TROPIC OF STRANRAER; PART 2: CASTLE KENNEDY, SOUTH-WEST SCOTLAND

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The Independent Online
The mild and gentle climate of south-west Scotland is a gardener's dream.

Continuing our series on cultivating different terrains and climates around Britain,

Michael Leapman visits Castle Kennedy near Stranraer. On page 69, he meets a

plantsman from a few miles up the road, where conditions are surprisingly different

Occupying a narrow isthmus between two large lochs in the south- west of Scotland, Castle Kennedy is probably Britain's most dramatically sited major garden. It was conceived on a huge scale by successive Earls of Stair, who have owned the estate for more than 300 years. Its dominating location and mild winter climate - warmed by the Gulf Stream - combine to create a garden that exudes tremendous power.

Its sheer scale is Castle Kennedy's most immediately obvious attribute. Much of the 75 acres is taken up with plantations of trees that grow to heights seldom attained in cooler parts of the country. The rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias and magnolias provide breathtaking swathes of colour in spring and early summer. In the beds, an array of tender and unusual plants, many from the southern hemisphere, find a home.

"People who come to visit the garden do not come for masses of pretty flowers, although they will get those in July and August," says John MacArthur, head gardener for nearly eight years. "They come mainly for the range of plants. We do a lot of bedding but in the old-fashioned style - not Parks Department style because we're not a park but a private garden. So we plant antirrhinums and things like that but it's all done tastefully, in keeping with the shrub borders and beds."

The castle that gives the garden its name exists today only as a ruin. It was built in the 14th century a few miles north of Luce Bay, between the Black Loch to its seat - so called because it is fed from the peaty springs from the hills - and the White Loch, with its clearer waters, to the west. The castle was burned down in 1716 and the Earls of Stair moved to a house in nearby Stranraer. It was 150 years before they moved back, to Lochinch Castle, a Victorian Gothic pile half a mile north of the old castle. The garden essentially occupies the space between the old and new buildings.

Most of the area was ancient forest until it began to be cleared for agriculture in the 17th century: the layer of thick brown forest soil, covering the glacial gravel and sand, nourished lush grass for cattle. Then, the only attempt at gardening was in the walled area south of the medieval castle, used as a kitchen garden.

The ambitious framework of today's garden was established by the Second Earl of Stair (1673-1747), a notable military commander and statesman. He was British ambassador to Paris from 1715 to 1720 and was much taken with the gardens at Versailles, laid out some 50 years earlier and the envy of aristocratic Europe.

It was during his Paris period that he lost his castle. The legend is that his domestic staff learned quite late that he was due to return home for a spot of leave, and hurriedly sought to dry his bedding at an open fire: with more than 45 inches of rain a year there, the air can get decidedly damp. The servants were too assiduous for his comfort, for the bedding went up in flames and with it the castle.

Undaunted, the Earl decided that the estate would remain his family headquarters and, after he returned for good in 1720, he resolved to create something as spectacular as Versailles there. He did not lack help. As vice-admiral of Scotland, he had an ample supply of military men under his command and no immediate battles to fight. Soldiers of the Inniskilling Fusiliers and the Royal Scots Greys, with their cavalry horses, were put to work to remodel the landscape.

The military influence is apparent in the garden's more distinctive, not to say eccentric features, chief among them the broad stepped terracing between the open lawn and the Black Loch to the east. This is said to be a replica of gun emplacements employed in battles of the period, and may have been put there for training the troops. Alternatively it could have been the basic structure for terraced flower beds that were never completed. Another peculiar element is an elongated mound, the Giant's Grave, which acts as a raised walkway for part of the route between the two castles, giving views over both lochs.

As it stands today, it is hard to detect any resemblance between the garden at Castle Kennedy and Le Notre's classical layout for Versailles, packed with statuary and fountains. Here, man-made ornaments are few, though the expansive two-acre lily pond midway between the castles provides a pivot for the whole design. The Versailles connection chiefly manifests itself in the straight, formal avenues of trees, with their studiedly contrived vistas; but even here, now the trees are mature, the orderly and manicured effect the Earl may have sought has been compromised.

After the second Earl's death, the garden was allowed to decline for more than half a century until, in 1814 the eighth Earl decided to take it in hand. Using an old plan, he created and embellished the original concept. Later that century, spurred by the eventual completion of Lochinch Castle, the family enthusiastically embraced the Victorian craze for bringing in plants from overseas.

Some of Castle Kennedy's best known features date from this period - the rhododendrons, the sequoia (redwoods) and the monkey puzzle (Chilean pine) trees. All appreciate the acid soil and the mild winters and some reach unusual heights. A group of rhododendrons including the tall, cream- flowered Rhododendron arboreum were grown from seed brought to Castle Kennedy by the eminent Victorian plant hunter Sir Joseph Hooker from his expeditions in the Himalayan mountains.

They co-exist with the native conifers and deciduous trees, providing the glamour that these more familiar subjects lack. John MacArthur explains: "In bygone days the big landowners, who spent some of their time in London, would go to Kew Gardens and see all the new plants growing and say: 'That would look nice in Scotland' - and they'd bring them up. In all the big mature gardens round here you'll find these plants growing."

The mild climate of south-west Scotland is ideal for plants originating in the Far East and the southern hemisphere. The Logan Botanic Garden, a few miles south of Castle Kennedy and marginally milder, has a famous collection of Australasian and oriental trees and shrubs. The spiky cabbage palm (Cordyline australis) features in both.

As we walked around his garden, John pointed out some of the most notable specimens: a giant redwood (Sequoiadendron giganteum) with its enormous girth and the Sequoia sempervirens of equally formidable height; monkey puzzles and eucalyptus trees that rank with the tallest in Britain. Among other outstanding performers are the orange-flowered embothrium (Chilean flower bush) and the white-flowering eucryphia (brush bush): both grow to an uncommon height here.

"This is gardening on a big scale," says John. "This is a classic example of a forest of rhododendrons such as you might see in Nepal. This is how they actually grow in the wild."

All the same, they cannot be left on their own without restraint. John often wishes that, like the second Earl of Stair, he had a small army at his disposal instead of just himself and two other gardeners. The plantations, along with the splendid avenues of monkey puzzles, beeches, noble firs and holly, all need constant renewal if they are to maintain their grandeur. And although rhododendrons are forest plants that tolerate shade, they require some sun if they are to flower well, so they must not become completely overshadowed.

"Two years ago we started taking out or cutting back some of the big trees," he says. "There was a Camellia japonica that had grown to about 20 feet but was very shy in flowering. We cut it right back and covered it with tea leaves - tea is a related plant - and now it's flowering well." Among the hazards faced by camellias and the other evergreens at Castle Kennedy is one that is not shared by too many smaller gardeners: roe deer that like to chew on their leaves.

John and his men have other major tasks to come. They include restocking the round pond with lilies and lowering its level. At the same time they are digging out more shrub beds in an area that used to be woodland.

For those who prefer their gardening on a more restricted canvas, the two main areas of flower and shrub beds are the walled garden by the old castle and the sunken and heather gardens next to the newer castle at Lochinch. Both offer havens for plants too tender to be grown in the eastern part of the country; but there have been losses and damage in this year's cold winter.

Alongside the central path is a hedge of pittosporum, whose purple flowers look pretty in early summer. This has suffered from frost, and so have the callistemon (bottle brush), ceanothus and escallonias. In the herbaceous borders large-leaved plants, such as phlomis, have been badly hit.

"We're leaving some of the damaged stuff in, in the hope that it might come up again," says John. "But some of it I'm going to replace with weigela, which is quite common but produces nice colour. We may have been lulled into a false sense of security by a series of mild winters." On the credit side, shrubs such as magnolias and camellias, although flowering later than usual this year, have been unusually colourful and prolific.

The Countess of Stair, mother of the present Earl, looks after the general running of the garden personally. "When she's here - and that's a lot of the time - Lady Stair works every day with me," says John. "This is a living garden. It isn't standing still like a lot of historic gardens, with plant collections from the era of the house. Those often stagnate because nobody lives in the house. The Stairs live and work here. Like the interior of a house, a garden changes with each generation."

! Castle Kennedy and Lochinch Gardens, Stranraer, Dumfries and Galloway (01776 702024). Open daily 10-5 until the end of September.

A PROFILE OF CASTLE KENNEDY

LOCATION: Three miles west of Stranraer, south- west Scotland. Height above sea level: 50ft. Area: 75 acres, including extensive tree plantations, broad stepped terracing, a walled garden by the old castle, and sunken and heather gardens by the newer castle.

CLIMATE: Mild, warmed by the Gulf Stream. Rainfall: above average at 45 inches per year.

SOIL: Acid loam on shale.

IDEAL FOR: Rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias and magnolias, which grow unusually large here. Redwood, eucalyptus and monkey puzzle trees also thrive, all of them appreciating the gentle weather and acid soil. Embothrium and eucryphia also do extremely well.

ANNUAL VISITORS: 15,000

PLANTS THAT GROW WELL IN HUMID CONDITIONS

EUCALYPTUS

This Australian evergreen with distinctively scented leaves is becoming increasingly popular and is usually hardy once established. It can be kept small by pruning or allowed to grow into a full-size tree. It does not much like growing on chalk or sand.

HELICHRYSUM

The popular curry plant (Helichrysum angustifolium) is one variety of this yellow-flowered perennial. Another is Helichrysum splendidum, which is often used for dried flowers. All need to be grown in full sun and they thrive best in well-drained soil.

ESCALLONIA

A Chilean evergreen, with shiny leaves and small white or pink flowers that last for most of the summer. Often seen in gardens near the coast, it will grow in most soil types, tolerates partial shade, and is sometimes used as a hedging plant.

MONKEY PUZZLE TREE

This curiously shaped conifer (Araucaria araucana) was fashionable in Victorian times, but is regarded as rather naff today. Grows slowly. Some at Castle Kennedy have reached 70ft and more. Normally hardy - branches can be brittle when it snows.

WEIGELA

An increasingly popular garden shrub that produces a mass of pink, yellow or white flowers in midsummer and reaches a height of about six feet. It tolerates most soils, and is hardy in most parts of the country, unless there is prolonged frost.

DESFONTIANAE SPINOSA

Another Chilean evergreen, Desfontianae spinosa is difficult to grow except in mild and moist areas like south-west Scotland. It reaches about 10ft tall, and has holly-like leaves, with a spectacular blaze of long red and yellow flowers in June.

RHODODENDRON ARBOREUM

This is the tall rhododendron with the growing habits of a tree rather than a bush. There are varieties with white, pink and red flowers. They need acid soil and prefer to grow in partial shade.

PHLOMIS

A low-growing evergreen with hairy leaves and a distinctive summer flower, usually yellow. It needs a warm, sunny position on light soil, and suffers from frost, though it will occasionally re-grow.

PITTOSPORUM

An Australian evergreen grown mostly for its foliage, although some varieties will produce an array of small white or purple flowers in early summer. At Castle Kennedy it is grown as a hedge.

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