I thought I would combine Katherine Stewart’s essay for February 18th with showing you our recent visit to Gargunnock House, a few miles west of Stirling.
The year that Stewart was writing, the weather on February 18th was “Showers of sleet … and a wind rising to gale force 8 or 9”. She goes on: “As the sleet begins to whirl in horizontal pattenrs and the wind howls among the slates, I tire of watching the tree’s precarious bending, turn from the window and pick up a gardening magazine sent by a friend. It makes fascinating reading, but its world seems totally unreal. Asparagus beds, pagodas, outdoor peppers and tomatoes… would any of these survive in a hill-top garden, in a climate full of wild uncertainty? I suppose some of them would, with adequate shelter and sources of labour. Certainly there have been gardens in Scotland, and in the higher reaches of the country, for many hundreds of years. I think of the Queen Mother’s garden at the Castle of Mey in Caithness. You can’t get a place more exposed than that. Mary, our Queen, [Mary Queen of Scots] had a tiny garden made for her on the island in the Lake of Menteith, where she played as a child for a short while, before being sent to France in 1548.” (p. 48-49)
Last weekend, Michael and I had the chance to go for a country drive and visit a garden that is not so very far, as the crow flies, from the Lake of Menteith. (The Lake of Menteith is the only lake in Scotland that isn’t a loch – but I don’t know why!) Gargunnock House was originally a tower house built in the 16th century. It has a walled garden (which we didn’t visit), which may well date back as far as the house. Perhaps, a few miles away, young Mary Queen of Scots was having her own garden made at the same time.
The house was bought in 1835 by Charles Stirling. Much of the planting of the garden must date from the 19th-century, such as the redwood trees lining the main drive:
To go back to its earlier history, according to a man who stopped to talk to us in the midst of restocking the plant stall, Gargunnock House belonged to a family who were supporters of the Stewarts – the side that lost the battle of Culloden. I presume they were a Catholic family. I asked what happened after the 1745 uprising, and he said he thought the house was taken from them and given to the Campbells, who were loyal to the King. He told us that to the south of Gargunnock, is “the marsh”. The aristocracy hunted in all the hills surrounding the lower lands. Gargunnock House, at the foot of the Gargunnock hills, would have been a prime base for hunting. He told us that from the upper stories of the house you could see Stirling Castle to the south.
In the 18th century, the house was remodelled and given a Georgian front and terrace. As the Landmark Trust (who now own the property) say, “[Eighteenth-century] visitors glimpsing it across the park from the south would be lulled into thinking it an apparently modern house. Only when they came closer did tell-tale turrets and crow-stepped gables give the game away.”
Nowadays, the house is a holiday house – sleeping 16, if you’re planning a weekend away with a large group – and the gardens are open to the public at certain times. You park near the gate and put £3 in the honesty box, and take a laminated map to guide you around the gardens, keeping away from the front of the house, so the paying visitors aren’t disturbed. I found out about it through the Open Gardens scheme, as Gargunnock House takes part in the Snowdrop Festival. And rightly so, as you can see!
On your way up the drive, you notice two commemorative stones on the left. The first is to mark the planting of a tree by the Princess Royal in September 1952. I presume this was a young Princess Anne, as Elizabeth had become queen earlier that year. [Edited: apparently this was Princess Mary, Countess of Harewood, Princess Anne’s great-aunt.] Just beyond it you see another stone…
…which is mossy and intriguing. It’s one of the stones marking the graves of beloved animals connected to Gargunnock House. This stone goes from Anna in 1958, through to Penny in 1986:
I found the cedar trees quite amazing, in their snowdrop carpet. I don’t know what kind of cedar tree this is, or why their trunks have this form. Perhaps it’s one of the botanical wonders that Charles Stirling acquired to impress his visitors. I was impressed!
As you follow the drive up to the house, you glimpse a structure in the field beyond, and the map tells you it is the “doocot,” Scottish for dovecote. Close up, it’s quite a structure! The original residents of Gargunnock House must have enjoyed their pigeons:
Visitors can go around the back of the house, where there is a plant stall:
And guess what I found! Winter aconites – something I saw in Aberdeen recently.
Our garden in Glasgow will now have its own winter aconites. I hope they are happy here.
I asked the man who stopped to speak to us about the harling on the house, as I knew that Craigievar Castle in Aberdeenshire was re-harled at great cost. He said that it was far too expensive to reharl the house itself, though the modern cement harling didn’t seem to be harming it. But he told us that the stable block had been redone with lime harling by the same restorers who reharled parts of Stirling Castle a few years ago:
Visitors are allowed into the house garden, which is to the side of the house. It’s a lovely, slightly wild garden. When we were there, several groups of children were running around it and playing hide-and-seek, having a great time. I think they might have been staying with their parents at the house for the weekend.
I spotted these beautiful hellebores mixed in with the snowdrops:
We didn’t go to the walled garden, as I could hardly feel my fingers by the time we had gone through the house garden.
I would very much like to return here in the springtime, when the azaleas and rhododendrons are in bloom. And I will definitely want to see what they have been growing in the walled garden.
To return to Katharine Stewart’s essay, she writes that “Scots gardeners are, of course, renowned practically the world over. Even to children they are famous, since the appearance in Beatrix Potter’s tale of Mr. McGregor.” (p. 49) I hadn’t realised until visiting the Beatrix Potter Centre in Dunkeld some time ago that Scottish gardeners had this reputation. Apparently if in the 19th century you were in a position to hire a gardener, particularly a head gardener, the top of the line employee would have been a gardener from Scotland. So the first readers of Beatrix Potter would have recognised that Mr. MacGregor was a Scottish gardener, fiercely devoted to his patch and therefore an arch-enemy of the rabbits.