-pollination; the preservation of any anthers he wished to use as parents; hand pollination with the chosen anthers; and the prevention of pollination by insects, etc. The seeds that resulted might have taken two to five years to produce flowers; I presume the glasshouses would have been helpful at this stage. The walled garden was filled with daffodils.

After Ian Brodie’s death, his wife, Violet Hope, and his head gardener, J M Annand, kept up with daffodil breeding. But, by the time the Trust took on the care of Brodie Castle in 1978, the collection had been neglected and much of it was lost. Concurrently there was a surge of interest in developing new daffodil cultivars commercially and the Brodie daffodils were largely forgotten. By 1982 the Trust was beginning to bring together what could be salvaged of the Brodie collection. Any garden with daffodil records might still be able to contribute to this ongoing project; some Brodie cultivars have even turned up in Australia.

The present collection of over a hundred cultivars is now carefully organised in part of the walled garden. Unfortunately, hardly any were in flower the weekend we visited. But the shrubbery was looking lovely with its daffodils – Wordsworth’s little native daffodils (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) were in full flower and looking a treat.

A carpet of daffodils covers the shrubbery at Brodie, where the castle can just be seen in the distance. Trees grow among the daffodils.
Native daffodils in the Brodie shrubbery

1997 saw a major flood in the garden, which caused basal rot and the loss of many bulbs. And this is why Crathes (and other National Trust for Scotland gardens) have been given stocks of Brodie daffodil bulbs to care for. The Brodie daffodils will be planted out in appropriate places, with a careful note of each cultivar. Not only will they enhance Crathes, but they will also help to safeguard against any future threats to the collection.

Talking about survival, James [the head gardener at Crathes] has always hoped for an unusual snowdrop to turn up at Crathes and this year he has struck lucky. It seems like serendipity that it grew in the fire yard, despite the heavy machinery traffic, the bonfires and the gardeners’ boots and wheelbarrows. This rare specimen is called Galanthus nivalis Poculiformis Group. Snowdrops do not have sepals and petals, but instead have tepals that look like petals. The common snowdrop has two quite distinct rings of tepals: the inner ring being shorter and marked with green; the outer being made of longer white tepals that lift up as the flower ages. Poculiformis, however, has both an outer and inner ring of long tepals with no markings.

A delicate snowdrop flower is held between the finger and thumb of someone's hand.
Galanthus nivalis Poculiformis Group

With the snowdrops gone, the daffodils will be at their peak during Easter. The garden is full of birds: there were tits everywhere; Dave could hear the treecreepers; Emily saw yellowhammers and a goldcrest collecting a feather for its nest; I watched a wee wren given it laldy in a viburnum bush and heard the buzzards overhead. The oystercatchers have also been piping around – Cecilia heard them creating a disturbance in the Red Garden urn. A green flush is spreading over the countryside; we just need a bit of warmth.

Updates

  • Weeding is the priority at the moment. 4 acres can produce a lot of weeds; the sooner you catch them, the better.
  • So far we have avoided the hard frosts of last year. The Corylopsis shrubs have been glorious.
  • The dipping pool, which might have been part of the original M&M design, is now safely fenced. The barley straw in netting is said to be effective in preventing algal growth; too much algae can be toxic to wildlife. There is now frogspawn in the dipping pool and the Woodland Garden pool.
  • Dave is working on labels for the Woodland Garden. Identifying some of the conifer cultivars is definitely challenging.
  • After a period of inactivity, the entrance building windows have been glazed.

[1] The HES CANMORE website also has images of the Skibo Castle swimming pool.

[2] Duncan Douglas, Ian Brodie: A Chieftain in the World of Daffodils, National Trust for Scotland, 1999