Garden of the Season – Blair CastleSeptember 17th 2023
Scotland has many magnificent castles, but few can match the romance of Blair Castle in Perthshire. Its sparkling white walls, topped with spires and crenellations, sit amongst lush parkland while behind them hills covered in dense woodland rise towards the great wilderness of the Cairngorms.
This is the coldest part of Scotland, far beyond the benign influence of the country’s coastlines and at 500 feet above sea level, winters here can be very long. Yet within the Hercules Garden, the nine-and-a-half-acre walled garden that lies a five-minute stroll from the castle itself, the herbaceous borders that run for almost the full 275 metres of the south-facing wall, are in full bloom.
It’s precisely because of the cooler climate here that summer flowers do not run out of steam but continue to perform well into autumn, keeping their looks while those in softer settings have already shed their petals and dropped their stems.
The Hercules Garden, which dates from the 18th century, takes its name from the life-sized statue of the Roman god, which presides over it and unlike most similar gardens, which are flat spaces, this one dips significantly towards a series of ponds.
Once, the larger of these was a popular spot for curling and McGregor’s Folly, a handsome stone pavilion, now houses a small exhibit of the stones and brooms that were used by family members to play the sport. Today no curling takes place and instead pond weeds and marginal plants have been allowed to flourish in order to support the large flock of ducks which now lives here.
At one end of the garden is a small area for growing vegetables and herbs, while the slopes on either side of the ponds are occupied by an orchard where the fruit is currently ripening.
The apples, pears, cherries and plums, including gages and damsons, are varieties that flower late and fruit early so as to avoid damage from the frosts that bookend the growing season.
Close to the Hercules Garden is Diana’s Grove, a two-acre woodland filled with rare conifers and some of the tallest trees in the country. Tucked away within the Grove are the dramatic ruins of St Bride’s Church.
One of the best ways to explore the gardens is to follow the Sculpture Trail, which leads visitors past 20 artworks, both historic and contemporary, set amongst the landscape. A Squirrel Trail, which is populated by metal squirrels, has been designed to enchant young visitors.
The long avenue that leads from the entrance gate to the castle itself is planted with Common Lime trees, some of which date back to 1740. As these trees reach the end of their life, they will be replaced with young trees grown from seed collected on the estate.
Greening the Valleys
Blair Castle sits at the centre of a working estate where farming, forestry, fishing and shooting take place across its thousands of acres. Visitors can explore the estate on foot or on bike using 50 miles of waymarked trails and see evidence of the work being undertaken to increase carbon sequestration and biodiversity.
A Victorian hydro scheme has been revived and now provides electricity for the castle. Re-wetting is taking place in areas where the moorland was previously drained for grazing and regenerative farming has involved planting more hedges and areas of wildflowers for the bees. These include honeybees, whose honey is sold in the castle shop, bumblebees and the rare Mountain Mason Bee.
The estate has long had a powerful impact on the landscape and during the 18th and 19th century the ‘Planting Dukes of Atholl’ had 27 million conifers added to the estate, many of them exotic species.
The Atholl Highlanders are the only private army in the UK and a highlight of the year on the estate is the Defender Blair Castle International Horse Trials which take place from Thursday, 24 until Sunday, 27 August and attract top-level competitors from the UK and beyond.
The castle and gardens are open daily, 10am - 5pm.
Tickets to the castle and gardens - £17/£15/£11
Garden only tickets - £8/£8/£5
Tel: 01796 481355
Directions: Blair Castle sits on the B8079, 30 miles north of Perth.
Courtesy of The Herald