Specialist subject

John Lister-Kaye turns on a tap in the cloakroom at Magnus House, the recently built environmental educational centre for school children near Beauly. “Feel the water,” he exclaims as steaming hot water gushes out of the tap. “It’s all for free.” Astonishingly, due to solar collectors set on the south facing side of the striking turf roof, pitched at a 45 degree angle, the water is indeed very hot. And there is plenty of it: enough for the needs of the 5,000 to 6,000 school children who visit the centre annually, and for the 23 Aigas field centre staff who maintain the grounds and run the centre’s schools and adult ecotourism programmes in the lecture theatre, meeting space and offices in the new building.

We are at House of Aigas, half an hour west of Inverness, the family home where author and conservationist Sir John Lister-Kaye promotes wildlife and eco-awareness. When, a few years ago, the growth of his environmental courses meant it was no longer possible to run them from the family home he shares with his wife Lucy and their joint family of seven children and six grandchildren, John conceived the idea for The Magnus House, named after his long time friend Magnus Magnusson. “We provide what schools are not equipped to deliver, and adult programmes to 700 people every year,” he says.

Built from locally sourced materials capped at a distance of 50 miles: the interior is Scots pine, the exterior larch and the supporting joists Douglas fir. But the real tour de force is the double turf roof assembled from sections of turf cut from the field next door and raised up onto the roof, Norwegian-style. The turf rolls lie on a special membrane under which is ten inches of insulation wool from shredded and spun plastic water bottles. Laid first horizontally and then vertically “like a Swiss roll,” with the first, lower section grass side down, the resulting turf is eight to nine inches deep, perfectly insulating the building.

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Now in its third year – Prince Charles, accompanied by the Duchess of Rothsay, opened the centre in June 2009 – the roof has barely needed any attention. “We strim it once a year, take out germinating trees and weed out the couch grass and some of the thistles, but you don’t have to do much,” says John. Freed from grazing sheep and horses the turf roof explodes in spring with a variety of wild flowers, and many different species of grasses and clover.

Grasses include sheep’s fescue, sweet vernal grass, smooth-stalked meadow grass, a short damp loving grass, and Agrostis bent. Wild flowers include buttercups, wild poppies, tormentil, yarrow, milkwort, selfheal, devil’s bit scabious, foxgloves, sheep’s sorrel, ladies’ smock and orange hawkweed. In addition there is plenty of kidney vetch, lady’s bedstraw and occasional bursts of orange-yellow bird’s foot trefoil.

On one side Lucy helped lay out a Sensory Garden where children with special needs or in wheel chairs can enjoy a variety of scented and textured plants grown in raised, rustic beds. Here insects such as bumble and honey bees, red admiral, peacock and small tortoiseshell butterflies are attracted to lavender, sage, mint, thyme and silver curry plants. Lower down the hill there is a small garden where school children have the opportunity to plant a small selection of vegetables and learn to compost.

The garden at Aigas is a fascinating marriage of gardening styles and a blend of different philosophies and interests. While John is always thinking about how to make sure the garden is favourable to wildlife, Lucy is responsible for the formal 20-acre layout of lawns and shrub beds that frame the Victorian mansion with views over the River Beauly. Here, when newly married to John, she conceived the idea of involving all their children in the creation of a rock garden. “We did it one Easter holidays,” she says. “It was a brilliant way of bringing together our two families of teenage children. John masterminded the engineering with the boys, Warwick, Hamish and James who were busy with shovels, crowbars, tractors and diggers, while Emma, Amelia and Melanie helped lay paving, heap in compost and plant out. James added a homemade garden chair of his own design.”

At the foot of the garden is the wildlife pond, with large clumps of sedum and blowsy buddleias for butterflies and insects. Although she loves the water and the wildlife it attracts, Lucy confesses that managing a wildlife pond is a challenge. “Wildlife gardening,” she says, “is actually very hard work.”

Easier to tend, she says, are the herbaceous beds on the lawns at the side of the house, where peonies are underplanted with deep pink stargazer lilies, which cleverly boost the peonies once they’ve flowered, giving them a new lease of life.

In 2009 all their early 20th century bamboo flowered and died and had to be removed so John took the opportunity to restore a tumble down Victorian summer house on that site using an African theme to create a round wooden structure thatched with reeds, built along the same eco-principals that govern all building projects at Aigas. The project was inspired by an 8,000 mile drive through Africa John undertook with his daughter Hermione and son Warwick.

But perhaps the heart of the garden is to be found in the sunny, south-facing terrace in front of the house, with roses, hostas and blue ceanothus in raised beds and tiny scented plots in the paving. Designed by Lucy and built at her insistence, this generous walled-in space enjoys views of the garden and the river and has proved the perfect place for family and guests to get together and relax.

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House of Aigas Gardens and The Magnus House, by Beauly, IV4 7AD; for details of wildlife holidays and courses, tel: 01463 782443, www.aigas.co.uk

John’s drive through Africa is the subject of his next book, Turkana Road, due to be published next year.