A Little Bit of Burma in the Wilds of Scotland
Inverewe Garden is far and away the most popular garden belonging to The National Trust for Scotland.
In spite of its remoteness on the wind-swept northwest fringe of this small country, it had more than 125,000 visitors last year. One guidebook to Scottish gardens suggests: "If a visitor found himself able to visit only one garden, then undoubtedly he would be richly rewarded were he to choose magnificent Inverewe."
Magnificent it is. But apart from its location, it is, in content, more international than Scottish. One unnamed great horticulturalist, visiting it earlier this century, remarked that Inverewe was like "some wild corner in Burma or northern China."
There are Scotch pines and birches, but its approximately 50 acres of tended but attractively untamed gardens - set on an estate of 2,200 acres - are extensively planted with trees, shrubs, and plants from around the globe. The countries and regions represented include China, Chile, Australia, Japan, North America, South Africa, the Chatham Islands, Mexico, Tasmania, and New Zealand.
Inverewe's administrator, Keith Gordon, says it is "really a botanical collection rather than a garden." In fact it is both.
What seems extraordinary is that anything grows at all in a place composed of a thin layer of peaty soil just about covering pink Torridonian sandstone more than 800 million years old and hard enough to be good building material. That the garden flourishes luxuriantly is even more extraordinary when you learn that its original maker - an intrepid Scot with a George Bernard Shaw beard and the unforgettable name of Osgood Mackenzie - claimed that, when he came, nothing grew here but one dwarf willow.
That was in 1862. He was 20, and his mother had given him the estate on the peninsula jutting into the salt waters of Loch Ewe. He set about rendering the inhospitable place hospitable, planting windbreaks and turning the deforested and barren promontory into the beginnings of one of the world's great gardens.
His daughter, a knowledgeable gardener, inherited the place, gave it to the trust in 1952. It was the first property taken over by the trust solely because it was a superb garden.
Whatever its climatic challenges, Inverewe does have one advantage: virtually no frost. This is because it is under the benevolent influence of the North Atlantic Drift. Mackenzie was later to boast that he could grow anything outdoors that was grown in greenhouses at Kew in London. An exaggeration, doubtless, but many plants can be left in the ground over the winter here that in most parts of Britain have to be dug up and protected under cover.
Inverewe, for all its self-protection, is still battered by southwest winds of brutal force, liberally seasoned with ocean salt. It still has a notably high rainfall - on our autumn visit we experienced firsthand the kind of drench it is used to. Everything was soused and beaded with the same wetness: eucalyptus, rhododendron, and the autumn crocuses under them; all kinds of salvia with its small tongue-lolloping flowers, cherry red, crimson, or blue; clumps of crocosmia with flowers fiery orange or the mellow yellow of egg custard; the knife-like leaves of phormium. If a garden can seem exquisite in such conditions - as Inverewe does - it must be a marvelous garden.
Conditions here are very like those on the western coastline and mountains of New Zealand - thus the collection of plants from that area thrives, some of them actually preferring high wind and wetness. Celmisia and olearia, often with grayish foliage and white daisy-like flowers, grow well. Inverewe has the British national collection of olearia.
The many thriving eucalypts, or gum trees, from similar conditions in Tasmania, are a spectacular feature, perfectly at home, almost as if they were native to Scotland.
To Osgood Mackenzie, the only part of Inverewe that was true "garden" was the acre following the curve of shoreline that he walled in and built up with vast loads of imported soil. It's a fine Victorian enclosed garden. The rest of his planting he thought of as woodlands.
Today we easily accept woodlands as garden, perhaps, and the walled garden, with its liberal mix of well-fed flowers, fruit, and vegetables, seems a separate and more conventional section of Inverewe. This is encountered first by many visitors - and only a small percentage venture into the entire 50 acres - and it sticks in the mind as a remarkable achievement, a successful takeover of the old raised beach, bastioned against the elements.
But if the walled garden represents a victory against site and exposure, the rest of the garden is also thoroughly and professionally gardened. Mr. Gordon talks of the continual process of mulching, using seaweed, manure, and garden clippings. No artificial fertilizers are used.
There is also a high degree of conservation and preservation (a propagation program makes sure rare material cannot be lost) coupled with a recognition that no garden stands still. New areas have been developed, new kinds of plants added.
But if Inverewe goes on developing (much thought has been given to making it a year-round garden, and not solely spectacular when the rhododendrons and camellias are in flower) its essential character still seems uppermost.
It is an outstanding construct that brilliantly contrives to seem not only natural but even wild. Particularly wild in a torrential Scottish downpour.