The Medieval Garden in Scotland
In common with English and European gardens of the period, medieval Scottish gardens were primarily practical; extensions of agriculture, with the aim of providing special additions to the table and curatives for the sick. However, the concept of the garden as a benefit to the spirit rose with the power of the Church, and the nobility began to add gardens of contemplation to existing kitchen and physic gardens wherever possible, as an aid to saving their souls.
Of course, in Scotland, most noble houses of the period were fortified, if not fortresses, so such gardens were often created simply from a small field away from the main dwelling, given over to wild flowers and bee hives, where it was possible to have some privacy from the bustle of everyday life.
The Scottish Walled Garden
Walled gardens were a feature of many houses and castles throughout Britain, but none so numerous as in Scotland. The harsher climate, the depredations of deer, rabbits and a largely poor population meant most Scottish lairds protected their kitchen crops with walls and locked gates.
These enclosures created an environment in which soil could be enriched and improved with confidence, safe in the knowledge that the effort involved would go to feed only the privileged of the house! Likewise, they provided a microclimate in which slightly more tender vegetables, fruit and herbs could be established and enjoyed.
Mazes and Labyrinths
In the latter Medieval years, mazes constructed from natural materials, particularly live hedging, were a sophisticated means of spiritual contemplation in the larger noble, priory and abbey gardens, where the twists, turns and dead ends were designed to aid contemplation of the self, the scriptures, and one’s relationship with God. Likewise, arbours appeared – an imitation of natural copses, where a person might sit in the shade and consider the natural world.
However, this later Medieval period was the time when the concepts of arbours, mazes and the garden as a source of pleasure and entertainment began to creep in from Europe, as plays and literature worked in the garden as a secret stage, away from prying eyes, for trysts, feuds, and sometimes, foul asassinations. The Decameron of Boccaccio (1313-1375) was particularly influential, with its subversive tales of misbehaving monks and noble ladies straying from the path of virtue.
These ideas, not unnaturally, spurred the more secular nobility to create gardens purely for pleasure, and heralded the change in thinking, and attitude to nature, typical of the Early Rennaisance.
Unfortunately, as with most Medieval gardens, Scottish pleasure garden and wildflower mead layouts of the period were swept away in the Renaissance. Walled kitchen and physic gardens survived longer due to their practical nature, primarily only in fragments now. However, outlines of how these fashions were adapted to the particular nature of Scottish architecture and estates can be gleaned from paintings, drawings and writings of the time, as well as surviving maps and plans for extensions and improvements to estates.
There are a number of books and online archaelogical studies available, detailed in our Bibliography section.
Traces remain of two Medieval walled gardens at Cawdor Castle in Nairn.