Ardtornish Gardens

A Brief History of the Garden

Written by Faith Raven.

The present site of Ardtornish House was chosen in 1856 by Octavius Smith, a distiller from London. He built a comparatively modest house, which was pulled down 28 years later by his son Valentine, who employed Alexander Ross an architect from Inverness, to design the present building. It was constructed between 1884 and 1891, mainly by labour employed directly by the estate. In the summer of 1888 the number involved reached a peak of 160 men.

The garden of approximately 28 acres was laid out by Valentine Smith and his successors, his sister Gertrude and her son Gerard Craig Seller. The number of gardeners employed to look after the policies and the walled herbaceous and kitchen garden on a hillock to the south of the Rannoch rose to 12 with one or two horses.

Rhododendron inopinum

Rhododendron x inopinum by the keeper's path
looking towards Ardtornish House

In 1930 when my parents Owen and Emmeline Hugh Smith bought Ardtornish they found a garden consisting of several mown lawns, rockeries and streams planted with various species of hosta, crocosmia, spirea and lysichitum. There were also groups of eucryphia, escallonia, enkianthus and embothrium. The rhododendrons were clumped along a cliff behind the house and in a rocky steep oakwood glen to the west of the garden. The variety was restricted to some well known Edwardian hybrids, such as "Pink Pearl" and "Cynthia". Their blazing colour in late May was extended by clumps of orange and yellow azaleas. These remain, but one of my parents' first actions was to have removed several formal round beds of pampas grass and hydrangea hortensis.

They planted a much wider range of shrubs in a more natural style. One of their ambitions was to establish many of the semi-tender species they had admired on the Isle of Colonsay, but found to their sadness that the Ardtornish garden derived no benefit from the Gulf Stream. Their successes included a planting of Eucryphia x nymansensis "Nymansay" on a bank north of the house, which flowers in September, and Hoheria Lyallii on the eastern bank of the drive. It has beautiful pendant white flowers during the horticulturally dull month of August. My father was also fond of acers and planted a variety of species.
The range of rhododendron varieties was also vastly extended. Yearly presents of named and unnamed hybrids were received from Sir John Stirling Maxwell of Pollock House, Glasgow, one time head of the Forestry Commission. One of the most colourful of these, "Jock" named after Sir John's son-in-law, pours in cerise waves down a rocky enclave along the Keeper's Path towards the main rhododendron glen.

My parents became increasingly interested in rhododendron species and my mother continued to extend the number of varieties planted after my father's death in 1958. Among those introduced were ambiguum, auriculatum, campylocarpum, cinnabarinum, blandfordiiflorum and roylei, decorum, oreotrephes, souliei, yakushimanum and a particularly good form of insigne. The interest of the garden in August was increased by the planting of Rhododendron "Polar Bear" to encourage visitors to penetrate to the far south-west corner of the garden to see the avenue of self sown silver birch, even before the eucryphia is in flower.