Drummond Castle’s formal gardens, based on the flag of Scotland and the family’s own standard, are justly famous and surprisingly fun.
Words and pictures: Robin Powell
I’d seen it in photographs and yet the vista that stretched beneath me from the top of the terrace at Drummond Castle made me gasp. Wow is such an ineffectual expression of wonder, but ‘Wow!’ I said. ‘Wow wow wow.’
Before me wide stone steps led to a formal garden coloured in green, purple and gold, bisected by a central path. This axis swooped down from my lofty vantage point, along the garden and through an arched gate in a stone wall, to slice between dense forest and disappear over the horizon.
On either side of the axis clipped box marked out fans, triangles and circles, whose symmetry was unsettled by looming, lurching evergreens, globes of golden yew, box clipped into soft-serve swirls and the unexpected lacy mounds of Japanese maple flouncing and bouncing in the slight breeze. Everywhere I looked there was something else to see, but my focus kept returning to the long shot and its unequalled vista of form and colour.
Flying the flag
John Drummond, 2nd Earl of Perth, laid out the gardens at Drummond Castle in the mid-17th century. As a centrepiece he commissioned a sundial from John Mylne, master stonemason to King Charles 1. It tells the time in different countries, but when I visited was on royal duty elsewhere and a potted box spiral was acting as stand-in. The sundial sits at the centre of St Andrew’s Cross, which, in blue on a white background, forms the flag of Scotland. In the garden, the angles of the cross are coloured in grass edged with silver lines of lambs ear, Stachys lanata.
Drummond Castle suffered from being on the wrong side of politics through most of the 18th century. Various Drummonds were involved in the Jacobite uprisings and the property was confiscated and didn’t return to Drummond hands until 1784.
In the early 19th century, Clementina Drummond asked Lewis Kennedy to re-establish the formal gardens. Kennedy had worked as a gardener at Malmaison, Empress Josephine's garden in France and at Drummond he installed terraces, ponds and allees in the French style. Queen Victoria was impressed when she visited with Prince Albert in 1842. The garden, she wrote ‘ is really very fine, with terraces, like an old French garden’. She commemorated the visit by planting two copper beech trees, and though one was lost, the right-hand tree still stands, a commanding presence of dark majesty.
Making it simple
Queen Victoria's beech was a preservation priority when the gardens were replanted after the Second World War. With a reduced workforce available, the decision was taken to simplify the gardens, while retaining important trees and the spirit of Drummond. Today a team of five clips the kilometres of box hedging and the hundreds of topiaried hollies and yews; and propagates and plants out the borders of red and yellow roses and bedding plants.
Having taken in the big vista I ventured down the baroque stone staircase and into the garden. Suddenly it offered a very different experience. Long allees invite you to explore the sculptures at their ends; hidden nooks suggest secret assignations, and the wonky topiaries give the place a sense of Alice in Wonderland fantasy and fun. You half expect the cheshire cat’s grin to appear in Queen Victoria's beech, or the Red Queen to pop around a swirling golden yew.
Tradition and change
I interrupted a gardener weeding a long bed to ask how much the garden changes from one year to the next. Not much, he told me, though one year the 28th Baroness Willoughby de Eresby, the current heir, decided that instead of yellow and red roses, the garden would be improved by white roses. The yellow and red roses are a reference the colours of the Drummond standard, echoed too in the purple and golden foliage of the trees. When the Baroness saw the coloured roses replaced by ‘Iceberg’ she didn’t like it at all, and the garden returned to its yellow and red origins.
Beyond the walled garden, there is more to explore - a kitchen garden and wonderful series of 19th century glasshouses where grapes grow up the walls and along the ceilings and peaches are espaliered against the glass. Trails lead through Dagan Wood, offering woodland delights. But for all the up-close interest and beauty of the various walks, it is that view from the terrace that I returned to. With the sun now at a lower angle, delineating the shape of the parterres and the forms of the trees, the image was even more dramatic. ‘Wow,’ I breathed.