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7 Jun 2021

The designed landscape at the Hill House

Written by Simon Jones – Gardens and Designed Landscapes Manager (South & West)
A large yellow crane is being used in the construction of the Box at the Hill House.
The effect on the landscape during the construction of the Box
Two years on from the construction of the Box, we look at the impact it has had on the designed landscape around the house.

The Hill House is the finest and most complete example of domestic architecture by the internationally celebrated architect, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The Blackie family moved into the house in March 1904, when Walter Blackie said: ‘The house shall stand as an example of the genius of Mackintosh’. The family lived there until Walter Blackie’s death in 1953. The National Trust for Scotland has cared for the Hill House since 1982.

However, it wasn’t just the house that Mackintosh designed, he also influenced several aspects of the garden itself – the siting of the rectangular rose garden that pays homage to the straight lines within the house design, the trellising, gates and the lilac circle. But most of the layout of the garden is credited to Mackintosh’s client Walter Blackie, who was a keen gardener.

Today, the garden has the following main components: orchard and north wall herbaceous border, kitchen garden, glasshouse, rose garden, lilac circle, wildflower meadow, ‘plum pudding’ rockery and terraced lawns. The lower lawn was once a croquet lawn and tennis court.

After over a century of driving wind and rain saturating the walls of the Hill House, in 2018/19 the Trust embarked on an ambitious project to save the house and its collections by constructing the Box.

The Box has dramatically, but temporarily, altered the designed landscape around the house and some key features are now missing. These include the drying green, borders at the front of the house, rear courtyard circle, ‘billiard border’ to the north-west of the house, south terrace planting including standard roses, the ‘tulip stem’ in the carriage semi-circle opposite the front door and twin herbaceous borders. These are obviously quite significant landscape changes, which will in time be replaced once the Box has done its job to help preserve and conserve the house and its collections.

But the Box construction has also created some opportunities within the landscape. The most important one being to seize the chance to improve the drainage in the garden, taking water away from the house and improving the drainage in the lawn terraces. So, what cannot be seen are the large 500mm land drains that catch any water on the north side of the house and divert it round and out of the landscape. This will also help the house to dry out and stop it acting as a wick – in other words, the Box is drying out the house from the sides and above, while the land drains help from the ground up.

As we near the second anniversary since the completion of the Box, how has the landscape recovered and what does it look like now?

The orchard has been replanted, the Mackintosh-influenced trellis was saved and has been relocated to form the entrance to the rose garden.

A new long, linear herbaceous border was created to pay homage to the straight lines within the garden and also to reflect the long herbaceous border along the north wall. At this point I’d like to pay a special tribute to our retired gardener, Gavin Smith. For almost 40 years he was the sole gardener in this designed landscape, and this new long border was Gavin’s last planted bed. Fittingly, Gavin chose the plants and oversaw the planting, working with gardeners from across the region. During his last two years working with the Trust, Gavin had to oversee a destructive, yet significant, intervention at the property and it’s testament to him that he displayed our values with a fantastic open-minded willingness and attitude to this work. He has certainly left the garden in good condition for the next gardener to take on. Thank you Gavin.

That said, it’s fair to say that the landscape will take quite some time to fully recover and for the drainage to take effect. Alison Farrell, head gardener for the Hill House and Geilston Garden, and myself are currently working up plans and proposals to build on this good work and to continually improve the quality of horticultural standards that such an important architectural work of art and visitor attraction warrants. This will include new edging for all the straight-lined beds, tweaks to the plant composition throughout the garden and changes to the garden facilities at the back of the house. Watch this space in the coming years.

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