DRAMATIC and panoramic, the journey to reach Ardtornish in Argyll, a garden nurtured by one family, is a worthy taster of the delights to come
FOR centuries, the journey to Ardtornish on the remote Morvern peninsula in Argyll has remained largely unchanged and always breathtakingly romantic. The chances are that mid-19th century visitors would have come by boat, sailing up the Sound of Mull and into the U-shaped bay at Loch Aline. From here they would have seen the towers of Ardtornish House emerging from a cocoon of oak, birch and conifers, set against the backdrop of a rocky hillside.
Nowadays most people arrive by car, but the journey is equally dramatic. Travelling from the east, you take the Corran Ferry across Loch Linnhe, while from Kinlochmoidart there is a panoramic drive down winding west coast roads. The final approach to Ardtornish along the road to Lochaline is through remote Glen Geal, flanked on either side by steep, rolling hills. Whatever your choice, the journey is part of the fun of a visit to the 30-acre garden at Ardtornish.
Few days are as perfect as this crisp, warm autumn afternoon with hints of scarlet, gold and yellow foliage visible in the backdrop of trees framing the green lawn along the side of the road. The boats in the harbour are still, the rivers of Crocosmia that line the burns and tumble down the hillside are bright orange, and the arched branches of Rosa Moyesii are laden with scarlet berries. The conditions are perfect for exploring the garden. Equally thrilling is the list of wildlife sightings at the entrance, which includes a rare Mountain Ringlet butterfly and a sea otter. Eagles frequent the area and buzzards are common.
Faith Raven, who with the help of her late husband John has spent the past 45 years tending this site established by her parents, Owen and Emmeline Hugh Smith, in the mid-20th century, explains their original vision. The family, who bought the estate in 1930, wished to enhance the beauty of the natural, rugged landscape at the head of Loch Aline with sympathetic planting sourced from different parts of the world. Building on her parents’ knowledge and the structure of their planting, Faith continues to develop the garden along the same lines. In this she has been helped by long-term gardener Ian Lamb. “Gardening has been going on here since the 1900s, there were once 19 gardeners here,” she says. “But it is now done more on impulse.”
Faith’s son Hugh, his wife Jane and their two children live at Ardtornish. Hugh runs the estate and Jane runs The Whitehouse restaurant in Lochaline, specialising in excellent local produce, some from the estate. The family is steeped in gardening: Faith’s daughter, Sarah Raven, is well known for her garden writing and her vibrant plant combinations. Their other daughter, Anna, and her husband, Norrie Maclaren, have created a remarkable hill garden at Ard Daraich, a short distance from the Corran Ferry.
Gardening has been going on here since the 1900s, there were once 19 gardeners here. But it is now done more on impulseFaith Raven
Early on, the family found that many tender plants that thrive in Argyll did not always work at Ardtornish where the effects of the Gulf Stream were minimal. But, on this balmy afternoon, anything seems possible. There are no signs of the annual 85 inches of rain, no midges and not a trace of wind to remind us of the winter gales that batter the coast. The winding paths that lead up the slope and into this wedge-shaped site from the lawn at the foot of the garden entice you through plantings of acers – The Coral Bark Maple is a special favourite “because it looks good at any time of the year” – cornus, prunus, rhododendron and euonymus.
Indeed rhododendron, of which there are 200 varieties here, form a major spring display, scattering their petals along the Keeper’s Path. Now, just a few white blooms remain on the late-flowering white Rh. ‘Polar Bear’.
White-flowering plants are a bit of a speciality here: the sight of fragrant, white-flowering Eucryphia ‘Nymansay’ is a special treat. Other white varieties include Hoheria lyallii.
Some of the rainfall is channelled down through a network of burns. Lined with primula, they are a reminder that spring comes early to this garden in the shape of massed plantings of daffodils; pale yellow Narcissus ‘Jenny’ is a particular favourite; the yellow theme continues in the bright yellow flowers of the skunk cabbage, Lysichiton, that flourish in damp spots.
The garden is punctuated with quirky features, such as a moss-covered stone bench, quirky stone steps threading through the primula garden, an arched wooden bridge and the contemporary looking Great Oak Throne with its striking views down Loch Aline.
However, the thing that strikes you most about this garden is the variety of trees. Ranging from majestic oak, beech and lime, and a wide variety of conifers, to smaller cercidiphyllum, sorbus and acer, they fill the garden with a range of different textures, shapes and colours. They reflect a deep knowledge of the best plants for this location assembled over generations. Especially evocative is Andrew’s Wood, the space at the top of the garden tended in memory of Faith’s eldest son, a pioneer conservationist, who sadly died aged 46. Here, moss-covered oak stand out as a testimony to his love of nature. It is a testimony that is fully embraced in this family garden.
• Ardtornish, By Lochaline, Morvern, Argyll PA80 5UZ (01967 421 288, www.ardtornish.co.uk); open 1 January-31 December, 10am to 6pm or dusk; admission £4.