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15 Jan 2021

Redeveloping the Great Garden at Pitmedden

Written by Chris Wardle
Chris Beardshaw stands in a garden, smiling at the camera with his arms folded in front of him. He wears a bright blue woolly jumper, with a half zip.
Working with the landscape architect, Chelsea Flower Show garden designer and Beechgrove Garden presenter Chris Beardshaw, we’re reinterpreting the classic parterre garden for the modern world.

In late 2018, and with thanks to a generous private supporter, a plan was made to explore an innovative ‘rethink’ of the formal parterre design in one of Aberdeenshire’s most well-known gardens. This was a chance to depart from formality and the ‘normal’, and to look at reinterpreting the garden for new audiences. The National Trust for Scotland looked towards re-modelling the current design of the nationally important horticultural garden at Pitmedden to satisfy the demands of modern visitors, as well as reinterpret the narrative of the garden as a significant contributor to the gardens of Scotland.

After searching for the right individual to interpret the requirements of such an important task, the Trust engaged Chris Beardshaw, garden designer and landscape architect, whose work is known both nationally and internationally. Chris, who is well known for his work on television and at the Chelsea Flower Show, was by far the best choice to take on the challenge due to his extensive knowledge of historical garden context, as well as the modern requirements of horticulture and how to apply this to the task in a creative format.

Developing his ideas independently, Chris worked on researching and developing a concept design that brought together various elements to inform the end proposal. This involved drawing together elements of historical information and design context, as well as the key process of designing the layout and content of the proposal. Great care was taken to not influence the design process, so that something new and original but seated in the past would be developed.

In doing so, the historical importance of the garden was carefully reviewed to ensure that any reworking justifiably enhanced the current garden, but Chris placed an increased emphasis on the narratives of ‘future gardening style’, biodiversity and responsible resource management.

Chris said: ‘The review primarily focused on the upper terraces of the Great Walled Garden, which had an overlay of some early designs added in the 1990s. These were deemed not to be working for the benefit of the garden, and so provided an opportunity to think differently about this area. It was decided to create a “de-constructed parterre” of bulbs, herbaceous plants and grasses, with the hope that this proposed parterre would fully interact with visitors, as they would be enveloped by a decorative plant tapestry. This parterre terrace will then become the antithesis of the lower garden parterres, from which an elevated view provides visitors with a look back in time.’

From a horticultural perspective, Chris’s proposed parterre would become an exemplar (the largest in the UK!) of a stylistic approach to maximising floral reward, biodiversity and aesthetic delivery, while being mindful of the need to reduce the inputs – material, financial and human. The need to be thoughtful of sustainability and a changing climate would then be embedded in the design.

Also fundamental to his review was the requirement to respect the on-site and textual history of the garden, with minimal disturbance of the historical elements, minimal site imposition and minimal cultivation depths.

Historical context

Pitmedden Garden was first created in the late 17th century within an estate in the possession of the Seton family. Originally acquired by James Seton in 1603, the elaborate and formal garden was laid out by his second son and daughter-in-law, Sir Alexander Seton and Margaret Lauder, from 1675.

An influential and distinguished lawyer, knighted in 1664 by Charles II, Alexander undoubtedly drew on connections with his mentor, architect Sir William Bruce, 3rd Earl of Winton. It’s suggested that he significantly influenced the formal layout of the gardens.

Chris noted: ‘Textual evidence of the gardens is sparse, although it was described as “one of the best laid-out gardens in the north of Scotland”. A fire in the early 19th century is suspected to have compromised any papers specifically relating to the layout, design process and garden contents.’

As a Royalist in exile, Bruce was known to have visited Andre le Notre (1613–1700) at Vaux-le-Vicomte, and later Versailles, to absorb the French Classical style. Bruce completed designs for Holyroodhouse for Charles II in 1671, with gardens being laid out at Holyrood between 1668–74. The extent to which Bruce was mimicking le Notre’s style is uncertain but the mid-17th-century designs for Holyroodhouse depict extensive parterres.

Chris continued: ‘Although no detail is evident of the formal gardens, the Pitmedden plans from the mid-19th century show a geometric and formal structure of landscape spaces, with indications of the lower terrace walls and associated buildings. Also evident are four sigmoid curved paths leading from the house terrace out into the landscape; this geometric form was possibly inspired by the ogee roof of the wall buildings.

‘This design feature was drawn out to become a major component of our final design.’

Design inspiration and analysis

During the design process Chris undertook an analysis of the garden spaces to identify the relative confusion of spatial arrangement and under-exploited spaces within the existing garden structure. He identified areas close to the house that contribute little to the total visitor experience and found confused pedestrian circulation patterns.

A coloured plan of Pitmedden Garden, with blue and purple arrows indicating the expected routes that visitors normally follow. The arrows mostly begin from the house and upper garden area, with few reaching the lower garden.
The current visitor circulation map results in a lack of exploration to the full site.

Having identified these weaknesses, Chris started to explore how to maximise the opportunities of the adjacent garden spaces. He wanted to offer visitors a clear narrative as they explore the garden, from the formality of the near-house-spaces to the much-valued visual reward of the balustrades into the Great Garden parterres. He focused on designed areas that would create distinctive character spaces.

A coloured plan of Pitmedden Garden identifying distinct areas within the garden as a whole.
Chris’s final design layout – a sequence of garden spaces encourages greater visitor exploration and connection.

Once settled on the general layout, Chris then turned his attention to the content of the areas to be designed. The proposed Upper Terrace borders re-introduce the sigmoid pathways in mown grass, with a contemporary and exotic deconstructed parterre plantation of bulbs, herbaceous plants and grasses. This is a biodiverse and species-rich, modernistic response. Swathes and drifts of species subtly weave a seasonal pattern through a specifically choreographed plantation to provide a longer season of interest.

Stylistic example

Finally, Chris used historical influences to underpin the whole design. And he went to a place that none of us expected! He explored colour schemes, fabric design and furniture contemporary to the period in which the garden was founded, to influence his selection of materials as well as shapes and textures. After finding an original colour palette from the period, as well as researching fashions in fabric and objects of the time, he selected plants that fit with this scheme.

With skill and precision, Chris used the scrolls and swirls of what are the essence of a parterre to create the complicated layout with its associated plant material. Vaux-le-Vicomte near Paris predates the famous gardens at Versailles and are contemporary in date with Pitmedden. Chris was lucky enough to secure a copy of the original layout, a pencil sketch, which he has based his reinterpretation upon. This gives the new design at Pitmedden fantastic pedigree and connection to its original source.

And then 2020 happened ... !

Despite all the trials and tribulations of last year, the garden staff have progressed well with ground preparations and laying out the design in readiness for planting in early 2021. Surveyors have assisted in the laying out of the plan. Archaeologists and geophysicists were consulted to ensure that no hidden historical structures will be affected. Thousands of bulbs are now ready to be planted. The plants have been ordered from Scottish nurseries and are in quarantine to ensure they are disease-free. They’ll be delivered in early spring 2021 and many regional garden staff members, volunteers and horticultural students will be called upon to help plant the thousands of plants that will make up the design.

These are such exciting times for Pitmedden and the gardens community as a whole – we’re developing a direction that will provide something new yet remain embedded in the past at the same time. This new garden will work with nature and help us reinterpret what a garden can be.

Our charity would like to thank Professor Ian Young and his wife Sylvia, who enjoyed a long association with and deep love of Aberdeenshire, for supporting this place.

Ian had huge passion for both Aberdeenshire and gardens – he was born and brought up in the city and studied at the University of Aberdeen, and was also honoured by the university for his work on MRI. He wanted to respect heritage while giving gardens and gardeners an opportunity to develop and be creative. He also supported projects at Crathes Castle, Craigievar Castle and Drum Castle.

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