THE POETS OF OLD SCOTS GARDENS

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David Stuart  

Computers. Most gardeners seem to hate computers. You and I don't, of course, but for the rest - what a shame, because there are some interesting garden databases around, either to use on your own machine, or to consult, either by linking your computer to the telephone system, or simply by visiting the computer in question. But it's not only garden databases that are useful. One interesting one can be found at the Scottish Poetry Library, in a handsome close off Edinburgh's ancient High Street. Stored on its computer (and very easily used), is a subject list for each poem on the library's extensive shelves, so the horticulturally inclined poet could look for, say, holly and ivy (should he or she want to be seasonal), or wildflowers, apples and so on.

However, if you happen to be interested in old Scots gardens, say ones before the first big Scots plant list of Robert Sibbald (written up in the 1680's), or the first Scots garden book (a bit earlier in the same century), then even a brief hunt through the computer throws up some fascinating sidelights on the gardens that surrounded the windswept towers of Scotland's high and mighty.

The earliest 'find' was the poem written by king James I of Scotland (1394- 1437), during a sojourn at Windsor Castle. Reprinted in 'A Treasury of Garden Verse' edited by Margaret Elphinstone, Canongate 1990 (the publishers still have remaindered copies available), the garden section of 'The Kingis Quair' mentions hawthorn and juniper, hedges high enough to screen the garden from vulgar gaze, and its inner structure railed about 'with wandis long and small'. Perhaps the king was more interested in goddesses than gardens, but the next poem found by the computer was both a little later, and could give you a real garden.

Gavin Douglas (1475 - 1522) made a translation into Scots of Virgil's 'Aeneid', and added some delightful material of his own. He wrote lyrically of the spring garden: '

The blisful blossomis in the blomyt yard
Submittis their headis in the young sunnis safeguard.
Ivy leavis rank ourspread the barmkyn wall,
The blomyt hawthorn cled his pikis all,
Forth of fresh burgeonis the wine grapis ying
Endlang the trellis in twistis hing.'

His garden had some mysterious flowers. One, referred to as departing 'in freckles red and white', must, at that date, have been a fashionable variety of pink or carnation. The 'flour damask', alas, I can't trace. However, Douglas also admired daisies. The most common ancient garden one is usually thought to be Bellis perennis 'Alba Plena', of purest white, very double, and something, if you can remember to keep it divided every few months, that should grow in every garden. It's difficult to know how it was used; probably not in the jewelled 'flowery meads' of contemporary illustration, where it would simply not survive.

Tougher, and grander, is the iris. Douglas's 'flour delice' is heavenly blue, perhaps a form of the common mid-blue German bearded iris, though the usual fleur-de-lys is often thought to be the white and perfumed Iris florentina. Either does splendidly in all Scottish gardens, unless you have a peat bog, and must have looked marvellous against the dour and ivied barmkin walls.



He also has 'columbine blanc and blue'; now, there's a lovely thing. Closest are single forms of the one called Aquilegia 'Adelaide Addison', supposedly a Victorian variety, but certainly far, far, earlier. That, together with the blue iris, offers the beginnings of a delightful garden. Following his suggestions, they could be underplanted with wild strawberries (Douglas praises their young green leaves), mixed, as in the poem, with gilliflowers, primroses and perfumed violets.

Douglas might really have been a gardener; 'gillyflowers' (July flowers), are often translated as pinks or carnations. However, these would have been rapidly shaded out by the vigorous strawberries, and certainly wouldn't like the same growing conditions as the violet and primrose. However, gillyflower could, more rarely, mean either stock or dame's violet (Hesperis matronalis). The latter would grow well amongst strawberries, is about the same height, when flowering, as the iris and the columbine, and begins to come into flower as they fade. They are enchanting, and very prettily perfumed.

And the orchards around the gale-girt houses? The first Scots poem to mention fruit trees that the database uncovered is by Alexander Hume (1553?-1609). In his 'Of the Day Estivall', he mentions 'sallets steipt in ule' (so our forebears ate reasonably healthily), and on a good Scots summer day,

'Sume plucks honie plowm and peare,
The cherrie and the pesche'

(the poem is reprinted in 'The Oxford Book of Scottish Verse' ed. MacQueen and Scott, O.U.P. 1951). So there's the garden. All you need now is the tower. The Edinburgh branch of the Scottish Poetry Library can be found at Tweeddale Court, 14 High Street, in Edinburgh (Tel: 031 557 2876) Opening times Mon. to Dat. 12noon to 6.00pm (8.00pm on Thursdays).

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Copyright david stuart 2004

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