We’d seen Caol Ruadh many times from the water when we turned north from our mooring and headed up the Kyles of Bute towards Colintraive: a majestic, red sandstone mansion, with a sweep of broad, terraced lawns leading from the house down to the water.
I’d always wondered who owned the property, and what its story was. Then, this last summer, I heard on the local grapevine that a sculpture garden had been opened there, so in early autumn I went to have a look.
Built in 1898 by a Glasgow ship builder, Caol Ruadh (pronounced “col roo” if you’re reading the text rather than listening to the audio) was bought 100 years later by its current owners, Karen and Colin Scotland, who have spent the last 14 years taming the garden and turning the house back into a family home from its previous incarnation as a residential school.
Major renovation work on the garden has involved tackling a jungle of invasive Rhododendron ponticum, opening and terracing the vistas from the house, building paths and steps through areas of woodland, and managing the water from a rocky burn that tumbles past the house, to create a large pond with a backdrop of steep, wooded hillside. Dry stone walling, now softened by moss, retains the slope in one area to make a level space for a tennis court, watched over by a Japanese pagoda that complements the planting style in this part of the garden. Both the beach and the water are very much part of the garden: views from the house and the terraces take in the bracken- and heather-covered north coast of the island of Bute, and the smaller Burnt Islands, home to seals and sea birds, and once a burial ground for Viking kings.
Under the direction of Karen Scotland and her friend Anne Edmonds (both trained as landscape architects), for three months over the summer the garden at Caol Ruadh became an outdoor gallery, exhibiting and selling sculptures by 17 Scottish artists. Carefully placed within the garden landscape, the 44 sculptures and installations enhanced their environment and were also enhanced by it.
Three mirror-shiny figures stood sentinel on the beach, reflecting water, stones and grass, while a bronze-resin cormorant spread its wings to dry, perched on a piece of driftwood. A miniature cluster of ruined houses – sometimes exposed on the beach and sometimes washed by the tide – lamented the many ghost villages of the west of Scotland, de-populated by poverty and emigration.
Some of the artworks had a message to convey: a giant footprint in the grass was surely a reminder of just how heavy our human footprint is. In others, the message was more enigmatic, like the mysterious signs along the woodland walk: “IS THIS A TREE” asked one of them. “Well, yes, of course it is” you’d think, and then realise that the point was to invite you to stop – and look properly – at this particular one, with its unique shape and bark and branches.
Like the beach, the pond also offered some of the most evocative sites for sculpture. A small stoneware figure curled up in fetal position on the boarded walkway running alongside the water. Two lovers embraced, half-concealed by ferns on the far side. Nearby, a gorilla nursed her baby beside a stand of bamboo, perhaps wondering how she came to be in the cool clear light of Scotland instead of the jungle of Rwanda.
Karen and Anne had also taken advantage of the planting – both natural and man-made – to provide atmosphere. Ferns and the delicate leaves of Japanese maples framed and softened several of the sculptures without overwhelming them. On the fringes of the woodland, heavily shaded areas of undergrowth were a mysterious setting for strange needle-like shards, or clusters of stone structures that could almost be ancient gravestones.
But it has to be the magnificent setting of Caol Ruadh that is the star of the show; the garden works skilfully with its landscape rather than competing with it. How could you do better than relax on the grass or the wonderfully tactile carved wood “chaise longue” (though you might need a cushion or two) and enjoy exciting contemporary sculpture silhouetted against the silver water of the Kyles of Bute and its islands?
So if you’re planning a trip to the UK next year, think about a visit to Scotland’s Cowal Peninsula, sometimes known as Argyll’s “secret coast”. Caol Ruadh sculpture park (www.scottishsculpturepark.com) will re-open in May 2013 with a new set of sculptures and installations to enjoy.