This is a post about a Japanese Garden in Scotland that was constructed in the years before the First World War under the patronage and enthusiasm of Ella Christie.

Ella Christie was born in 1861 and her family bought Cowen Castle in Clackmannanshire in 1865. Ella inherited the estate in early part of the twentieth century and traveled all over the Orient, from India to Tibet and Malay in 1904 and then to China, Russia and Japan from 1906 to 07. While in Kyoto, she met the du Cane sisters Ella and Florence who were in Japan researching and writing a book that caused a sensation when it was published, The Flowers and Gardens of Japan (1908). They inspired Christie to return to Scotland and make a Japanese garden.

To make her plans a reality, Ella Christie looked at the grounds around her family castle and dammed up the local river on the estate to make a lake. For two months she hired Taki Handa, a garden studio from Studley College of Horticulture for Women and they collaborated on how to re-landscape the area. They called the garden the Shãh-Rak-Uen, The place of pleasure and delight.

Cowden Gardens in 1909
Ella Christie in her garden in 1909

With the help of other Japanese garden designers and horticulturalists the gardens were developed and the planting continued. The Head of Soami School of Imperial Garden Design, Professor Suzuki came to the gardens to teach the local gardeners the art of pruning trees and shrubs as well as advising on the locations of planting. Suzuki referred to the gardens as ‘the best in the Western World’. In the years to come with the publication of the du Cane’s book in America and other books by authors like James Condor, Japanese garden design took over the world.

One of the first places the West would have seen a Japanese garden was at the World’s Fair in Vienna, 1873 as part of the Japanese pagoda. It caused a hype as illustrated newspapers depicted it, as seen in the illustration below of the Empress visiting the gardens in front of bowing officials, on a bended bridge, more familiar to people from the willow pattern of China, the other popular reference for the masses.

Ella Christie had created a beautiful garden at the right time, for in 1910 was the Japan-British Exhibition in Shepherd’s Bush. Lasting for six months, it sparked a revival of interest in oriental design and gardening with over 8 million visitors. It sparked a large range of chinoiserie decor, from screens and fans, to furniture and tin-tea caddies.

In 1925 Shinzaburo Matsuo moved to Scotland to become the garden keeper for Ella Christie, having lost his family in an earthquake in Japan. He worked the garden for twelve years until he retired in 1937. Christie died in 1949 and the castle was demolished in 1952. The gardens survived until 1963 when teenagers vandalised the site, pushing the stone lanterns into the lake and burning down the teahouse and bridges.

Cowden Gardens in 1955

The gardens underwent an extensive restoration in 2008 by Ella’s great-great niece and since then bridges have been replaced and the lanterns restored from the lake with a review of the plantation of the site.

This restoration inspired me, for though our visions of labour might have been set in to motion, in the end, nothing is ever lost.

A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit