I have been wanting to see what is on the other side of this gate for almost 20 years.
It seems almost magical to find a walled garden here on the island of Canna, a long and often bumpy boat journey from mainland sources of vegetable seeds and flowering plants. For two weeks one summer, we passed the gate every day walking from the holiday house high on the hillside down to the shore and every day I tried to peek through the gaps but it wasn’t until this year that I finally got into the secret garden.
Well, that’s not strictly true. In the 1980s on our way down the woodland path we caught glimpses of old fruit trees and chickens scratching in the vegetable patch on the other side of the wall. In those days the Campbells still lived in the house though they had already bequeathed the island to the National Trust for Scotland.
By last year, on our first visit for many years, they had both died and the garden was so overgrown that a party of NTS volunteers was hacking through brambles and raspberry canes, uncovering the ghost of a pebble path while bonfires burned on the lawn in front of Canna House.
But last week, Ray and I saw the garden returning to life. Neil Baker is on a two year contract to restore the garden and his plan is to grow fruit and vegetables for islanders and visitors as Margaret Fay Shaw used to do – and flowers and berries for birds, bees and butterflies just like John Lorne Campbell.
You can tell a lot about people from the plants they grow. The garden was already here when Margaret and John bought Canna in 1938. Margaret’s first order, sent in February 1939, was for a fairly modest batch of alyssum and lobelia bedding plants, but very soon there were more ambitious orders for vegetables (artichokes and squashes as well as peas and beans), espalier fruit trees, all kinds of herbs (including basil for goodness sake), shrubs, herbaceous plants and many roses. “I have just found Canna on the map,” one supplier scrawled on the invoice, “I am afraid the roses are unlikely to thrive.”
That was a long time ago. Last week, Neil took a break from cutting grass in the shelter belt to walk us round the garden that he is reviving with great care and sensitivity. In just six months he has reclaimed lawns, uncovered the drying green, cleared paths, coaxed an impressive harvest of veg from the newly weeded kitchen garden (unlike the rest of Scotland Canna has had a summer!) and unearthed a hoard of old ceramic rope tiles which he has been told would fetch a fortune on eBay.
Next year he will tackle the old trees in the orchard and bring back colour to herbaceous borders on either side of the drive from the front gate. He also has an eye on reviving the rose bed stocked by Margaret over the course of more than 40 years. I expect Margaret (she died in 2004) got a lot of satisfaction out of proving that first nursery wrong.
It’s a fantastic project and I hope we get the chance to go back again next year to see how Neil is getting on. I like the feeling that in his care the garden gate still promises something magical on the other side.