Madness? This is Little Sparta

IT IS quite proper, I think, that Little Sparta – the late artist Ian Hamilton Finlay’s mesmerising garden – can be reached only by a half-mile trudge up a steep, stony path, the sombre, smirr-smeared hulks of the Pentlands appearing ever more awesome with every rising step.

It wouldn’t do to drive right up to this place. Visits here have the quality of a pilgrimage, and therefore it is right that we pilgrims should sweat a bit, that we should leave the sterile ease of the car behind and so arrive at Little Sparta in correct frame of mind to appreciate its mood.

“Superior gardens,” wrote Finlay, “are composed of glooms and solitudes and not of plants and trees.” Certainly, the path to his garden is gloomy enough on a dreich day. Ewes meh, rooks caw, there is a smell of dung in the air, and a lone straggled pheasant dashes itself in fright against a barbed-wire fence. The key word, though, in Finlay’s aphorism is “composed” – this is a garden as opera, as epic poem, as meisterwerk.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Ian Hamilton Finlay lived here from 1966 until his death in 2006 at the age of 80, meaning he spent half his life arranging the landscape, draping and tucking it around the contours of his teeming brain. He was and is highly regarded internationally, and seems to have been an extraordinary person with extraordinary connections. Hugh MacDiarmid was his best man, and he kept up a correspondence with Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, who had created a small garden in Spandau prison. Since Finlay died, Little Sparta has been looked after by a charitable trust. It is open from 2.30pm to 5pm on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays between June and September.

I am grateful to have been allowed to visit for a whole day, not least as it means I enjoy some morning sunshine before the deluge, but also because I am able to spend time with Ralph Irving, the gardener, who has worked here for more than 20 years. Ralph is an amiable, snowy-haired gentleman of 64 accompanied at all times in his work by Misty, an amiable wire-haired terrier. The gardener was hired by Finlay in 1990, despite creating a bad first impression by turning up for the interview in a silver Jag. He plans to retire in 2014 and has no qualms about admitting that he will be sad to leave the place he has done so much to shape.

It has, though, almost been the death of him. Last July he was up a ladder, trying to free a dove that had become trapped in a net, when he fell on to some railings which are part of one of the outbuildings and from there on to concrete slabs. He punctured his left lung, broke four ribs and four vertebrae, and blacked out. Somehow, coming to, he was able to stagger to his feet and drive to Edinburgh where his wife – who sounds like a sensible woman – called for an ambulance. He spent two days in intensive care and was, he now realises, touch-and-go. It says something about Ralph’s dedication to the appearance of Little Sparta that, before getting into the car and driving home, he made sure to tidy away the ladder. “And,” he says, “I was back here at the end of September to give the place a bit of a strim.”

Little Sparta occupies an area of 6.8 upland acres. The hills round about are aptly named Black Mount, Bleak Law. We aren’t far from the city but you wouldn’t know it. The place has the feel of a separate state; indeed, just as Edinburgh is the Athens of the North, so the garden is named after Sparta, the traditional enemy of Athens. The farm is officially Stonypath, though Finlay called it the Raspberry Republic, which is what it said on his letterhead. It is, then, a place of many names; and many, many ideas. In 2004, a poll carried out by this newspaper named Little Sparta as the most important Scottish work of art. Important is a dull and pompous word, I find, but Little Sparta is certainly captivating.

A walk around Little Sparta begins at the old farmhouse, Boston ivy bronzing a gable. From here one can take several routes. “I think you’re better off without the map and guidebook,” says Ralph. “The garden was meant to be discovered. Everything in here means something. The are around 300 pieces of art, and you’ll never see or remember them all.”

Best just to start, then, choosing a way at random. One narrow grassy path in front of the house, bordered by redcurrants and roses and solomon’s seal, is set with flagstones on each of which is painted in white a different word for a boat – wherry, lugger, keel, ketch, yawl. There are stones everywhere in the garden, some evoking classical columns, many carrying philosophical quotations, others resembling gravestones. Some are gravestones; one, a small elegant tomb half-hidden in the undergrowth, is carved with the words “OUR CAT 1977-1993”; another, this time with a Latin inscription, marks the last resting place of a pet hare. Finlay, however, rests elsewhere. “I asked him whether he wanted to be buried here and he said, ‘Good God, no,’ ” Ralph recalls. “I think it was the weather, the idea of being stuck with it for all eternity.”

Everywhere one looks there are delights and marvels. A barn converted into a Greek temple. Small stone aircraft carriers on which, instead of a jump-jet, a chaffinch alights. A red white and blue watering can dedicated to Robespierre. A hillside spring flowing through a slab carved with a quote from Virgil’s Eclogues. Ralph pushing a mower past stones carrying the names of poets – Johnson, Coleridge, Pope and Swift. A planter, on which is painted Horloge de Flore, grows dandelion clocks. Peep through the cobwebbed window of a potting shed, dead moths lying desiccated in corners of the glass, and there is the balsa-wood model boat, still gripped in the vice, which Finlay was building at around the time of his death. It is all a puzzling jumble yet it works because it is one man’s vision.

Finlay had agoraphobia and for 30 years did not leave his land. He would fish in the lochan or walk the hills, happy as long as he could keep the farmhouse in sight. Once you realise that Little Sparta is an agoraphobic’s garden it makes absolute sense. What he has done here is create a world of his own, extending the boundaries of his own imagination out into the landscape, enclosing it and making it safe.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Though Finlay did not wish to go out into the world, the world came to him. George Gilliland, the new gardener, first visited Little Sparta in the 1980s as a student of Finlay’s work and was shown round the garden by its creator. Now, years after Finlay’s death, the place is busier than ever. Coach parties come from all over. Today, though, perhaps because of the foul weather, there are only a few hardy souls. Fair play, then, to Chris Sault, a middle-aged “garden-aholic” up from Staffordshire, who is undeterred by rain so heavy it causes the carved letters on the marble slabs to brim and overflow. As she walks the sodden paths, her husband – a sheep farmer – sensibly rests his bad knees in the car. “We came once before but it was closed that day,” says Chris. “I knew I had to try again. This is a must-see garden.”

Edith Ryan, a 75-year-old grandmother from near Lanark, visits Little Sparta regularly during the summer. She loves “the unexpectedness of coming round the corner and finding Achilles looking out of the grass” and the sense she has, sometimes, of the wind in the trees and the trickling, tumbling water speaking to her.

The way to think of Little Sparta is as a place one can visit but not a visitor attraction. Children younger than ten are verboten, and Misty is the only dog allowed. “There is no café,” says Ralph, “and there never will be.” This, it seems, is an article of faith. “The last thing Ian Hamilton Finlay wanted to do,” says Laura Robertson, who works here, “was give you a cream tea.” Not that the garden is unwelcoming. Far from it. Laura kindly hands Chris a dishtowel on which to dry her specs and offers another map after the first falls apart in the rain. Essentially, though, Little Sparta is not a commercial space and it is has an ambivalent attitude towards tourism. At present it receives around 2,200 visitors a year, each paying £10 to get in, which doesn’t add up to enough to cover costs. Yet anything more than 2,500 visitors annually would begin to damage the garden.

This is a fragile place and it requires a lot of work. The first time I meet George Gilliland he is wearing chest waders and picking his way through one of the ponds, raking up weed and algae and slopping it on to the bank, his toil observed blankly by a huge golden bust of Apollo. “It’s difficult even with the two of us,” says Ralph. “Every pond will need weeded three or four times during the season, and then there is all the other work. You can’t be away or ill. Nature tries to claim Little Sparta back every day.”

Walking away from Little Sparta, down through the rain towards the glowering hills, it is hard to blame Mother Nature for her desire to repossess this unique place. It is beautiful, certainly, but also tangibly the creation of a beautiful mind, a dream of meadowsweet and foxgloves and poetry that somehow, remarkably came true.