Arboreal ambitions
Country Life UK|May 12, 2021
Caroline Donald visits the ancestral home of Clan Donald, Armadale Castle on the Isle of Skye, where the gardens are once again in safe hands and the historic trees will be given a boost with the planting of a new arboretum of endangered conifers
Caroline Donald

WHEN Andrew Peters first encountered the 40-acre gardens at Armadale Castle on the Sleat peninsula on Skye, he was entranced. He found magnificent specimen trees from the 19th century, as well as woodlands and exotic plants from across the globe. But what made—and still makes—the place remarkable is not so much what is there, but the fact that it is there at all on this rugged Hebridean island. Tucked into a coastal pocket facing the mainland, not only does the site benefit from the warm air of the Gulf Stream, but it is protected by the lie of the land from the worst of the westerly winds. ‘I love Armadale; it is pretty rare,’ says Mr Peters.

Preceding pages: The 40-acre garden on Skye is protected by a band of silver firs and looks towards the mainland over the Sound of Sleat. Above: The entrance to Armadale Castle, built in about 1815 after the Jacobite Rebellion, is now only an imposing ruin

That was back in 1984, when the gardens were enjoying something of a heyday, after the Clan Donald Lands Trust had stepped in to buy the castle and 22,000 acres of the once vast estate belonging to the Macdonald family just over a decade earlier, bringing a timely injection of cash. But brambles, disease and invasive plants, such as montbretia and Rhododendron ponticum, don’t wait for permission to take over and, having watched the gardens slip into a genteel decline over the past 20 years or so, when, much later, Mr Peters spotted an advertisement for a ‘project gardener’, he saw it as a chance to re-energise them and make them worthy of international recognition.

Above: Gunnera and crocosmia have colonised a damp area, where new trees, including birch, have been planted. Facing page: The mossed limbs of an aged Monterey cypress, Cupressus macrocarpa, which has lived longer than it would somewhere more exposed

He got the job and has been Armadale’s garden consultant since January 2019. Among his plans is a new arboretum that will be planted in existing woodland, as part of the International Conifer Conservation Programme (ICCP), co-ordinated by his friend Martin Gardner. The project collects seeds of endangered species and grows them on to be replanted in various gardens so that, if the conifers are lost in the wild, there will be a resource from which to reintroduce them. ‘We are getting about 140,’ says Mr Peters, ‘together with 60 various plants from Chile. I don’t leap about, but I am genuinely excited.’

We are getting about 140 conifers. I don’t leap about, but I am genuinely excited

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