Scotland’s beguiling charm rests in its combination of historic beauty, wilderness and innovation. Gardens brim with rare plant collections in settings of stunning beauty, flourishing in a series of unique climatic conditions. The compact nature of the landscape enables travellers to take in the urban history of Glasgow, then make a dazzling sweep along the west coast, the Highlands and on to the fabled islands at Britain’s northernmost tip amidst the wild Atlantic Ocean.
Glasgow was long a furnace of technological innovation for the industrial revolution, and is now enjoying a fascinating renaissance as a major European cultural centre. Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s rigorous excellence highlights a long Scottish tradition of intellectual endeavour, in a contemporary rendering of time-honoured concepts of integrated design. The characteristically adventurous local visual culture is also mirrored by the Scottish Colourists. Their work in the permanent collection at Kelvingrove Museum sets a framework for 20th century visual arts.
The power of aristocratic patronage is visible at Dumfries House, where it’s possible to observe the relationships that allowed artisans like Chippendale and the Adam brothers to create work of outstanding beauty. At risk of sale and dispersal only a decade ago, the house and grounds were saved for the national estate by the direct intervention of the Prince of Wales, or ‘the Duke of Rothesay and Lord of the Isles’ as he is known in Scotland. A remarkable collection of 18th century furniture commissioned for the house remains intact.
The enduring instinct for collecting and enhancing natural beauty is visible in a string of estates along Scotland’s west coast, beginning at Mount Stuart House on the Isle of Bute. Owned by the Marquess of Bute’s family since the 14th century, a spectacular arboretum includes many rare North American conifer specimens and alludes to the adventurous spirit of the Scots who colonised the New World, plant-hunting as they went.
That theme continues at both Inveraray Castle, and at Crarae, where a precipitous wooded glen on the banks of Loch Fyne was planted with a myriad specimens brought back from China by Reginald Farrer in the early years of the 20th century. The great plantsman Roy Lancaster said that Crarae reminded him more of a Himalayan valley than any British garden he knew.
The very specific micro-climate of high rainfall and mild winters is repeated at Arduaine, where tea-planter James Campbell induced drifts of gigantic cardiocrinums and blue poppies to flower in profusion by the sea.
Long fingers of lochs slice through the landscape and the Great Glen opens up from Fort William before travellers go ‘over the sea to Skye’, where the island has been a critical stronghold for the chieftains of the MacDonald and MacLeod clans over seven centuries. The MacLeod family’s 17,000-hectare estate is emblematic of the feudal baronies of the Highlands and Hebrides, home to an enduring Celtic culture that is entirely distinct from Lowland Scotland and ‘Sasainn’ (‘Land of the Saxons’, as the Highlanders call England).
A deeper exploration of Gaeldom resonates on the way to Inverness where the Thane of Cawdor’s seat is a romantic castle surrounded by walled gardens, a holly maze and hidden woodland gardens running down to a rushing burn.
At Inverewe in Wester Ross the warmth of the Gulf Stream enabled one of the greatest of plantsmen, Osgood Mackenzie, to make a garden of dizzying rarities, from drimys and eucryphias to giant olearias and embothriums, collected from the remotest corners of the Himalayas, Western China and South America.
Crossing the sea to Orkney creates a further cultural shift: the Northern Isles are half Scots and half Viking, formed by centuries of raiding and settlement by the Norsemen. Indeed, the Crown Prince of Norway has been known to visit the Orkneys for a spot of surfing!
Speaking the distinctive Orcadian dialect, the islanders enjoy a fertile climate and remain deeply connected with their seafaring heritage. The importance of trading goods underpins strong craft traditions, and today renewable energy is a sector of growing importance for the local economy.
The delightful Orkney Garden Festival, which seems to involve just about every enthusiastic Orcadian gardener in some way or another, provides a charming final flourish on the art and garden lover’s tour of Scotland.
Join Genevieve and Renaissance Tours on a tour of Scotland in June 2018 to see these and many wonderful gardens. Find out more information on Garden Travel Hub – or go to Great Gardens of Scotland at Renaissance Tours.
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