In his acclaimed guidebook, Scotland for Gardeners, plant collector Ken Cox suggests part of the fun of a visit to Scotland's remotest gardens lies in the journey. A trip to the garden at Dunvegan Castle on the north-west of the Isle of Skye is a case in point.
Perched on the edge of a remote, rocky peninsula west of Portree, the castle is reached after a breathtaking drive across acres of wild moorland with heart-stopping views over the Cuillins and dramatic coastal coves and inlets.
After so many miles of barren landscape, the lush trees and vegetation around the castle rise unexpectedly out of the landscape.
Head gardener David Maclean agrees. "People are surprised when they first come here; they don't expect to find a garden," he says. Modesty prevents this former head gardener at the NTS Crathes Castle in Aberdeenshire, from adding that this innovative garden, a juxtaposition of established and contemporary features, is doubly unexpected in such difficult terrain.
Historical evidence backs up this view. In 1773, the 23rd chief's mother, who wished to build a house with a garden in a more hospitable environment elsewhere, supported her argument by stating: "There was not and never could be a garden at Dunvegan."
Whether she underestimated the effects of the Gulf Stream or just gave up when faced by winter storms no-one knows, but records suggest that 50 years later a garden tucked into the land south of the castle had started to evolve.
Reached by a path lined with Rhododendron ponticum - with a viewpoint down over the formal box-edged parterre of the Round Garden, you experience the first hint of its variety.
The first stop is the informal, colour-filled Water Garden. Here a tall pair of waterfalls cascade down steep, basalt cliffs into a series of burns criss-crossed by rustic bridges to create the ideal conditions for many bog-loving plants.
Set against the contrasting foliage of copper beech, bamboos, umbrellas of Gunnera manicata and a Mesataquoia are lower plants such as fuchsia, hostas, astilbe and varieties of ferns. A sprinkle of the 120 rhododendrons planted in the past five years add to the spring palette.
"Restoring this garden was one of my first jobs here 30 years ago," David explains, adding that the original layout was unknown because all records were lost in a fire. "The waterfalls were blocked and we opened up the burns, uncovering a system of waterways that had been silted up for years."
After the lush, informality of the Water Garden, the formal parterre, in the shape of a cartwheel, boasts a timeless quality. But it is in the Victorian Walled Garden where film producer Hugh MacLeod, 30th chief of the Clan MacLeod whose family home this has been for 800 years and who succeeded his father two years ago, has begun experimenting.
MacLeod, whose interest in landscaping and sight lines derives from his love of film and photography, explains: "When I took over the management of Dunvegan Castle and Gardens, I didn't know much about plants or flowers, but I did have a love of gardens and their design. My aim was to build on the 30 years of investment and effort which have already gone into making the gardens what they are today."
In the Walled Garden, formerly the castle's vegetable plot, he found "an excess of stone, gravel and stone-worked ornamentation, which bore little aesthetic or cultural relationship with this 18th-century walled garden". With the help of his friend, the sculptor Hamish Horsley, a new layout was designed that retains the bones of the original formal plan, while introducing contemporary features such as the pond.
"We re-landscaped the pond by removing the surrounding wall and installing slate paving stones, flowerbeds and a small path surrounded by grass verges and hedges to complete the formal design," MacLeod says. Maclean, who along with his team plan the garden, introduced the water lilies.
Next, a new path was laid out connecting the pond, via the pergola, to a network of flowerbeds enclosed by boxwood hedges. "We have also introduced a Regency urn, an avenue of cherry trees and a raised vegetable bed to remind us of the garden's original function."
Further surprises in the woodlands outwith the formal areas are easy to miss but well worth seeking out.
Close to the Walled Garden a viewpoint at the top of a small hill offers a great spot from which to survey Dunvegan Loch, while lower down there is the tiny New Garden, created on the site of a fallen tree and now dominated by a Magnolia wilsonii. Here Maclean juggles wild informality with manageability. "Keeping a balance is the challenge in this mild climate," he says, adding that constant pruning is necessary, to ensure the sea views remain open.
A walk along the shore completes the tour of this northerly garden that is now enjoying something of a renaissance.
"We plan to continue to develop the five acres of formal gardens and woodland walks in a variety of ways including building a new Garden Museum, greenhouse, new paths and a display of contemporary sculpture, which will change each year," MacLeod says. "My aim of building on my late father's legacy will continue, thanks to the fantastic team of dedicated gardeners who work tirelessly to maintain the high standards and horticultural delights the public expect."
Dunvegan Castle Gardens, Isle of Skye IV55 8WF - The castle is being restored. The gardens are open until 15 October, 10am-5:30pm and by arrangement until 31 December. Tel: 01450 521206, www.dunvegancastle.com