Obituary: Suki Urquhart, garden designer

Suki Urquhart: Garden designer who influenced the style of many spaces in Scotland and beyond. Picture: Graham Hamilton
Suki Urquhart: Garden designer who influenced the style of many spaces in Scotland and beyond. Picture: Graham Hamilton
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Born: 20 December, 1944, in Devon. Died: 14 June, 2014, in Dull, Perthshire, aged 69

Suki Urquhart was a garden designer whose brilliant eye for colour, shape, and location can be seen across Scotland and beyond in the many gardens she helped to create. A talented draughtsman, she talked about gardening as similar to painting a picture, and argued that the view of the garden from the house was as important as the plants it contained.

Although, in the course of a remarkable, and occasionally chaotic, personal life, she lived in many parts of the world, from Austria and Hong Kong to the island of Eigg and the south of France, Scotland was her chosen home. It was here that she redesigned not only gardens, but the houses she lived in. Her book The Scottish Gardener was a tribute to the beauty of the well-designed garden, but it also contained much sound practical guidance, such as how to create a garden that has to cope with high winds.

Susan Minette Urquhart was the youngest of three daughters of Major General Robert Urquhart, who commanded the 1st Airborne Division at the Battle of Arnhem in 1944, and his wife Pamela. Perhaps inevitably, her military father was rarely at home during Suki’s early childhood, which was spent at her grandparents’ home at Hurst Vew, near Chudleigh in Devon. The house had a large walled garden, which she loved.

After the war, General Urquhart was posted first to the War Office in London, then to southern Scotland, when the family moved to a large Georgian house near Dalry in Ayrshire.

In 1950, he became GOC of British troops in Malaya at the height of the Emergency. The family – now enlarged with the addition of a brother – followed him out to Kuala Lumpur, where Suki and her sisters attended army school. Suki showed an early disposition to rebellion when she refused to wear the regulation pinafore dress and insisted on attending school in shorts.

Two years later, they were in Austria, once again “following the drum”, and Suki found herself again attending army school. Finally, in 1955 the family returned to Britain, when General Urquhart retired from the army and took a job with a steel company. They moved to Scotland, and Suki and her sister Judy attended Laurel Bank School in Glasgow, while the third sister, Elspeth – later married to Sir Menzies Campbell MP – went to a convent school in Devon.

The 1960s found Suki at the heart of the London scene, working in a modelling agency, with a flat in Chelsea, and a penchant for short skirts and long nights spent clubbing.

In 1967 she married David Kinloch, whose father had worked for most of his life in the Far East. The couple moved to Hong Kong, where Suki started a clothes boutique, and renovated their house on the Peak. It was there that she started her first garden, learned Cantonese and became interested in Eastern thought and philosophy. Her first daughter, Kate, was born there. Two others, Poppy and Nicola followed.

The Kinlochs were at the centre of Hong Kong life, friends of the Keswick Taipans and other leading figures in the great commercial empire of Jardine Matheson. Suki developed a love of antiques and made a considerable collection.

Ten years on, the family returned to Scotland, where David found a job with Noble Grossart in Edinburgh. In 1976 they bought House of Aldie near Kinross, and Suki began a second renovation of house and garden. The marriage came to an end when her husband returned to Hong Kong.

She then married Keith Schellenberg, a buccaneering businessman from the north of England, who owned the island of Eigg. Suki moved with him to Eigg in 1978. While the children went to the village school on the island, Suki worked on renovating the lodge and garden, which had been initially designed by Sir Steven Runciman and modelled on the famous Inverewe Gardens on the mainland.

Her life with Keith revolved around entertaining large numbers of guests, and travelling to glamorous resorts such as St Moritz, where they became part of the international jet set.

Suki renovated two of their houses – Davidstone House near Keith in Aberdeenshire, and Old Mayen on the Deveron River, where she created interiors based around tweeds and tartans and Scottish pottery.

She was a forerunner of the Ralph Lauren style, whose buyers followed her round the auction rooms scouting for old plaids. Her rooms were notable for the intense accumulation of objects and patterned arrangements on dressers and shelves. The garden was full of herbs and roses and cottage flowers. She took a course in garden design and began helping friends with their own gardens. Gradually this activity extended across Scotland.

The marriage to Schellenberg, however, began to founder. Suki was the third of his four wives and used to claim that she had lasted longer than most. But the unprecitability of his habits, and his famous unpunctuality, took its toll. She moved to Edinburgh to a warehouse flat in Leith and began contributing regular articles on gardening to the Ecosse section on the Sunday Times and other magazines. Her book was published by Birlinn in 2005.

She then moved to the Old School House at Dull, near Aberfeldy, initially acquired as a weekend retreat, where she built an entire garden out of a field of tussocks.

Once this was completed, she looked for a warmer climate, and found it in the South of France, where she acquired an isolated farm house near Beaumont in Tarn & Garonne, where she created a French country garden.

Then tragedy struck, when she was involved in a near fatal car accident, followed by six months of slow, painful treatment. In 2012 she returned to Britain, and began converting an abandoned church in Dull. She had almost completed the conversion of the main church when she was diagnosed with cancer. Offered the choice between chemotherapy, which might have given her an extra year of life, or pain relief and four months, she chose the latter. In the event she was only given three, but accepted her fate with wisdom and bravery.

A warm, charismatic character, full of wit and joie de vivre, she was always the centre of attention at any gathering. Usually to be seen with a Gitane cigarette in one hand and a glass in the other – until late on in life she dramatically gave up both smoking and drinking – she had scant regard for authority, cherished her independence, and did not hesitate to speak her mind.

She leaves three children, Kate, Poppy and Niki, and her two sisters, Elspeth Judy, and her brother Adam.