The Japanese Garden at Cowden Castle

The Japanese-style Garden at Cowden in Clackmannanshire, created in the early twentieth century, is among the few surviving sites of its kind in the United Kingdom. Now, its national importance has been recognised through its addition to Historic Scotland’s Inventory of Gardens and Designed Landscapes.

The Garden at Cowden in its heyday
The Garden at Cowden in its heyday
The garden was created for the explorer Ella Christie, one of a handful of female pioneers who broke with traditional ideas about the role of women in order to mount ambitious expeditions around the globe. She travelled widely in Asia and visited many countries including India, Ceylon, Malaya, China, Japan and Borneo. In the spring of 1907, inspired and enchanted by the gardens of Kyoto and Tokyo, Christie determined to create her own Japanese-style garden in the grounds of her home at Cowden Castle near Dollar in Clackmannanshire.

At the time, the British cultural love-affair with Japan was approaching its height. It was quite common for people to create gardens in the “Japanese style”, fuelled by the sudden availability of exotic plants, bulbs and ornaments. While many other such gardens across the UK were a mere pastiche, the one at Cowden had advice on design from Professor Jijo Suzuki and Taki Handa, experts in the history and complex nuances of Japanese garden design.

Centred on a long artificial lake, the garden incorporated elements of three traditional Japanese garden forms; a pond and island garden, a stroll garden and a tea-house garden. Ideas of balance, proportion and sensory experience were prioritised as Handa carefully designed the routes of paths and stepping stones and the location of highly charged symbolic stones. Cowden was celebrated in the 1930s as an especially authentic example of a Japanese-style garden in the West. The gardens were cared for by a faithful Japanese gardener, Shinzaburo Matsuo, who lived and worked on-site until his death in 1937.

Sadly, the garden was vandalised in the 1960s and none of the original built structures survived. However much of its essential form remains, including plantings, the plan and form and low-lying structures, including symbolic stones.

The Garden at Cowden today
The Garden at Cowden today
According to Elizabeth McCrone, Head of Listing and Designed Landscapes, “the story of Cowden is a fascinating one. It was once described as the best Japanese garden in the Western world and was visited by Queen Mary in the late 1930s. It is of outstanding importance for its value as a work of art and its historic value, and also of high importance for its horticultural, nature conservation and archaeological value. It came into being due to the determination of a remarkable woman, Ella Christie who named it Shāh-rak-uen, “a place of pleasure and delight.” I am delighted that her garden has recognition through its inclusion in the Inventory.”

For Sara Stewart, the current owner of Cowden, it was “wonderful to see that Cowden has been recognised in this way. While the gardens are not currently open to the public, we are considering a restoration programme and hope that we can welcome visitors back at some point in the future.”