Dunvegan Castle gardens prove Dr Johnson tale wrong after 200 years

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When the mother of the 23rd Chief of Clan MacLeod told Dr Samuel Johnson on his Tour to the Hebrides in 1773 ‘there was not and never could be a good garden at Dunvegan’, she set a challenge for her descendants over 200 years later.

Now, thanks to four decades of green-fingered labour, Dunvegan Castle can claim one of Scotland’s most beautiful and remote gardens, which was recently recognised by the Royal Horticultural Society.

The gardens by Dunvegan Castle on Skye, the seat of the MacLeod of MacLeod since the 14th century, has just been accepted into the prestigious Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Partner Gardens, a set including Mount Stuart, Inverewe and Attadale Gardens on the West Coast. The scheme allows free access to Dunvegan Castle gardens for RHS members during the open season.

Dunvegan Castle’s five acres of formal and semi-formal gardens have been a prime focus of the estate since 1978, when the late John MacLeod (29th Chief of Clan MacLeod) decided to follow the example of his ancestors who had tried to create a garden at Dunvegan.

Since then, the present chief and estate director, Hugh MacLeod, and his dedicated team of gardeners, continue to develop the castle gardens for the enjoyment of local and international visitors.

There has been a significant amount of relandscaping work, planting schemes and new design features including a memorial gazebo, Victorian-style glasshouse, Garden Museum, extensive children’s wild wood play area featuring ‘The Bugvegan Insect Hotel’, and a 2.7 ton rotating marble sculpture christened ‘The Dunvegan Pebble’.

‘The aim has been not only to restore the gardens to their former glory, but to exceed our visitors’ expectations, the success of which has been recognised by the RHS,’ a castle spokesperson explained.

Estate director Hugh MacLeod said: ‘When I took over the management of Dunvegan Castle & Gardens in 2008, I didn’t know much about plants or flowers, but I did have a love of gardens and their design. It has been exciting to work with our fantastic team of dedicated gardeners and external contractors on all these major projects to produce the desired ‘wow’ factor, and to continue building on my late father’s horticultural legacy.

‘Forty-four years of investment, effort, sympathetic yet innovative design work and care have made Dunvegan Castle’s gardens what they are today: a continually evolving and beautiful testament to the commitment, skill and vision of all the people involved over the years.

‘Our future plans include improved accessibility, new paths and planting schemes, an annual sculpture exhibition, more interactive educational experiences for children, a wildflower meadow and enhanced visitor interpretation. We are proud to have proved the mother of the 23rd chief wrong when she told Dr Samuel Johnson in 1773 that “there was not and never could be a good garden at Dunvegan”.’

Acting head gardener at Dunvegan Castle & Gardens, Ingrid Galbraith, said: ‘Gardening at Dunvegan Castle & Gardens brings an interesting and satisfying combination of challenges, so we are excited to welcome RHS members.

‘An acidic soil, long growing season and plenty of rainfall allows many herbaceous perennials, shrubs and trees to thrive, while the Atlantic Gulf Stream ensures unusually mild conditions for such an exposed, northerly location. Key to the garden’s success is the shelterbelt afforded by established native trees, shrubs and built structures that combine to create the necessary microclimate.

‘With increasingly unpredictable weather, adaptability is crucial to ensure the garden looks its best throughout the open season in Skye’s unforgiving climate.’

Head gardener at Dunvegan Castle & Gardens, Úna Craven, said: ‘I am so pleased that our gardens have been recognised by the RHS as meriting inclusion as a partner garden. It is an honour to support the work of the RHS and we look forward to welcoming visitors, both new and returning, to experience our wonderful gardens.’