Last Updated on February 4, 2024
We’d traveled all day along the Western Highlands’ spectacular routes, navigating challenging single-track lanes. With each oncoming vehicle, an urgent decision arose: who would back up to the nearest passing place? Luckily, Finlay knew the rules.
Exhausted, we found solace at the Gairloch Hotel in the village of the same name. As the last light of day faded behind the Highland peaks, we looked forward to something new, something peaceful, and that place was awaiting us, just six miles away, at Inverewe Garden.
A Verdant Oasis in the Highlands
The next morning, we drove to Poolewe, a tiny village nestled along Loch Ewe’s serene southern shore. There, Inverewe Garden revealed itself as a mosaic of verdant foliage and vivid flower collections providing a striking contrast with the wild, heathery crags of the adjoining coast.
Once a barren landscape, this botanical wonder, with plant species from around the globe, thrives in this area’s unique climate, thanks largely to the warm currents of the Gulf Stream.
The surrounding seas temper the winter’s bite, while extensive shelter belts create a special micro-climate, ideal for moisture-loving plants like rhododendrons and mahonia.
Visitors can explore a rich variety of flora from sub-tropical zones worldwide at a latitude further north than that of Moscow.
A Visionary’s Transformation
Osgood Mackenzie, heir to the Gairloch lairds, is the visionary behind Inverewe Garden. Inheriting the 12,000-acre Highland estate in 1863 at the age of 20, Mackenzie faced a daunting task: transforming a windswept, treeless wasteland into something remarkable.
Rejecting the notion of an insurmountable challenge, Mackenzie set about his ambitious endeavor. He began by building a mansion house on a rocky promontory, then turned his attention to the landscape.
Drawing inspiration from the grand gardens of Europe and the woodlands of his youth, he painstakingly transformed the rugged terrain into a thriving garden.
By the time of Mackenzie’s death in 1922, the garden had flourished and stretched across the peninsula. He’d planted the surrounding 100 acres of woodland with native Scandinavian Scots pine, and any other trees he could find, including birch, rowan, oak, beech and alder.
His daughter, Mairi Sawyer, took over the garden’s care and in 1952, she passed the stewardship of this horticultural masterpiece to the National Trust for Scotland.
The garden today is a testament to Mackenzie’s vision, featuring a complex network of winding paths and walkways that link over a dozen distinct gardens. Each area showcases exotic plant collections from as far afield as Chile, China, Tasmania and the Himalayas, creating a botanical tapestry that reflects a world of diversity.
Serenity in the Wild Highlands
Entering from the Visitor Center, we were immediately struck by the profound sense of solitude and the lush natural beauty surrounding us.
Thousands of people visit Inverewe each year, yet the garden felt serene and uncrowded, an oasis of tranquility in the rugged landscape of the Highlands.
A wave of calm washed over me, silencing the constant need to hurry I usually carried. It was as if the stillness of the garden absorbed all my stress, leaving me present in the moment.
Secrets of the Walled Garden
We veered to our left, drawn to the enchanting Walled Garden, which lies alongside the sea. I’ve always had a fondness for walled gardens; they evoke memories of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Secret Garden”—a mystical hideaway offering an escape into a world of natural beauty.
Walking into the Walled Garden was like stepping into a painting, vibrant and meticulously crafted. Gravel pathways guide visitors through a kaleidoscope of blooms–from the delicate hues of catmint and forget-me-nots to the rich tones of climbing roses and clematis.
Along the southern wall, camellias and hydrangeas blossom, complemented by an array of shade-loving plants.
The Walled Garden is the most formal part of Inverewe. Its structured beauty contrasts with the wild woodland garden beyond. After lingering here, we headed to Inverewe House, ready to delve into its storied walls.
Stepping Into the Story of Inverewe House
Perched atop a verdant, sweeping lawn, the immaculate white home opened to visitors in 2016, stands as the Sawyer’s modern replacement for Mackenzie’s original dwelling.
Inside the house, visitors see Osgood and Mairi’s stories brought to life. A room at the rear showcases the work of local artists as well as those from further afield.
After browsing the interactive exhibits, we entered the living room and stood by the front window, captivated by the view.
We could see the terraces made from the stones of the original house, Mairi’s rock garden, the expanse of the front lawn leading down to the sea and beyond, to the distant Torridon Hills. It was immediately clear why Mackenzie chose to build here, despite the challenges it presented.
Wildlife and Scenic Walks
As we ventured into the woodlands, I couldn’t help looking skyward, hopeful for a glimpse of a Golden Eagle soaring above. The majestic trees stood as silent witnesses to our passage, their towering forms a stark contrast to the open skies we hoped to see graced by an eagle’s flight.
Inverewe is home to Scotland’s ‘Big 5:’ Red Squirrels, Red Deer, otters, seals, and Golden Eagles. Although the eagles remained elusive, the sight of Red Squirrels playfully darting among the pines was a reminder of nature’s unscripted beauty.
While watching them play, I realized that in the rush of everyday life, I often overlook such fleeting encounters, their quiet beauty lost in a sea of urgent tasks.
Here, beneath these ancient boughs, the garden whispered a gentle lesson: the richness of life often lies in these unnoticed moments.
Strolling Through Blossoming Trails
We soon found ourselves on the Rhododendron Walk, a pathway carved out by Mackenzie in the early 1880s that winds through the towering pines. This walkway, with its vibrant blooms, was not just a feast for the eyes but a balm for the soul, urging a slower pace, inviting contemplation.
Another notable spot in the garden was the Peace Plot, a tribute to the end of World War I. Here, a prized rhododendron from Sri Lanka, planted around 1906, stood as a living symbol of peace and resilience.
We hiked further to a scenic viewpoint where Loch Ewe meets Camas Glas Bay and watched a Grey heron elegantly fishing at the water’s edge.
The Art of Slowing Down
Retracing our steps to the garden’s entrance, a deep sense of reflection washed over me. One could spend hours meandering these trails, and surprisingly, I yearned to do just that. The garden’s immersive tranquility had cast its spell, urging me to decelerate, to savor.
As our visit to Inverewe drew to a close, I found myself reluctant to leave. The garden, a place where time seemed to stand still, had offered me a rare respite from my usual hurried pace. Yet other destinations beckoned.
Our time in this peaceful haven was a gentle reminder of the beauty that unfolds when we pause to embrace the moment. Inverewe had not just been a journey through nature’s wonders, but also a journey within, teaching me the value of slowing down, even if just for a day.