It can be said with confidence that Scotland was anything but bonny three hundred and fifty years ago. The heather and the mountains were there, it is true, but there were few trees, few, and, in a country which was continually at war cither with England or itself, very few gardens. The old prehistoric forests had been cut down for fuel, what flowers there existed were wild, and houses were either fortresses or hovels. The climate, too, had a strange reputation. Few plants, apparently, could survive it, and those that could were freakish, to say the least. Aenaeas Piccolomini, afterwards Pope Pius II, who toured Scotland in the reign of James I, mentions a pear bush which produced fruit in the form of geese, which dropped off and flew away. He also noted the complete lack of trees and general bleakness of the countryside. Nor were vegetables cultivated to any extent; the Scots in general did not like them, and laughed at the Grant clan who did – ‘the soft Kail-eating Grants’. The reputation of Scotland’s climate was discouraging, and in the seventeenth century Fynes Morison wrote: ‘In the northerne parts of England they have small pleasantnesse … or abundance of fruit and flowers, so in Scotland they must have lesse, or none at all.’ Even Dr Johnson who, admittedly, was against Scotland generally, described the climate as so bad that the Scots had to grow barley under glass.
How wrong they all were. Scotland has just as good a gardening climate as England, and in parts better. It is fundamentally incorrect to think that the farther north you are, the fewer plants you can grow. A truer line to take is the west-east one: the Atlantic-washed coast of both England and Scotland has a far milder climate than the east coast. There are few plants growing in the south of England which cannot be even better grown on the favoured west coast of Scotland, and it is here that the beautiful garden at Inverewe is situated. The success of the garden is due not only to the benefit of the Gulf Stream but also to the grandeur of the garden’s setting, and to the way in which the garden has been allowed to grow naturally. The collection of rare and delicate plants that it contains is second to none in Britain.
The garden was first cultivated over 110 years ago, when Osgood Mackenzie, Laird of Gairloch, bought the property. At that time there was hardly any pleasure ground and ‘no trees or shrubs in sight, except one tiny bush of dwarf willow about three feet high. This was preserved in the garden for many years but has now gone.’
The Inverewe peninsula was not an obvious choice for a garden. Its Gaelic name was Am Ploc Ard – the ‘High Lump’, and the ground was a mass of Torridonian sandstone. It was quite bare of vegetation except for some stunted heather and straggling Crowberry (Empetrum nigrum). What soil there was was rough black peat; acid, but not deep. Much had been carted away for fuel by the crofters. There was hardly any good soil at all: little gravel or sand. In places there was ‘a jumble of rotten rock. One redeeming feature . . . was that the rock was not solid, but broke up easily, and in places showed veins of soft pink clay.’ Even so, when the garden was first planted, good soil had to be carried in in baskets.
Above: Meconopsis betonicifolia, the Blue Poppy from Tibet, must have a cool-run and acid soil. Until recently it was known as M. Baileyi, after its discoverer in 1924, Captain F. M. Bailey.
The peninsula in those days was swept by Atlantic winds, for except for the low hills of the Isle of Lewis, forty miles out to sea, there is nothing between Inverewe and the coast of Labrador. Or at least there was nothing until Osgood Mackenzie planted the necessary windbreaks. The terrain caught every gale that blew, and was drenched regularly with sea-spray. However there was the Gulf Stream, with the benefits it brings; and as soon as the future garden was protected by a deer and rabbit fence, as well as the all-important windbreaks, it began to prosper. The shelter-belts were of Corsican pine and Scots fir,ponticum, Douglas fir and many other conifers. Where the soil was deep enough a few specimens of Sequoia gigantea were planted – the giant wellingtonia, sometimes, unhappily, referred to as sequoiadendron.
Soon it was considered safe to set rarer, less tough trees, and eucalyptus and the more delicatetook their place in the garden. Today all Osgood Mackenzie’s trees have grown amazingly and are twined about with uncommon creepers from all over the world. Climbing plants such as the Tasmanian Billardiera longiflora with its striking blue berries, the coral plant (Berberidopsis corallina) from Chile, and the South American glory flower (Eccromocarpus scaber), with orange-coloured trumpet flowers.
One point about the garden which the observant visitor will quickly appreciate is the particular beauty of the silver birches (Betula pendula), especially when they are growing near rhododendrons. For only trees with bark of unsullied silver are allowed to establish themselves at Inverewe, and any with too much black on their bark are ruthlessly eliminated. The contrast of the silver against the dark green of the rhododendrons’ foliage is spectacular. Another notable feature is the red Torridonian sandstone, which, pushing up through the ground here and there throughout the garden, makes a pleasing setting forand small trees.
There is an excellent guide book to the garden at Inverewe, from which many of the facts in these notes have been taken. With it in hand, the visitor can pass from one part of the garden to another and learn exactly what plants to look for in each particular section – and some of the different sections of the garden have the most endearing names. One is known as Japan, because of a double pink cherry which once grew in it; here most of the trees are evergreen, so that it is a part of the garden which looks as well in winter as it does in summer. Another section of the garden is called Creag A Lios – a natural rock garden, surrounded by rare rhododendrons, and with plants showing their colour against a background of the local sandstone. Yet another part of this treasure garden of plants is an enclosure named, whimsically, Bambooselem, where, protected by thick plantings of bamboos, many rare plants flourish – among them the Chilean Guevina avellana, two fine hoherias from New Zealand, and a good specimen of Davidia involucrata, the dove, or more prosaically, handkerchief tree. It is perhaps in Bambooselem that the finest of all the trees of Inverewe is to be tound, a fifty-year-old Magnolia Campbellii, which shows its spectacular pink flowers in late March.
One last plant out of hundreds must be admired. Myosotidium hortensia, the Chatham Island forget-me-not. This is a very rare plant indeed, and not an easy one to grow, unless it is given the curious fertiliser it prefers – seaweed and dead fish. With this unappetising diet it will flourish, and myosotidium, with its handsome ribbedand hydrangea-like heads of flower, is now well established at Inverewe.
The admirable guide book to the garden ends with a paragraph headed ‘When is the best time to visit Inverewe?’ and goes on to say that the question is a difficult one to answer as conditions vary from year to year – though there is always much of interest in the garden and at no time is it quite without flower of some kind.
A famous horticulturist once visited Inverewe, and the owner, feeling rather shy at letting him see the garden, apologised for its unkempt appearance: ‘I knew he had about fifty gardeners, while I had only two and a half! However, after a tour of inspection the famous man’s parting words were, ‘Don’t alter it, it is lovely. It reminds me of some wild corner in Burma or Northern China’.’
OPEN Daily, all year round, from dawn to dusk.
LOCATION Near Poolewe on A832 between Gairloch and Aultbca.