Boxing Day Storm Damages West Coast Gardens of Great Britain and Ireland
Alternate District Director For Off-shore Chapters
Boxing Day 1998 will be long remembered in the annals of West Coast gardeners in both Britain and Ireland for the severity of the storms which caused chaos in many gardens and devastation in others.
A combination of the lack of media coverage of such events which occur away from London and the South East, coupled with the relatively remote location of some of the gardens involved, resulted in a lack of appreciation of the scale of the damage for some weeks. So somewhat out of the blue a letter arrived from Martha Prince, the writer from Long Island with a long-time interest in Scottish Gardens, outlining details she had received of severe damage to Brodick Castle Garden as a result of 200 trees blown down. A short while later the same day Mervyn Kessell confirmed the report was accurate but damage to the rhododendron plants was minimal; nevertheless, it is understood that it will take around 60,000 of labour costs alone to clear the timber and contain the damage.
It was some weeks before details of damage to other gardens began to emerge. In early March Lord Strathcona wrote and in passing remarked that a few trees had been blown down on Boxing Day at Kiloran Gardens on the Isle of Colonsay, and whilst these had severed a few limbs of the rhododendron plants the damage was minimal. A few days later a report from Bargany Gardens on the Ayrshire Coast indicated that they were also busy clearing trees and limbs felled on Boxing day.
Only when we went on a tour of gardens in the North of Ireland in mid-April did we begin to realise the extent of the damage caused by the storm. At Ardnamona near the town of Donegal, there was significant damage to the east side of the garden alongside the main drive where there was still evidence of clearing up work being taken forward by Kieran Clark and his helpers. Further north the sheltered position of Glenveagh had saved the garden from the worst of the storm, but at Mulroy the main drive to the estate was still blocked by fallen trees and the "back door" entrance road was impeded by the remains of sawn-up trees. Around 200 trees had come down in total in various parts of the estate. The following day we visited Ballywalter Park where Lord Dunleath outlined the damage to the estate on Boxing Day in total amounted to around 200 fallen trees. Whilst the gardening staff were proficient in forestry, it had been necessary to bring in contractors to deal with the scale of the clearance work.
Nearby at Mount Stewart they had around 20 trees down, and the fallen trees on the Rhododendron Bank on the south side of the lake had been cut up ready for taking away.
Back on the mainland a number of head gardeners indicated that they were resigned to a second period of clearing-up after several trees had come down and other trees had lost limbs. The garden staff had already spent the fall period catching up on outstanding forestry work. Typical of this was Muncaster Castle on the West Cumbria Coast where trees had come down at various locations in the garden, including a 110-year-old silver fir which it was not possible to secure in-situ and save.
Whilst the damage at Brodick was bad enough there was worse news yet to come as rumours began to circulate of major problems at Achamore Garden on the Isle of Gigha. Sadly, the rumours turned out to be well founded, and the recording of winds of 119 mph at nearby Machrihanish were an indicator of the severity of the storm. The winds, which started in the east and swung round to the southwest as the intensity of the storm increased, came in over the Home Farm and took out a broad swathe of trees in a gradually narrowing pattern which left but a few trees and plants standing. Beyond the main devastation, sycamore, larch and Corsican pine were blown down, the effect carrying right through to the front drive. Unfortunately, the path of the storm crossed the Camellia Walk and it bought down large eucryphias and embothriums and damaged a number of old camellias. Beyond the Walled Garden a group of Sitka spruce were also taken out in an area which had seen damage in an earlier storm in December 1997 when 30 trees were felled by an easterly gale. Whilst the structural damage on Boxing Day would appear to be in excess of 200 trees down there has also been severe damage to the plants as a result of the salt-laden winds. These problems are compounded by the difficulties of extracting the timber from the garden in a way which will minimise further damage to the plants and avoid compacting the soil. The use of mechanical planters will almost certainly cause drainage problems. Of longer term concern is the breaching of the shelter belt by the storm in a way which will leave the garden exposed until such times as fast growing trees infill the gap in the defenses.
I am grateful to the garden owners, administrators, and head gardeners who have provided information and also to Peter Cox for details of Achamore Garden.