Garden of the Season – An CalaAugust 5th 2021
There can’t be any more romantic journey to a garden than one that involves taking a tiny bridge across the Atlantic. In the space of just a few meters you leave behind mainland Argyll and find yourself on one of the many small islands that bob like yachts at anchor tantalisingly close to shore.
A single-track road takes visitors past bays with whitewashed cottages and over stretches of moorland until you reach your destination on Seil’s most westerly point. An Cala is tucked away behind dense shrubbery and dry stone walls, but a set of stone columns and a wooden gate mark the entrance to the garden, which is protected on two sides by tall trees.
Like all those famous gardens that have been carved from Argyll’s rocky ground, it took hard graft, pickaxes, and many tonnes of imported soil to establish a series of terraces where plants could thrive on the island.
Work at An Cala began in the 1930s, directed by one of that era’s most famous landscape designers, Thomas Mawson, on behalf of Colonel Arthur Murray and his wife, the actress Faith Celli, who had been the choice of J M Barrie for many of his plays.
The garden has changed hands on very few occasions since it was created, but eventually it become rundown and overgrown, then in the 1980s An Cala was bought by Thomas and Sheila Downie, under whose care it has been completely restored until now it is one of the most renowned gardens on the west coast.
A summerhouse and statuary provide focal points while a waterfall and stream beds allow damp-loving species, including Himalayan blue poppies and primulas to flourish. The ground here is acidic and the combination of An Cala’s mild climate and high rainfall levels leads to lush and extravagant growth.
The garden has retained its Arts and Crafts appeal and the whitewashed house, with its blue shutters, give An Cala great charm.
An Cala’s combination of densely planted borders are offset by areas of smooth lawn and the pond is a place for tranquil reflection. These classic design features are a large part of An Cala’s appeal and are amongst the reasons why the garden is so popular with visitors. Another is the choice of plants that are suitable for the conditions.
Wire sheep, gathered in a herd, add a humorous note and tie the garden to the wider landscape, where sheep graze the hillsides, and it is worth taking time to enjoy the views out west.
There are lots of clever planting ideas to take away, from the use of small shrubs to create undulating forms to the slate paths and the clever ways with water. While parts of some ponds have plants spilling over into them, other areas have been left clear to create an attractive contrast. Owner Sheila Downie says: “Weather conditions this year have produced lots of growth, so the garden feels very exuberant.”
The planting at An Cala is carefully considered and so the garden is always interesting, but in summer the roses take centre stage while later in the year the shrubs and trees provide vivid colour. Late spring, when the primulas and blue poppies are in bloom, is another of the highlights and on sunny days the sparkling light from the sea makes for a memorable visit. However even on wet and misty days An Cala has a special atmosphere.
From Oban take the A816 south. Turn right at the Easdale sign and continue for eight miles.
The gardens are open from 1 April until 31 October, 10am until 6pm.
Entry: £5/children free
Money raised by the entry fee is split between Scottish Gardens’ Scheme charities and Cancer Research.