“I plant what grows,” the words of Ian Hamilton Finlay echo in my mind when I walk round our rain-spattered midsummer jungle. At this time of year the most sumptuous growth is in stuff we didn’t plant.  I think of him again as the grass path cuts through a particularly belligerent looking bunch of nettles, docks and thistles. “Certain gardens are described as retreats,” said Finlay, “when they are really attacks.” 

I was very lucky to get the chance to interview the poet-artist-revolutionary-gardener in real life almost twenty years ago. I approached him in his windy hillside garden a little warily, on guard in case of attack, and found instead a gentle man coming to terms with his recent stroke.  It was one of the unforgettable privileges that sometimes come the way of a journalist. I have been to Little Sparta several times since and, though Ian Hamilton Finlay died in 2006, it is good to see the garden still grows true to the creator’s spirit.

Little Sparta is next open under Scotland’s Gardens Scheme on Tuesday 5 July.  Meanwhile, I’m reprinting the article which first appeared in the (sadly) short-lived Scottish Garden magazine in 2003.

'There is Happiness' engraved above red brick gateway to Little Sparta. Photo Fay Young

How do you build a grove of tree shadows out of bricks? “It’s simpler than you think,” says Ian Hamilton Finlay. I had imagined bricks stacked upright like trees but instead they will be shadows on the ground. Red bricks set in grass inscribed with lines from Virgil, And longer fall the shadows from the mountain high, will lie beside a grove of real trees to tease the mind and please the eye.

There are no shadows in the garden today. The sky is grey and wind whips rain across the fields round Little Sparta. In a cosy room crammed with books the artist puts a few more logs on the stove, offers me a seat near the fire and sits down on the end of his bed. This can be a wild place. Last night the wind battered his room so hard it blew everything off the mantelpiece. He has written that, “The wind, roaring in the night, is both stranger and friend.” Now he simply says with a smile, “Perhaps I should not have left the window open.”

Ian Hamilton Finlay is no stranger to the storm. He has just won his first award in a long and often turbulent relationship with the Scottish arts establishment. He says he used to lie awake at night wondering why they found him so annoying. Now, in his 78th year and recovering from a stroke, he has £30,000 of Scottish Arts Council lottery money from the 2003 Creative Scotland awards. It will fund the shadow grove and establish the Little Sparta Trust to care for the garden Finlay has created against all odds high up a dirt track in sheep farming country. Welcome as the money is he seems a little sad. “It is the first time I have had any money. I am glad to have it but it would have been much better if it had come sooner.”

Poet, artist, revolutionary, philosopher, gardener and sometimes, as one writer summed him up, “cantankerous old bugger”, Finlay defies slick description. Even the gardener part is not straight-forward. He claims no knowledge of plants, “I plant what grows.” Through lack of money and, he adds, sheer ignorance he never set out with a grand plan for the creation of Little Sparta. Scotland’s most original 20th Century garden grew “a bit here, a bit there” and began almost by accident. In 1966 he and his wife Sue moved with their two children to live in the old farmhouse at Stonypath, 1000 ft up in the Pentlands above Dunsyre. “I started by growing potatoes because that’s the sort of thing people do,” he says, “I was ignorant which is always a good thing. I would not have attempted to do what I have done if I had known anything about it.”

Gardening influenced Finlay’s collaborative way of creating which in turn influenced his style. Each work is the product of many skills: stone cutting, engraving and, of course, gardening. Now a gardener does the physical work but in the early days he dug the sunken garden and the back door pond himself then later hired a mechanical digger to create the lochan further up the hill.  

His growing collection of poems in stone inspired acclaim and commissions across the world and hostility at home. “Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks,” he wrote in Unconnected Sentences on Gardening. At Little Sparta there is a bird table fashioned from an aircraft carrier, a bridge which ‘divides as well as joins’ two sides of a stream, and on the side of the hill the words of Saint-Just carved in monumental slabs of stone, “The present order is the disorder of the future.”

There was disorder in the 1980s when Strathclyde Regional Council sent in the bailiffs to retrieve works of art in lieu of unpaid rates (they refused to grant exemption to the garden’s Temple gallery) and Finlay’s Saint-Just vigilantes (he’s a great fan of the French Revolution) raided the Scottish Arts Council headquarters to carry off stone reliefs as trophies of war. It’s good buccaneering stuff. Never forget that Ian Hamilton Finlay, born in the Bahamas, is the son of a Scottish schooner captain who got rich selling bootleg liquor to the US and lost it all when prohibition began. Boats are enigmatic symbols throughout the garden.

Now, he admits, the tide of opinion seems to be turning his way. “People are more approving.” A small, softly-spoken man with a gentle manner (no sign of the cantankerous bit today) some of his sadness is to do with the stroke that has reduced his ability to concentrate and talk, and for the time being, robbed him of the energy and incentive to go out into the garden. Even so he has ten commissions to complete this year including a wall painting in the Museum of Scotland’s North Gallery featuring fishing boats named after roses.

“My son has told me if you live long enough you are forgiven everything,” he says, adding with a mischievous smile, “even for being yourself.”

Feature image Order Disorder:  photo Rosa Menkman taken in Little Sparta CC By 2.0

Interview with Ian Hamilton Finlay first published in Scottish Garden magazine 2003