Inverewe Garden is a remarkable place that owes its existence to the perception and sheer hard work of two remarkable people, Osgood Mackenzie and his daughter Mairi Sawyer. Their creation, next to the delightful and peaceful Loch Ewe in the northwest Scottish Highlands, can today be enjoyed by the general public as it is in the care of the National Trust for Scotland.
Osgood Mackenzie (1842-1922) was a son of the laird of Gairloch who, not being the eldest son, had no land of his own when his father died. Instead, his mother acquired an estate for him a few miles away, being 12,000 acres of crofts and farms that included a considerable amount of completely barren and useless land.
At the age of 21, Osgood decided to build a house for himself on a rocky and treeless promontory jutting into Loch Ewe, which is a sea loch at a latitude that is the same as that of Siberia and southern Alaska. Only one tree grew there when he started, but he was determined to build a walled garden and then to plant more than 100 acres of trees, on land that was either bare rock or a deep layer of acidic peat.
Osgood acquired plants from all over the temperate world, both the northern and southern hemispheres, taking advantage of the surprisingly mild climate of this particular spot, which is due to the North Atlantic Drift that brings warm Gulf Stream waters into the area. Many of the trees and other plants that can be seen at Inverewe today were planted by Osgood Mackenzie around 100 years ago and have now reached full maturity, whereas others, such as several Californian redwoods, still have some way to go.
Osgood’s work was continued by his daughter Mairi, who contributed her own ideas and was determined to make the garden available to the general public. Mairi died in 1953, but she had already by then transferred ownership to the National Trust for Scotland. It was the Trust’s first acquisition of a property that was purely a garden, and it has been maintained and developed ever since with a view to making the garden visually attractive throughout the year.
The garden is entered at its eastern end, which is on the road from nearby Poolewe to Gruinard. You first encounter the one-acre walled garden on a terrace overlooking the loch, that was originally laid out by Osgood Mackenzie in the 1860s. The garden curves around an inlet of the loch, having a southern aspect backed by a high stone wall, making it suitable for growing cordon and espalier fruit trees. The garden today grows a variety of fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowering plants.
Inverewe House is not open to the public, although its lawn and herbaceous border are. Below the lawn is a rock garden that was laid out by Mairi Sawyer, using plants from New Zealand and the Mediterranean that are resistant to salt air.
The bulk of Inverewe Garden consists of interconnected woodland walks and paths, from which can be seen a variety of trees and other plants, with some of the walks and spaces being based on specific themes. The moist air and poor light (caused by the high trees and northern latitude) provide ideal conditions for plants such as ferns and hostas, many varieties of which can be seen here. These include some impressive tree ferns and giant rhubarbs that grow to above head height.
Most of the paths are suitable for disabled access, but by no means all, as there are a number of steeper slopes and stone steps in some areas.
The garden looks particularly impressive in spring and early summer when the extensive collection of rhododendrons is in flower. These are mountain plants from China and the Himalayas that thrive in acidic soil, and so are ideal subjects for the conditions at Inverewe.
Clearings have been made at various times in the garden’s history to enable plants to be grown that need more light. These include hydrangeas, eucalypts, heathers and bamboos, as well as new plantings of alpine rhododendrons.
In the “America” section of the garden is a particularly fine example of a variegated Turkey oak that was planted by Mairi Sawyer in 1937.
Throughout the garden, many species of moss, lichen and fungi can be seen on the rocks and larger plants, all contributing to the atmosphere of “managed wildness” that is the dominant feature of Inverewe Garden.
Inverewe is definitely a garden for all seasons, and it is indeed open throughout the year. As well as the plants and trees, there is wildlife to be seen, including birds in the trees and seals and otters in the loch. As one walks around, the vista is always changing with views being afforded of the surrounding sea and mountains. One word of warning, though, is that the highland midge is also resident here, and it can be particularly troublesome in the more sheltered areas on mild, muggy days. Wearing a head net may bring you stares at first, but other visitors will soon be asking you where you got yours from!
Facilities at the site include a well-stocked shop (including midge nets!) and a restaurant serving hot and cold food. Admission is 8 pounds 50 pence for adults and 5 pounds 50 pence for children and concessions, with family tickets being available (prices are those applying in 2010) . Members of the National Trust (both Scotland and England and Wales) are admitted free of charge.
Inverewe Garden has long been recognised as having both national and international importance, with experts coming from all over the world to study its special collections. Despite its status and continued development, it retains the original concept of its founder, who would certainly recognise it were he able to visit it today.