Architect Ian McKellar’s labour of love has created an inspiring walled garden in Argyll where beautifully clipped topiary keeps the space perfectly in balance
RUMOURS of an undiscovered, structural, architect-designed garden tucked away at the foot of the Rosneath Peninsula in Argyll began to surface a couple of years ago. With the publication of Scotland’s Gardens yellow book came an intriguing shot of a topiary garden that appeared to draw on formal Italian gardens for inspiration. It was time to investigate a garden that would prove to far exceed expectations.
The creation of Parkhead, the work of a single gardener, architect Ian McKellar, who with his wife Susan bought the plot in the early 1970s, is testimony to skill and sheer hard work. Ian explains. “It was derelict and quite romantic, but it had a walled garden.” The only plant remaining was the fig tree that still grows at the side of the wrought-iron entrance gate. It is through this gate that visitors first glimpse the garden and its initial row of sculptured Portuguese laurel, Prunus lusiticana “Variegata”.
Research reveals an intriguing past. Parkhead was the former production garden for nearby Rosneath Castle, the home of Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria and the Dowager Duchess of Argyll, who lived there until her death in 1939. Ian later learnt that fruits from the garden were ferried over Gare Loch and sent by train to Kensington Palace in London where they were eaten the next day.
For Glasgow-born Ian, whose first memory of plants were the window boxes in the family’s Glasgow tenement and the happy hours spent with his father, “an enthusiastic allotment owner”, the challenge presented by this space was irresistible. Combining the project with work and family, “we did the house up in phases,” proved challenging and is the reason why this precious jewel remained secret for so long.
Inspiration came from the great Scottish gardens of Drummond, Earlshall and Kellie Castles, Tyninghame in East Lothian – where the main avenue, an imposing axis, especially impressed – and Levens Hall in Cumbria, all gardens visited with his family on holidays. Later he ‘visited’ French and Italian gardens through reading, and especially loved Tuscan gardens. In these books, he observed established structural frameworks and learnt about the plants used to achieve results.
A television programme featuring Lady Salisbury at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire was also helpful. “Lady Salisbury held up her little finger and said all her box was grown from “finger” cuttings no more than 3 inches long.” All of the box hedging and topiary at Parkhead is established from cuttings.
Initially Ian laid out perimeter gravel paths, and espalier and fan-shaped trees on the walls. Over time and “by dint of spending every spare moment on the plans,” some of which are on display in the house, the layout began to take shape.
“It is more of a designer, architect garden,” says Ian. “I am obsessed with symmetry, level, balance, height and proportion. He confirms that the rectangular 1Ω-acre garden takes the house as its departure point with axis and vistas a priority. The original garden was open, but Ian closed it by planting limes and a curved beech hedge, a useful windbreak that works in conjunction to the beech he planted outside the wall, which is now 20ft tall in places.
Although you would never know it from a tour round the garden, a major challenge was coping with the change of level: 1.5m drop from north to south and a 1m drop from west to east. Here, Ian’s obsession with balance was key, and the heights of hedges and topiary shapes are individually pruned to result in a uniform effect.
Centred on a strong, north-south axis, the layout is based on three connecting yew circles, each of which is bisected by a horizontal path and planted in a different theme. The first circle, which encloses a traditional box parterre, and central circular parterre and sundial, where height comes from standard gooseberries, takes the acorn as its theme. Soft rounded acorns, an unusual take on the traditional box ball, mark the entrances and punctuate the central beds.
In contrast, thistles mark the entrance to the second circle, the Orchard circle, where dwarf pears and apples surround a box labyrinth. Essentially an area for children, the space references Ian’s background as a Scout Leader with tracking signs and stone slabs set in the grass marking the time.
You can hear the sound of the fountain rising up out of the round pond in the third and last circle. Here, Ian’s childhood spent growing vegetables with his father is reflected in the fan vegetable beds. From here, four compact, stone-edged ponds take you to the foot of the garden where a Lutyens-style wooden bench sits in the curve of the beech hedge. In spring the long grass is packed with a succession of daffodils, Chionodoxa, Snake’s Head fritillary, cowslips culminating in late May with rich pools of blue Camassia Leichtlinii Caerulea.
Turn right and the grass path rises gently, past a bright yellow bench, towards the Golden Terrace. Running the full length of the east-facing wall, this spectacular, sunny scheme is laid out with golden Box, Buxus sempervirens ‘Latifolia Maculata’ in a simple, symmetrical Art Deco- influenced design. Height comes from individual columns of Golden Yew established in raised brick boxes outlined with stone setts and your eye is lifted towards the tall, tiered topiary shape of a variegated, golden holly, Ilex aquifolium ‘Madame Briot’. For summer contrast the border is planted with a palate of blue Geranium magnificum, Salvia patens and lobelia. The design is kept fresh and golden with containers of Tulipa ‘Spring Green’ followed by yellow dahlias and, for autumn, golden crocosmia.
The opposite east side of the space features a row of hornbeam cones, box balls and ovals set in grass. Two trios of silver birch, Betula jacquemontii, their freshly washed bark gleaming in the sunlight, lighten the scheme.
By this time the question on visitor’s lips is maintenance; it is hard to believe Ian tends this garden alone. Admitting that the hardest part is mowing the grass, cut when dry – a challenge in Argyll where rainfall is high – he explains: “Clipping is a discipline, but I love it.”
Clipping starts late in spring with the grey foliage of the Pittosporum tenuifolium that grows up the side of the house and continues with Box. Careful management ensures there is no sign of blight here. Hornbeams are clipped twice to ensure a precise outline. Shapes are established by allowing a plant to grow taller than its ultimate size and then clipping it to its desired effect using one of five sets of power tools. “Once you have established the shape you have to hold your nerve and stick to the outline,” says Ian, who uses a mobile scaffold for tall hedges.
“You learn as you go along,” he says. “If you make mistakes you have to live with them.” But it’s worth it. Worth it for the joy of a crisp, frosty morning when the topiary stand out sharply, the spring evenings when the birds sing, the summer when the pruning is done, and the autumn when the foliage turns on the shrubs in the border, the cotoneaster is bright with berries and the garden slowly falls asleep for the winter. k
Parkhead, Rosneath, Helensburgh G84 0QR is open by arrangement (01436 831 448, 07761 205 734, firstname.lastname@example.org, gardensofscotland.org). Go through Rosneath (heading south) at sharp right hand bend turn left at the Caravan Park (former site of Rosneath Castle) past Home Farm road on the right to find a small white sign to Parkhead on the right.