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6 Mar 2020

Leith Hall – a restoration of rocks

Written by Chris Wardle, Gardens & Designed Landscapes Manager – Aberdeen and Angus
A group of people working in a rock garden
Gardeners and volunteers hard at work to complete the Rock Garden for spring 2020
Thanks to the tenacity of our garden staff and volunteers, the historical Rock Garden will soon be fully restored and starting to flourish for the future.

The Rock Garden was originally begun in the early 1900s by Charles Leith-Hay and was later planted by his wife. It enjoyed a long life until being partly demolished by the Trust in the mid-1980s because of maintenance issues and also after a long period of decline. But around 7 years ago, an opportunity arose to restore the lost Arts & Crafts Rock Garden back to its former glory.

Black and white photograph of a man and two women standing in a rock garden
Charles Leith-Hay and companions in the Rock Garden in 1925

The Rock Garden is one of the more significant elements of the garden at Leith Hall. Visually it’s a dominant feature, whereas many of the other garden features have waxed and waned according to fashions. It was built in the fashionable 1920s style, similar to the rock garden at Branklyn Garden in Perth. The main difference was that most rock gardens created at this time were very feminine in style and soft in layout and planting. The Leith Hall Rock Garden was known for being incredibly bold and ‘masculine’ in its appearance and arrangement of rocks. It was very much a departure from the usual style of rock garden common throughout the UK at the time.

Black and white photograph of a densely planted rock garden
The Rock Garden in 1929

The planting was also very much of its time, with the latest introductions from nurseries adding to the overall effect. From old black and white photographs we can ascertain specific plants such as Cerastium tomentosum, Iberis and low-growing Phlox growing among the rocks, eventually becoming more of a small shrubbery than a rock garden.

The garden is well recorded photographically, both by family members and in articles in Country Life and the Aberdeen Press & Journal. In 1954, an article in The Scotsman stated:

At the summit of the slope is a rock garden, and a rock garden of charming originality. Steps and little paved paths conduct one up and down between the flowers and herbs, and each path has been named after a saint, not indiscriminately, but after saints whose special care has always been gardens or one of the other fine arts. So there is a St Luke’s Lake, a small lilied pool whose name-saint is the patron of painting, Columba’s Causeway and many another such.

Black and white photograph of a rock garden
The Rock Garden in 1929

But by the early 1970s the Trust had decided that the Rock Garden was a significant burden on staff time and resources. So steps were taken to simplify the planting and reduce the volume of rock that made up this feature.

A large quantity of rock was therefore removed and rolled down the hill to below the woodland walk, where it remains to this day. In 1974, Midi Gascoigne (a descendant of the Leith-Hay family who lived at Leith Hall) wrote to Eric Robson (then Head of Gardens at the Trust) to complain about the damage being done to the Rock Garden:

… I am very worried at what is happening to the rock garden here. I know that the work has to be simplified but would it not have been possible to leave those great stones placed there by Charles Leith-Hay and forming a rock garden of quite unusual boldness, vision and naturalness …

Photograph of a rock garden with two small ponds in the foreground
The Rock Garden in the 1980s

The reconstruction of part of the Rock Garden began in early October 2013 thanks to the generous support of the Mutch Bequest and additional funding from the President’s Ball. Tim Keyworth, Head Gardener at the time, reported that:

Phase one will see the main part of the structure rebuilt, phase two will see a much larger pond created and the planting will be very much the last phase of this project to be carried out in May next year. Once re-created it is hoped that the new rockery will be a huge asset to both Leith Hall and the National Trust for Scotland for years to come. Fingers crossed that the work to create the structure is completed before the bad weather sets in! 

Unfortunately, the project stalled at this stage as Tim moved to work at Culzean Castle in Ayrshire and Leith Hall was left without a full-time Head Gardener. In late 2018 Sarah Ramsay was appointed to the top job and took up the challenge of completing the project, with the support of staff, volunteers and Thistle Camps.

A rock garden with small pots of plants dotted around ready to be planted
The restored Rock Garden with new plants ready to be planted out

Landscape designer Douglas Coltart was commissioned to oversee the work, and the old rocks that had been rolled down the hill have now been returned, assessed and sorted as part of the rebuilding work. We hope that visitors will soon be able to enjoy the Rock Garden as Charles Leith-Hay intended over 100 years ago. 

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