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Take me home, country rhodies

It’s cold out. But foot-and-mouth, although a very serious problem in the rural community, is a media-hyped myth as far as tourism and visitors to the countryside are concerned.

More relevant by far is the seasonally inappropriate weather.

This is probably not the best time of year to extend an invitation to holiday in Scotland. Because wherever you are, Arctic friends excepted, you’re probably not as miserably cold as I am. But lest I get into serious trouble with the Scottish Tourist Board, let me hastily say

  1. It gets better than this, honest, and
  2. Who comes to Scotland for the weather, anyway?

No, I can give you another dozen reasons to come to Scotland. Trying uncharacteristically to stick to the point, I will concentrate on only one.

Rhodies.

Where?

Inverewe Gardens, that’s where.

Oh, but I know rhododendrons are only the tip of the iceberg at Inverewe. (And for my gardening friends who thought Iceberg was a lettuce, let me tell you it’s a metaphor.) But I have seen some wonderful gardens in my time – this is my sad little hobby – and if anything out there compares with Inverewe at rhododendron time, I have yet to find it.

Before I get carried away, let’s do history. Sit up straight and pay attention.

Osgood McKenzie was born in 1842. His father, Sir Francis, was laird of Gairloch. Young Osgood was only twenty when he inherited Gairloch Estate, and consequently, Inverewe. He was either blessed with amazing foresight or cursed with incredible stupidity, for he chose to build himself a house on a barren, rocky and exposed promontory on the shores of Loch Ewe. History would support the former.

When you consider that Inverewe is about the same latitude as Hudson’s Bay, Canada, and further north than Moscow, you begin to understand that Osgood’s concept of creating a garden was treated with a little derision. Local crofters assured him he wouldn’t even grow neeps. And as those of us familiar with neeps will tell you, that was scathing criticism indeed.

But Osgood McKenzie was blessed with one thing which set him apart. Vision, and the concept of time. And if that’s two things, I apologise – I’m getting carried away here.

Osgood was ahead of his time, and was aware that Scotland’s north-west shores were warmed by Atlantic currents from the Caribbean. Frosts were almost unheard of. The big problem was salt-laden winds, which burned and shrivelled any leafy plant growth.

He planted salt-tolerant pines, both native and Scandinavian. He had the patience to allow them to grow. Then he reclaimed areas of the seashore, according to rumour with soil imported from Ireland. If that’s true, he must have been worth a few bob. Other accounts, which for me are more plausible, suggest the foreshore was reclaimed with a mixture of peat from the surrounding bogs, and seaweed from the shore. Fertility being improved by the local crofters. Or rather their livestock.

Anyway, to cut a drearily meandering story short-ish, by the end of the 19th century, Osgood had created not only the necessary shelter, but also one of the finest collections of temperate plants in Scotland, if not the UK. Romping rapidly through the history, Osgood’s daughter Mairi took over the garden when her father died in 1922. She continued to care for the garden, and first opened it to the public during the Second World War. Before she died in 1953, she had arranged for it to be taken over by the National Trust for Scotland, and to this day it remains the jewel in the NTS crown.

Now some meaty stuff for plant-o-philes. Inverewe hosts national collections of (Barbata subsection) rhododendrons, ourisisia, olearia, and brachyglottis. It is also home to a wide range of unusual plants from Tasmania, New Zealand and Australia, including a wonderful collection of eucalyptus… An impressive range of plants from China, Japan, Tibet and South America are also found to nestle among some native Scots flora. And you really must see the bamboo!

But most of all, you have to be there in May or June, when the rhodies are out. Listen to Mike. This is colour to die for.

Some practical information. Inverewe is close by the village of Poolewe in Easter Ross, on the A832, 6 miles north-east of Gairloch. There are hotels, guest houses and campsites in Poolewe and nearby. The gardens are operated by the National Trust for Scotland, who provide an excellent, if rather pricey, restaurant, as well as excellent parking, guide and access facilities. A substantial part of the garden has been adapted for wheelchair access, but because of the remote and rather rough terrain, some parts of the garden are only accessible to moderately experienced walkers.

Let me labour my point. If, like me, you don’t have a cat in Halifax’s chance of getting to the Himalayas, Inverewe will provide you with the best show of rhodies you’re ever likely to see. At home, anyway. In this country. (He writes, struggling to link back to the title of the piece. Forgotten already? Make my day, scroll up!)

PG Author: Mike Clark

Mike discovered the joys of horticulture when, as a small child, he overheard a neighbour say she'd dropped a sixpence in the tattie patch. He has been digging ever since, with the tenacity of a true Scot, hoping one day to find a fiver. Despite now running his own landscape gardening business, Mike claims to be permanently broke, due in part to his quest for fame resulting in writing gardening columns for free. He likes trees, Jack Russells, and 12 year old Glen Ord, but not necessarily in that order. Gifts of any of these can be sent c/o britishexpat.com, but he would like to point out that the third item is by far the easiest and cheapest to post. One of the highlights of his life was winning a toilet brush in a raffle. He persevered with it for ages, but he's back on the paper now... Mike approaches gardening and writing with exactly the same formula. Throw in plenty of manure, and something good will eventually spring up.

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