Travel: Laird of the Italian lakeland: Geoffrey Mayhew was intrigued to know more about the Scottish visionary who created a garden beside Lake Maggiore

Geoffrey Mayhew
Saturday 22 October 2011 23:15

As the small white steamer approached the jetty at the Villa Taranto Gardens on Lake Maggiore, my wife said, 'We ought to find out more about McEacharn.' We had seen his memorial among a host of white flowers, the face of a kindly but precise man, and we realised he was a Scot, Captain Neil McEacharn. But that was all we knew, except that, close to the Alps in northern Italy, he had created a vast garden of the English style, which is also one of the world's few botanical centres of excellence.

The steamer stopped briefly at Isola Madre, with its Mediterranean garden; at charming Baveno; at Pescatori, tiny island of fishermen; and at Isola Bella, with its baroque palace and garden. But we were not getting off.

At Stresa we went straight to the public library, but about Captain McEacharn there was nothing. 'You should try England,' we were told.

We learnt at the hotel that McEacharn came from Galloway. But apart from this, and despite another visit to his beautiful gardens, we did not find the missing links until we spoke to librarians at the Royal Horticultural Society in London and in the Dumfries public library.

It may not have occurred to those who passed through the Villa Taranto Gardens this year - it certainly did not occur to us - that Captain McEacharn, the laird from Galloway House, near Wigtown, had been a multimillionaire when he began their creation. Every penny went into them. For several years he had been on the lookout for the ideal setting for a great garden in southern Europe. As he remarked, where another rich man would spend freely on racehorses, with him it was gardens.

Returning from yet another fruitless search, he read in a newspaper that the Marchesa di Sant'Elia wished to sell her villa on a 100ft hill overlooking Lake Maggiore. He got off the homeward-bound train and travelled hundreds of miles south to see it.

The empty villa was dilapidated and the gardens were a botanical nightmare, an overgrown tangle of trees and shrubs. He called it an 'uninviting mass'. But McEacharn had a vision, and having confirmed that he could also acquire adjacent land, totalling 100 acres, he bought it all. Then he, two gardeners and several hundred labourers moved in. That was in 1932.

Lake Maggiore is 1,000ft above sea level. Mountains rise to the east and west, and the snow-capped Alps look down on Locarno at the northern end. Yet it is a paradise for the large-scale gardener. The temperature varies widely, but frost does not last long. Rainfall can be 100in in a year, and 4in in an hour, but there are few days when it rains incessantly. Providentially, it rains more in summer, when the temperature can reach 35C, than in winter.

Having once been the bed of a larger lake, the soil is rich in humus and has no lime. And - if the scenery can be counted as part of a garden, as McEacharn thought it should - Lake Maggiore is fabulous.

When he arrived, there were already some world-renowned gardens beside and on the lake. These, in the Italian style, were established in the 16th and 17th centuries, and drew their inspiration from the gardens of Imperial Rome. The most famous is on Isola Bella, where man's desire to impose on nature created an exotic garden with much statuary of divinities, nymphs and satyrs, and many terraces, one above the other, with masses of colourful tropical and subtropical vegetation. The whole was designed to make the island appear to be a ship floating on the calm water off Stresa, as it can seem to be in the ever- changing light on the lake.

McEacharn had no wish to copy or to compete with these gardens, where Emperor Hadrian, himself a gardener, would have felt at home. McEacharn was a Linnaen Academician, and an exceptional botanist since his twenties, and he wanted to make a great garden in the English style, with the effect of nature on man as its theme. He was sure he had the right climate and, on this south-west facing promontory, the right place.

The Galloway House estate, with its 10,400 acres, had not been the right site. McEacharn inherited it in 1910, when he was 26. His father, Sir Malcolm, who had returned to Scotland after making a great fortune in Australia and Asia, and who introduced the frozen meat trade to Britain, had died just a year after moving in; then his mother, the daughter of an Australian 'gold king', died soon after.

Alone, McEacharn began to modernise the gardens. He sought advice from his nearest neighbour, Sir Herbert Maxwell of Monreith, 16 miles away, and from the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh. Two years later he married, and two years after that, at the start of the First World War, he joined the King's Own Scottish Borderers and served in Salonika.

When the war ended, he resumed his gardening at Galloway, but things were not the same. His marriage began to break down. In 1922, he was seen by a private detective to meet a woman at Victoria Station, whence the pair proceeded to the Hotel Metropole in Brighton, and his wife, Marie, divorced him. There were no children from the marriage, and in the mid-Twenties, McEacharn, who never remarried, could see that he would not be able to achieve his ambition with the gardens of Galloway.

He knew long droughts would be a problem for the gardens of the villa, which he had renamed after an ancestor, one of Napoleon's military dukes. An extensive watering system, fed from the lake, would answer that. He was sure he could protect the topsoil from erosion in torrential downpours by the installation of highly efficient drainage.

These were given priority in his reconstruction from the shore to the summit, in the course of which 2,000 trees in the wilderness were cut down, although many that were spared grew into magnificent specimens.

Vast quantities of earth were moved, but without losing the topsoil. Gorges and ramparts were made as interesting sites for plants. Seven kilometres of wide pathway were laid, from which there would be unexpected glimpses of the lake and the mountains as the vegetation grew.

Meanwhile, the Galloway estate was sold and McEacharn had the good fortune to hear of Henry Cocker, a star graduate of Kew and an Associate of Honour of the Royal Horticultural Society, who was completing work elsewhere in northern Italy. McEacharn got into his Rolls-Royce and drove to see Cocker, who became his head gardener.

Leaving Cocker in charge, McEacharn began the first of six round-the-world searches for specimens for the gardens. Such buying trips would not be possible today, as countries would not allow it. But in those days the cost of transport was the only problem. Many trees and shrubs - particularly rhododendrons - came from England.

Today, of the 20,000 species of trees, shrubs and plants from five continents that flourish in the Villa Taranto Gardens, a large number were imported by McEacharn. Many have grown into great specimens. At least a thousand of them had not previously been cultivated in Italy. All are recorded in his catalogue.

Great efforts were needed to acclimatise many of them. Sometimes these efforts failed, or it was necessary to move a plant, to find the best site for its maturity.

When he died in 1964, aged 80, McEacharn was buried in the gardens and the whole property passed to the Italian state. He had made a gift of it in 1937, subject to his maintaining a life interest, so that his work in turning a botanical nightmare into near perfection - his fulfilment - could continue.

Since then, the gardens have been under the control of a non-profit-making institution, the Ente Giardini Botanici Villa Taranto (Captain Neil McEacharn). Yet no major changes to their layout have been required in the past 30 years, the director, Commendatore Giuseppe Ferrari, told us.

The species from numerous countries that were established in McEacharn's time have grown to occupy their intended spaces, large or small. Virtually the whole of the area is cultivated. McEacharn's vision was unusual, but practical.

The money he left to provide for the gardens has, however, long since run out. Today, they rely on the entry fee of about pounds 4 a head, and on the sale of seeds worldwide. Fortunately, these sales have been rising and there is an increasing stream of visitors - a fact which might have surprised McEacharn.

He did not build the gardens as a public enterprise, and it was not until 1952, nearly 20 years after he began, that, with some hesitation, he opened them to the public. 'They did no damage, and were exceedingly well behaved,' he noted, after 15,000 had passed through in one summer season. Last year there were some 250,000 visitors between April and October.

Villa Taranto is on the Strada Nazionale between Intra and Pallanza, on the shore of Lake Maggiore. The gardens are open from 8.30am until sunset, 1 April-31 October.

(Photograph and map omitted)

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