In the Garden: Scotland: Castles, Gardens and Countryside

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Scotland. Photo: Charles Kidder.

Only three- quarters the size of Virginia, Scotland boasts fifty-nine gardens listed on the Great British Gardens website. As a bonus to garden visitors, while traveling across Scotland you’ll encounter countryside ranging from pastoral tranquility to imposing ruggedness.

The climate of Scotland is classified as temperate maritime, much less extreme than Virginia’s and far warmer than equivalent latitudes in North America (Labrador, Canada.)  The extreme low temperature in Edinburgh in recent years was 6 degrees F. while the average coldest temperature in a given year is only around 19F. Average highs in summer are only in the upper sixties, although on July 25, 2019, the city did reach a new record of just under 89F.

Locations in western Scotland are even more temperate, especially those by the sea. This is often attributed to the Gulf Stream. In reality, the North Atlantic Drift is essentially an offshoot or remnant of the Gulf Stream. It still keeps ocean waters relatively mild. Also, prevailing westerly winds generally block extremely cold air masses from moving eastward out of the Continent.

All of this means that Scottish gardeners can grow plants we can only dream about—exotic rhododendron species, the Himalayan Blue Poppy (Mecanopsis species), and Eucalyptus trees. Plants both from our own West Coast, as well as from the temperate parts of the Southern Hemisphere, thrive here.

Many visitors to Scotland enter via its capital city, home to the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh.  This seventy-acre garden, dating back nearly 350 years, is one of the world’s leading horticultural institutions and home to some 13,300 species. In the Upper Woodland Garden you can see Coast Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) and their cousins the giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum). The latter trees were planted only about a hundred years ago, but have already reached 80 feet in height and with considerable girth.

The RBG Edinburgh is only about a mile from the city center and would be a good place to visit after flying into Scotland before checking into your hotel.

The Royal Botanic Garden includes three sister institutions. Dawyck Botanical Garden, 28 miles south of Edinburgh, includes remarkable specimen trees, snow drops in late winter and bluebells in early spring. Northwest of Glasgow, Benmore Botanic Garden houses the 150-year old Redwood Avenue, along with Douglas Firs, Scots Pines and Monkey Puzzle trees. About a hundred miles southwest of Glasgow and actually much nearer to Belfast, Northern Ireland, is Logan Botanic Garden, with one of the mildest climates in Scotland. It’s home to tree ferns from New Zealand, as well as 35 species of eucalyptus.

Heading north from Edinburgh, Crathes Castle, Gardens and Estate lies 15 miles west of Aberdeen.  This sixteenth century castle has a more ornate style than the Lumps of Stone style from the medieval period. A yew hedge dates back to 1702, topiary appears in whimsical shapes, and several nature trails allow the possibility of views of pine martens, badgers and otters.

Now moving northwest a hundred miles toward Inverness, you’ll find Cawdor Castle, still home to the Cawdor/Calder family, with the Dowager Countess in residence for half the year.  The castle indeed has a lived-in look, with family portraits and modern artwork. It’s all so comfortable, I have no problem imagining myself living there. Plus, I’d have a garden outside with some wacky tipsy conifers.

Driving three hours to the other side of Scotland will get you to the Isle of Skye, renowned for its striking landforms. Dunvegan Castle sits on a sea loch of the same name on the western portion of the island. The castle has been home to the Chiefs of the Clan MacLeod for more than 800 years, and the gardens have recently been extensively restored. Unlike many gardens, your dog is welcome, but “please pick up any mess.”

Back on the Scottish mainland and further north is Inverewe, another garden warmed by westerly winds off the Atlantic. With many varieties of rhododendron, Inverewe promises that there is one in flower every day of the year. No castle here, but a mid-century house turned museum, plus the nearby Sawyer Gallery, displaying contemporary art.

A final note on Scottish gardens: owing to a fairly uniform climate, albeit wetter and warmer (in winter) in the west, there is not a tremendous variation in the plant palette you might encounter from one garden to another. If you like one garden, you’re pretty likely to be fond of another.

As for the landscape between the gardens? In the sunnier districts with better soil, you’ll see grains cultivated, especially barley for use in whisky. In the windy, wetter climate of the west and the Highlands, open moorland becomes common. One of the much-loved plants of the moors (spelled muir in Gaelic) is heather, Calluna vulgaris, with its purplish blooms in late summer. Perhaps less-loved is the thorny gorse (Ulex europaeus), a cousin of Scotch Broom. Its formidable foliage does provide good cover for birds, however.

Moving to the category of much-reviled plants, Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) is a native invader of pasturelands. Toxic to mammals when eaten, a carcinogenic compound in bracken can also leach into water supplies. Small wonder that there have been eradication efforts.

You will indeed notice a lot of trees in Scotland, especially tall dark green conifers. After much of the land was denuded by cutting and sheep grazing, the Scots embarked on a vigorous campaign of reforestation in the 20th century, planting primarily Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) from western North America, along with some larch (Larix spp.) and lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta).

These tree plantations did provide the country with necessary wood products, but came with the typical downsides of monocultures, particularly loss of wildlife habitat.  Scotland is now focusing on mixed tree plantations and reforestation, including use of the native Scots pine, Pinus sylvestris.  Scattered small stands of this native tree are found primarily in preserves, remnants of the Caledonian Forest that once covered much of the Highlands. One such preserve is Glen Affric, about two hours southwest of Inverness and well worth a visit.  

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