Scotland on Sunday Travel Wishlist - A Scottish Zen garden inspired by a Victorian adventurer’s travels in Japan

From Kyoto to Cowden, Eastern-inspired gardens are places of tranquility.

Ella Christie in the Japanese Garden she created at Cowden near Dollar in 1908

A seven-acre garden might seem an extravagant holiday souvenir. But that’s what I found at the foot of the Ochils on a recent day out.

The Japanese Garden at Cowden is the creation of a Victorian adventurer and as autumn creeps into view, it is a delightful destination.

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A vibrant pink lily on the still waters, a lichen palette of green on grey stone, a tame robin and a bounding red squirrel were all magical in their own restful way.

The Lake, The Japanese Garden, Cowden, Clackmannanshire. Pic: Fiona Laing

This sense of peace is what I remember from visiting Japan. Amid the relentless bustle of the cities there would be an unexpected haven of calm. Kyoto was the garden capital, but Tokyo and Hiroshima had their silent sanctuaries as well.

It was in Kyoto that I first encountered the concept of the rock garden, or Karesansui. It was in Ryōan-ji’s Zen garden that I relished the challenge of finding the stones in the seemingly featureless expanse of grey. That step from bigger picture down to detail is a deeply calming experience.

And that same feeling envelops me on the slopes of the Ochils. From the grand views across the Forth Valley, through the postcard-perfect scene of the garden itself, down to the water lily.

Yet this peaceful garden is the vision of a woman who had a great energy for adventure. Born in 1861, Isabella “Ella” Christie travelled the world when most Scottish women of her social standing were running the Victorian home. Scotland has a long tradition of adventurers and explorers, but to travel as widely and freely as Ella did is noteworthy in itself.

The Yatsuhashi bridge, The Japanese Garden, Cowden, near Dollar. Pic: Fiona Laing

As her great-great-niece Sara Stewart explained: “She went to places that no Western woman had been. She was unbelievably brave and that was how she wanted to spend her life. Ella had been brought up as though she had been a son, so she had been very well educated and wanted to see more of the world.”The Royal Geographical Society recognised that spirit with a fellowship – one of the first awarded to a woman. Travelling with her servant Humpries, her destinations included India, Malaya and Tibet, and she was one of the first western women to meet the Dalai Lama.

Ella was in her 40s when she travelled East, taking in China, Hong Kong, Russia and Japan in 1906 and 1907.In Kyoto she met Ella and Florence du Cane, authors of The Flowers And Gardens Of Japan, and on her return set about creating Shã Raku En, “the place of pleasure and delight”, helped by Taki Handa, a rare female garden designer trained at the at the Royal School of Garden Design in Nagoya.

By employing specialists in Japanese garden design, Ella’s garden soon established an international reputation - Professor Jijo Suzuki, head of the Soami School of Imperial Garden Design, declaring it “the best garden in the Western World” and it became a tourist attraction in the 1920s and 1930s as well as a regular in Scotland’s Garden Scheme, which Ella’s sister Alice Stewart helped found.

Ella died soon after the end of the Second World War and the garden was put in trust for her great-nephew, Bobby Stewart. In 1955 the gates closed, it became a hidden secret and in 1963 vandalism destroyed many features.

The Japanese Garden, Cowden. Pic: Fiona Laing

Its renaissance started in 2012 with the dredging of the lake and recovery of the vandalised lanterns. Professor Masao Fukuhara from Osaka University of Arts visited and started a restoration project, and a charitable trust was set up to look after the garden, with Sara as its chair.

Today, Shã Raku En is a work in progress, including, thanks to a £229,500 grant last year, the reinstatement of the tea house.

The picturesque lake is the focal point and it would be easy to linger here, but there are also woodland walks and an avenue of limes and cherry trees to encounter.

Like all good tourist attractions there is home baking, soup and hot snacks on offer and a coffee and scone at the picnic tables is the place to reflect on what makes this spot so special: the garden’s effortless evocation of the Japanese spirit, the features resonating with symbolism - the typical route across the lake with the zigzag Yatsuhashi bridge representing the complex journey of our lives, and the arched bridge then transporting us on to the next life, its curve signifying that we cannot see our destination before we start our journey.

The Japanese Garden, Cowden. Pic: Fiona Laing

Scotland’s Japanese gardens are rather under the radar but I stumbled across another a couple of years ago at Lauriston Castle in Edinburgh, and the Kyoto Friendship Garden is now a firm favourite on my city walks. Opening almost a century after Ella’s garden, it marks the friendship links between the capital and the Japanese city.

Called “Castle Garden of Water to Beyond”, like Cowden it integrates traditional Japanese features with its Scottish setting. So an 1840s Doric column stands tall between the lake and the rock garden.I still have to visit Scotland’s other Japanese gardens such as the one created by an Edwardian test cricketer at Stobo near Peebles, a corner of the Attadale Gardens in Wester Ross and the Zen space in the heart of Glasgow, but I’ll be back at Cowden soon to see the new tea house.

Fact file

The Japanese Garden, Cowden, near Dollar, Clackmannanshire FK14 7PL.www.cowdengarden.comOpen daily 10.30am-4.45pm until 31 October; from 1 Nov-19 December open Wed-Sun, 10.30am to 3.15pm. Tickets £6 (concessions £5.50; child £4; under-4s and disabled free).Remember to book in advance to visit as it gets busy.

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