During the last days of September we were holidaying on the Mull of Kintyre. Certainly there was ‘a mist rolling in from the sea’ on occasion, but mostly we had fantastic weather. The day we took the ferry to Gigha was one of those lovely days. Gigha is a small island to the west of the Mull of Kintyre, bathed in the warming influence of the Gulf Stream. I was particularly keen to visit the Achamore Gardens. Sir James Horlick (1886-1972) bought the island of Gigha in 1944 because of his interest in rare rhododendrons. Prior to 1944 the various owners had used the island mainly for shooting and sport. Consequently there was a good amount of woodland and excessive amounts of Rhododendron ponticum for game cover around Achamore House.
As soon as he acquired Gigha, Sir James worked on the garden cutting glades into the rhododendrons where he could nurture his own rare rhododendrons and other specialities. He had help and advice from Kitty Lloyd Jones (1898-1978). Kitty was the ninth child of a Glamorgan physician and surgeon. She trained in horticulture at The Royal Botanic Society’s school of gardening at Regent’s Park, and at Reading University. It was difficult for a woman to earn a living in horticulture at this time, but she started a nursery and in time came to help people with their garden designs. As her reputation grew she spent some years working at Upton House near Banbury – now a property of the National Trust. She worked with Sir James Horlick from 1944 -1952, helping him and his gardeners create a garden on Gigha that featured herbaceous borders as well as the rhododendrons and camellias that were Sir James’s first love.
James bred new varieties of rhododendrons and when he died he left some of his collection to the National Trust for Scotland, so that the rare plants could be propagated and shared with other great gardens. After his death in 1972 three different owners lived in Achamore House and cared for the gardens. In 2002 Gigha was subject to a community buyout and the gardens now belong to the islanders, although Achamore House had to be sold to finance the deal.
My visit was brief, but I got an overwhelming sense of how different gardening is on the West Coast of Scotland compared with the North-East garden of Crathes. James, the Crathes Head Gardener, knows that difference full well because he worked at Inverewe Garden before taking up his post at Crathes. At Crathes the tree ferns – a new venture – have already been lifted and moved into the glasshouses. In Achamore the tree ferns survive outside and reproduce freely, as do the Echium pininana. The remains of flowering echiums are evident in many parts of Achamore; in Crathes, although they self-seed, they rarely survive the winter to flower outside.
Beside the shelter of the Victorian terrace wall at Crathes the E. pininana were covered with nets last winter. They looked super healthy in the spring and we hoped they would flower, though it was not to be. Will they survive another winter?
The Chilean hard fern, Blechnum chilense is another plant that sometimes outgrows its welcome at Achamore. There were lots of plants I was unfamiliar with and some I knew of a little.
The rare Wollemi pine with its tall thin outline was particularly noticeable. This pine, Wollemia nobilis, a plant surviving from the time of dinosaurs and related to the monkey puzzle tree, was unknown to the botanical world until 1997 when about a 100 mature pines were discovered in a gorge in the Blue Mountains, about 200 km from Sydney, Australia. During the recent forest fires, particular effort was made to circle the gorge with a ring of fire deterrent irrigation. Just as with the dawn redwood, Metasequoia glyptostroboides, (discovered in the 1940s) there has been a massive effort made to distribute seeds and plants throughout the world in order to preserve the species.
We talked to some of the gardeners and volunteers working in the Achamore garden. Head Gardener, Bryony White, has the mammoth task of keeping over 50 acres under some sort of control and saving the rare exotics from being swamped by sycamores, brambles and other thugs. Even the abutilons were invasive, seeding everywhere. It was a lovely garden and I didn’t have time to do it justice. Maybe someday we’ll go back. We were told that there is to be a plan drawn up for woodland management on the whole island. Until that is done no felling can be done at the gardens.
It was very interesting to contrast Achamore with Crathes and to think not only of the different climates but of the different histories behind the development of the two gardens; one four hundred or more years old, the other relatively modern.
As we drove back across Scotland we saw that the trees were taking on their autumn colours. The fine weather disappeared and for three days the rain fell.
When I next visited Crathes the V-shaped skeins of returning geese filled the sky throughout the morning, their plaintive evocative calls paradoxically one of the inspiring, joyful sounds of autumn – telling me, against reason, that all’s right with the world.
The colours in the garden bore out my thoughts about autumn, but many of the borders were still blooming if somewhat weighed down by the prodigious amount of rain that had fallen. October at Crathes is largely about preparing for winter – cutting back the borders where possible and beginning the process of putting the garden ‘to bed’. The White Border and the Upper Pool Garden are left until last and at the end of the Blue and Pink Border Michaelmas daisies and late aconitums provide nectar for the late butterflies.
In the Upper Pool Garden there was much to enjoy with rudbeckias and salvias standing out against the purple cotinus leaves. The Kiphofia caulescens made a show in the gravel paths. The Fremontodendron californicum produced flowers throughout the summer, its yellow and green now contrasting with the many shades of red on the Virginia creeper, Parthenocissus (tricuspidata – I think). Thinking of the frosts to come, I remember David Maclean, who was head gardener at Crathes during the 1980s and early 1990s, saying that he rather liked the way the plants in the Crathes garden could sleep during the winter, whereas at Dunvegan, on Skye, the plants never got a break.
Joanna is still busy with cuttings. The glasshouse is filling up with autumn work, but the show houses looked lovely. The buzz of honeybees attracted to the Australian bottle bush, Callistemon citrinus, filled the second house.
As I left the garden I photographed Nerine bowdenii, one of October’s jewels – still holding on to the rain of the last few days.
As I write it’s cold but sunny. There’s still time for a bit of an Indian summer to help us meet a winter with Covid waiting in the wings. Stay safe everyone.
With thanks to Achamore Gardens
Kathleen Letitia Lloyd Jones in The National Dictionary of Biography (Oxford 2004)
There is blog by Bryony White available on the Achamore Gardens website.