Threatened with closure following a crisis at the National Trust for Scotland, Arduaine garden has become synonymous with the power of protest groups
In front of me sparkled seven islands of west Scotland in a sunlit sea and behind me shone white-flowered rhododendrons too tender to be grown in the rest of Britain. Beyond these islands with names like Luing, the next coastline is distant Labrador. The wind rustled in an undergrowth of rare Far Eastern flora, and I marvelled that two years ago the guardians of this heavenly garden, the National Trust for Scotland, had intended to give up on it, lock the gate and walk away.
Arduaine has become even more famous since the Trust published its summary decision. Cantankerous southern gardeners have learned how to pronounce its name, Are-doo-nee, the Gaelic word for a green promontory. It has become synonymous with the power of protest groups. Very senior heads have rolled at the National Trust for Scotland after their closure plans in a crisis enraged the 312,000 members and prompted a pugnacious look at the structure and financial woolliness of their institution. Arduaine became the flashpoint for incredulous discontent. Valiant donors maintained the garden’s costs for 12 months while the Trust reconsidered its plans. Activists formed a rival, In Trust For Scotland, and the need began to be specified for an endowment of up to £2m to take the garden out of danger.
Plans for closure had been precipitated by the stock market collapse of 2008-2009, but there are few better “buy” signals than a panic among charity trustees. Since March 2009, more has gone Arduaine’s way. The underlying endowment has gone up with the market by more than 40 per cent. Private donors have already given and pledged £650,000 for Arduaine’s future. The Trust has slimmed down its structure and brought in a new team, headed by the steady hand of Sir Kenneth Calman, previously chief medical officer in Scotland, England and Wales. This weekend the new-look Trust launches its Save The Secret Garden Appeal for Arduaine, with a target of £100,000.
The crucial point behind all the previous fuss is that the Trust is not funded by any public money. It depends on donations, investment income and gate-money and is separate from England’s mighty National Trust. Even before 2009 it had become overstretched by accepting too much in the past with little or no endowment. The new five-year plan makes overdue financial sense. The aim for each vulnerable property is to raise and invest a capital endowment whose income will then meet half of each year’s running costs and the whole of the cost of one year’s new projects. The other revenue will come from entrance money, but the endowment will cushion the risks of bad visiting-weather and economic storms. Arduaine’s visitors have already surged by 11 per cent since the rumpus, reaching 16,000 last year. The garden deserves to get every penny of the remaining balance even before the rhododendrons’ petals have fallen. For only £30, the first 300 donors can have their names carved as an Arduaine Guardian on a special garden gate.
There ought to be a rush of inscriptions. Wherever garden soils are acid in Britain, azaleas and rhododendrons are the country’s greatest living link with the Far East. Wild varieties from China began to enter Britain with the brave plant-hunters of the generation from 1840 to 1880, many of whom had Scottish connections. The link between mild Gulf-Stream Scotland and the forest shrubs of Burma and Sichuan turned out to be the happiest link between landscapes since the great painters of the Italian Renaissance transformed the image of the Holy Land into a dreamy corner of Tuscany.
Arduaine was not early on the scene, but it has some spectacular rarities, including our national collection of Maddenia rhododendrons. They are varieties which are too intolerant of frost for other gardens and yet are mostly white-flowered and exquisitely scented.
I asked the head gardener, Maurice Wilkins, to direct me to the defining quality of Arduaine. “Tranquillity,” he replied, and although the wind was sweeping boisterously off the nearby sea, I understood what he meant. Below the canopy of tall trees, the natural paths wind unobtrusively and there is that calm which is only gained by taking the long view. Arduaine’s boundary is within yards of the beach, but in 1897 its new owner, James Campbell, reckoned that with a shelter belt he could gain from the mild Gulf Stream and make the planting the equal of the big ducal woodlands in Scotland which were developing Oriental “gorges” and Himalayan trails. Soon he was in close contact with Osgood Mackenzie, owner of the most famous Scottish island garden, Inverewe. The woodland garden at Arduaine is now even better than Inverewe’s own.
Campbell’s money came from tea-planting in Sri Lanka. One of his rarest plants for a British collection is a wild Sri Lankan rhododendron of striking outline. It is a menace nowadays on Sri Lankan golf courses, but it only grows outdoors in Britain in west Scotland, 100 yards from the sea. Campbell and his family continued to plant boldly until the 1950s and the oldest of west Scottish garden-owners have recalled for me that Arduaine was at its absolute summit in the late 1940s. It then slumbered until 1970, in danger of the throttling embrace of mother Nature.
In 1971 the site was bought for less than £10,000 by two brothers, Harry and Edmund Wright, with roots in faraway Essex and experience as nurserymen. Their devotion saved the garden, extended the seasonal interest and gave the lower part a more “gardened” feel. It was they who gave the garden to the Trust in 1992 but soon added a blast of controversy. They lived on, as Edmund still does, within 50 yards of the garden’s boundary, and after a series of perceived slights, they put up signs to publicise their view of the Trust’s rudeness and incompetence. They are still visible.
Great woodland gardens depend on a fine balance between an upper canopy of trees and the flowering shrubs beneath. This may prove to be Arduaine’s next big challenge. Campbell planted many Japanese larch trees as a shelter above his rhododendrons and by now they are up to 100ft high, a thousand of them, in Wilkins’s wary opinion. Like other shrub gardens in public ownership, Arduaine is now vetted by scientists for the dreaded Phytophthora ramorum, a sickness which has already required the burning of 90 fine Arduaine specimens in the hope of containing it. Not only has the mature larch canopy begun to block out light from the shrubs beneath it. Larch trees activate the lethal Phytophthora and near Arduaine whole hillsides of larch trees have had to be felled.
On the far side of the garden I looked at a lovely white Rhododendron williamsianum, one of my favourites in a smaller garden, and marvelled at the Rhododendron decorum behind it, one of the first brought to Scotland by the great collectors Euan Cox and Reginald Farrer nearly a century ago. Beside it a tender cream-flowered Michelia was in bud. The garden needs a phased replanting, more magnolias, camellias and more labelling from its database. It also needs £100,000 to assure it a public future. It then will symbolise the power of a bad decision if overturned by independent protest and replaced by thoughtful new brooms. in Financial Times, 13 Maio de 2011 http://www.nts.org.uk/Home/