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The roses are in bloom and flowerbeds are full to overflowing at Seil’s An Cala garden – a historic haven enclosed by the rock amphitheatre of Ellanabeich. As visitors begin flocking again to Scotland’s West Coast, The Oban Times interviews An Cala’s owner Sheila Downie, who has tended the gardens for over thirty years, and is still going strong.
‘I think the greatest joy is the azaleas in spring, the roses in summer, and being surrounded by so many flowering trees,’ said Sheila Downie, owner of Seil’s beautiful An Cala gardens, as she and visitors emerge from an isolating lockdown. ‘It has been a glorious year for growing. It is stuffed with plants just spilling over the borders. I like it to be a bit lush.‘
The historic conservation village of Ellenabeich, on the edge of Northern Europe and the Atlantic Ocean, is an unlikely spot to find this blooming oasis of colour. A wonderful example of a 1930s designed garden, An Cala sits snugly in its horseshoe shelter of surrounding cliffs, at the base of the rocky outcrop of An Crianan, which forms the backbone of the Isle of Seil.
Although the site is warmed by the Gulf Stream, it is battered by strong Atlantic winds, shielded by hedges, walls and woodland. The spruces, some of the few trees along the island’s coastline, ‘enclose the garden like arms against the sea,’ Sheila said.
The garden’s views across the Firth of Lorne to the islands of Islay, Jura, Scarba, and the Garvellachs known as ‘the Isles of the Sea’, is one of the most beautiful seascapes in Scotland. The shallow earth overlying the granite rock has been augmented by quantities of topsoil (over 2,800 tons) and many years of mulching, especially with seaweed.
An Cala is now approaching ‘historical status’, having been established in 1930 by the Hon. Lt Colonel Arthur Murray, later Lord Elibank of Ettrick Forest in Selkirkshire, who inherited the site when it was nothing but a row of three slate quarriers’ cottages, six sycamores and a willow.
Col. Murray decided, along with his new wife, the actress Faith Celli, that they would indulge their love of gardening by commissioning the landscape artist Thomas Mawson to draw up plans for their five acre plot.
‘It took a year to convert Mawson’s brilliant arrangement of the difficult terrain into a garden,’ explains the Glorious Gardens of Argyll and Bute website. ‘Six men worked for a year dynamiting bedrock, importing thousands of tons of topsoil, creating terraces, walls, steps, paths and lawns. When all was in place the Murrays planted up the beds and woodland using the acid loving plants the soil indicated – azaleas, rhododendrons, Japanese ornamental cherry trees and their great love, roses. One border of Rosa Betty Prior is still flourishing today.
‘They were fortunate to have a waterfall and plenty of stream beds to create water features, allowing generous plantings of bog-loving perennials, primulas and blue poppies. The garden has survived thanks to the care of its creation, its subsequent two owners and the glorious views over the island-scattered Atlantic ocean.’ Today ‘An Cala has outstanding value as a work of art,’ states Historic Environment Scotland.
Mrs Murray died in 1942 and Colonel Murray, concerned about the future survival of the garden, sold it in 1950 to his great friends, Captain and Mrs H.E.H. Blakeney.
‘My husband and I bought An Cala from the Blakeneys in 1988/9,’ Sheila said.
Beforehand, she and her late husband had been living in Saudi Arabia, where she worked as a French teacher in a British school in Jeddah, the country’s main port by the Red Sea. ‘It was exciting and dangerous, but it was not somewhere you wanted to spend your old age,’ she said. ‘We were both Scottish. We saw An Cala in an advert in Country Life.’ Since her husband died, Sheila has looked after the house and garden on her own.
‘The layout is exactly as [Mawson] drew it out,’ she said. ‘A great deal of effort went into it. I have added bits of interest, by making a flock of sheep in front of the waterfall.’ Sheila has also decorated the summerhouse with patterns of pinecones. ‘I have left my house to my son and daughter,’ she explains. ‘My son lives in Vienna, and my daughter lives in New York. Possibly my daughter will come and live here. She loves coming here. She loves gardening.
‘I’m still learning, still trying my best,’ she adds. ‘A five acre garden is quite a responsibility. It is manageable. I have Billy who keeps the lawns trim. Others help with weeding. It is not manicured within an inch of its life, but it is pleasant and colourful, and people think it is worthwhile coming.
‘Compared to normal years, visitors are quite sparse. We have not had any garden tours. People are still a bit hesitant. Numbers have been creeping up. Hopefully we will get going soon.
‘There is an honesty box. I take money off for expenses, but I give the rest to Scotland’s Garden Scheme.’
Scotland’s Gardens Scheme, established in 1931, helps garden owners across Scotland open their gardens to the public to raise money for charity. Sixty per cent of funds raised can go to charities nominated by each garden owner, while the net remainder is donated to the scheme’s beneficiaries: Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres, the Queen’s Nursing Institute Scotland, The Gardens Fund of the National Trust for Scotland and Perennial.
‘Everybody is in the same boat,’ she said of the pandemic. ‘I have been here for the duration. It is quite a close-knit community. If you are in this position, it is an ideal situation. In the sunshine, who would want to live anywhere else?’