THREE years ago on a cold March day, Mark Gibson and his partner, Fi McClelland, were walking at the far end of their two-and-a-half acre formal garden behind Craigengillan, Mark’s Georgian house in the Southern Uplands near Dalmellington in Ayrshire, when they began discussing the idea of filling an old, stone-lined pond with water.
Hoping to uncover an inlet or drain the couple started digging and, to their surprise, uncovered “a network of huge sandstone rocks, paths and sparkling waterways covering almost two acres so far”.
Instantly hooked, they spent every free moment: “digging, prodding with metal bars, slashing purple Rhododendron ponticum and scraping weeds and earth off rocks.”
Slowly a chain of ponds emerged connected by cascades and waterfalls, fed by a large pond on the hill above. As they worked, stone-lined paths, steps and terraces, some marked by clumps of ferns, were uncovered, many buried by more than a foot of debris.
Some led to view points while others linked the different areas. “We worked with increased amazement at the artistry and inspiration of whoever planned the creation of this rock garden,” says Mark.
Craigengillan, the 3,000 acre estate which Mark purchased 13 years ago, lies in the wooded Doon Valley in a landscape threaded by the River Doon and punctuated by lochs, waterfalls and gorges. Approached along a two-mile drive, where it is usual to pass local residents walking with their children and dogs, the estate enjoys a welcoming atmosphere.
Mark explains the delay in restoring the garden. “There were so many other things that had to be done; every house had to be re-roofed, there was wet rot, dry rot, damp and any other problem you care to name.” Estate cottages, one with a thatched roof, had to be restored and the stables, now a thriving equestrian centre, had to be made secure.
The drive had to be resurfaced and miles of fencing needed to be replaced. Although the open lawns that make up most of the formal garden were kept mown and the herbaceous border near the house was widened and tended, there was no time to explore further.
Research into the origins of the rock garden suggested the site was abandoned more than 60 years ago, but nothing further was known until a few months later when the couple were invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace.
While exploring the gardens they reached a small lake and suddenly stopped dead in their tracks. “We recognised at once the similarity of the palace rock garden to the one here at Craigengillan,” says Mark. Records at Buckingham Palace revealed the royal rock garden was designed and created by James Pulham & Sons in 1904.
Pulham & Sons, Mark and Fi learned, was founded nearly 180 years ago and the firm was celebrated for the creation of rock and water gardens. Internet research led them to Claude Hitching, a direct descendant of five generations of the Hitching family who worked for Pulham & Sons and is the author of the definitive book on the firm.
Having been sent photographs and sketches of the layout that had so far been uncovered, Claude confirmed that, despite the lack of documentary evidence, he was convinced the garden at Craigengillan was designed by Pulham & Sons. But a further surprise was on the way. “Claude telephoned just a few days later with the most extraordinary news. He had been contacted out of the blue by a lady who had just discovered her grandfather’s diaries from 1875 until 1915, the period when the gentleman in question, Mr Fred Ricketts, worked as a partner in the firm.” On starting to read the documents Claude’s eye was instantly caught by the name “Craigengillan”.
Pulham & Sons, Claude discovered, was commissioned to design and create the garden at Craigengillan, by Mrs Charlotte McAdam, a society hostess, between 1904 and 1910. The company returned to build the glasshouse in 1914.
In addition to Buckingham Palace and Craigengillan, James Pulham & Sons designed and built rock and water gardens at Mount Stuart, Luton Hoo, Windsor Castle, Sandringham and the RHS garden at Wisley in Surrey. They also created 150ft high cliffs for the City Fathers of Blackpool who wanted the beach to be more dramatic.
As the couple continued their research into Craigengillan, Mark, who discovered that the estate lay on the ancient pilgrims’ route between Paisley Abbey and Whithorn, was busy planting and managing the land to the advantage of wildlife, flora and fauna. A large pond, or lochan was laid out in a boggy area west of the house, where it fits perfectly into the surrounding landscape.
Mark, whose aim has always been to manage the estate to benefit the wider community, recently secured funding to build the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory. Perched on the edge of a hill with a distant view of the house, this state-of the-art facility is situated within one of only five “Gold” standard Dark Sky Parks in the world, that will be used for original astronomical research. Estimates suggest it will attract around 9,000 amateur astronomers and students annually.
Other projects include two recently renovated five-star holiday cottages, a restored Georgian stables, an organic sheep farm and the Crusader-style “Fort Carrick”, a large wooden fort which acts as a base for outdoor activities undertaken by youth groups.
Future projects include the building of a field centre – Craigengillan also lies within the recently designated Unesco Biosphere – and a nocturnal zoo.
Back inside the walled garden there are exciting plans afoot. Work is currently underway restoring one of the glasshouses, which, it is hoped, will be completed by the end of the month. Despite these demands on their time the couple remain committed to the garden. “It’s an on-going and intriguing project,” Fi says. “Because we don’t have plans of the original design and layout we have no idea what remains to be uncovered. We just keep going, cutting our way through the many years of neglect. It’s the thrill of each new discovery that makes all the hard work so worthwhile.”
• www.craigengillan.com; Rock Landscapes: The Pulham Legacy by Claude Hitching is available from www.pulham.org.uk