Gardening: The spectacular formal gardens at Guthrie Castle

GUTHRIE Castle, a 15th-century stronghold situated in rich farmland near Forfar, in Angus, is approached down an avenue of cherry trees flanked by woodlands full of rhododendrons.

Despite the impressive nature of this grand approach, complete with an arched entrance, nothing prepares you for the sight of the spectacular towered and gabled castle itself as it appears from the bridge over the lochan. Rising up from green lawns punctuated with evergreen columns is a slice of history that has withstood the test of centuries and come through with flying colours.

The setting is especially evocative on a frosty morning when the sun shines from a blue sky, and the muted browns and greens of the winter landscape merge gently. Frost clings to the branches and covers the topiary, the way it has done for hundreds of years.

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The castle dates from 1468, when Sir David Guthrie, Baron of Guthrie, a prominent office-bearer during the reign of James III and James IV, was granted permission to build the tower. He also built the iron yett outwith the immediate garden, which now frames views of the wild garden. The tower was added to in 1818 and reached its present form in 1848. The current custodian, Dan Peña, purchased the castle from the Guthrie family and spends as much time here as he can.

Planted with larch and a variety of hardwoods, the 150 acres of policies that surround the castle cocoon it in a protective wind belt while giving it privacy. Head gardener Derek Beattie, who works with his pair of huskies, Kobe and Sally, tethered alongside him, explains that he had no idea the castle was here until he came for an interview three years ago. “The castle is a hidden gem,” he says. “A lot of people just don’t know it is here.”

The 2.2-acre walled garden, created in 1614 and sited to the rear of the castle, on the north side, enjoys loamy soil with veins of clay. Here, where the temperatures can be extreme – last year traces of ice were still found in April – the sense of history is as strong as it is near the castle. Entered through a metal gate under a portico in the four-centuries-old wall, the D-shaped garden – the north end is gently rounded – is laid out in the traditional Scottish cruciform style. Divided into four squares, which meet at a central circle, the garden opens up into a grass path, or aisle, framed with tall yew hedges. The effect is that of a gentle embrace that allows the garden to reveal itself in a series of surprises. The first square on the left is perhaps the most evocative. Here, in an echo of the curved north wall, the design is based on paths edged with low box hedges that swirl round a central circle. Height comes from columns of cypress, forming a satisfactory link with the columns that punctuate the lawns.

The winter scene is further enhanced by skeletal outlines of the fruit trees that are a productive feature of the walled garden. Walk right or left along the perimeter path and you pass a line of apple trees: more are found on the west wall, while there are cherry trees, pears and plums on the top east side.

Derek explains that when he first started work at Guthrie, one of the lawn areas was devoted to vegetables but since the castle started hosting weddings the space has been laid down to grass. The yew, he adds, is clipped three times a year, due partly to the fact that the hedges and shapes appear to be growing faster than usual. Derek likes to keep the shapes sharp, and working alone, often on raised trestles, it takes ten days to clip all the hedges. But with help – a staff of three work in the garden and grounds – it is a quicker process.

For summer colour and interest, generous herbaceous borders line the walls. “I tend to leave the herbaceous standing in the winter,” Derek says. “It forms a protective cushion over the plants and is also beneficial for wildlife.” The texture of the herbaceous plants, backlit by the low winter sun, forms a dramatic and striking contrast to the architectural shapes of the topiary.

The theme of wildlife is one Derek returns to enthusiastically. The estate is a sanctuary for local fauna, where red squirrels thrive. The lochan attracts a number of species of birds and ducks. Less welcome, however, are the rabbits, which would infiltrate the walled garden if given half a chance.

Garden expert Ken Cox, from Glendoick Nursery, recently remarked that to be successful in winter a garden needs to include topiary, parterres and grasses. “Get all three and you are really talking,” he says.

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Substitute tall, translucent herbaceous plants for grasses and the garden at Guthrie Castle is one of those rare gems that encompasses all that is best about gardening in Scotland. It also has the added bonus of a wild garden and loch, resulting in a classical garden as fresh and elegant as it was when first conceived.

• Guthrie Castle (01241 828 691, hosts weddings and conferences in the garden