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12 Oct 2021

Digging beyond the design

Written by Derek Alexander, Head of Archaeological Services
Culzean Castle on a sunny day.
The corner of the 1733 walled garden at Culzean was found buried under the Fountain Court lawn
There have been around 47 different projects at Culzean Castle and Country Park in Ayrshire that have had an archaeological element to them. Of these, 28 were related to aspects or features of the garden and designed landscape.

Like many historic gardens and designed landscapes, the key to understanding Culzean Castle and Country Park lies within a number of historic maps. The excellent 1755 estate map of Culzean, by John Foulis for Sir Thomas Kennedy, can be compared and contrasted with the first edition Ordnance Survey map of the 1860s. These two maps show the designed landscape from immediately prior to Robert Adam’s changes of the 1770s and 80s into the fully developed Victorian design, with its numerous views and eye-catchers. In more recent times, an Historic Landscape survey was undertaken in 1993, which was then updated by a Framework Conservation and Management Plan in 2014.

Perhaps where Culzean differs in conservation terms however, is in the sheer amount of archaeological recording and invasive fieldwork that has also been carried out there.

Culzean Castle on a sunny day.
Culzean Castle and Country Park, on the Ayrshire coast

| Designed landscape: an area of land which has been specially planned and laid out for artistic effect.

Most designed landscapes start with the development of the main garden close to the central house or castle. At Culzean, the earliest development was in the mid-17th century, with the knocking through of the defensive barmkin (Scots word for a lower enclosing wall) to the south of the old tower, and the construction of three terraces. Beyond these terraces, in the glen below the castle, a walled garden was built in 1733 for Sir John Kennedy. This garden is shown on the Foulis map (below) as an enclosed kitchen garden for the castle, with fruit trees lining the south-facing walls of the terraces and apparent rows of planted beds in a rectangular arrangement.

Culzean Castle on a sunny day.
Foulis’ estate map of Culzean, 1755, with the site of the 2017 excavation trench marked

This garden was abandoned in 1782, and the walls were demolished by Robert Adam’s workmen as part of the wide range of improvements carried out around the castle. The Fountain Court area was used as a bowling green in the mid-19th century, before the eponymous large ornate fountain was installed in 1876.

During improvement works in 2017 – to enable the Fountain Court area to be used for large concerts – the insertion of a herringbone pattern of new drains led to the discovery of the 1733 walled garden. As the works presented a very rare opportunity to dig below the well-kept lawn, a larger trench was excavated by Rathmell Archaeology in order to locate and expose the southern corner of the garden. Careful excavation and cleaning revealed that the wall at this point survived to over six courses, standing around 0.7m high. It’s clear that these walls formed a large rectangular enclosure, over 60m long (north-south) by 30m (east to west).

Culzean Castle on a sunny day.
2017 excavation of the Fountain Court area

As was the fashion in the late 18th century, the kitchen garden was moved away from the immediate view of the house and the garden given over to wider views of the picturesque landscape. A new walled garden was built to the south-east, just out of sight of the castle: the date stone above the gate is 1786. It is likely that a lot of the stone used in this new garden (which still stands as the existing walled garden at Culzean today) would have been re-used from the original. The largest set piece excavation within this later walled garden was undertaken back in 1999, in advance of the construction of a replica glasshouse vinery.

Culzean Castle on a sunny day.
1999 excavation of the vinery at Culzean

A glasshouse had stood on this spot until the 1950s, when it was demolished. Archaeological investigations were carried out of foundations and the surviving heated-wall by Addyman Archaeology, which revealed that the vinery had two phases. The first phase, circa 1790, was built around a central structure with an oval window. The second phase saw it extended to the south, and the central door was moved to maintain the symmetry. Excavation revealed a complex series of deposits, including stone-lined air drains leading from the heated pipes in the interior to the exterior, to prevent the vine roots from freezing when they grew outside. Artefacts and ecofacts (strictly organic material such as plant and animal remains) recovered show that the soil had been enriched with charcoal, lime, and large numbers of horse bones!

In 2012, in the northern half of the walled garden, a trial trench in an empty flower bed was excavated by participants on a Trust working holiday. This revealed a semi-circular foundation of re-used dressed stone at a depth of 0.5m. The current gardeners explained that this was likely to have been built to prevent the roots of fig trees from penetrating too deep and would also have stimulated fruiting. One of the great advantages of undertaking fieldwork in Trust gardens is that the dedicated staff have amassed a great deal of practical knowledge and are familiar with the physical remains.

Culzean Castle on a sunny day.
2012 excavation of the fig tree platform

Our most recent work on the designed landscape at Culzean has been beside the Cat Gates, on a much quieter part of the estate. An excavation was undertaken in 2019 on the foundations of the gate lodge houses there. These two houses, which were built around 1810, had stood until 1960 when they were demolished, and no trace of either was apparent when the site was visited. A combination of map evidence and archaeological remains showed that both were about 5.3m long by 4.6m wide. In some areas the foundations for the walls and the internal stone and tile paving survived in situ and proved to be an excellent training excavation for volunteers. One of the most exciting parts of the project has been the search for documents relating to who might have lived there. Records for 1891 show that a Mrs Black lived in one structure (possibly the West Lodge) while John Murray, the gatekeeper, lived with his wife and two sons in the other.

Culzean Castle on a sunny day.

While there are certainly elements of design within landscapes such as at Culzean, it is clear that many of these have changed and evolved overtime. Just factoring in the growing cycle of planted trees shows some serious forward planning, but often the original intention can be forgotten or the result altered in subsequent years. Archaeology plays a very important part in the understanding of these processes, and can often reveal the chronological depth and the level of human engagement in our landscapes.

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