WHEN David and Penny Veitch bought their house overlooking the Moray Firth, they thought briefly of changing the name. Rising at an angle of about 40 degrees, the top of the garden offers stunning views over the Firth – how better to describe their perch than the Lookout?
Over almost 30 years, the Veitches have pushed upwards, literally, to hand-build a garden over terraces and behind retaining walls. The garden at the Lookout, at Kilmuir on the Black Isle, rises to a point 18m higher than the house. The south-facing garden is about 50m long, at the rear of the house.
The couple previously ran a guest house in Grantown-on-Spey, and David also worked in the oil industry while they raised their family. Penny was visiting the area with their children and chanced upon the house while it was on the market in 1984. Some of the houses in the hamlet were built to serve labourers on estates and farms, and their gardens had been left to run wild. “There was nothing resembling a garden,” recalls David, adding that prior to taking on the Lookout, they did not have much experience as gardeners.
In Grantown they had a walled back garden mainly for vegetables, with rockery and formal lawn, and flower beds at the front, all of which only needed a little work to keep tidy.
What they took on in Kilmuir was a steep slope lying on bedrock, with very little soil in which to plant.
Working from the bottom up, they cleared the land, redistributing soil up the garden. As the slope rises, they have developed terraces and dry-stone walls, which was the only way to retain the soil.
The layout encompasses different types of garden. David, who takes care of the design and build, carried each stone and plank of wood by hand to create the walls and arbours. Penny, who is an artist, looks after the planting.
“It’s just developed as we’ve had the time,” says David. The hidden potential has gradually emerged with the uncovering of rocks around which the terraces and paths have wound. The milder climate of the sheltered bay allows tender plants to be grown.
Rocks help to merge the garden with its coastal surroundings. “We were motivated once we uncovered the rock while starting to clear the bottom. Visitors say we must have a great eye for plants and design, but it wasn’t planned. It evolved from the way we dug out the stone.” The changing strata of reddish Tarradale sandstone and conglomerate rock have become features.
A Mediterranean garden, of which the palm Trachycarpus fortunei is the only remnant, has been converted to a raised-bed vegetable garden. Roses climb over arbours creating a heavily scented walk and there is a cottage garden, which is one of Penny’s favourite themes, while David likes alpines and scree plants. At the top there is a heath and heather garden, and rhododendron beds. There are three ponds; one has a waterfall and plunge pool to create the feel of a mountain stream.
The themes are set, but the couple are now looking in greater depth at what plants work. They are also introducing lots of grasses.
“Your attitudes to your garden change,” says David. “There wasn’t much variety of plants readily available when we began it, but now there is so much.”
They get their plants from nurseries or grow from cuttings, says Penny. With the soil being so close to the bedrock, there is not a great depth for planting, so new additions have to have small rootballs or be capable of extending into crevices.
“You get pockets of soil. For example, in the cottage garden I’ll be trying to stake something and the stake will go in well at one side of a plant but not at the other,” says Penny.
The soil may not be plentiful but at least it’s good quality, she adds. They make their own compost, but that’s the only addition they make to the soil. Streams from woods further uphill tend to wash the soil and its nutrients away, and they frequently have to raise the level of the cottage garden.
“Most things work because it’s so mild. You can grow tender plants that would not work elsewhere, but we lose the odd thing.”
It’s a garden that has interest throughout spring, summer and autumn, with acers bringing vivid colour. But ask the couple for a favourite view and there is only one answer: sitting at the top of the garden looking out over the Moray Firth. “When we bought the house we thought of changing the name, but couldn’t think of anything more appropriate,” adds Penny. k
The Lookout garden, Kilmuir, North Kessock, is open every Sunday and Tuesday, 11am-4pm or by arrangement (www.scotlandsgardens.org)