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18 Mar 2022

Inverewe – Osgood Mackenzie’s ‘Impossible Garden’

Written by Pauline Butler, Volunteer at Inverewe Garden
Inverewe House and Garden in the days of founder and creator Osgood Mackenzie
The garden at Inverewe is as fascinating as the story of its making. This year sees the centenary of the death of Osgood Mackenzie, the man behind this amazing garden which was his lifelong challenge.

The ‘Veteran Highlander’

On 29 March 1922, Osgood Hanbury Mackenzie of Inverewe had a fall, hurt his leg and was brought home in a cart. He seemed to be recovering. However, on 15 April, according to the diary of his son-in-law, Robert Hanbury, he was ‘reading and writing and said he never felt better, and then just before 8 had a heart attack and passed away in a few minutes’. On 19 April, one month short of his 80th birthday, Osgood was buried at Gairloch near his mother. ‘It was a most glorious day. Snow on all the hills but like a summer’s day.’

The obituaries paid credit to a ‘Veteran Highlander’ who had recently published his memoirs, A Hundred Years in the Highlands. This ‘charming volume of reminiscence of great general and historical interest’ was rich in folklore and nature study. Osgood’s fine grasp of Gaelic was remarked on, encouraged by his mother from childhood. He was said to have been intensely devoted to the Highlands, loving the people and their traditions. But his greatest achievements were in transforming a Ross-shire wilderness into a ‘garden paradise’, planting exotic trees, shrubs and flowers.

Gairloch and Inverewe

Osgood’s father was Sir Francis Mackenzie, 12th Laird of Gairloch. Soon after his first wife died, he had married Mary Hanbury, daughter of an English family with brewing and banking wealth. Their only child was born on 13 May 1842 when the family was staying in Brittany. Sadly, Francis died when Osgood was but a year old. Mary brought him, and the two boys of Francis’ first marriage, back to the Mackenzie family home at Flowerdale, Gairloch, until the eldest, Kenneth, was of age to take on his inheritance.

After some time spent travelling on the continent, Osgood returned to the Highlands to follow his passions for outdoor pursuits: fishing, bird nesting, and deer stalking. So, in separate transactions, his mother bought him three tracts of land which, by 1863, became the estate of Inverewe. Here, ‘he made barren ground bring forth flower, shrub and tree, which hitherto had not been deemed possible in Northern latitudes, some of them nowhere else in these islands’.

A life-long challenge

That achievement had been a life-long challenge. His barren promontory, near the village of Poolewe on the shores of Loch Ewe, was ‘washed by Atlantic waves and swept by Atlantic winds’. Osgood claimed there were but two dwarf willows originally, which were the inspiration for the two ironwork gates in the Walled Garden designed in 2012 by our Head Gardener. A narrow strip of old raised beach became a terraced amphitheatre shelving gently towards the loch, millions of pebbles were hand-picked to return to the sea, and soil was brought in, a mix of peaty stuff from old turf dykes, red soil from afar and blue clay marl from the loch. High retaining stone walls were covered, in time, with fan and cordon-trained fruit trees. Ever since, the Walled Garden has grown a wonderful variety of vegetables, fruit (apples, pears and plums in Osgood’s day), and brilliantly-coloured flowers, such as crimson roses and scarlet gladioli.

Over and above ensuring there was food for the table, Osgood began planting a shelterbelt of pines, including the native Scots fir which he sourced from his brother’s woods on the shores of Loch Maree. It took 15 or 20 years for the plantation to create good cover. Then he could cut out some of the ‘commoner stuff’ to replace with Wellingtonias, Douglas and Silver firs. Osgood was fascinated by rare and beautiful plants from far and wide, so was forever experimenting to see whether they would thrive at Inverewe. Much to the surprise of horticultural experts, by the 1890s he was celebrating success with palms, tree ferns and ‘61 big eucalyptus in seven or eight varieties’, all growing just as successfully as in the gardens of Cornwall, the Isle of Wight, or even under glass at Kew. Rhododendrons became a particular boast, for their size, the glory of their trusses of flowers and that, by 1920, there was a rhododendron to be found in bloom somewhere in his garden every month of the year.

Although he did source plants on his travels through Europe and further afield to Sri Lanka and Madeira, most of Osgood’s purchases were from nurseries in England, Ireland and France. He was always delighted to share his pleasure from forestry and gardening with others through writing for Scottish newspapers and the Royal Horticultural Society. And he was ever optimistic: ‘Occasionally disappointments do occur, such as the sudden withering up of some favourite tree or shrub from no accountable reason; but I console myself by repeating that good old proverb in its original Gaelic “Cha neil coille gun a crianaich”, and so I cheer up, and order another living plant immediately to replace the dead one’.

Inverewe Mansion House

Osgood had left the duties of house building to his mother. It was a handsome, stone baronial-style mansion, with round tower and slate roof, having outlooks across Loch Ewe to his favourite hunting ground, Beinn Aridh Charr. In 1877 he married Minna Moss, daughter of a Liverpool businessman, whom he met when she was staying with her family at Flowerdale. In 1879 a daughter, Mairi, was born. But the marriage was unhappy and the couple parted soon after. To earn income, Osgood rented out Inverewe House to wealthy guests who, like him, enjoyed the sport of moors and lochs, and father and daughter resided at Tournaig, his mother’s house 3km north of Poolewe.

The original Inverewe House, a baronial-style mansion

So, neither were staying at Inverewe when the house caught fire in April 1914. It sustained serious damage, though the furniture and pets were saved by the noble service of the ‘bluejackets and marines’ on exercise in Loch Ewe, just months before the outbreak of World War One. In 1920, Osgood extended the accommodation at the Gate Lodge (still at the start of the drive and available to rent as a holiday let), which is where he passed away in 1922, at home in the garden that was ‘his pride and everlasting joy’.

The fire at the mansion house in April 1914

Mairi’s Garden 1915–1953

Seven years earlier, Osgood had transferred ownership of his estate to Mairi. She willingly committed to ‘cherish his wonderful collection and to augment it in the way I feel he would have done had he been alive’. As a keen and capable plantswoman in her own right, she put her personal stamp on Inverewe. The Rock Garden, the ponds and Coronation Knoll on the eastern hillside are all to her credit. The enclosure which Osgood had called ‘Fantasie’ became ‘Bambooselem’, and ‘Riviera’ became ‘Japan’, both owing to the focus of the plantings there. Peaty and shady ‘America’ retained its name.

Mairi favoured blue flowers: she described ‘a lovely Wedgwood-blue Iris’ that grew in the deep water of one pond; white and blue Agapanthus to be found along the drive, alongside banks of hydrangeas; and ‘the foremost of the famous blue flowers, the Chatham Island forget-me-not, … an established clump just outside the kitchen garden gate, most striking, with its huge, shining, dark-green “rhubarb” leaves and tight trusses of brilliant blue flowers’. These are all still to be found at Inverewe today.

In the mid-1930s, Mairi and her second husband, Ronald Sawyer, decided to move from Tournaig to the heart of the garden. They replaced the standing ruins at the front of the old house with a white-harled villa in ‘Arts and Crafts’ style, of a design influenced by Ronald’s life in South Africa. This house was remodelled in 2016 to allow visitor access downstairs, where the rooms are replicated from 1930s photographs. A gallery has replaced the outbuildings at the rear, and two flats accommodate staff and visitors upstairs. The terrace and steps have been reinstated to access the lawn with its stunning views over to the ‘everlasting hills and ever-changing sea’.

Inverewe House, a white-harled villa built in the 1930s for Mairi Sawyer

A permanent memorial

In 1952, just a year before her untimely and unexpected death, Mairi gave Inverewe to the National Trust for Scotland. At the official handover ceremony in May 1953, Lady Elphinstone accepted the gift, committing the National Trust for Scotland to preserving the garden as a permanent memorial to Osgood Mackenzie. In Mairi’s words: ‘What better memorial could a man leave behind than this little oasis of peace and interest, snuggling down between the Atlantic and bare rocky hills?’.

As one head gardener wrote: ‘Today, visitors may find it difficult to imagine Inverewe as it was in Osgood Mackenzie’s, or even Mrs Sawyer’s time – narrow paths winding through an unusual sort of wildness of exotic ferns, bamboo and Himalayan rhododendrons. Some of it is still like that, quite deliberately so. It is a long way from the small willow trees which marked the origin of Inverewe, although the garden today is as fascinating as the story of its making. But it is not so much what it contains as the fact that it exists at all.’

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