A twenty-minute walk from my house there’s an eighteenth century pinetum, enfolded in a bend of the River Braan. The Hermitage, as it’s known, was created for the Dukes of Atholl as an extension of the gardens of their second home, nearby Dunkeld House. Complete with a fake hermit’s cave, a deep gorge, and a folly overlooking a fierce waterfall and salmon-leap, the Hermitage provided a dramatic riverside walk for the Atholl family and their visitors.
I know all this partly because it’s on my doorstep, partly because some years ago I wrote the guidebook for the Dukes of Atholl’s principal seat, Blair Castle, twenty miles up the road at Blair Atholl. Usually I forget things in direct proportion to the speed with which I’ve had to assimilate them; but sometimes I’m sufficiently engaged by the subject for some of it to stick. So on this occasion I also know that the fourth Duke of Atholl was known as ‘the planting duke’, and that he propagated acres of hillside with larch by firing seed out of a cannon. His plan was to help keep the British navy afloat, but alas the first ironclad appeared while his little larches were still saplings. Nevertheless, we’re in his debt for much of the magnificent russet and gold that cloaks the Tay valley each autumn.
But more impressive than any larch is the stand of Douglas Firs at the Hermitage. These giants rise up on the riverbank, tall and straight and spacious, like the pillars of an enormous cathedral, and you have to crane your neck to see the canopy. These we owe to David Douglas, another local but from the opposite end of the social spectrum. More or less contemporaneous with the fourth duke, Douglas was the son of a gardener at Scone Palace, home of the Earls of Mansfield, just outside Perth (and I know this because I also wrote the guidebook for Scone Palace – during what I should perhaps now refer to as the ‘heritage phase’ of my career).
One of the earliest and most famous of all plant-hunters, David Douglas was astonishingly tough. He travelled the wilderness of northwest America, frequently alone and on foot, fending off wild animals and hostile natives, climbing unnamed summits and traversing vast tracts of unmapped forest. In one famous incident he calmly records in his journal how he is lying behind a fallen tree, cocked rifle in one hand, knife drawn and resting on the trunk before him, as a war party of Indians advances on him through the trees.
Douglas was responsible not only for bringing home the Douglas Fir but also for a huge number of other common plants that we now take for granted in our gardens. He came to a sticky end, aged thirty-six, in an animal pit that already contained an angry bison. Whether he fell in or was pushed has never been fully ascertained. But he’s on my mind today because yesterday I ran a workshop for staff of the Edinburgh International Book Festival in the David Douglas room at Edinburgh’s Botanical Gardens; and I asked them, in advance, to find out what they could about him. The room is a wonderful first-floor space with handmade furniture in different woods, and three glass walls looking straight out into the trees of the gardens. It seemed appropriate that they should make the link between this botanical hero and the place where we were spending the afternoon.
But the story doesn’t quite end there. I’m writing this on the train home to Dunkeld from Edinburgh, having stayed overnight for a board meeting. In the seat opposite me is a young man who, it transpires, is on his way home to Blair Atholl for the weekend. Now he works in Edinburgh but until a year ago he was a groundsman – at Blair Castle.
Sometime one has the sense of being spun on a wheel whose revolutions are quite beyond one’s imagining.