It is not to Edzell Castle in Angus that the visitor comes in search of rare or tender plants. The interest and fascination of the garden does not lie in those. It is to be found in its architecture, its sophisticated layout, and in the fact that the garden or pleasance, now so beautifully restored, was first laid out all of three hundred and fifty years ago. The heraldic and symbolical carvings which embellish the garden at Edzcll are surely unique in Scotland, and would be remarkable anywhere.
The late Professor Douglas Simpson, in his admirable guide book, tells us that the ‘the Lichtsome Lindsays’,.a gifted, gallant, turbulent, gay and tragic race, remained in possession of Edzell until 1715, in which year, ‘their affairs having fallen into hopeless embarrassment— the estates were sold.. . .’The estate, castle and pleasance itself then fell on checkered days. The ravages of time, aided and abetted by King George’s Hanoverian soldiery after the second Jacobite rebellion in 1745, and the bankruptcy of its new owners, took fearful toll. The castle’s roof was stripped of its lead, the beech avenues were felled, and the pleasance itself became a wilderness. But its plan survived, and so did most of its unique sculptures. In 1932 the property came under the custody of HM Office of Works (now the Department of the Environment) who have carried out a masterly programme of repair and reconstruction.
Sir David Lindsay, the creator of the garden at Edzell, was a most unusual man for his time. He was widely travelled, a great scholar and the possessor of great taste. It was from Germany that he brought back the ideas for the extraordinary series of sculptures with which he decorated his garden. He died, as Professor Simpson tells us, ‘in extraordinary debt – the penalty of his sumptuous tastes’, but he left to Scotland, in his garden at Edzell, a legacy of the greatest value.
The garden is entered by two doors – one in the rose-red ruined walls of the castle itself, and one at the north end of the east wall. Over each door are identical heraldic stones, bearing the Lindsay arms, and their optimistic motto, ‘Dum spiro spero’ (’While I breathe, I hope’). These stones are dated 1604. ‘It is in the decorative treatment of the garden wall that Lord Edzell and his master mason have achieved their triumph.’ And it is the garden wall, with its curiously carved niches, its sculptured panels, its snug nesting recesses, pediments and carved scrolls, which invites the closest study, always with Professor Simpson’s guide book in hand.
On the east side the sculptures depict the planetary deities – a mailed figure with a shield for Jupiter, for instance, and a female figure ‘with heart aflame’ for Venus. On the south side are to be found carvings of the Liberal Arts -Grammar in a teacher’s gown, Rhetoric, another female figure in full flood of declamation and Arithmetica ‘doing a sum, and very perplexed thereby’.
Above: The castle of the ‘Lichtsome Lindsays’ has been a ruin since after the 1745 Rebellion.
On the west side there are sculptures symbolizing the cardinal virtues, with Faith bearing a much-damaged cross, Charity with a clutch of naked children, and Temperance diluting a wine cup with a jug of water.
Professor Simpson, in his notes, tells us:
Taken as a whole, the pleasance, with its sculptured wall and adjuncts, forms one of the most remarkable artistic monuments that Scotland can show. The significance of such a work cannot be understood unless it is considered in relation to its times … it is the enshrinement, in stone and lime, of a fleeting mood, never repeated in Scottish history. . . . Prior to the Union of Crowns (in 1603) such a work of art could scarcely have been conceived: with the outbreak of the wars of religion in 1637 an abrupt stop was put, for many a long day to come, to all such . . . cultural architectural efforts.
The garden at Edzell Castle is unique, and well repays connoisseurs of gardens who take the trouble to make their way there. Though remote, the garden lies off the main road between Aberdeen and Forfar and so is not difficult to find.
OPEN April – September: 9.30 a.m. – 7 p.m. (Sundays 2 p.m. – 7 p.m.):
October – March, 9.30 a.m. – 4 p.m. (Sunday 2 p.m. – 4 p.m.).
LOCATION About 2 miles west of Edzell village, about 7 miles north of Brechin.