The Japanese Garden at Cowden Castle

Cowden Castle Estate

The Japanese garden is set within the undulating park and woodland grounds of the former Cowden Castle Estate near Dollar in Clackmannanshire. It was conceived by Ella Christie (1861–1949) who was a pioneering explorer who broke with traditional ideas about the role of women in the later 19th and early 20th century in order to carry out solo expeditions to Tibet, India, Burma, China, Russian Turkestan and Japan.

After an inspiring visit to Kyoto, Ella commissioned the garden in 1908, working with Taki Handa, the only woman to be credited with the design of a garden of its type. It has been described as “the most important Japanese garden in the Western World”.

In its heyday it was visited by celebrities and dignitaries but in 1963 it was destroyed by vandals and with no resources to restore the damaged site it had to be left to ruin for 45 years. It was almost lost forever until responsibility passed to Sara Stewart in 2008 who was determined to restore the garden to its former glory and created a charitable Trust to begin the process. Historic Scotland funded the production of a Conservation Management Plan and the garden was included in the Inventory of Gardens and Designed Landscapes in 2012.

In 2013 Professor Masao Fukuhara of Osaka University was giving a lecture in Scotland and due to its significance asked to see the garden. Professor Fukuhara had previously restored the Japanese Gardens at Tatton Park, designed the Japanese garden at Kew and was awarded a Gold Medal at the Chelsea Flower Show. The Professor considered the garden to be so significant to UK and Japanese heritage that he offered at minimal cost to visit periodically from Japan to oversee a total restoration project with volunteer’s teams, also from Japan, providing further resource.

Over a two-year period extensive areas have been restored and planted included the “Flat Gardens” and the “Slopes of Mount Fuji”. Water has been returned to the garden and structures have been built including the first rest house (Azumaya) and entrance gate. A car parking area a short walk from the site has been created with additional hardstanding closer to the site to allow parking for disabled access. The restoration is nearing completion but funding is still needed for the infrastructure required to deliver a high-quality visitor experience and to interpret the incredible story of the garden. Planting and path work remains and further traditional structures are to be constructed.

A key element involves the reconstruction of the two storey Pavilion on the site of the former boathouse building which will provide a base for staff and will interpret the garden. As a welcome and orientation point the building will tell the story of how the original vision for the garden became a reality, the dark day of the vandals and the current efforts to restore it. It will display a small collection celebrating Ella Christie, explaining how Japanese gardens are a source of meditation and peace and there will be special events, walks, learning and training opportunities. The garden is not yet open to the public as an attraction, but some events have been held on site in order to raise awareness of the garden and to engage interested local groups. These have been exceptionally popular.

Once open it is intended that the garden will be an important additional visitor attraction in Clackmannanshire, for both local people and visitors from much further afield, significantly adding to the economy of the area. The history of the garden is one that can be used to inspire others to believe that anything is possible.

In addition, a strong female thread runs throughout the story of the garden, in its creation, decline and recent restoration; Ella Christie's intrepid exploration, her achievement in making her vision for the garden become a reality and her election as one of the very first women to be elected to the Royal Geographical Society; The commission of Taki Handa to design the Japanese Garden. She is the first and only Japanese woman to have done so; Sara Stewart's energy and determination to make the restoration happen and to make her vision a reality for what the garden can now be. Without her intervention, all evidence of the garden would have been lost. She has donated the land to the charity, tirelessly fundraised and contributed large sums herself to ensure an incredible and unique asset in Scotland is there for others to soon, hopefully, enjoy.