The Japanese Garden at Cowden Castle reopens after 60 years

Visitors are now welcome to Shah Raku Uen, once considered the most important of its kind in the West

Images courtesy of Cowden Castle

While most Victorian ladies contented themselves with a sojourn in Florence or Paris, Ella Christie, accompanied by her formidable maid Humphries, was the first Western woman to meet the Dalai Lama and to travel from Samarkand to Khiva. Following a trip to Japan in 1907, she set her heart on building a Japanese garden in a seven-acre site at her home, Cowden Castle, in Clachmananshire, Scotland.

The vogue for all things Japanese had started in the 1850s when Japan opened its ports to foreign powers, such as Britain, after 200 years of sakoku (seclusion). Arthur Lasenby Liberty opened a store on Regent Street specialising in goods imported from the east, while Charles Rennie Mackintosh built The Hill House, with its uncluttered open plan and play of dark and light. Ella Christie, however, was not interested in a nod to the prevailing fashion; the garden at Cowden was to be authentic in every detail.

In keeping with her pioneering spirit, she employed Taki Handa, the first and only Japanese woman to be credited with creating a garden of this scale. It incorporated elements from the three traditional forms: a pond and island garden, a stroll garden and a teahouse garden. Ancient stone lanterns, trees and shrubs were sourced and transported from Japan, and in due course it received a blessing from a Shinto priest.

After Handa’s departure, Shinzaburo Matsuo, who had lost his entire family in the 1923 Kanto earthquake, assumed guardianship of the garden and tended it with complete devotion. Perhaps it’s fortunate that he died shortly before Japan, the country of his birth, and Britain, which had offered him a place of refuge and hope, were embroiled in the horror of the Second World War.

Ultimately, it was danger closer to home that closed the garden. In 1963 the space was ransacked by teenage vandals, the teahouse was burned and the lanterns smashed. In 2013 Christie’s great-grand-niece Sara Stewart commissioned Professor Masao Fukuhara from Osasaka University of Arts to restore the garden; he subsequently handed over responsibility to the head gardener Kate White.

Image: Alun Morgan

The garden is still a work in progress, but it offers visitors a sense of the art of seamlessly blending the natural landscape, in this case the Ochil Hills, and the manmade, to create “a place of pleasure and delight”.

The Japanese Garden at Cowden Castle is located about an hour north-west of Edinburgh, and is open from Wednesday to Sunday, until October.

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