Gardens of the South West

DSCF3802.JPG We’ve just spent a long weekend in the south-west of Scotland with Mum, partly on a tour of gardens from a (semi) professional perspective, and partly nostalgia revisiting old haunts from happy childhood holidays in Galloway. We were staying at the Tigh na Mara Hotel in Sandhead, which was really a pub and restaurant with a few rooms, but a fine base from which to explore various corners of the region, and walk on the beach where I remember wading out for miles through sun-warmed water trying to find enough to swim in, with flounders darting out from under my feet, just knee deep with the beach disappearing in the evening haze.

Culzean

Somewhat unfriendly and officious NHS staff at the gate and coachloads of visiting Americans did not detract from our enjoyment of Culzean Country Park on a on a bright and breezy Ayrshire morning. We even went through the castle which I have never done before – Dee was keen to visit Eisenhower’s apartment which turned out to be privately rented accommodation not open to the public. A replica of his study in the castle itself would have you believe that the strategy that won the second world war was conceived and directed from Culzean. Small wonder the Americans love it there, all that rose-tinted history, and Turnberry across the bay 🙂

We thought the gardens at Culzean were looking a bit unloved – a lot of ‘do not’ signs and not a gardener in sight. There were some magnificent apples but the signs said they were not to be picked and anyway they were still a bit hard and wersh (discerning readers may detect a contradiction in these two statements which is explained by Dee’s pathological fruit larceny habit). The Culzean website is truly awful but it would be churlish not to include a link so here it is.
In the evening we went to Portpatrick, ate lobster outside, listened to a lone piper at the harbour and went for a long walk in a glorious sunset.

Threave
Threave was one of Dad’s favourite gardens and I can understand why. It’s in a balmy corner of Dumfriesshire near Castle Douglas, with a walled garden, fabulous trees and shrubs, and some quirky sculptures.
I think maybe all the best gardens are on a slope, with inviting vistas all around and out to the wider world and different corners to explore. Threave also boasts Scotland’s first bat reserve – we saw no bats or even bat boxes but lots of places where I think I’d like to live if I were a bat. A wonderful display of hydrangeas and buddleias, all just hoaching with butterflies. The apples were a bit further on here and there was a grand variety to ‘taste the difference’. Also figs and yellow raspberries (probably the autumn fruiting ‘All Gold’). Lots more photos here.

Castle Kennedy
This has to be in line for garden of the year (just pipped by the Keukenhof but certainly the loveliest, most unusual and most varied planted landscape I know in Scotland).
It was also quite a strange place, with some weird energies. Maybe it was the gusting wind and the dark clouds of the gathering storm, both energising and disturbing, but the situation on a narrow strip of land between two lochs also contributed to a sense of precariousness and unreality. We had the walled garden completely to ourselves, and entering there felt like stepping into Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden, with the attendant mix of fascination, anticipation and fear.
The German term that occurs to me is unheimlich which means literally unhomely and implies figuratively a sense of slightly unease (usually translated as ‘uncanny’, not canny, not known and familiar, not of the home).

The Castle Kennedy garden is a tribute to 18th century exploration and endeavour, and Victorian grand designs. It’s still run by the Stair family (my friend Fiona at university who hails from Newton Stewart was once asked by a rich East Coast American if she knew the Stairs, which amused us at the time – only the downstairs was her riposte). There’s a whole avenue of monkey puzzle trees (Araucaria araucana), another of cedars (Thuja) and another of evergreen oaks. There’s a huge lily pond so full of Victorian lilies it hardly seemed to have any water. There are twenty-five champion trees and a new trail takes you round them all, clearly marking the tallest, oldest, widest, most massive attributes of championship. These include the majestic Eucryphia Champion of Champions (I recall a Beechgrove Garden episode this year when the Countess of Cawdor – Lady Macbeth to us – was claiming that she had the tallest Eucryphia in Europe. Wrong!)

Castle Kennedy has whole glades of Eucryphia in bloom – amazing, dynamic shapes that seemed almost animal in their movement. The araucarias also seemed to take on animal life-form in the wind. Loads more Castle Kennedy pictures here.

Loved this garden, found it both fascinating and slightly angst-making, inviting and alienating, beautiful and grotesque. Polarität und Steigerung, diese zwei große Triebräder der Natur. Maybe it’s because I’m currently reading A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book that I’m thinking about the German Romantics, Goethe’s syntheses of polarised opposites, Hoffmann’s grotesque familiar/uncanny dichotomies and the bridges between this world and the other. Returning to the prosaic, if we lived nearer to Castle Kennedy we would probably volunteer to work in the walled garden which is in need of some general attention and fairly vigorous weeding.

Logan
If Castle Kennedy felt like another world, entering Logan Botanic Garden is like crossing into another country, on a different continent, with a foreign microclimate. There are palm trees, tender perennials and semi-tropicals everywhere. A gunnera grove and a Tasmanian valley full of different kinds of eucalyptus and tree ferns. The first Wollemi pine to be planted out of doors in Scotland is here (now minus the iron fencing it needed as an infant, evidently as protection from animal rather than human predation). I remember the fish pond from 40 years ago, I suppose the fish have changed but not much else has. More Logan pictures here.
After Logan we carried on down to the Mull of Galloway lighthouse, where we were met with the full force of the storm that had been threatening all day. We didn’t get to climb the 150 steps to the top of the lighthouse on account of we arrived five minutes after the Northern Lighthouse Board’s deadline for allowing visitors to access the tower. Jobsworths? Well daylight was fading and the light had come on and it could be a matter of life or death after all. So we didn’t see Ireland, but we did get to see some crashing waves and whirling gannets from the rocks below the fog horn.
On our way to dinner at the Kelvin House Hotel in Glenluce (scene of many of my maternal Stewart clan get-togethers over the years) we made a brief detour to Stairhaven where the Plenderleiths used to pick brambles for mum’s annual jam and jelly factory. Small things can mean big changes in a wee place – the shack belonging to the old fisherman who used to supply Mum with a large sea trout providing she didn’t ask any awkward questions about fishing rights in the Solway Firth is now a large dwelling house, there’s a line of six new houses on the shore, the pier seems to have disappeared (Mum and Dad knew about this, result of a heavy sea some years ago). Most importantly, while the stream was still there, the large juicy brambles along the banks seem to have gone. Perhaps it’s a result of over-picking by incoming hordes of Glaswegians in the 1960s.

We packed a lot into three days – a whistle-stop tour of some fantastic gardens and old favourite places. Every picture tells a story 🙂

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