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15 Feb 2021

Restoration of the topiary yew hedges at Crathes Castle

Written by Chris Wardle – Gardens & Designed Landscape Manager (Aberdeenshire & Angus)
Bird’s-eye view looking down on a lawn with large topiary yew hedges to the right.
Bird’s-eye view of the magnificent topiary hedges
Few gardens in Scotland, and indeed in the UK, can boast hedges of such stature and importance as those at Crathes Castle in Aberdeenshire.

Perhaps the sunken garden and its ‘birds’ at Hidcote Manor, or the undulating and towering cloud-shaped hedges at Powis Castle in North Wales can boast a similar pedigree to those at Crathes Castle. But even the pristine linear hedges of Sissinghurst in Kent are a mere maximum of 90 years old!

What sets Crathes apart is the sheer antiquity and genetic diversity of the hedges.

The oldest parts date back to 1702 – we used dendrochronology to help us date the hedges, by taking cores of the trees and counting the rings to find out their age. Although the ring count didn’t take us all the way back to 1702, the historical and archive records completed the picture.

The strange thing about yew trees is that in years of difficult weather, such as drought or floods, they won’t add an incremental tree ring which can be seen. In fact, even at the best of times it’s hard to count the rings on yews as they’re so close together. So, without the archival evidence we could only guess at the age of the trees.

Two large topiary yews under a light dusting of snow, with Crathes Castle in the background
The distinctive topiary yews under a light dusting of snow, with the castle in the background

The Crathes hedges are characterised by their diversity of colour and form. The plants would have been collected either by seed or cuttings from the surrounding countryside, giving them a wide genetic base and different individual qualities. Some are very vigorous and deep green, others are less so and their new growth each year almost has a golden tinge. Some of the spare trees propagated at the time of the first plantings were planted in other parts of the estate. These venerable specimens can now be found in and around the area known as Rockheads, just a few hundred metres from the castle and walled gardens.

There’s also another part to the story of the Crathes hedges. In the last few years the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) has created a replacement yew hedge, which has now been replanted around the entire periphery of the garden. The hedge at RBGE consists entirely of collected material from all the great trees and hedges across Scotland, such as the Fortingall yew in Perthshire. Crathes has played a small part by providing material for 10 metres of their new hedge – forever captured for posterity in its new home.

The restoration project

After years of planning from 1995–2000, the first phase of the restoration was undertaken in 2001. Callum Pirnie, head gardener at the time, had long identified that the hedges had become over-sized and were at risk of collapse. They were also becoming increasingly difficult to cut due to their width and height. I spent my first few years at Crathes as first gardener and spent all summer cutting the hedges using shears, ladders and old electrical hedge cutters. The garden staff started to use scaffolding from around 2002, but even this method proved difficult due to the size of the hedges – at some points they were over 20ft wide and high.

Cutting the hedges was a thankless task and although new techniques and equipment were on the horizon, these required the hedges to be smaller.

Soon the renovations began and the difficult first cuts were made using chainsaws and handsaws. This opened up the hearts of the hedges, allowing them to start to rejuvenate. A bit of faith was needed by the garden staff – but they knew that a decade or two of regeneration was a small price to pay in the overall hedges’ lifespan of hundreds of years.

Of the material removed, the larger parts were kept and given to local woodturners, who made spurtles and other wood products. The rest was burnt on site, eventually returning to its source, after being added to the compost and mulched onto the hedge roots, completing the life cycle.

Revealing history

It soon became clear that the DNA of the hedges could be read from deep within them. As the stems were revealed, so were the different stages of development. It also became obvious that the hedges are made up of very different age structures. Again, the archival and anecdotal evidence helped us to build a clearer picture.

In fact, the hedges were a series of lots of old topiaries that were actually interplanted with holly. Holly is one of the key emblems of the Burnett family, who built Crathes Castle, and it can be found on their original coat of arms and on armorial panels on the castle.

At some point, probably in the 1880s, the holly trees were removed and the hedges were replanted with younger yew trees from around the estate. The tops of the existing topiaries were cut off to make a singular and crisp linear hedge – as was the Victorian fashion.

Old photograph showing a formal garden surrounded by paths and with several tall conifers.
Taken c1883, looking towards the fountain garden. The holly hedge against the far wall has been replaced by a border and the pointed yew sentinels now have flat tops

As part of this process, the largest and most important hedge to the south of the croquet lawn was amended and new steps were added at the corner to aid a circular walk around the upper terraces.

But to do this the symmetry of the hedges was disrupted, creating five topiaries within the structure. The Victorians hated this imbalance and cut the head off one of the topiaries to create an even number of forms.

When I started work in the castle gardens we could never quite understand why the four topiaries were off-centre and looked slightly odd! It was only during the course of the restoration that we would see the stems of the trees and realised there were actually six, which were in pairs across the width of the area.

A decision was made to replace the ‘missing’ fifth topiary, which is now nearing maturity after 20 years. Unfortunately we couldn’t replace the sixth topiary as the steps are a permanent feature – but it’s a talking point when our visitors ask about the ‘odd number of topiaries’.

Aerial view of a garden with a topiary yew hedge. Behind it is a woodland garden with trees of varying sizes and colours.
Aerial view showing the five topiaries

The future

It’s now 20 years since the first works were carried out and the hedge faces that were cut are nearly completely regrown. It’s time to turn our attention to the other sections of hedge that need regenerating.

Time has shown us that although it’s a scary prospect and a substantial change over a short period, in reality the hedges soon start to regenerate and replenish themselves.

Above all, our ethos is not to re-create the formal straight edges of the Victorian era but to keep the romantic feel of the way we perceive the hedges today. So, they have a character and personality that is fundamentally all Crathes – a little wonky and misshapen, but that this is the consequence of hundreds of years of growth and ageing, just like the rest of the gardens and estate.

With care and sensitive maintenance our garden teams will be able to care for the hedges for generations to come.

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