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resources/An aerial view of the Skibo walled garden

Skibo's Walled Garden

Posted: 1 June 2020

Walled gardens have been cultivated throughout history, from the courtyard gardens of ancient Mesopotamia to the grand country houses of pre-war Britain. While today we tend to think of them as planted for aesthetic appeal, traditionally the walled garden acted as a kitchen larder and was filled with produce for use in the Big House – think more Mr McGregor's garden stocked with tempting salad crops in Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit than the rose-filled secret garden in Frances Hodgson Burnett's eponymous children's classic. That is not to say that beauty can't be found in a kitchen garden – they can be as much a feast for the eyes as for the tastebuds, something the famous potager decorative at the Château de Villandry in the Loire Valley proves.

Walled gardens have long captured the popular imagination. As spaces of seclusion, they invoke a sense of mystery and romance as their high walls sequester those inside from prying eyes. So much so, in fact, that in 1583 outraged pamphleteer Philip Stubbs warned that 'filthie persons' were taking advantage of the privacy afforded by walled gardens by using them for illicit trysts with their 'paramours'.

walled garden entrance

One of the entrances to Skibo's walled garden.

While concealment might have been a fringe benefit of the design, it was not the primary function of the walls. Rather, by enclosing the beds within, the stone walls offer shelter from the wind and create a microclimate as the stone absorbs heat from the sun through the day, which is then radiated out through the night, raising the temperature within the garden and subsequently extending the growing season. Some gardens were even built with hollow walls so hot air from a furnace could be circulated through them.

For many of Britain's historic country houses, their walled gardens were the jewel in their epicurean crown. Sadly, in the post-war period, which saw the dissolution of the class system and end of the Big House era, many historic walled kitchen-gardens fell into disrepair. In recent years, however, some of these lost gardens are being restored and returned to their former productivity – including the walled garden at Skibo.

apples tree

Grand country houses like Skibo traditionally grew much of their own produce.

Skibo's walled garden predates the arrival of Andrew Carnegie by at least three decades – it can be found on an 1874 OS map and is thought to date from many years prior to then. Originally divided into four sections by beech hedging, its layout was altered in 1904 when Thomas Mawson – one of Britain's most esteemed landscape architects – was engaged by Carnegie to redesign the castle grounds. An antique ledger in the castle records the payment of £305 18s 9d (approximately £35,000 today) to Mawson for "drawing plans and for proposed improvements at Castle gardens."

Influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, Mawson favoured clean, simple lines and much of his original design – including the fountain on the south lawn and the terrace beds – remains in situ today. Not all his plans came to fruition, however – Mawson originally envisaged a large walled kitchen-garden to be built to the west of the glasshouse range, but this was never instituted.

Instead, the walled garden continued to be used to grow fruits and vegetables – along with flowers such as roses – for much of the 20th century, but by the time the Carnegie family sold Skibo in 1982, large portions of the walled garden had been given over to low-maintenance planting and the vegetable plots had been replaced by heathers. While soft fruit cages were installed in the 1990s, the garden was mainly ornamental until 2017, when an ambitious project to return the walled garden to its former use commenced.

aerial view of walled garden

The redesigned walled garden.

Inspired by Mawson's design aesthetic, new beds consisting of a central series of concentric round beds were created, with the surrounding beds planted in clean lines. Skibo's Horticulture and Landscape Manager William Moir had a simple philosophy for the walled garden's redesign: everything grown there had to be used within the castle. That meant either food crops to be used in the kitchen, or flowers that the club's in-house florist Liz Shennan could use in arrangements around the castle. 

Fruits and vegetables growing in the walled garden

The walled garden is now used to grow a wide variety of crops.

This redesign was driven partly by a desire to return the walled garden to its historic function, and partly by demand. Increasingly over the past few years, the club has tried to offer as much of its own produce as possible. Fruits and vegetables are home-grown, honey is produced by hives on the estate tended to by Executive Chef Craig Rowland, and preserves are crafted – by Castle Head Chef Lindsay Mackay's mum – in nearby Helmsdale from soft fruits grown in the castle's grounds.

The walled garden now provides the chefs with many of the ingredients used in their seasonal dishes, like lettuces, radish, fennel, carrots, peas, carrots, Chinese artichokes and rhubarb. Additionally, almost 150 fruit trees – a mix of apples, apricots, gages, plums and pears - have been planted. If guests at Skibo time their walk through the walled garden correctly, they can see the club's gardeners harvesting the produce that they will be enjoying at dinner that evening.

A summer salad made with ingredients from the Skibo gardens.

A summer salad made with ingredients from the Skibo gardens.

With the reintroduction of the potager decorative in the castle's walled garden, the culinary collaboration between Skibo's gardeners and chefs goes from strength to strength. The magic of the walled garden – which has captivated imaginations for centuries – is tangible, not only on a walk through this peaceful, secluded space but on the plates of all who dine at The Carnegie Club.


A version of this post appeared in the 2018 edition of Skibo magazine.

 

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