When I wrote about George Sherriff for the summer edition of The Geographer, I was interested to read that he and fellow plant-collector Frank Ludlow brought back seeds that were grown at Branklyn Garden in Perth.  I wanted to find out more about the history of this beautiful garden, which is celebrating its centenary this year.

Branklyn Garden has been described as ‘the finest two acres of private garden in the country’.  It sits on a west-facing slope between Kinnoull Hill and the River Tay, and its jewel-like beauty needs no introduction to garden-lovers, who visit repeatedly between spring and autumn in order to savour the colours, scents and textures of the changing seasons.

Although Branklyn is compact in size, all ideas of scale have to be abandoned when you go through the gates.  This is a breathtaking, all-enveloping habitat of mature rhododendron, magnolia and maple trees, under-planted with a spectrum of lilies and primulas and interspersed with scree slopes where tiny alpines flourish as happily as if they were growing on a Tibetan mountain.  As you wander around the curving paths, you can easily imagine the joy that early plant collectors must have felt on coming across a new specimen for the first time:  their delight in such exquisite flowers, and their thrill of anticipation at being able to share them with eager gardeners back home in Britain.

Two of these eager gardeners were John and Dorothy Renton, who purchased a plot of land on the Carse of Gowrie in 1922.   The land had long been used as an orchard - two of its original pear trees still survive - but it was sadly neglected and overgrown.  They cleared the waist-high weeds and built themselves an Arts and Crafts-inspired house, which would be their lifelong home;  then they set about creating a garden.

Initially, their ambitions were quite modest.  They wanted a pleasant, sheltered space with a formal rose garden, a pond and a tennis court.  It looked good on paper, but they were underwhelmed with the result.  At the same time, Dorothy’s interest had been caught by the flow of beautiful and exotic plants from the Himalayas, thanks to collectors such as Reginald Farrer, George Forrest and Frank Kingdon Ward.  Rock gardening was fast becoming a craze and Dorothy wondered whether some of these new introductions would survive at Branklyn.

The couple envisioned a garden inspired by a Himalayan hillside, and what had started out as a short-term plan developed into a lifelong passion.  The tennis court, which had barely been used, was dug up to make way for a rockery;  boulders were quarried from Kinnoull Hill and gravel was dredged from the River Tay.  

It was a project that required patience, resilience and sheer hard work;  like all gardeners, they had to learn which plants would thrive in their new garden, and which ones would inexplicably die.  Writing in her diary, Dorothy admitted that “in gardening, one learns by one’s mistakes,” but she was also learning about the near-miraculous properties of her new scree beds:  “If a good plant of any kind appears dissatisfied and unhappy where it has been planted, it generally becomes a rejuvenated specimen when transferred to the scree.”  

As new planting areas were prepared, Dorothy pioneered the technique of using peat blocks to create low walls, which stabilised the sloping ground and created the moist, acid environment demanded by many species.  A natural spring was channelled into a stream with waterfalls and boggy areas, and John laid down the network of curving paths that lead the visitor on a journey of discovery and seem to defy the dimensions of the site. 

Thanks to the Rentons’ long-standing affiliations with plant hunters, many of the specimens growing at Branklyn today were germinated from seed collected in Tibet, Bhutan and China.  Among the hardy individuals who brought them back were George Forrest, Frank Kingdon Ward, George Sherriff and Frank Ludlow, and the Rentons even contributed towards the cost of some of their expeditions.  There are mutual connections here with RSGS;  all except Ludlow were guest lecturers, and Frank Kingdon Ward was awarded the Livingstone Medal in 1936.

Front, L to R:  Frank Kingdon Ward (RSGS Collections);  George Forrest;  Back:  Frank Ludlow (tallest, standing) with George Sherriff to his left

As Branklyn matured, it won widespread acclaim and the Rentons received recognition themselves.  John, who always modestly described himself as the designer, and his wife as “the real gardener,” was awarded a CBE in 1952. Dorothy received the Veitch Memorial Medal of the Royal Horticultural Society in 1954 and the Scottish Horticultural Medal of the Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society in 1960. 

Throughout their lives, the couple exchanged plants and seeds with gardening friends, and were happy to welcome visitors to their garden.  Dorothy was particularly fond of “the enthusiast who goes round the garden at five minutes a step;  he crouches low over plants and touches them lovingly.  He even takes off his hat to some specially good specimen.”  Today’s visitors are more likely to whip out their mobile phones for photos, but hopefully Dorothy would still approve.

Now managed by the National Trust for Scotland, this bite-sized piece of paradise is home to over 3,500 species from all over the world.  In his book ‘Woodland Gardening’ (2018), Glendoick plantsman Kenneth Cox describes it as “a masterclass in underplanting ericaceous shrubs with envy-inducing carpets of woodland bulbs and perennials.”  Exactly 100 years after Dorothy and John purchased the land, Branklyn is a living testament to their vision - and to the courage of the plant hunters who helped them to fulfil it.



With many thanks to Branklyn’s stewards, Jim and Alison Jermyn, for a warm welcome and additional information

More information from NTS: https://www.nts.org.uk/visit/places/branklyn-garden

Frank Kingdon Ward is one of the explorers featured in Jo’s book, The Great Horizon.  An article about George Sherriff and Frank Ludlow is published in the Summer edition of The Geographer.