Crarae Glen Garden
Herbert Spady, M.D.
Some gardens require years of labor and expense in site preparation. Others are blessed with appropriate natural sites. Crarae Glen Garden is one of those favored by a site of natural beauty.
The garden is located on the west side of Loch Fyne, a long arm of the channel between Northern Ireland and Scotland, and to the east of highlands reaching about 1500 feet. It is somewhat protected from the vigorous north Atlantic gales by the peninsula and several off shore islands to the west. Through its midst flows a stream in a narrow secluded valley. To put it in the dialect, "a burn through a glen to Loch Fyne."
The soil is a thin acid loam overlying rock and clay. Away from the glen itself are areas of deep mineralized peat ideally suited for rhododendrons and other acid loving plants. The glen looks somewhat to the south. The rainfall is some 76 inches yearly, scattered through the year eliminating the necessity for artificial irrigation.
The climate is mild with winter temperature seldom below 15 degrees F. Although the climate is not quite as mild as that of the more westerly locations of Arran and Gigha. Lack of sun and summer heat makes the site ideal for plants from cool climates. The garden site has proven to be favorable for plants from the South Island of New Zealand, Chile, Tasmania, the Himalayas and parts of China, Japan and the United States.
There is a long garden history dating back to about 1904. Around the house, now occupied by Sir Ilay Campbell and Lady Campbell, Sir Ilay's grandmother began the early plantings. No doubt her interest in plants was stimulated by her nephew, plant explorer, Reginald Farrer. Surviving from those early plantings are Eucryphia cordifolia, Osmanthus delavayi, Osmarea burkwoodii, Rhododendron falconeri and Cercidiphyllum japonicum. The Rhododendron falconeri, a large venerable specimen, still performs yearly with great cream trusses. Dwarf conifers planted by her are no longer dwarf.
| General view upstream from
below the top bridge.
Photo by Sir Ilay Campbell
| The gorge,
Photo by Sir Ilay Campbell
The Glen Garden began to take shape after 1925 when the property passed to the then Captain George Campbell. Sir George Campbell is credited with originally having no concept of the ultimate size and scope of the garden. He is described as clearing the land and planting it with interesting material as it became available to him. The source of his plants was largely from surplus seeds and seedlings from friends who subscribed to the plant hunting expeditions of the time. When possible he planted multiple plants in drifts creating naturalistic effects and expanses of autumn color with Sorbus, Acer, Liliodendron, Prunus, Cotoneaster and Berberis. His two golden rules: "Never plant too close, but allow room for natural development" and "Always try to ensure that the plants look natural in their setting" resulted in a garden today perceived as landscaped by a professional.
Sir George's interests centered about trees, especially rare conifers. The garden includes fine specimens of Pinus koreana, Abies koriensis, Saxgotha conspicua and Tsuga mertensiana. The dark green of the conifers contrasts dramatically with the bright spring flowering rhododendrons and later the autumn golds, oranges and scarlets of leaves and the berries of rowans, cotoneasters and berberis. In 1965 Davidian named R. succothii after him, Sir George Campbell, Baronet of Succoth, in honor of the great plantsman that he was.
Sir George was little concerned with collecting difficult to grow plants or concerned about the conformity of his plants to species descriptions. As a result the garden presents fine displays of hybrids of R. lacteum x R. macabeanum from seed collected at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh. There is a superb group of R. wardii hybrids with cream flowers blotched with purple. The R. lacteum hybrids are now tree-like specimens thirty years old covering themselves with huge yellow trusses in late April. Throughout the year they display an interesting foliage.
Amongst the hybrids, 'Brocade' is particularly striking with its pale pink drooping trusses. 'John Holms', a R. barbatum hybrid, which flowers in April, is so hardy that open flowers go unharmed through quite a few degrees of frost. It is very like R. barbatum in style and flower, although it lacks the lovely cinnamon colored bark. 'Loderi King George' is a large effective specimen. 'Tally Ho', flowering in June and even into July, is much admired as it sweeps down from the path to the burn on the eastern side of the Inner Circle path. 'Arthur Osbom' is a splendid late flowerer. It holds its deep crimson flowers well into August. In addition to the unnamed seedlings in the garden there are about one hundred named hybrid clones.
Some early species rhododendrons resulted from seed obtained mostly from Exbury. These plants of R. cinnabarinum (Roylei Group), R. arboreum, R. decorum and R. rubiginosum are situated in the area where the burn exits from the glen near the house. There are about one hundred species represented throughout garden with several clones of many. There is a particularly fine form of R. zaleucum. A large planting of R. strigillosum is very effective in the early season. R. rubiginosum, of which there are several groups, is particularly striking in late April. Later, large drifts of R. yunnanense and R. davidsonianum come into their own. One especially rare species in the garden is R. temenium var. gilvum 'Cruachan' FCC. It is a charming, spreading shrub, only about three feet high, bearing pale lemon-yellow flowers.
The garden has two somewhat separate walking paths. The Inner Circle walk is the oldest and hugs the edge of the glen. The Outer Circle path was a later development begun some thirty years ago. The massed plantings and trees about the Outer Circle path have now reached maturity with dramatic effects in both spring and fall. A diversionary path from the Outer Circle takes those who wish to use it to the very top of the garden. From there are magnificent views across Loch Fyne to the Cowal Hills with glimpses of rhododendrons in the foreground.
Both paths include exquisite vista points and appropriate benches for rest and contemplation. Both offer visualization of the plants from every angle. This provides a special impact with the indumented rhododendrons. Five bridges crossing the stream and numerous "windows" give clear views of waterfalls and swirling waters when the burn is in spate. Walking the Inner Circle at a leisurely pace takes about 45 minutes. The Outer Circle walk is two hours. One should set a slow pace and plan on stops to enjoy the vistas and plants. There are multiple photographic opportunities.
Beyond the garden up the glen, forestry plots of rare conifers and some broadleaved species were established between 1933 and 1937. There grow large fifty year old specimens of conifers from Europe, North America and Japan. This 40 acre area above the garden on either bank of the glen is open to the public and accessible through the Glen Garden. There are fine stands of Tsuga mertensiana, Tsuga heterphylla, Sequoia sempervirens, Sequoiadendron giganteum, Picea engelmannii, Abies magnifica, Picea breweriana, Sciadopitys verticillata, Notofagus procera, Notofagus obliqua and Alnus rubra.
This work of Sir George Campbell has been carried forward by his son Sir Ilay Campbell. Both claimed to have never succumbed to "rhododendronitis" so emphasis in the garden has not been on collecting documented plants of every species, but rather on using rhododendrons for their ornamental effects. No efforts have been made to coddle the difficult species or to avoid hybrid rhododendrons. One impressive mass planting is of crosses made by a neighbor, Michael Noble, trying to achieve a range of bright red flowers throughout the blooming season. These plants provide color and interest most of the season. Two have been registered, 'Secretary of State' and 'Shadow Secretary'.
Recent years have seen improvements in the garden carried out with great sensitivity by the head gardener, Jim McKirdy. New paths have been made and old paths have been renovated. Many trees and large shrubs have been trimmed up. The removal of old wood has improved the vigor of the plants and cleared the view of interesting bark and stems. New vistas have been opened.
Like so many British gardens, maintaining the garden in private ownership has been too heavy a burden. Since 1978 the garden has been a charitable trust and all income derived from whatever source goes directly to the maintenance and improvement of the garden.
The charm of this area of Scotland is not limited to gardens and plants, but includes many items of archeological and historical interest and the gracious hospitality of Sir Ilay and Lady Campbell.
Dr. Spady is currently serving the ARS as Director-at-Large. He has a special interest in species rhododendrons and is past president of the Rhododendron Species Foundation.