Dunesslin, a Dumfriesshire garden that came from going with the flow

Zara and Iain Milligan had no time or energy for planting when they moved to Dunesslin 30 years ago, but ‘it just happened’ – with remarkable results

Zara and Iain Milligan had no time or energy for planting when they moved to Dunesslin 30 years ago, but ‘it just happened’ – with remarkable results

DUNESSLIN is at the end of a single-track road near the village of Dunscore in rural Dumfriesshire. It was to this isolated spot that Zara and Iain Milligan came 30 years ago, when the house was in need of maintenance and the garden – once owned by a relation of the plant-hunter Frank Kingdon-Ward – was “no garden at all and there were no plans to make one,” says Zara. Besides which, the couple, who then had young children, had no time to garden.

But slowly over time, Zara began planting. “It just happened, I began putting things in and the garden grabbed me. I found that you just have to go with your ideas.”

From this modest beginning a structural garden, striking at all times of the year but especially dramatic in winter, has sprung up around the mostly Victorian farmhouse, parts of which date from the 1700s. Although Zara says the garden evolved naturally, she says creating a scheme suited to the house was key. To this end she drew inspiration from Christopher Lloyd’s garden at Great Dixter, and Kellie Castle in Fife, where she particularly admired the espaliered fruit trees and deep herbaceous borders. Despite the high rainfall, which averages 50 to 60 inches a year, Dunesslin is quite sheltered and the soil is relatively free draining, if stony.

Alterations to the house, including the addition of a tower, were completed by the architect Charles Morris with whom the couple struck up a strong rapport. As a result Morris was asked to help with the garden layout. Working closely with the Milligans, the decision was made to move the existing drive from the east to the south. As a result the first part of the garden seen on arrival is the sunny, southerly courtyard recently planted with a design of formal topiary where the texture of box, juniper, yew, osmanthus and acer bring interest and colour to the scheme. One 8ft holly added instant height. In spring troughs are filled with tulips and in summer the cracks in the paving are rampant with Alchemilla mollis.

The theme of softening paving with regularly strimmed Alchemilla continues in the east garden where Morris added a raised terrace the length of the house leading to two lower retained terraces. Removing the drive and some overgrown shrubs, Zara says, opened up the view of the farmland and hills beyond.

The importance of this view and the setting generally was key to the development of the series of rooms that unfold around the house, while linking the southern facade to the easterly one. The use of stone and evergreen planting is fundamental to the structure of the garden; but details such as quirky paving, steps and columns built by Jim Hanson, a local stonemason, also help link the different areas.

Reached from the south, the first of these garden rooms is a tiny rose garden. Laid out in the traditional cruciform style with cobbled paths framed by box edged beds punctuated with columns of juniper, the space measures just 15ft x 15ft. Planted with white shrub roses, their bare branches dripping icy water on a chilly day, the design sets a romantic note.

In contrast, the straight lines of the second room, an open lawn enclosed with castellated yew hedges, is formal. Bright with scarlet Trapoleum in late summer, the hedges present a clear outline in winter, here softened with a rare covering of snow. “Snow often falls but rarely settles at Dunesslin,” says Zara.

In the walled garden beyond the lawn the influence of Kellie Castle is perhaps most keenly felt. Enclosed by an original wall, a new extension and two sides of yew hedges, the design features a symmetrical layout of box beds enclosing roses such as deep red, fragrant Rosa Charles de Mills. The background structure comes from espaliered apple trees.

Espaliered apples also add height and interest to tall, south-facing walls in the orchard beyond. In this sheltered spot reached through a blue gate, Morris designed a striking glasshouse, an extension of the original gardener’s earlier potting shed.

A slender, sandstone obelisk by the late Judith Gregson is the focal point in the pond garden below, a more recent addition which allows the cultivation of bog-loving plants and the sparkle of ice in winter. Another new development is the adjoining rock garden created in the past two years from large sandstone boulders, resulting in a raised, well-drained spot to grow an increased variety of plants.

Walking east, the eye is drawn to the outline of the mature trees dotted in the landscape and also to the short avenue of pollarded plane trees, Platanus orientalis, underplanted with a yew hedge that runs at right angles to the house. This double line forms a natural boundary between the formal garden and the woodland garden beyond. There are scatterings of tall, sculptural rhododendrons, perhaps the remains of the original plantings by Kingdon-Ward’s relations.

Unusually for a garden of this size, it is managed with minimal help. Iain cuts the grass, and while Zara does much of the planning and planting, her attitude is relaxed. “I never garden unless I want to,” she says, admitting that in summer the beds overflow with plants, barely restrained by the low structure of hedges that frame the beds.

Unafraid of working in the wet she confirms that plants are selected for their ability to tolerate rain: inevitably in some years the roses disappoint. Repeat planting of special favourites is key and if varieties fail to thrive they are moved until a suitable place is found.

Soft, sappy plants are cut back in late autumn but wooded ones remain to add to the winter scheme: seed heads that stand are also allowed to remain.

Although spring, when snowdrops and aconites appear and her small, precious, collection of pale yellow Cedric Morris daffodils first bloom, is her favourite season, Zara admits the winter calm is a time to be relished. “I love the garden in winter when it is all orderly and under control.”

• Dunesslin, Dunscore DG2 0UR is open next year under Scotland’s Gardens scheme on 18 June, 10am to 5pm, www.scotlandsgardens.org