Crathes Castle Garden

The short reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, (1561-7) was too troublous a time for building, yet during those few years one castle at least was built in Scotland by the ancient family of Burnett. It has been occupied by them ever since, and the first-time visitor to the garden at Crathes cannot fail to be impressed by the romantic silhouette of their Castle, standing high over the rushing waters of the River Dee.

Its outline comprises all the architectural fancies that one expects in Scottish baronial architecture: grey-stone turrets, craw-stepped gables, machicolations, bartizans and elaborate corbelling. But the architectural fantasies of Crathes Castle are genuine and of the sixteenth century; they are not, as is often the case with buildings in Scottish baronial style, the heavy-handed imitations of Victorian architects.

Over the turbulent years of Scottish history the fabric of Crathes Castle had suffered little, until some years ago when a fire did serious damage to the Queen Anne Wing. In spite of that, it is still one of the most fascinating castles of Scotland to visit, and is open to the public for many months in the year. And it has a garden which is worthy of it. This is one of the earliest of formal gardens in Scotland, and was already celebrated in 1714, when Sir Samuel Forbes wrote, ‘The House of Crathes is well built . . . the gardens produce delicate fruit: the soil is warm: the victual substantious and weighty.’ At that time the yew hedges, now such a magnificent feature of the garden at Crathes, were already twelve years old, having been planted in the year of Queen Anne’s accession in 1702. These hedges make the divisions between some of the several smaller gardens which go to make up the intriguing pattern of the garden as a whole. For the entire complex is divided up, very much in the taste of today, into a series of plots, each with its own name, its own colour scheme, and its own character. Seen from an upstairs window, these separate gardens look like an elaborate carpet, lapping the castle walls, and merging imperceptibly into the surrounding landscape of Kincardine.

Crathes Castle Garden

Above: Crathes Castle was built in the short troubled reign of Mary Queen of Scots (1561-7). It is set in a very beautiful and romantic garden.

The garden at Crathes shelters a most remarkable collection of plants, and the visitor should visit the various enclosures one by one, and examine carefully the interesting specimens they contain. First, the Pool Garden, under the castle’s very walls. Here, early on in his tour, the visitor finds much to make him exclaim: the white-flowered Styrax hemsleyana from China, for instance, and the rare Buddleia Colvilei, with its hanging racemes of pink flowers, which grows only in the most favoured gardens in the south. Nearby are a fine specimen of the New Zealand lace-bark (Hoheria populneis) which shows saucer-sized flowers in late summer, and two quite outstanding honeysuckles, the Chinese Lonicera tragophylla with long yellow trumpets, and one of the most beautiful of them all, Lonicera splendida, with silvery leaves and champagne-coloured flowers. The latter comes from Spain, the home of Don da Silva Feijoa who gave his name to another unusual plant at Crathes, Feijoa sellowiana. This is described in the Royal Horticultural Society’s Dictionary of Gardening as ‘not quite hardy in our average climate’, so that it is a tribute to the gardening skill of the owners of Crathes to find it growing there in the open, in a Scottish county which derives no benefit from the Gulf Stream, and which in fact lies open to all the chilling gales which sweep over Kincardine from the east coast … a far cry from Uruguay, which is feijoa’s country of origin.

In the Fountain Garden there are mostly blue flowers: blue annuals growing round the fountain, and, presiding, a magnificent Paulownia imperialis with blue foxglove flowers borne in very early spring. These are all too often marred by frost, but make it a wonderful sight when the weather has been kind. Not tar away grows another shrub which comes into its own later in the year, Cercidiphyllum japomcum, a medium-sized shrub which puts up a brilliant firework display of colour in autumn.

As at Haddon, the Rose Garden at Crathes was also largely planted with floribunda roses, tellingly interplanted with the white, bell-flowered giant summer hyacinth (Galtonia candicans), and drifts of the annual red orach (Atriplex hortensis), a decorative kind of spinach. This is a most effective and practical planting combination. Once planted, galtonias can be left undisturbed for years; while the red spinach seeds itself generously every year – a good example of gardening skill and imagination. Nearby grew a good specimen of Davidia involucrata, or dove tree, which covers its branches every spring with white leaf-bracts round the inconspicuous flowers. These look for all the world like fluttering doves. It is also, less romantically, called the handkerchief tree.

In another warm corner, in the Aviary Border, the Chilean gazania (Mutisia oligodon) flowers in autumn. This is a rare plant indeed, with a striking climbing habit, and pink daisy flowers.

In one of the Four Squares, as four of the enclosed gardens at Crathes are called, the writer particularly noticed some brilliant tigridias whose exotic flowers last only one day, but follow each other in bright succession all through the summer, while in the Trough and Doocot Gardens grew day lilies, peonies, autumn crocus and those giant lilies from the Himalayas, Lilium giganteum.

To conclude these notes, let us quote what a great connoisseur of gardens -and owner of Great Dixter – Mr Christopher Lloyd, had to say about the garden at Crathes.

It is not only stuffed with interesting and beautiful plants which one is amazed to see flourishing in this least hospitable corner of the British Isles, but it is extremely well laid out and is planted according to the kind of plan that I should never be strong-minded enough to adopt myself without starting again from scratch. A fascinating border, for instance, devoted to foliage plants; a double herbaceous border entirely concentrated on a staggering display of herbaceous plants for June effect and another most subtly conceived garden where purple flowers and foliage are contrasted with pale yellows and lime greens.

Throughout this much praised garden at Crathes there runs a theme which is noticeable as one passes from enclosure to enclosure: it is hard to define, difficult to identify, but as each border is examined and the peaceful atmosphere absorbed, the visitor realizes that here is a garden which owes everything, not to its historic frame, certainly not to the amiability of the climate, but to the taste, science and gardening skill of the owners who have planted the garden and dressed its borders so well.

OPEN All year round, daily from 9.30 a.m. LOCATION 3 miles from Banchory on A93.

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