From the northern isles to the border country, historic Scottish gardens are as much part of the country’s tangible heritage as the familiar royal palaces, castles and monuments.
A cornucopia of Scottish gardens
There are walled gardens, historic gardens, Victorian gardens, physic gardens and would you believe there is even a rather remarkable Garden of Cosmic Speculation.
Add to the list the wonderfully idiosyncratic green spaces, which often defy labelling, and you start to understand the lure of Scotland’s horticultural works of art.
With an everchanging canvas and a cracking story to tell, they are nature’s gifts, the perfect antidote to digital overload and city living.
The early 13th century Persian poet Saadi Shirazi said, “A garden is a delight to the eye and a solace for the soul.” It’s as true today as it was all these years ago.
Explorers and plant hunters
Let’s not forget the bravery and dedication of the early plant hunters who scoured the world for exotic species to send home. Without them, Scotland’s horticultural landscape would be all the poorer.
George Forrest, for example, was born in 1873 and today is often dubbed the Indiana Jones of the plant world. He was a botanist, plant collector and explorer who travelled extensively in China.
Over many years Forrest sent thousands of plants and seeds to leading institutions including Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden where in 1903, he took a job in the herbarium.
Isobel Wylie Hutchison born in 1889, was an Arctic traveller, botanist and poet. She was a truly remarkable woman with an innate sense of adventure – a free spirit – unconstrained by the norms and conventions of the day.
During her years of travel, Isobel collected plants which she dispatched to the Royal Botanic Gardens in London and Edinburgh.
A plaque dedicated to the memory of this very special lady is installed at Carlowrie Castle, her lifelong home.
Today Carlowrie Castle in Kirkliston, close to Edinburgh, is one of Scotland’s finest luxury, exclusive use venues.
Scottish Plant Hunter’s Garden, Pitlochry
Acknowledging that Scotland has produced some of the country’s most successful plant hunters, the current administrators say, “This unique garden celebrates their lives and their contribution to the way our gardens look today.”
What are the best Scottish gardens to visit?
Given the huge variety and the subjective nature of what is a pleasant dilemma, it’s a difficult choice.
Dunrobin Castle Garden
Dunrobin Castle, home to the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland for over 700 years might just be a good place to begin.
Not unlike a French chateau with conical spires, the castle overlooks the Moray Firth, close to the village of Golspie and the cathedral town of Dornoch.
Drawing influence from the Palace of Versailles, Sir Charles Barry, one of the architects chosen to redesign the Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament), laid out Dunrobin’s garden in 1850.
The garden is, in the main, formal and magnificently ordered. A Victorian space filled with all manner of trees, plants and flowers which together provide a kaleidoscopic and seasonally changing display.
An Cala Garden
At the opposite end of the scale from Dunrobin, the delightful An Cala Garden, a mere five acres in size, lies across the Bridge over the Atlantic on the Isle of Seil, Argyll.
Warmed by Gulf Stream currents but often battered by the roaring Atlantic gales, the surrounding cliffs thankfully offer this plantsman’s paradise some respite from the weather.
Among the plants and conifers, strategically placed to gain maximum shelter from an unforgiving climate, there are azaleas, roses, rhododendrons, Himalayan blue poppies and Japanese ornamental cherry trees.
Plants and flowers aside, one of the great joys of An Cala are the exceptional views to the Islands of Islay, Jura and the Garvellachs – the islands of the sea.
Work first began here in the 1930s, it’s a little slice of Scotland well worth visiting.
Gordon Castle Garden
Gordon Castle, on the edge of the village of Fochabers on the east bank of the River Spey, is the centrepiece of a country estate with luxury accommodation and a historic walled garden.
Although the castle, the spiritual home of Clan Gordon, has its own award-winning gin, indeed cider and ale too, Speyside is salmon and whisky country.
The walled garden, at eight acres is one of the biggest of its kind in Britain. Documents show the existence of a walled garden as early as the 17th century. The current model developed from the early 19th century.
While an impressive floral display provides the centrepiece, surrounding plots produce a variety of crops including fruit, vegetables, essential oils and aromatics for the gin.
With everything else on offer this is a place for all the family.
Inverewe Garden, on the shores of Loch Ewe, is encircled by the craggy landscape of Wester Ross, in the far north west of Scotland.
Bathed by the warmer waters of the Gulf Stream, this very special place is now managed by the National Trust for Scotland.
In 1862, the redoubtable Osgood Mackenzie began the gargantuan task of turning what was then a barren landscape into a place where visitors can admire plants and trees from around the world.
Among them are Wollemi pines, Himalayan poppies, Californian redwoods, eucalypts from Tasmania and a plethora of rhododendrons from China and India.
Its 50 acres are also home to some of the country’s most loved wildlife – ‘Scotland’s Big 5’ species –no less. With red squirrels, red deer, golden eagle, otters and harbour seal, spotting one of these wonderful creatures is definitely part of the ‘Inverewe experience’.
It was created in 1912 by Lady Grace Campbell, aunt of plant hunter Reginald Farrer.
The steep wall of Crarae Glen and the rushing water of a burn provide the ideal environment for plants and shrubs from China, Tibet and Nepal to flourish.
Rhododendrons, azaleas, magnolias, eucalyptus and camellias add their own particular splash of colour.
A series of trails allow access to this captivating Himalayan style woodland, one of the finest examples of its kind.
Wildlife abounds with dippers, crossbills, woodpeckers and others creatures adding their voices to the chorus. If you’re lucky you might also catch a glimpse of the elusive red squirrel or a peregrine falcon.
Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh (RBGE)
No discussion of Scottish horticulture is complete without mention of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh.
Situated in Inverleith less than a mile from Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town, the city’s world-renowned botanic garden, which stretches to over 70 acres, has a history dating to 1670.
The RBGE took its first tentative steps under the guidance of physicians Sir Andrew Balfour and Sir Robert Sibbald.
Initially established as a physic garden, in a site close to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, it grew plants for medical prescriptions and to help teach medical botany to students.
Over 350 years later the ‘botanics’ is both a world leading centre for scientific research and a glorious place to explore.
Among the countless highlights are:
- The Alpine House with its collection of spring flowering crocus, iris, snowdrops, and more.
- The Chinese Hillside, complete with a stream, waterfall and a range of plants including the ubiquitous rhododendron.
- The Rock Garden, the highest point, has plants from North and South America, Japan and South Africa.
In addition to its Edinburgh home the RBGE has several satellite gardens.
Medicinal planting at the Palace of Holyroodhouse
There are three distinct areas within the grounds, each representing a period in the palace’s history.
- A 15th century monastic garden with medicinal sorrel, daises and mallow, a nod to the early gardens of Holyrood Abbey, the ruins of which are in the palace grounds.
- A 17th century garden with flowering bulbs including crocuses and tulips.
- The third area is a nostalgic reminder of the early work of Sibbald and Balfour.
Whisky and horticulture – it’s a heady combination
If a reminder about the variety of Scotland’s greenery is needed, a visit to Glen Grant’s Speyside distillery might just provide it.
In 1886, James Grant, the ‘Major’ established the distillery’s famous Victorian garden to display many of the plants and fruits he gathered on his extensive travels.
Today its 22 acres of meadows, woodland and gorges is a favourite place for visitors to relax.
Visit Scotland’s historic gardens with Maclean & Bruce
While many of our guests come to Scotland looking forward to an exclusive whisky tour, other things are possible too.
If you would like to discover the beauty and diversity of Scotland’s gardens, MacLean and Bruce will work with you to plan an exciting bespoke itinerary.
Meticulous planning, personal service and luxury transport to the garden of your choice comes as standard.
The gardener does not love to talk.
He makes me keep the gravel walk;
And when he puts his tools away,
He locks the door and takes the key.
Away behind the currant row,
Where no one else but cook may go,
Far in the plots, I see him dig,
Old and serious, brown and big.
He digs the flowers, green, red, and blue,
Nor wishes to be spoken to.
He digs the flowers and cuts the hay,
And never seems to want to play.
Silly gardener! summer goes,
And winter comes with pinching toes,
When in the garden bare and brown
You must lay your barrow down.
Well now, and while the summer stays,
To profit by these garden days
O how much wiser you would be
To play at Indian wars with me!