It’s not hard to spot a large Victorian garden – a few towering American conifers from that golden era of plant hunting are a real give away. We’d come to stay at Arisaig House because Chris was interested in the building but when I saw sequioadendrons and a smattering of rhodies in the drive I knew I was going to enjoy myself here, pretending this was my garden. Beyond the spectacular house we could see a patch of blue sea too. Perfect!
Having left our hire car embedded in the deep gravel by the door we were greeted by Sarah Winnington-Ingram. Sarah has that peculiar blend of friendliness and professionalism which immediately lets you know you’re in the hands of a very good hostess, so we quickly felt at home in spite of the grand surroundings. She showed us to our bedroom, a long room with three windows looking out across the lawn towards the sea. It really couldn’t have been better. A telly is obligatory in hotel bedrooms nowadays but who needs a telly when you have windowseats and you can see a big old garden and the sea? Sarah left us to settle in and said she’d have a cup of tea ready for us on the terrace.
It was warm on the terrace, you could tell that from the sprawling labradors. We hurried down and basked with them for a while. I was soon impatient to explore but had to sit tight while Chris had several cups of tea, he wasn’t going anywhere without them. There were posh flapjacks too, so no hardship.
We left the terrace through a door in the wall by the rose garden and found ourselves the centre of attention for a flock of assorted chickens. Obviously nearly feeding time. We chatted with them for a bit and envied their happy, scratchy lives in the leaf litter. A little further into the garden there were ducks too, pottering about in the rivulets that ran between the trees and into the mossy lawn.
I have a long list of features for my fantasy garden. This already includes a damp woodland area, with some acid soil for rhododendrons and other glamorous and fascinating shrubs and trees, but now I also want a mossy path. Everything on the west coast of Scotland seems to end up encrusted with mosses and lichens, making gardens upon gardens upon gardens. Drifts of bryophytes add green and gold glowing haloes in low sunshine to every stump and rock. As a child my imagination would soon have populated this with Borrowers and Brambly Hedge animals, little hidey holes are everywhere. If my garden was like this even now I’d be in danger of crafting twee little doors and windows for nooks and crannies.
Sarah had told us that there was a gate at the end of the garden, then a path to Borrodale Beach. We found the gate. Greylag geese panicked from the field, little burbling birds skipped along the deer fence. We paused to admire the view, noted with interest that we suddenly had mobile phone reception, then turned left along the shore path, over a rocky outcrop clothed in twisted birch and gnarly oak, sprinkled with more moss and primroses. Apparently Bonnie Prince Charlie spent the night in a cave just there – but we didn’t find it (perhaps English people shouldn’t). The waters of Loch Nan Uamh were flat calm and all was serenity. We jumped across the burn which had carved its way through banks of pebbles on Borrodale Beach and climbed about on the rocks. It was still and sunny and there were views of mountains. The tide was coming in and we scanned the water’s edge for otters. No luck.
Later in our visit we were told that one of the rocky outcrops projecting into the loch has an Iron Age vitrified fort on its top (Rubh’ Aird Ghamhsgail). I went back for a look on our last day. It’s a strange place, just a concave grassy patch really, with a few distorted rocks poking out here and there. As I’m no geologist I wasn’t absolutely sure I was in the right place but in my fevered imagination the round hollow seemed to focus the sun’s heat oddly. The reasons and techniques for vitrified forts (most of which are in Scotland) are still a mystery. Here’s a bit of speculation on the subject.
We had a bit of trouble getting back over the burn without getting wet but the thought of a gin and tonic spurred us on and we walked up through the fields below the house to the old driveway, having done, we thought, just enough exercise to justify a slap-up dinner.