North of the borders

Beyond Aberdeen, the rich patch of gardens you can visit look particularly good in August.
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August in Scotland is a discouraging month for grouse, but for gardens there's no better time. The two are linked. For the last hundred years or so, Scottish head gardeners have been used to bringing their employers' acres up to a peak for the shooting season. Roses and herbaceous borders that are looking tired and dusty in England are at full tilt north of the border. Even heather there looks good. Go to Tillypronie, the Astors' shooting lodge at Tarland, to see how to make a heather garden. It's open tomorrow.

So is Dunecht House, which belongs to Viscount Cowdray. Here, a pretty, arched loggia, frilled with 'Dorothy Perkins' ramblers, looks out over smooth lawns with a magnificent beech tree as its focus. Long, herbaceous borders, at least 15ft wide, stretch away from the house to end in a ha- ha with parkland beyond.

There's an other-worldliness about gardens such as this, impervious to fashion, immune to the constraints of visitor numbers. The borders move in a stately way through monkshoods and monardas, lime-green thalictrums and yellow daisies - all used in huge groups, as they need to be in gardens laid out on this scale. Clouds of pale pink sidalcea erupt at regular intervals along the right-hand border, with a wavy ribbon of tiny, pink- flowered roses trailing along in a separate, much narrower border in front.

On the west side of the house, the land rises in a series of terraces. A heather bank slopes up from the lawn to a wide walk thickly planted with rhododendrons.

The bulk of the 13-acre garden lies behind this bulwark of rhodos: grass paths mown between tall Scots pines with acers, hydrangeas, pieris, hoherias and a Hillierish collection of other woodland shrubs, some now rather crowded out by cupressus. They are coming out this winter, says the head gardener. Hooray. They are not trees that grow old gracefully.

The double herbaceous borders down the road at Crathes Castle were painted by George Elgood in 1904. He showed the famous yew hedges bulging in the background. The painting appeared in Gertrude Jekyll's book, Some English Gardens. Oops.

The yew hedges divide the four quarters of the top garden from the four quarters of the lower one. The famous double herbaceous borders run roughly from north to south between the oddly named camel garden (it's got a hump in it) and the trough garden. Long white borders run right the way across the garden from west to east. They are the least successful feature, which is a pity because they are the first thing you see as you come in by the present entrance, half-way down a side wall in the bottom half of the garden. It would be much better to come in centrally at the top, if the National Trust for Scotland could work out some way of doing it. The Trust acquired the property in 1951 from General Sir James Burnett who, with his wife, developed the present layout of the walled garden.

There's a lovely view from the raised terrace of the double borders, called the aviary border, by the big yew hedges. Here you look down, across and along the borders all at the same time and you don't get in the way of the video fanatics. There were an astonishing number of people at Crathes who seemed only to see the garden through the lens of a camera.

From the aviary border you can stroll down to the splendid Mackenzie and Moncur three-quarter span glasshouses, built against a south-facing wall of the garden. Actually, these are copies of the original turn-of- the-century range, but entirely convincing. The planting is rich and crowded: yellow-flowered abutilon, blue plumbago, big pots of Malmaison carnations. The smell of the carnations is outrageously rich and wonderful, but they are hopeless flowers to look at, formless blobs that have forgotten whatever it was they set out to do.

The Fountain Garden on the upper level was at its peak. A box-edged parterre is laid out here around a fountain, the rest of the garden quietly grassed. The beds themselves are packed with blue-flowered annuals, mass planted, one variety to a bed. They had been very carefully chosen. There are five different kinds: cornflower, echium, convolvulus, nemophila and anchusa.

The cornflower was 'Jubilee Gem' (Suttons, 99p), dwarfish, but not too squat and thickly double. You can sow these in September for an early flowering next summer. If you want a later show, delay sowing until next April. The advantage of the September sowing is that you get much bigger, bulkier plants and they tend not to suffer so much from powdery mildew.

The nemophila, generally known as baby blue eyes (Thompson & Morgan, 99p) makes a much more spreading plant than the cornflower. They hate drought. My favourite of the five was the echium 'Blue Bedder' (Thompson & Morgan, 89p) alive with bees on its papery stiff flowers. The convolvulus was the startling navy blue 'Royal Ensign' (Mr Fothergills, 99p). The flaring trumpets have a central white star and a yellow eye. Least effective was the anchusa 'Blue Angel' (Suttons, 95p) only nine inches tall, the coarseness of its leaf intensified by its dwarfed status.

Annuals are a vivid feature of front gardens in the patch of Scotland I was in, west of Aberdeen, south of Elgin. It made me into an appalling driver, transfixed by what was going on on the sidelines, rather than by the road ahead. Go to Aberlour to see what I mean. And while you're there, go on to the distillery at Tormore where an inspired topiarist has been let loose among the once dwarf conifers of the rockery.

Tillypronie, Tarland (about 22 miles west of Aberdeen) is open tomorrow (2-5pm) Admission pounds 1. Dunecht House, Dunecht (roughly 12 miles from Aberdeen) is also open tomorrow (1-5pm) Admission pounds 1.50. Crathes Castle, Banchory (about 18 miles from Aberdeen) is open daily until the end of October, but the garden is open all year (9.30am-sunset). Admission to the garden and grounds is pounds 3.20