A Victorian legacy

Mackenzie and Moncur glasshouses, dating from around 1886, still in good use, 1 April 2022.

There have been glasshouses at Crathes since the mid nineteenth century. A large rather fancy one that used to grace the north end of the Croquet Lawn was demolished in 1884. The present five stepped glasshouses inside the Walled Garden are by Mackenzie and Moncur (M&M) and date from around 1886.

Five stepped glasshouses and the dipping pool which may have been part of the original 1886 design, 8 April 2022.
The five stepped glasshouses seen from the Aviary Terrace looking east, 8 April 2022.

The Victorian firm of M&M was established in 1869 in Edinburgh by two friends, Alexander Donald Mackenzie from Appin and George Greig Moncur from Arbuthnott. Both were joiners, but they soon became famous for their foundry work and their glasshouses. Sandringham, Windsor, Kew and the Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh were among the many clients. Andrew Carnegie commissioned a magnificent swimming pool at Skibo Castle in Sutherland – recently restored to its former glory. The archives of the firm are held at Glasgow University.

Crathes M&M plaque

The design at Crathes is a three quarter lean to, simple and functional. Over the years the woodwork has been renewed many times, the glazing replaced by strengthened glass, and modern technology is now used to open the windows, but many of the old features remain. The distinctive ironwork is a joy, the black painted brackets contrasting with the parallel lines of white painted woodwork.

The upper windows now open automatically, 21 March 2022.
Turning the handle would have opened the upper windows, 1 April 2022.

Excepting the vinery (house three) each house has a water tank under the staging which fills with rainwater from the roans – a standpipe taking away the excess. Andy remembers the difficulty of collecting water from these reservoirs with a watering can; I imagine it would be hard on the back. Today hoses are used for watering, but the tanks still have a use because the water helps to stabilise the temperature.

Joanna is pleased that she doesn’t have to water all the plants with a watering can, 1 April 2022.

Originally the houses were heated by coal or coke from the boiler in the stove house below house six – which is outside the wall in the gardeners’ yard, but connected to house five. Some of the vents that regulated the heat can be seen in houses four and five.

Vents thought to be for regulating the heating of the propagation beds, 1 April 2022.

Various plants grow under the floor grills and a pretty little plant that grows profusely in nooks and crannies in house one and two turns out to be Kraus’s clubmoss, Selaginella kraussiana. It was introduced from South Africa and is common in glasshouses. Sometimes it naturalises in warm damp areas of Britain. The fern that grows in house five looks to be the ribbon fern, sometimes called the Cretan brake fern, Pteris cretica, but I am not certain about this – again it is not a native, but occasionally naturalises. 

Kraus’s clubmoss, Selaginella kraussiana, 21 March 2022.
Thought to be the Cretan brake fern, Pteris cretica, 1 April 2022.

M&M glasshouses have become one of my random collections, though as yet the collection is rather small. Brodie Castle had until recently a derelict, simple three quarter lean-to range in the walled garden. At the time of my visit I didn’t know about M&M glasshouses, but I can just make out the distinctive brackets.

The Brodie walled garden glasshouse before redevelopment; the distinctive M&M ironwork has been kept for possible use elsewhere, 15 September 2010.

Gordon Castle has two free standing glasshouses which they have restored. In 2016 we visited the castle for the gardeners’ outing and managed to choose the wettest and stormiest day of the year. We sheltered in the glasshouses where Zara Gordon Lennox kindly took our photograph. You can just see the distinctive iron work above our heads.

Gardeners and volunteers shelter in the M&M glasshouses, Gordon Castle, 20 July 2016.

A much grander glasshouse was discovered overgrown and completely derelict in Glendaruel on the Cowal Peninsula.

Glendaruel, 13 October 2016.
Glendaruel, 13 October 2016.
Glendaruel, 13 October 2016.

Chris Wardle, our previous head gardener (on the right in the photograph at Gordon Castle) was visiting Crathes this week in his role as Gardens and Designed Landscapes Manager, North East. We were talking about M&M glasshouses and he told me that the glasshouses at Dunecht House are M&M though no longer in use. Taking a trip to Dunecht at the weekend I could not get into the walled garden, which now belongs to wholesale Springhill Nurseries, but could see just a little of the glasshouse range.

One corner of the Dunecht glasshouse, 10 April 2022.

However, CANMORE, a website of Historic Environment Scotland (HES), has over fifty photographs of the glasshouses taken in 2018 and from these I could see that the houses are huge in comparison to Crathes with a rather grand central house which reminded me of the Glendaruel glasshouse design.* Thinking about the Dunecht glasshouses at the height of their splendour I remembered J Fraser Smith who had been an apprentice at Crathes in 1864. His career had taken him to some of the big estates in Scotland and to conservatory work at Alexandra Park, London. He had also worked for Veitch Nurseries. Returning to Scotland he became head gardener at Pitcaple Castle, and later Dunecht House. He died in 1897/8 after a period as head gardener at Cullen House. He was at Dunecht in 1887 as judge of cut flowers at the Horticultural Society of Aberdeenshire show. Although I do not know the date of the Dunecht glasshouses I like to picture the magnificence that Fraser Smith commanded at a time when large numbers of gardeners were employed and money was no object (but not forgetting that the gardeners worked long hours for little pay).

Restoration of these houses is extremely expensive – Skibo swimming pool restoration cost over four million pounds. Then there is the maintenance and question of sustainability, heating being a big issue (see ‘Challenges’ 16 November 2021).

We are therefore fortunate to have our Mackenzie and Moncur glasshouses at Crathes which are in good order and important for delivering garden requirements. They were nearly replaced by aluminium houses in the 1970s. It was at this time that house one was reduced from five to three bays. James has been concerned about deterioration of the woodwork during Covid and a local firm is now contracted to look after ongoing problems so that any rot is dealt with quickly before it spreads. The question of heating is the subject of a continuing conversation.

Houses four and five, 1 April 2022.

March and April are busy months for the glasshouses: seeds are sown, cuttings nurtured, plugs potted up with everything being geared up for the new season.

Pineapple lily, Eucomis bicolour, growing from last year’s seed, 11 April 2022.
Pineapple lily from which the seeds were collected, 26 July 2022.

The glasshouses are run on an organic regime and biological control is essential to limit pest problems (see ‘Seven years’ weeding’ 18 May 2021). This year a new control is to be introduced to help deal with the mealy bug – a sap-sucking insect that not only attacks the plant, but also secretes honeydew which attracts sooty mould. Chrysoperla carnea is a lacewing, the larvae of which eat mealy bugs and aphids. 500 larvae will be delivered in weeks 18, 21 and 24 (from the beginning of the year).  This lacewing is common in Britain, though not much recorded in the North East. Any adults that escape into the garden will be a bonus as pollinators and food for the birds.

In the yard pots and pots of daffodils are lined ready for planting in the Woodland Garden. These daffodils have come from Brodie. I lived in Moray for the larger part of my life and knew that Brodie was famous for its daffodils, but I had never visited in the right season and I only knew bits of the daffodil story. Since we were back in Moray on the glorious weekend at the end of March we made a daffodil detour on the way home. The helpful staff provided me with a booklet about Ian Brodie of Brodie (1868-1943) and his daffodils – thank you Jenny.**

Brodie collection in the walled garden at Brodie Castle, 27 March 2022.

Major Ian Brodie, whose career was in the army, developed an interest in breeding daffodils at about the age of 30. His crosses were all carefully recorded from 1899 to 1942 in his stud-books. Over 12,500 crosses are recorded. Each cross would have involved the removal of the anthers to prevent cross pollination; the preservation of any anthers he wished to use as parents; hand pollination with the chosen anthers; prevention of pollination by insects etc. The seeds that resulted might have taken two to five years to produce flowers and I presume the glasshouses would have been helpful at this stage. The walled garden was filled with daffodils. After Ian Brodie’s death his wife, Violet Hope, and his head gardener, JM Annand, kept up with daffodil breeding, but by the time the Trust took over at Brodie in 1978 the collection had been neglected and much of it was lost. Concurrently there was a surge of interest in developing new daffodil cultivars commercially and the Brodie daffodils were largely forgotten. By 1982 the Trust was beginning to bring together what could be salvaged of the Brodie collection. Any garden with daffodil records might still be able to contribute to this ongoing project. Some have even turned up in Australia.

The present collection of over a hundred stocks is now carefully organised in part of the walled garden.

Brodie collection from the left: Sylvan Hill, Tamara, Rose of May, 27 March 2022.

Unfortunately hardly any were in flower the weekend we visited. But the shrubbery was just lovely with daffodils – Wordsworth’s little native daffodils, Narcissus pseudonarcissus – in full flower and looking a treat.

The native daffodil, Narcissus pseudonarcissus, in the Brodie shubbery, 27 March 2022.
Our native daffodil, 27 March 2022.

1997 saw a major flood in the garden which caused basal rot and loss of many bulbs. And this why Crathes (and other NTS gardens) have been given stocks of Brodie daffodils to care for. The Brodie daffodils will be planted out in appropriate places with a careful note of each cultivar. They will enhance Crathes and help to safeguard against any future threats to the collection.

Talking about survival, James has always been hoping for an unusual snowdrop to turn up at Crathes and has now struck lucky. It seems like serendipity that it grew in the fire yard, despite the heavy machinery traffic, the bonfires and the gardeners’ boots and wheelbarrows. This rarity is called Galanthus nivalis Poculiformis Group. Snowdrops do not have sepals and petals, but instead have tepals that all look like petals. The common snowdrop has two quite distinct rings of tepals; the inner ring being shorter and marked with green, the outer being of longer white tepals that lift up as the flower ages. Polculiformis, however, has both outer and inner ring of long tepals with no markings.

The common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, 25 January 2022.
Galanthus nivalis Poculiformis Group, 1 April 2022.

With the snowdrops gone the daffodils will be at their peak during Easter. The garden is full of birds; there were tits everywhere, Dave could hear the treecreepers, Emily saw yellow hammers and a goldcrest collecting a feather for its nest, I watched a wee wren given it laldy in a viburnum bush and heard the buzzards overhead. The oyster catchers have been piping around; Cecilia heard them creating a disturbance in the Red Garden urn. A green flush is spreading over the countryside; we just need a bit of warmth.

Spring flowers on the Double Shrub Border, 11 April 2022.


Weeding is priority at the moment. Four acres can grow a lot of weeds and the sooner you catch them the better.

Weeding the Double Herbaceous Border, 11 April 2022.

So far we have avoided the hard frosts of last year. The corylopsis have been glorious.

Corylopsis shrubs behind the June Border, 8 April 2022.

The dipping pool, which might have been part of the original M&M design, is now safely fenced. The barley straw in netting is said to be effective in preventing algal growth; too much algae can be toxic to wildlife. There is now frogspawn in the dipping pool and the Woodland Garden pool.   

Frogspawn in the dipping pool, 1 April 2022.

Dave is now working on labels for the Woodland Garden. Identifying some of the conifer cultivars is definitely challenging.

After a period of inactivity the entrance building windows have been glazed.   

*The HES Canmore website also has images of Skibo Castle swimming pool.

**Ian Brodie: A Chieftain in the world of Daffodils by Duncan Douglas. NTS

4 thoughts on “A Victorian legacy

  1. Thank you for yet another fascinating and informative meander! This style of gardening – i.e. enjoying the information and the work of others, is very enjoyable! Some of my daffodils came from Brodie many years ago – from my late father-in-law, a gardener, but sadly we weren’t given any names.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I expect there are lots of Brodie daffodils in Moray and I’m sure they will be giving pleasure just like yours. In Kingston we had an old fashioned double daffodil that came up everywhere and now remains as an important part of my garden memories.


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