Rhododendrons in a Scottish Garden - A Himalayan Prospect
Dr. J. MacQueen Cowan
By name, at least, many British Gardens noted for their rhododendrons will be well known to members of the American Rhododendron Society - Cagrhays, Exbury, Bodnant, Leonardslee, and Tower Court are names which are doubtless familiar. Less well known are some Scottish gardens famous for their rhododendrons from which I would single out one - Stonefield in Argyll, near Tarbet, at the north end of the Kintyre peninsula.
It is of special interest for two main reasons: firstly because here one may see, what I believe is, the finest collection of Himalayan rhododendrons anywhere to be found in cultivation, (and I can vouch from personal experience that the size of individual plants at Stonefield is no less than that of their counterparts as they grow naturally in their native soil); secondly because this garden played a most notable part in the early history of the introduction of rhododendrons from the Eastern Himalayas.
Sir J. D. Hooker was one of the first to explore this region and an account of his journeys is to be found in his "Himalayan Journals." He traveled in Sikkim (which then included the Darjeeling district) between the years 1847 and 1851, and here at Stonefield are many of his original introductions. The plants in the garden, raised from his own seed are in full vigor although a hundred years old.
The garden, situated on well-wooded slopes above the waters of Loch Fyne, with its bays and promontory, is one of the most beautiful that I know. The climate, like that of other west coast Scottish gardens, is admirably suited to the growing of rhododendrons. Evidence that it is milder here than in most parts of Britain is furnished not only by rhododendrons but also by the growth of many half hardy trees and shrubs - Magnolia campbellii, for instance, over 25 ft. high; an immense Griselinia littoralis nearly 40 ft. in height; large plants of Mitraria coccinea and of Philesia buxifolia from the Magellan regions; and, among the trees, Eucalyptus coccifera and other species as well as many unusual conifers including Torreya californica. The country surrounding Stonefield is unsurpassed for Highland beauty. Moreover, the Mansion House, formerly a private residence, has recently been converted and is now a well run hotel. Anyone may, therefore, stay there and enjoy the garden in leisure and comfort. This I had the pleasure of doing on a short holiday not long ago.
Sir Herbert Maxwell tells us something of the curious contours and ancient history of the place. I quote from "Scottish Gardens" -"If you look at the map of Argyll, you will see that the promontory of Cantyre, a finger of land about forty miles long and, on an average, not more than seven miles wide, only escapes severance from the mainland by means of a strip of ground a mile wide. When Malcolm Canmore ceded to Magnus Barefoot, King of Norway, all the islands "Between which and the mainland he could pass in a galley with its rudder shipped," the Northman secured Cantyre by running his craft ashore at the head of West Loch Tarbert, and causing it to be drawn on rollers across the isthmus to Loch Fyne, with his own hand on the tiller. Three hundred years later, Robert the Bruce repeated the feat, in token of his lordship of the Isles, and built a keep at the eastern end of the portage, which still presides grim and time-worn, over the snug little town of Tarbert, with its tortuous, but profound, harbour. These incidents are commemorated in the name of the place, Tarbert signifying "boat draft" or portage, from the Gaelic "taruinn bada."
Towards the end of April or in early May is the best time to visit Stonefield for those who wish to see the Rhododendrons in flower, but the garden is of interest at any time of the year. It does not cover a large area. During the war, when I was frequently passing by car, I found that a short halt of some twenty minutes was long enough to see all that was in bloom or of special interest at the time. Let me, however, note that the more recently introduced species from Western China are not well represented nor are there many modern hybrids.
The pride of the garden is its Himalayan flora-species of rhododendron, each specimen a veteran, superbly grown. Hooker's magnificently illustrated folio volume on the "Rhododendrons of the Sikkim Himalaya" is laid before us and brought to life. Nearly every species figured in the book can be seen at Stonefield. Perhaps the most outstanding plant is the large R. eximium surpassing in size and beauty any other specimen I have seen. It is remarkable, not so much for its height as for the large area of ground that it covers and some years the foliage is almost completely concealed by bloom. Not unlike its close ally R. falconeri, with the same large rugulose leaves, covered on the under side with a rich red rusty indumentum, and with the same large truss, R. eximium may be recognized by the more or less persistent scattering of reddish hairs on the upper, as well as on the lower side of the leaf. Furthermore the flowers, instead of being cream colored, are a pinkish-mauve. R. falconeri itself is represented in the garden by several specimens, the largest 25 ft. high and 4 ft. 6" in girth below the lowest branch.
From the Terrace one looks down upon a magnificent R. grande, planted on the steep slope below. This too is some 25 ft. high. Hooker in his 'Himalayan Journals' describes its "magnificent leaves 12-15 inches long, deep green above anal silvery below," and states, "I know nothing of the kind that exceeds in beauty the flowering branch of R. argenteum (R. grande), with its white spreading foliage and glorious mass of flowers." I myself have seen the Stonefield plant even more floriferous than any I ever saw in Sikkim.
Various forms of R. arboreum, blood red, pink, and white, up to 30 ft. in height, are as large as the predominating trees of the rhododendrons forests which clothe the slopes of the Tonglu-Sandakphu ridge, the boundary between India and Nepal. When I visited Stonefield in winter, with its Himalayan Rhododendrons and the distant snow-clad hills of Argyll, I recalled my first plant hunting expedition in India, and the view from Tanglu bungalow towards the snow-capped Kinchinjunga range, reproduced here upon a minor scale.
As to other Himalayan species to be seen at Stonefield, let me merely mention them by name, R. thomsonii, R. barbatum, R. niveum, R. campanulatum, R. fulgens, R. campylocarpum, R. hodgsonii, R. griffithianum, R. maddenii, R. lepidotum and R. cilia-maddeni, R. lepidotum and R. ciliatum.
One of the features of the garden is the great number of self sown seedlings that spring up on the mossy lawns. During the war when, owing to shortage of labor, the garden was much neglected, many species sowed themselves freely, the most prolific being R. ciliatum with seedlings scattered everywhere on the open ground. When last I visited Stonefield, an over zealous gardener had uprooted and bon fired nearly all. This was not surprising, perhaps, because of the new developments in the Mansion House, which for some years had been unoccupied, but I did resent the fact that hundreds, and more probably thousands, of seedlings of R. eximium, which had formed a thick hedge a foot or two high in the neighborhood of the parent plant, had been treated in a similar way.
From Burk's Landed Gentry we learn that the former home of the Campbells, the late proprietors of Stonefield, was at Auchincloich. This is a Gaelic name which means "The field of Stones," and the name was carried by them from Lorne to Loch Fyne side and translated into English when they moved south in the seventeenth century.
A century ago the proprietor of the estate, Mr. George Campbell, a keen gardener, counted among his friends Sir William Hooker, who by then had become Director of Kew. Earlier Hooker had been Professor of Botany in Glasgow and he too owned an estate in Argyll, a small property near Dunoon. Whether or not in his early days Sir Joseph Hooker, the son, ever visited Stonefield we do not know, but it is on record that, when he returned from his Himalayan journeys in 1851, his seed was widely distributed, and some of it found its way to his father's friend at Stonefield. On the authority of the recent proprietor, Colonel C. G. P. Campbell of Stonefield (a descendant of Mr.. George Campbell), this is how most of the plants now at Stonefield came to be there. Sir Herbert Maxwell tells us, however, that the plants at Stonefield originated from seed sent home from Darjeeling from time to time by Dr. A. Campbell, Superintendent of the Sanatorium and Political Resident in the district. This may be, for Dr. Campbell, though not of the Stonefield family, had Argyllshire connections. After spending some years in the service of the East India Company in Nepal, he was sent to Darjeeling to open the Sanatorium in 1840, and his name will be familiar because of the well known R. campbelliae. That Dr. Campbell sent seed to Scotland is proved by an entry in the archives of the Royal Botanic Garden for the year 1840 - "From the Himalayan Mountains, Seeds from Mr. Campbell- white rhododendron very scarce and handsome; a second species of white rhododendron."
The truth is that both Hooker and Campbell may have been responsible for the Stonefield rhododendrons because they traveled and collected together. In the 'Himalayan Journals' Hooker describes their adventures, the plants they saw, and how Campbell was taken prisoner. In the preface he acknowledges his great debt to Dr. Campbell.
But Stonefield, by an association of names, is an epitome of the whole history of the early exploration of the Eastern Himalayas, summed up in the genus Rhododendron. In "Rhododendrons of the Sikkim Himalaya," in which Hooker described many of the plants he found, he writes, "In naming the new species before me of this eminently Himalayan Genus I have wished to regard the services of some of those gentlemen who besides Mr. Griffith (to whom a species has already been dedicated by Dr. Wight) have most deeply studied the vegetable productions of the country; they are Doctors Wallich, Royle and Falconer. With their names that of Dr. Campbell, the Political Resident at Darjeeling, author of various excellent Essays on the Agriculture, Arts, Products and People etc., of Nepal and Sikkim, is no less appropriately associated; and in compliment to his amiable Lady I designate that Rhododendron which is most characteristic of Darjeeling vegetation; while to the Lady of the present Governor-General of India I have, as a mark of grateful esteem and respect, dedicated the noblest species of the whole race. Hooker refers to Lady Dalhousie (R. dalhousiae)- the family seat is at Brechin in Angus. We may note with interest too, that at the time of Hooker's visit to Darjeeling, Brian Houghton Hodgson, to whom another species (R. hodgsonii) is dedicated in the above mentioned volume, was living there. After nineteen years, from 1824-1843, as British Resident, in Katmandu, at the Court of Nepal, where earlier Campbell had been his assistant. B. H. Hodgson had now retired to Darjeeling, and was living as a recluse. The 'Life of Hodgson' written by Sir William Hunter and published by John Murray in London in 1896, will appeal to those who are interested in Himalayan rhododendrons.
Several others whose names are commemorated in the Stonefield collection had Scottish connections. Falconer (R. falconeri), Superintendent of the Royal Botanic Garden, Sibpur, Calcutta in 1842, was a native of Forres in Morayshire and a graduate of Aberdeen and Edinburgh Universities; Dr. Thomas Thomson (R. thomsonii), Surgeon in the Bengal Army, Superintendent of the Royal Botanic Garden, Calcutta, from 1854-61, was born in Glasgow and a graduate of that University. Hooker refers to him as, "My earliest friend and companion during my college life and now valued traveling companion in the Eastern Himalaya." M. P. Edgeworth, Esq., (R. edgeworthii) of the Bengal Civil Service,- spoken of by Hooker as, "My accomplished and excellent friend"whose name is perhaps better known through the novels by his half sister, Maria Edgeworth, died in Invernesshire in 1881. Dr. Royle (R. roylei), Surgeon to the East India Company, was educated in Edinburgh; Major Madden (R. maddenii), of the Bengal Civil Service, "a good and accomplished botanist," died in Edinburgh in 1856.
Stonefield has therefore many interesting associations for those who grow rhododendrons. It is as if a sample of the rhododendron forests, from elevations of 10-12,000 ft. in the Himalayas, had been uplifted and planted here; not on a grand scale as at Lock Inch, where the Earl of Stair, another of Hooker's friends who received seed, "accepted Sir Joseph's idea so fully that he planted the whole of his policies extending to seventy acres with seedling R. arboreum," but as a compact and pleasing miniature.
Should any member of the American Rhododendron Society, visiting Britain in connection with the Festival or at any other time, venture north and find his way to Stonefield he will not, I am sure, be disappointed. He may reach it by boat from Glasgow to Tarbert or direct by bus from Glasgow. The nearest railway station, An Rochar, is some sixty miles distant.