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12 May 2021

Exploring the depths of Inverewe’s underwater garden

Written by Jacky Brookes
The shoreline of Loch Ewe around Inverewe Garden. Snow-capped mountains can be seen in the distance. Seaweed covers the rocks on the shoreline in the foreground.
Inverewe Garden, a tropical oasis nestling on the shores of Loch Ewe, has a remarkable underwater world. Photograph: Adrian Hollister
The sea around Inverewe is a special place for marine wildlife and nationally important seabed habitats. An exhibition in the Summerhouse gives visitors the chance to find out more about the amazing marine wildlife around Inverewe – above, on and below the sea.

When you explore Inverewe Garden you’re never far from the sea! The wonderful diversity of exotic plant life growing at Inverewe depends upon its geographical location. The west coast of Scotland is subject to oceanic currents that bring water all the way from the tropics to our shores. The severity (and frequency) of freezing days is much less at Inverewe than further inland. However, the Inverewe coastline – the sheltered bays, boulder-filled beaches and rocky headlands – can be exposed to the full force of the Atlantic Ocean during northerly gales.

Created in the 19th century amid a barren wilderness on this remote peninsula, where the effects of the Gulf Stream meet the Highlands, Inverewe Garden nestles on the shores of Loch Ewe. To celebrate Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters, we’re highlighting our amazing marine life with a new exhibition, Inverewe’s Underwater Garden, on display in the summerhouse adjacent to Inverewe House.

Loch Ewe is a north-facing sea loch, made famous as a ‘convoy base’ during the Second World War, and was designated part of the Wester Ross Marine Protected Area (MPA) in 2014. The MPA aims to protect and recover nationally important seabed habitats, including the maerl beds (a type of seaweed) which are found close to Inverewe Garden. Many local people supported the designation, recognising the need to restore fish populations that depend upon healthy seabeds. Some types of fishing (for example, scallop dredgers) can damage fragile seabed habitats such as maerl but these are no longer allowed to operate in Loch Ewe. Instead, scallops are harvested by hand by divers, and creel fishermen are able to fish for prawns, crabs and lobsters.

A panoramic view of a sea loch, with woodland shores in the foreground. Rocky, treeless crags can be seen across the loch.
A panoramic view of Loch Ewe

For over 100 years the soils at Inverewe have been fertilised with seaweed. Every winter huge piles of seaweed are stranded along the shore, which can be seen just below the walled garden. It’s hard to imagine a be­tter-situated fruit and vegetable garden than one where there’s such a reliable supply of fertiliser only a few metres away! Seaweed contains all the major nutrients and micronutrients required by plants and makes a wonderful feed for growing produce.

Seaweed is a type of algae, and it requires sunlight and clear nutrient-rich seawater to grow best. Some of the more common kinds found around the shores of Inverewe are:

  • Wrack – Several different species of wrack can be found growing from rocks or seashells between the tides. Many of the wracks have air bladders, which enable them to float up from the seabed to catch the sunlight as the tide comes in.
  • Kelp – These large brown seaweeds have broad, flat fronds. Kelp grows just below the low tidemark. Like wrack, kelp needs something solid to attach to; it’s typically found where the seabed is rocky. Unlike wrack, kelp has a stem which grows up into the sunlight, where the fronds sway to and fro in the waves. Dense ‘forests’ of kelp provide homes for many plants and animals, from tiny worms and snails to seals searching for a meal.
  • Maerl – Maerl looks more like coral than seaweed, and maerl beds can cover large areas of the seabed down to depths of 30m where the water is very clear. Red algae grows very slowly on a hard coral-like skeleton. It tends to be found on the seabed below the low tidemark and provides habitat for many animals. Also, very importantly, maerl beds represent a huge carbon store.

Nearby Poolewe was once the most important port on the north-west coast of Scotland, used by the cattle-drovers from Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides when taking their cattle to the markets. One of the panels in the exhibition tells the story of the water spirit Seaonaidh (anglicised Shony or Shoney), who lived on the island of Lewis. It was said that each year the people of Lewis would choose a man to wade into the sea up to his waist, carrying a cup full of ale, made from a communal offering of barley. When he reached the proper depth, he stood and cried aloud: ‘Seonaidh, I give thee this cup of ale, hoping that thou wilt be so good as to send us plenty of seaware (seaweed) for enriching our ground during the coming year’. This legend reminds us of the important relationship between these Gaelic-speaking communities and seaweed, a tradition still maintained today at Inverewe through our seaware-enriched soil in our walled garden.

A text exhibition panel in Gaelic entitled Seaonaidh. There is an illustration of breaking waves at the bottom of the panel.
The panel telling the traditional tale of Seonaidh in Gaelic.

Visitors to Inverewe have the chance to explore the marine life around the shores of the garden for themselves, as there are regular wildlife boat trips throughout the season, led by an experienced fisherman and scallop diver.

Find out more about our wildlife boat trips at Inverewe

The National Trust for Scotland protects hundreds of miles of coastline, islands, rivers and waterfalls, many here in the Highlands and Islands.

  • Corrieshalloch Gorge – Enjoy a natural wonder of the Highlands from the Victorian suspension bridge, and gaze down over the torrents of water plunging 45m over the Falls of Measach.
  • Torridon– Discover a place of majestic beauty and a magnet for hikers and climbers. Contemplate its awe-inspiring scenery from the shores of Loch Torridon and you might even glimpse otters fishing for their tea!
  • Kintail and West Affric – The sharp peaks of the Five Sisters dominate the horizon, while tucked away in a glen lie the dizzying Falls of Glomach. This is magnificent walking country.
  • Balmacara Estate – Located in the Wester Ross Biosphere, this traditional crofting estate is surrounded by lots of new marine protected areas, containing maerl, coral beaches and flameshell beds.
  • Isle of Canna – Inhabited since 5000BC, Canna is also home to scores of wild creatures, from porpoises and whales to puffins and eagles.
  • West Coast islands – The Trust cares for a number of other islands off the west coast including Staffa, Mingulay, Berneray and Pabbay, much of Iona and Burg on Mull.
  • St Kilda – Britain’s only dual World Heritage Site, St Kilda towers out of the storm-tossed waters of the Atlantic Ocean and is home to nearly one million seabirds.

Help us treasure our islands, coasts and waters – become a member at Inverewe Visitor Centre or join online.


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