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A Hundred Years in the Highlands
Chapter XVIII - The Inverewe Policies

In the year 1862 my mother bought for me the two adjoining estates of Inverewe and Kernsary, on the west coast of Ross-shire.

Kernsary lay inland, but Inverewe had a good many miles of coast-line, and, after taking about two years to settle where we should make our home, we finally pitched upon the neck of a barren peninsula as the site of the house. The peninsula was a high, rocky bluff, jutting out into the sea.

The rest of what are in Scotland usually called "the policies” {i.e., the enclosed grounds round about the mansion) consisted mostly of steep braes facing south and west, with the exception of a narrow strip of land down by the shore—the only bit where the coast-line was not rocky—and this strip, which was an old sea-beach, was turned into the garden. I may say the peninsula, whose Gaelic name, Am Ploc ard (the High Lump), so aptly describes it, consisted of a mass of Torridon red sandstone.

This promontory, where the rock was not actually a bare slab, was mostly covered with short heather and still shorter crowberry, and the only soil on it was some black peat, varying from an inch to two or three feet in depth. There had been more peat originally in some of the hollows, but it had been dug out for fuel by the crofters who had occupied the place forty years before my time. There was nothing approaching good soil on any part of the peninsula, hardly even any gravel or sand; but in a few places the rotten rock and the peat had somehow got jumbled up together, and when we came across some of this we thought it. grand stuff in comparison with the rest. There was just perhaps one redeeming point about what otherwise looked so hopeless a situation for planting—viz., that the rock was not altogether solid.

We had to excavate a great deal of the rock behind the site of the house before we could begin to Build, and we noticed that the deeper we blasted into it the softer it became, and that there were even running through it veins of a pink kind of clay. The exposure of the Ploc ard was awful, catching, as it did, nearly every gale that blew. With the exception of the thin low line of the north end of Lewis, forty miles off, there was nothing between its top and Newfoundland; and it was continually being soused with salt spray. The braes above the site of the house were somewhat better, but even they were swept by the south-westerly gales, which are so constant and so severe in these parts.

Now I think I ought to explain that, with the exception of two tiny bushes of dwarf willow about three feet high, there was nothing in the shape of a tree or shrub anywhere within sight. One of these little willow-bushes I have carefully preserved as a curiosity, and on the site where the other was I lately planted an azalea, which will, I think, soon look down on its neighbour, the poor little aboriginal willow.

I started work in the early spring of 1864 by running a fence across the neck of the peninsula from sea to sea, to keep out the sheep. I was very young then (not being of age when the place was bought), and perfectly ignorant of everything connected with forestry and gardening, having never had any permanent home, and having been brought up a great deal on the Continent; but I had all my life longed to begin gardening and planting, and had, I fully believe, inherited a love for trees and flowers from my father and grandfather.

My mother undertook the whole trouble of housebuilding, and I set myself to the rest of the work with a determination to succeed if possible. Oh that I had only known then what I know now, and could have started with my present experience of over forty years ! For example, I had never heard of the dwarf Pinus montana. Had I known its merits then, as I know them now, I would have begun by planting a thick belting of it among the rocks round my peninsula, just above high-water mark, to break the violent squalls carrying the salt spindrift which is so inimical to all vegetation.

I did not know that there was little use in planting Pinus Austriaca, mountain ash, service, or even birches, in the middle of a wood, as, though they look nice for some years, they eventually get smothered by the faster-growing trees, and one has the trouble of cutting most of them out. If I were beginning again I would commence as I have already said, with a row of the Tyrolese Pinus montana above high-water mark, then put Pinus Austriaca behind it, and for the third row I would plant that admirable tree Pinus Laricio. This triple row of pines would form my fortification against tlie ocean blast, and, behind the protection thus afforded, I would start putting in my ordinary forest trees—Scots pines, silver firs, sycamores, oaks, beeches, etc.

If I were asked what tree I have the highest opinion of for hardiness and rapidity of growth on bad soil and on exposed sites, I would certainly award the first prize to the Corsican pine. I have seen them in their own island on mountains 9,000 feet above sea-level, with nothing between them and Spain or Algeria, growing to an enormous size—some of those I measured there were twenty feet in circumference—and here, at the same age, they make nearly double the amount of timber compared with Scots fir, and are proof against cattle, sheep, deer, and rabbits, which no other tree is that I know of. They told me in the ship-building yards at Savona that old Laricio timber was as good as the best Baltic redwood.

I am ashamed to confess, but it can no longer be hidden, that, among trees, many of the foreigners are far and away hardier and better doers than our natives. The Scots fir (as bred nowadays) is often a dreadfully delicate tree when exposed to Atlantic gales. It was not so in the good old times, as one finds the enormous remains of Pinus sylvestris forests right out on the tops of the most exposed headlands of our west coast. My brother, the late Sir Kemieth Mackenzie of Gairloch, gave me one hundred plants of the right breed from his old native fir-wood of Glasleitir, on the shores of Loch Maree, which, like the rest of that good old stock at Coulan, in Glen Torridon, or in those grand glens of Locheil, are as different in growth and constitution from what are, alas ! too often sold nowadays as Scots firs as Scots kale is from cauliflower. I have seen the seedlings side by side in the seed-beds in my brother's Gairloch nursery, and in the months of March and April the seedlings from the bought seeds were of a rusty red, as if scorched by fire, whereas the home-bred ones were of a glossy dark green.

For four or five years my poor peninsula looked miserable, and all who had prophesied evil of it—and they were many—said, “I told you so." But at last from the drawing-room windows we could see some bright green specks appearing above the heather. These were the Austrians and the few home-bred Scots firs which had been dotted about in the places of honour near the house. About the fifth or sixth year everything began to shoot ahead; even the little hard-wood trees, which until then had grown downwards, started upwards, many of them fresh from the root. Now came the real pleasure of watching the fruit of all our labour and anxiety.

The young trees had fewer enemies then than they would have nowadays. Grouse strutted about among them, wondering what their moor was coming to, but did no harm. Black game highly approved of the improvements, and by carefully picking all the leading buds out of the little Scots firs did their level best to make them like the bushy Pinus montana. Brown hares and blue hares cut some of the fat young shoots of the Austrian pines and oaks; but, on the whole, my young trees fared well in comparison with the way young plantations here would fare now from the rabbit plague* and the roe, and the red deer.

I planted very few of the rarer trees to begin with. Wellingtonias were then the rage, and I felt bound to invest in four of them, and planted them in the best sites I could find near the house. I tried to make pits for them. I took out the little peat there was, but how well I remember the clicks the spades gave when we came to the bed-rock ! Next morning (the night having been wet) all we had produced were four small ponds, and I had to get an old man to bring me creels of rather better soil for them on his back from a distance. I have just measured my Wellingtonias. In the forty-three years of their existence they have made some sixty-six feet of growth, and are about eight feet in circumference six feet from the ground, and their strong leaders show they are still going ahead. So much for the old man and his creels of soil!

Silver firs in the hollows have done well, and some of them also are sixty to seventy feet high. One thing has surprised me very much—viz., that oaks, of which I planted but few, thinking it was the last place where oaks would thrive, are very nearly level with the firs, larches, and beeches.

It was only after the plantation on the peninsula had been growing fifteen or twenty years, and was making good shelter, that I began cutting out some of the commoner stuff, especially my enemies the “ shop Scots firs, as I call them, which continued more or less to get blasted by the gales of the ocean. Then it was I began planting all sorts of things in the cleared spaces—

Douglas firs, Abies Alberti, copper beeches, sweet and horse chestnuts, Picea nobilis, P. Pinsapo, P. lasiocarpa and P. Nordmanniana, Cupressus macrocarpa and C. Lawsoniana, Thuja gigantea, bird-cherries, scarlet oaks, etc., and now these trees appear almost as if they had formed part of the original plantation. I am still proceeding in this style, and have dotted about a lot of Eucalypti, tree rhododendrons, Arbutus, Griselinias, Cordylines, and clumps of bamboos and Phormiums which are giving a charming finish to the outskirts of my plantation.

Even the eucalypti I find much hardier than that bad breed of Scots fir; no wind,.snow, or frost seems to hurt them here; and, in case it may interest my readers, I shall name those I find thoroughly hardy—Eucalyptus coccijera, E. Gunnii, E. Whittinghamii, E. cor data, E. coriacea, E. urnigera, and one or two others; but I warn all against trying Eucalyptus globosa—the very species that most people persist in planting !

I ought, perhaps, to mention what does not do quite so well with me—viz., the common Norway spruce They will grow in low-lying hollows at the rate of nearly three feet a year, but as soon as they get to about thirty feet in height they look (as my forester very aptly describes them) like red-brick chimneys among the other trees, and even if not directly exposed to the ocean gales they get red and blasted. I tried also a few Pinus Strobus in the peninsula, but they quite failed. I much regret not having experimented on either Pinus Cembra or Pinus insignis. I know the first named would succeed, and, as the Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa) does so very well, I should have the best of hopes of the Monterey pine also, because they both come, I am told, from the same locality in California.

My latest craze is cutting out spaces, enclosing them with six-foot fences (deer, roe, and rabbit proof), and planting them with nearly every rare exotic tree and shrub which I hear succeeds in Devon, Cornwall, and the West of Ireland. I think I may venture to say that I have been fairly successful, and nothing would give me greater pleasure than to have a visit of inspection from some of the members of the Royal Horticultural Society. I fear I must confess to feelings of exultation when I visit that charming collection in the temperate house of Kew, and assure myself that I can grow a great many of its contents better in the open air, in the far north, than they can be grown at Kew under glass.

What a proud and happy day it was for me, about fourteen years ago, when Mr. Bean of Kew honoured me with a visit, and I had the pleasure of showing him my Tricuspidarias, Embothriums, and Eucryphias, my small trees of Abutilon vitifolium, my palms, loquats, Drimys, Sikkim rhododendrons, my giant Olearias, Senecios, Veronicas, Leptospernums, my Metrosideros and Mitrarias, etc.! I have, too, some of the less common varieties. One of them is a nice specimen of Poclocarpus totara, from which the Maoris used to make their war canoes holding one hundred men, and I have Dicksonia antarctica, raised from spores ripened in Arran. My ' Cordyline Australis are all from seed ripened at Scourie, in the north of Sutherland. The Billardiera longifolia, from Tasmania, with its wonderful blue berries, is a most striking climber. Acacia dealbata, the Antarctic beech, Betida Maximowiczii from Japan (with leaves as big as those of the lime), the New Zealand Rata, and Buddleia Colvillei from the Himalayas, are all flourishing, thanks to the Gulf Stream and lots of peat and shelter. There are (as I suppose must be the case everywhere) a very few plants which are not happy here, and they are varieties which I dare say most people would have thought would revel in this soil and climate—viz., the Wistarias, Camellias, Kalmias, Euonymus, Tamarix, and Cyclamens. I hope to master even these in course of time. One thing I wonder at is why so many of my exotics seed themselves far ‘more freely than any natives, except perhaps birch, and gorse, and broom, though I ought perhaps to mention that neither gorse nor broom is indigenous to this particular district. The strangers which seed so freely are Rhododendrons, Cotoneaster Simonsii, Berbens Darwinii, Veronica salicifolia, Olearia macrodonta, Diplopappus chrysopJiylla, and Leycesteria Formosa.

And now I venture to say something about the garden—the “kitchen garden," as my English friends always take care to call it. As is often the case with us Highlanders, I possess only the one garden for fruit, flowers, and vegetables, and, as I have already stated, it was mostly made out of an old sea-beach, which most people would say does not sound hopeful. Even now, in spite of a wall and a good sea-bank, the Atlantic threatens occasionally to walk in at its lower doors, and the great northern divers, who float about lazily just outside, appear quite fascinated by the brilliant colours inside, when the lower doors are left open for their benefit.

The soil of this old sea-beach was a four-foot mixture of about three-parts pebbles and one part of rather nice blackish earth. The millions of pebbles had to be got rid of. So in deep trenching it, digging forks were mostly-used, every workman had a girl or boy opposite him, and the process of hand-picking much resembled the gathering of a very heavy crop of potatoes in a field. The cost of the work was great, as thousands upon thousands of barrow-loads of small stones had to be wheeled into the sea, and the place of the pebbles made up with endless cartloads of peaty stuff from old turf dykes, red soil carted from long distances, and a kind of blue clay marl from below the sea, full of decayed oyster-shells and crabs and other good things, hauled up at very low tides. There is also a terrace the whole length of the garden cut out of the face of a steep brae, which was just above the old beach. It had to be carved out of the solid gravel and covered with soil brought from afar. The cutting at the top was fully twelve feet deep, and against it a retaining wall was built, which I covered with fan and cordon trained fruit-trees.

When the cutting was first made we found a number of large holes or burrows going deep into the hillside. These, we were convinced by the various signs we found, must have been inhabited in prehistoric times by a colony of badgers, and no sooner was the light let into these galleries than up came a thick crop of raspberry seedlings, as far in as the light could penetrate. It appeared evident that the badgers, like bears, had been keen on fruit, and had made their dessert off wild raspberries, and that the eating and digestion of the fruit had not prevented the seeds from germinating. This is the case nowadays with the seeds of Berheris Darwinii, which the birds swallow and then distribute all over the place. There were no signs of any wild raspberries about here at that time, but the sight of them encouraged me greatly, and I thought that where wild rasps, as we call them, once grew, tame rasps could be made to grow. My expectations in this respect have been fully justified. I think I may say that my garden, which took me three or four years to make, has most thoroughly rewarded me for -all the trouble and expense incurred.

In good years, as many of my friends can testify, I grew Bon Chretien pears on standards which are as luscious as any that could be bought in Covent Garden Market. Curiously, they were always better on the standards than on the walls. Alas ! last year, which was the very worst year I have experienced since my garden was made, they were, as my gardener expressed it, not equal to a good swede turnip. I have had excellent Doyenne de Comice pears and Cox's Orange Pippin apples on my walls, and masses of plums of all sorts both on the walls and on standards. There is one thing I may mention, which I hardly suppose even my friends in the south can boast of—viz., that I have never yet, in over forty years, failed to have a crop of apples, and, I might almost add, pears and plums as well, though the quality varies a good deal. Really our difficulty is that we have not force sufficient to get them thinned, so thickly do they set, a fact which I suppose must be credited to our good Gulf Stream.

Now I turn to the flowers, and I think almost anything that will grow in Britain will grow with me. I was once in a garden in a warm corner of the Isle of Wight, in June, when my hostess and I came upon the gardener carrying big plants of Agapanthus in tubs from under glass to be placed out of doors. His remark as we passed him was, “I think, my lady, we may venture them out now," and I could not refrain from answering the old man back: “If not, then I do not think much of your climate, for in the far North of Scotland we never house them, nor even protect them in winter." I have had great clumps of Agapanthus in the open for thirty years and more, and the white, as well as the blue variety, flowers magnificently every year.

Ixias are as hardy a perennial here as daffodils. Crocosmia imperialis runs about my shrubbery borders and comes up with its glorious orange blooms in October in all kinds of unexpected places, just like twitch grass; Alstroemeria psittacina, Spamxis pulclierrima, Scilla peruviana, Crinum capense, the Antholyzas, and several Watsonias (including even the lovely white Watsonia Ardernei), are quite hardy, and Habranthus pratensis also blooms every year; and as for lilies, I have had Lilium giganteum ten feet high and with nineteen blooms on it.

We never lift our scarlet lobelias, nor our blue Salvia patens (except when shifting them), and the dahlias are often quite happy left out all winter. I have never happened to come across Schizostylis coccinea anywhere else equal to what I grow here in November; one can see its masses of dazzling scarlet on my terrace from a boat sailing about in the bay.

Tigridias live out all the year. Some seasons they even seed themselves profusely, and I have seen the seedlings coming up thick in the gravel walks. In a good July I have seen the tea-roses on my lower terrace wall almost as good as on the Riviera, but the hybrid perpetuals do decidedly less well here, I think, than they do, for instance, in Hertfordshire, and florists Anemones and Ranunculus and also the Moutan Pseony have so far nearly defied me. On some of my lower walls I grow the Correas, and C. alba blooms the whole winter through and is most charming. Callistemons (the scarlet bottlebrush) flower, and Cassia corymbosa, Habrothamnus elegans, and Romneya, seem quite happy; Abelia quinata, Lapageria, and Mandevilla suaveolens are growing, but have not yet bloomed with me.

Just one more remark, and that is about our rainfall. This is supposed to be a very wet part of the country, but, according to my gardener, who keeps his rain-gauge very carefully, we had under 55 inches in 1907, whereas there are places in Britain where the fall is 130 and even 140 inches.

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