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Meet Melissa Simpson – Dumfries House

March 9th 2020

Dumfries House, one of Scotland’s most beautiful stately homes, sits at the heart of a sprawling 2000-acre estate.

Now a bustling tourist attraction that welcomes tens of thousands of visitors every year, it’s hard to believe that the fate of the house and estate hung in the balance not so long ago. Designed by 18th century architects the Adam brothers, the house, which was once owned by the Marquesses of Bute, faced an uncertain future in 2007, while all of its cultural riches risked being divided up and sold off.

An intervention by HRH The Prince of Wales at the eleventh hour brought the drama to an end but also marked the beginning of an exciting new chapter for one of the UK’s true hidden gems. 

While the five-acre walled garden was a wilderness, with only remnants of its former glory remaining, local volunteers stepped in to help clear the area in preparation for the major restoration and development project that followed. 

The Queen Elizabeth Walled Garden was officially opened by HRH Her Majesty The Queen in 2014 and today features a 40-metre delphinium and phlox border, rose gardens, mixed shrubberies, pleached hedges, herbaceous borders and the estate’s oldest tree, a sycamore, which is believed to date back to 1599.

Next to the Walled Garden, visitors will find The Pierburg Building and Kauffman Education Gardens, a one-acre organically-managed garden which is used to introduce thousands of visiting school pupils to gardening, the provenance of food and sustainable practices every year. A number of glasshouses have been added back to the garden in recent years to accommodate a number of more tender fruits and vegetables and to help facilitate the kitchen and flower gardens.

Throughout the estate, visitors can enjoy acres of designed landscapes comprising woodlands walks, tree-lined avenues under-planted with spring bulbs, traditional parterre’s and a beautiful arboretum which features two large lakes and two foundations.

Every time you visit Dumfries House, you are likely to see a new restoration project underway. Wherever possible, reclaimed materials are used from the estate itself or from local buildings which have recently been demolished. Training is often an integral part of these projects, with students and apprentices being given the opportunity to learn traditional and sustainable building craft skills such as thatching, stonemasonry and earth-building while working on beautiful built environment projects which enhance the estate’s designed landscape.

Having been head of gardens at Dumfries House for only a matter of weeks, there’s still a lot for me to get my head around. I’ll take my time to weigh things up and I’m looking forward to getting a full season under my belt in order to gauge the lay of the land.

I’ve taken time to get to know the rest of the gardening staff so I can fully understand where their strengths lie and their thoughts on the areas they look after. There are 12 staff in total and so I have spent time going round each of the areas with them. From this, we have pulled together a plan of activities to work through over the next three to six months. This includes key cyclical tasks, agreed developments and any work that needs done by others such as joiners and plumbers. 

Within each of the different garden areas, I have also identified a series of tasks that I can get hands-on with myself as this will give me an opportunity to get my hands dirty while getting to know both the staff and gardens better.

Since starting, I have also taken time to look at our bothy, stores and equipment. I am a firm believer in keeping work areas well-ordered, clean and tidy and I like for everything to have a place. 

Work on the estate continues to this day and, as the new head of gardens, I feel honoured to get to be a part of its future evolution. The work of The Prince’s Foundation, which is headquartered at Dumfries House, is inspired by the vision of HRH The Prince of Wales and the charity’s commitment to environmental issues is something that is very close to my heart.