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Nick Dawson and HRH the Prince of Wales

HRH the Prince of Wales discussing plans with the Scottish Plant Collectors' Project Development Manager, Nick Dawson  >  Articles  >  The Explorers' Garden

Explorers, the Scottish Plant Hunters Garden

The evolution of Scottish public gardens is about to take an enormous leap forward with the creation of two more which, by pure coincidence will both be found in Perthshire. With an existing abundance of gardens of immense historical and horticultural importance, Perthshire is soon to become a Mecca for garden lovers with the addition of Scotland’s National Garden, to be built at Perth, and The Scottish Plant Collectors Garden in Pitlochry, which will be opened to the public in the April of 2003.

Submitted by Nick Dawson,
the Scottish Plant Collectors' Project Development Manager

Scotland, and in particular Perthshire, is home to the many unsung heroes of the botanical world. The Scottish Plant Collectors' Garden will pay tribute to more than 120 collectors of Scottish descent many of whom are still alive and collecting today.

Although they were set in train some six years ago, the concept and plans for the garden are still evolving. Much more than ‘just’ a garden, the innovative concept will combine dramatic and visual arts to provide an enjoyable and factual journey around the world – it is not by chance that the garden is alongside Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Situated on a hillside adjacent to the theatre and the famous dam and fish ladder, 6.5 acres (2.6ha) of mature unmanaged woodland have been transformed into a series of spatial focal points connected by a network of footpaths with scenic panoramic views. The birth of Scotland’s newest garden came from an idea to attract a new audience to Pitlochry Festival Theatre, and with the assistance of David Mitchell (Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh) the concept of the Scottish Plant Collectors garden was born.

The battle to find sufficient funding began with the usual ‘thank you but no’ letters from all of the lottery governing bodies. Surprisingly, 300 years of botanical history is not recognised by the Heritage Lottery, because the garden is new! Perhaps a new approach to presenting the past is what is needed, and indeed the garden committee will strive to achieve this with or without lottery assistance. However, not for the first time our European partners have come to the rescue, acknowledging the importance such a visitor attraction will provide in creating and maintaining employment within a fragile rural economy, which relies heavily on tourism. The European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) has provided 50% (£400,000) ‘match’ funding, to an already overstretched project budget of £800,000. Further support has come from Scottish & Southern Energy plc, Scottish Enterprise Tayside, The Gannochy Trust, Brown Forbes Memorial Trust, The Robertson Trust and Scottish Forest Industries.

As a registered charitable company the garden is a wholly owned subsidiary of Pitlochry Festival Society, with all the necessities of a modern garden being provided within the Theatre’s campus, such as catering, toilet and car park facilities. The gardens success will be reliant on visitor numbers and will be run as a business with income generated from an entry fee. All profits will be reinvested back into the garden to maintain its status as a high quality visitor attraction providing enjoyment to a wide cross section of society while maintaining an important botanical collection of both educational and historical importance.

One of the main conditions of European funding is that the garden creates and maintains an ‘access for all’ policy. Bearing in mind that the garden is situated on a sloping site, access has been made possible by constructing solid ramped footpaths to all of the main areas of the garden. Maintaining a strong link with the theatre, the entrance has been designed by one of the theatre’s set designers using the theme of a compass to reflect the world in which the collectors explored. Visitors will move through continental regions represented by plants and their collectors. Focal points within the garden will provide combinations of seating, views and visual arts. While recognising the importance of the core concept of the plant collectors the garden must also be of interest to those who are not ‘garden lovers’. This has been achieved by the creation of an 80-seat amphitheatre, a contemporary pavilion constructed of wood to commemorate David Douglas (and promote the use of sustainable Scottish timber), an oriental style pavilion situated in a visually prominent position and an enclosed space surrounded by sculpted dry stonewalls.

As the concept has developed, it has evolved into the creation of an important national landmark with additional benefits that will enrich local and surrounding communities. There is enormous potential to develop new audiences to both history and the arts by creating an enjoyable experience to suit people from all walks of life. Working together, many associated environmental and community organisations will use the garden as a focal point for education going beyond plants to include history and the arts.

The existing mature trees provide structure and elevated enclosure, this will be complimented with additional planting consisting of collections from 18 of the most notable collectors. Additional planting will be made up of native species especially in areas without the protection of the deer and rabbit fence and will include mature hedging to create spaces where topography or hard landscape features have not.
By maintaining a close association with the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, ongoing research has highlighted more than 120 collectors. In an effort to reduce maintenance costs, planting will done in such a way as to provide all year round interest with large drifts of plants. Self seeding will be encouraged with the ultimate goal of thinning rather than re-planting.

The many different habitats within the garden reflect varied topography, moisture and exposure. Plant collections from different continental regions will be matched with these habitats and arranged to provide all year round interest. The greatest advantage of creating a garden on a hillside is that the same plant or group of plants can be viewed from different angles and locations thus enhancing the visual impact and perception.

The plant collectors are only part of the story and a decision was made to include the many important Scottish botanists who, if not collectors in their own right, classified and collated millions of new introductions. Collectors who travelled specifically to tropical regions and notable non-hardy plants will be represented as part of a visual arts strategy. It is hoped that collectors, countries and plants not represented can be interpreted by the use of sculpture.
While celebrating the past the garden is very much looking to the future. A combination of contemporary and traditional design ideas have been adopted to create interest and appeal for the widest possible audience.

Underground service ducts will provide power, sound and lighting to all areas, to increase the potential for dramatic productions within the garden, without the need to disturb new plantings.

First year visitor numbers for the garden have been estimated from existing visitor statistics, based on the Theatre, Dam and Fish Ladder (Loch Faskally), Blair Castle and notable local gardens and visitor centres - 60,000 visitors are expected. It is perceived that during the development stage this number will increase in years 1-5, with regular repeat visitors during years 5-10, peaking to an average annual attendance of 80,000.

The Garden project is essential in maintaining and increasing visitors to both the theatre (which itself generates an estimated 2.5 million pounds directly to the local economy) and to the surrounding community.

Pitlochry is an important visitor centre, located adjacent to the A9 and thus within a 1.5hr drive from the central belt of Scotland and 20-minute drive from Perth, which is also served by bus and train. Pitlochry train station is on the main London to Inverness line. Rural & Highland Perthshire is a popular holiday and short-stay destination to both home and oversee visitors. Visit Scotland have predicted that short stay visitor numbers will increase and that an attraction such as the garden will cater for the demands of such an audience. As a major tourist centre, Pitlochry serves both long and short stay visitors, with established attractions such as the Theatre, the Dam & Fish Ladder (Loch Faskally), River Tummel, woodland, forest and moorland walks: Pitlochry has an estimated throughput of 250-300k visitors per annum.

This unique concept has already been approved and endorsed by HRH The Prince of Wales. Indeed a recent visit (5th July 2001) by the Prince of Wales has dramatically raised public awareness and increased the profile of this important environmental visitor attraction. The garden will open in June/July 2002 with an 'official' opening date yet to be confirmed.

To ensure the gardens success the Garden committee have been working closely with Perthshire Tourist Board, Scottish Enterprise Tayside in a joint marketing initiative to promote all public gardens in Tayside. As part of Perthshire's Green Tourism Initiative, the garden will become a nominated site (one of 30) promoting Perthshire as Scotland's 'Big Tree Country'. This is one of many ways in which the garden can be used to encourage and guide visitors to other important botanical sites within Perthshire. Links have been made with Forest Enterprise, Atholl Estates, Tayside Biodiversity and The Woodland Trust etc.

Maintaining the core concept of the Scottish Plant Collectors, the garden will use its association with the theatre to combine visual arts, including music & sculpture, in providing a unique interpretative programme, which will be enjoyable, and at the same time educational. Periodic displays and events will inform visitors of the ethno-botanical relationships between man and plants, the importance of plant hunting today (e.g. medical research) and the geographic origins of plants collected and introduced by the Scottish collectors.

With ever increasing difficulties in obtaining funds, it is vital that sound commercial management principals are applied to ensure that high quality maintenance standards are achieved. The garden committee are well aware that if an entry fee is charged, the aspirations and expectations of visitors must be provided for. Repeat visits are also to be encouraged and it is hoped that visitors will return to see, not only the plant development but also an array of events promoting the arts within the garden. Clear objectives have been drawn up with a view to meet all the objectives as and when future funding allows. Management such as this will ensure the long-term viability of Scotland's newest garden.


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