Cowden Castle, Clackmannanshire

Posted on April 1st, 2009 by Alison Allighan

In November, along with representatives of the Japanese Garden Society of Scotland, we visited the Japanese style gardens in the grounds of the former Cowden Castle, Dollar, guided by the owner Sir Robert Stewart of Arndean. The gardens, ‘Shah-rak-uen’ (the place of pleasure and delight) were created by his great aunt Ella Christie, and laid out by Taki Honda over six weeks in 1908 on 7.5 acres of formerly marshy ground.

Miss Christie also received advice about her gardens from Professor Jiju Soya Suzuki, a renowned garden designer working in Britain in the early 20th century, who declared the gardens to be ‘the best in the western world’, with the exception of one bridge which he advised replacing. This, Miss Christie duly did, and also realising the need for specialist care and maintenance of the planting, employed a Japanese gardener, Matsuo, in 1925. Matsuo was employed at Cowden until his death in 1937.

Ella Christie died in 1949 and despite the best efforts of Sir Robert the full task of maintaining them became only too obvious. The gardens were last opened to the public in 1955 but in the 1960s were all but destroyed by vandals; the bridges and tea house were set on fire and the shrines and lanterns demolished. The gardens have since been left to nature’s care and now lie largely forgotten.

There have been many discussions about possible restoration of the gardens over the past twenty years, but aside from the question of financing such a project, one of the main problems of the site is its isolation and vulnerability to vandals (Cowden Castle has long since been demolished).

At one time it was considered by Historic Scotland for inclusion in the Inventory but then discounted largely due to its current condition. It appears unlikely that Clackmannanshire Council would be prepared to grant planning permission for any dwelling house in the vicinity of the garden, probably a vital security measure if any major restoration work is to be considered.

During our visit we were surprised to find that many elements have survived, and autumn dieback provided an opportunity to locate some of the symbolic stones and remnants of features such as the teahouse and lanterns. Whilst some of the planting was identifiable, such as the evergreens and Acer species, we shall be making a return visit

We were heartened by Sir Robert’s plans for the coming year to clear the lake of excessive growth and open up this central feature again and whilst a full-scale restoration of the gardens might be impractical, small-scale operations such as this will do much to retain some the atmosphere of the gardens as a place of pleasure and delight at least in the short-term. in late spring to try and identify further specimens.

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