Now is a good time to see many Scottish gardens at their best, when many more southerly plots are looking frazzled. Most Scottish gardeners contend with bracing weather, and need protecting walls. Within these enclosures, however, is immense variety in layout and planting, as shown by these historic gardens.
Edzell Castle in Angus
PIC: ANDREA JONES
I visited the walled garden at Edzell Castle in Angus on a day of horizontal rain. Nevertheless, it was hard not to be compelled by the garden's strong, simple outlines and its powerful symbolism. The castle, a craggy ruin for more than 250 years, stands amid farmland, sheltered behind wooded slopes. By some miracle, the mottled sandstone walls survived and Historic Scotland now runs both the garden and castle.
These walls are all that remain of a garden conceived in 1604 by Sir David Lindsay, to demonstrate to Westminster the intellectual sophistication of the Scottish aristocracy after James VI of Scotland's accession to the English throne. Figures carved into the walls personify the liberal arts and the cardinal virtues, while the universe is shown with the Earth at its centre. Family history is celebrated in niches planted with yellow tagetes and blue and white lobelia, the Lindsay colours.
Lindsay's garden had disappeared beneath 19th-century borders, so Historic Scotland reconstructed a 17th-century parterre, framed by knee-high hedges of box. The mottoes of Sir David Lindsay and his wife are spelt out in box around four wedge-shaped beds planted with roses. Chequerboards of box reflect the pattern of the walls, while in triangular corner beds, dwarf box is clipped into two thistles, a rose and a fleur-de-lis to represent the Union of the Crowns in 1603.
Edzell Castle, Edzell, Angus (01356 648631; historic-scotland.gov.uk). Open every day, April 1 to September 30, 9.30am-5.30pm.
Kellie Castle in Fife
PIC: ANDREA JONES
The Firth of Forth can be glimpsed from Kellie Castle in Fife, a splash of blue beyond its stone walls. The Scottish architect Sir Robert Lorimer spent his childhood here, his late-19th-century restoration of castle and garden inspiring his subsequent work at Earlshall, Hill of Tarvit and Formakin. To a 17th-century framework he added a central walkway, a summer house and corner gardens, creating a compactly pretty Arts and Crafts garden.
On a central lawn, encircled by a seat, stands an ancient apple tree. From there paths of grass and gravel lead out, flanked by lichened fruit trees and vegetable beds interplanted with flowers. Structure is given by box edging, by yew enclosing a stone bowl carved by Hew Lorimer, by cordons of pears and fan-trained apples, and by kiwis, figs and peaches on the south-facing walls.
Kellie Castle, Pittenweem, Fife (0844 493 2184; nts.org.uk). Garden open all year, 9.30am-6pm (or dusk if earlier).
On the other side of Scotland, Mount Stuart, ancestral home of the Bute family, stands on the Isle of Bute, its 18th-century landscape garden and lime tree avenue sloping down to the Clyde. The kitchen garden was built in the 1870s, at the same time as the red sandstone Gothic palace that replaced a Georgian mansion destroyed by fire. Along its south-facing wall are trained plums and damsons above a border of lavenders and sage. It is enclosed on the other three sides by beech hedges; these green walls shelter planting that thrives in the gravelly peat.
The remodelling of the Victorian garden by Rosemary Verey in 1990 was triggered by the 6th Marquess's purchase of a large glass pavilion from the 1988 Glasgow Garden Festival. She surrounded it with box beds to echo the pattern of the paths through the adjacent pinetum, with vegetables laid out within in parallel lines. Above the pavilion are two fruit cages in beech hedge compartments, while below are an orchard of apples, pears and cherries, and a simple grass labyrinth.
Tender plants from around the world are grown inside the glass pavilion.
In 2000, James Alexander-Sinclair sensibly softened the garden's harder edges by turning several vegetable beds into herbaceous borders for a bravura August display of chrysanthemums, dahlias, grasses and foliage.
Mount Stuart, Isle of Bute (01700 503877; mountstuart.com). Open from April to October 31, 10am-6pm.
Cambo Gardens, Fife
PIC: ANDREA JONES
By contrast with Mount Stuart's strict geometry, the two-and-a-half-acre walled garden at Cambo in the East Neuk of Fife is a place of mystery, with winding paths and hidden seats. It is given rare charm by its burn, which tumbles headlong to the sea, jumping over waterfalls and beneath the Georgian, rose-clad, wrought-iron bridges that predate the early-1800s garden. The Erskines have owned the estate since 1668, although the house was rebuilt after a fire in 1878. House and garden are separated by woodland, carpeted in February by the snowdrops for which Cambo is famous.
Sir Peter Erskine came to the helm in 1976, and his wife, Catherine, has developed the snowdrop business and transformed the walled garden. Instead of serried rows of dahlias, bedding plants, fruit and vegetables, Catherine and head gardener Elliott Forsyth have created a garden for all seasons, mastering the art of successive flowering, yet with a climax in August and September. Relaxed and naturalistic planting combines the best of modern design with an underlying sense of tradition. A nepeta walk slices through the garden, with alliums, hardy geraniums and roses scrambling over old apple trees. The dazzling ornamental potager is laid out in a flowing mix of vegetables, annuals and perennials.
A new Prairie Garden, with North American species grown at Cambo from seed, links the walled garden to the Georgian stables, soon to be restored with Heritage Lottery funding.
Cambo, St Andrews, Fife (01333 450054; camboestate.com). Open daily, 10am-5pm. Free tours every Tuesday, March to October.
Castle of Mey, Caithness
This garden, on the tip of the mainland, faces due north over the Pentland Firth. Salt winds whip in from the sea, yet there is a warm microclimate in this two-acre garden that would not exist were it not shielded by a 15ft wall and tucked into the lee of the castle.
When the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother bought Mey in 1952, the garden was a wilderness, which she reclaimed, paying her last visit only five months before her death. Her favourite place was a south-facing bench in the Shell Garden overlooking rose beds and nasturtiums, growing up like a hedge of colour. She knew the name and place of every plant, and changes were made at the gardeners' peril.
Morning and Chilean glory are trained up inside the greenhouse, while outside a ledge is filled with tubs of trailing lobelia, petunias and helichrysum, and annuals are planted beneath in summer. Honeysuckle, clematis and buddleia clamber over arches, and wall-backed beds are a mass of herbaceous perennials.
Working rather than merely ornamental vegetable beds are rotated on a three to four-yearly basis, and fruit cages are filled with raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries and currants. The down-to-earth practicality of this garden belies its royal ownership.
Castle of Mey, Thurso, Caithness (01847 851473; castleofmey.org.uk). Open from May 1 to September 30, 10am-5pm.