Scottish inspiration 1: Cambo Gardens


The Walled Garden at Cambo House

You’d think that living in France would be inspiration enough for someone creating a garden, wouldn’t you? Not so. Little did I know, when I started making this garden, that I’d have to do without the following: horticultural grit, decent propagating containers, vermiculite, perlite, interesting herbaceous perennials – oh, and interesting shrubs.

Of course, I can (like anyone else) shop online for the plants that are missing in my life, but it’s not quite the same thing as picking up a special something on a day out, is it?

But the most serious gap in my gardening life is garden inspiration.

Consequently, when at home in Scotland once or twice a year (as I am at the moment), I often try to cram it all in. The rigid seed trays go into my hand luggage for the return journey (horticultural grit is a step too far), and sometimes I clock up the miles ogling fantastic gardens.

On Saturday 23 July we visited a garden in Fife, just south of St Andrews, that I’ve long wanted to see. Cambo Gardens at Kingsbarns.

Some of the information that follows comes from a wonderful piece that Stephen Lacey wrote about Cambo in The Telegraph way back in 2012. Do follow my link and read the original if you are interested in learning more about Cambo.

The estate has been owned by the Erskine family for three centuries, although the original house burnt down in 1878. The existing house is austere in the best Scottish sandstone tradition.


Cambo House from the rear, on the paths that lead to the Walled Garden


The front of the house, near the visitors’ car park


To the rear again …


What I would give to have an echium of this stature in front of my house …

The Cambo estate has become Scotland’s answer to ‘galanthomania’, because you can walk the woodland paths in February and drink in a wave of snowdrops to equal those further south in England. I can only drool these days …

Catherine Erskine began the snowdrop festival in 2003 and since then a number of other Scottish gardens have joined in to make Scotland’s own snowdrop trail. Have a look at for more information.

Apparently when Catherine  arrived at the house in 1976 with her husband, Sir Peter Erskine, she didn’t exactly see eye to eye with the head gardener in post at the time. She suggested adding herbaceous plantings in the top corner of the old walled garden and was denied the liberty – this was the only place the wretched man could grow onions.

Fortunately Catherine found a more sympathetic head gardener in the shape of Elliot Forsyth who came to Cambo in 2001. When I read today that Forsyth’s wife is a landscape painter and he himself is an admirer of Piet Oudolf, I understood Cambo’s transformation from the days when herbaceous perennials were denied access …

I’m concentrating on the Walled Garden in this post because it set me on fire. Only a short walk through the gardened woods behind the house and into another world.



A kind of greeting on the other side of the Walled Garden door … here we have modern chaos of the nicest kind, rather than Victorian order.

Yes,  there are many of the features you would expect to find in a Victorian or Edwardian walled garden.

The long pathways lacing the various elements of this two and a half acre site together.


A peaceful horticultural oasis of lawn at the garden’s heart …


There are the old greenhouses – one straddles a stream that runs through the centre of the garden.


It is not schadenfreude to admit relief at the sight of box blight damage … if we suffer, we feel relief that others are soldiering on in spite of it.

The stream ornamented with a small gazebo and bridge in a vaguely Chinese style …


Box-edged herbaceous borders in a more classical style …



Some terrific plant surprises … stupendous Veratrum seed heads rising against the classic box hedges …


… and treasures like this foxglove (which I believe to be Digitalis parviflora).


And the usual vegetables you’d expect to find in an old Scottish walled garden … although they are teamed with some rather odd bedfellows. The potager (below) was ‘resting’ in 2016 because it is currently being revamped. It gives you some clues as to how the rest of your visit will go. This is not your standard walled garden.


The remaining planting uses a very modern prairie style in a limited plant palette – its creators have let rip in the most exciting way. I cannot begin to name all of the grasses, although Stipa gigantea, Stipa tenuissima, Miscanthus and Calamagrostis are prominent.


Associating with this backbone to striking effect are Achillea, bronze fennel, Agastache, Salvia, Veronicastrum, Veronica, Monarda, Eupatorium and Eryngium … in huge variety.  And lots and lots of Sanguisorba – in reds, whites, pinks. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.





Best of all – this is minimal maintenance. Forsyth (quoted by Stephen Lacey) says: ‘In February we cut them [the grasses and perennials] to near ground level with a strimmer, then drive over them with a mower on a high setting. The pulverised stems then get topped with bark. Any weeds get a wipe with glyphosate. We don’t do any staking or feeding, as we want plants to grow with low nitrogen levels as they would in a real meadow.’

Personally, I haven’t seen anything this beautiful since Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden. And I developed a serious love affair with Trifolium rubens


And cemented my already fond regard for Heleniums …


As well as Veronicastrum


And Sanguisorba … and Eupatorium … I never knew there were so many beautiful species and cultivars.


The only plant I saw at Cambo which would be doomed at Châtillon were the Eryngiums. So sad …


I looked and looked and took too many photographs. My overall feelings were the following:

1. Wow – I’m in a time warp! These roses and perennials were flowering 6 weeks ago at home!
2. This is what I’m trying to do at home … and maybe it will work …

That’s a good garden, when you want to rush home and get digging/weeding.

The only criticism I’d level is lack of labelling on the many roses. These are planted underneath the old fruit trees in the Walled Garden (possibly in too much shade) and against the surrounding walls.


In fact everywhere that the garden has been divided into smaller rooms, roses feature in the divisions.

The gardens are open from 9pm until 5pm every day and entry is £5.50 for adults. There’s a good cafe, handily positioned right next to the small plant centre, which offers the specialties of the garden, propagated on site.


If I meet you there next year, don’t show me your purchases. You’ll only make me jealous because I can’t fit them in my hand luggage.

This is only the first part of my Scottish inspirations … there are at least three more in the pipeline.



34 thoughts on “Scottish inspiration 1: Cambo Gardens

  1. jenhumm116

    Ooh Cathy, what a belter of a garden! Thanks so much for sharing. It’s going straight on to my ‘to visit’ list.
    Did you see my posts about Sussex Prarie Garden last year? The naturalistic planting at Cambo reminded me of there. Sadly, not very handy from Scotland, but in my view well worth a visit if you’re anywhere close.

    1. Cathy Post author

      You really should go! And, now that I am trying to get back into the blogging ‘swing’ I shall hasten over to your blog and have a look at the Sussex Prairie Garden. Thanks so much for commenting, and apologies for my late reply!

  2. rusty duck

    That is my sort of garden too. Oh if it were so easy to maintain on a steep hill! I think the mower would struggle a bit.. I’ve just planted the droopy white sanguisorba, lovely to see how it will look.. I hope.

    1. Cathy Post author

      You are right – a mower would struggle on both your hill and mine! But I do use the strimmer on slopes, so that might substitute. I particularly noticed a white sanguisorba at Cambo – it’s a must-have plant (I have none of that genus here so far!). Apologies for my late reply to your kind comment – a funny summer.

  3. Chloris

    What an inspirational garden.Stunning at this time of year but what does this sort of garden look like in spring and early summer, I wonder? I love sanguisorba and veronicastrum too. So many lovely plants.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Thanks Chloris. A good point about spring and early summer. I think they probably have allowed for them – although I didn’t read anything about bulbs etc. Since I usually go back in early May to Scotland (late this year), I shall visit again and report back. So sorry to have been so long responding to your kind comment. I am trying to back track and thank everyone who’s been kind about the Cambo post.

  4. Cathy

    I wasn’t aware of your Scottish roots – do tell me more… Good to see all those lovely photos of Cambo – although it seems as if they have made changes since I was there and there are parts I don’t remember seeing, like the stream area and the herbaceous and box edged borders. How strange – could I have missed them? Trifofolium is on my list for next year, although perhaps I should get seed and start now. It is interesting to hear what things you can’t get in France – we ought to remember that when we gleefully talk about our UK purchases!

    1. Cathy Post author

      I’m so sorry to have been so late replying, Cathy. I think the stream has probably been in place for some time – but I could be completely wrong. It runs under one of the glasshouses (rather unusually) and perhaps they decided to ‘let it rip’ across the centre of the garden when they were doing their more recent renovations. It seems that Christina and I suffer from the same problems re gardening materials and plants. It is difficult not to feel envious. Even when I visit the little garden centre near my mum’s village of Comrie (in Perthshire) I see a million things I would love to bring home. But there are compensations (just not gardening ones!). I hope to participate in the Monday vase again sometime soon. See you then!

      1. Cathy

        Did you bring any plants back with you…? My Mum (on a small Scottish island) is always in awe of the large supermarkets that we take for granted here – like the choice of bread, for example. Do you look at eBay for gardening tmaterials as well as plants and seeds? Many of those could probably be sent abroad and it’s a great way to access things you don’t otherwise know where to buy

      2. Cathy Post author

        I am only just beginning to look at eBay for plants – and actually it was as a result of something you yourself wrote ages ago about snowdrops! I now have a small group of nurseries, mostly French, that I’m buying from by mail order – I keep meaning to add them somewhere on the blog as useful info for anyway newer to gardening in France. I tuck bits and pieces from my Mum’s garden into my suitcase when I come back, but so far haven’t dared do that with bought plants … next time!

      3. Cathy

        I am glad you are finding some suitable French nurseries. By the way, eBay sellers are not always individuals and many small businesses, including nurseries, also sell on eBay and you can restrict your search just to sellers in France (well, you can restrict it to UK sellers, so I assume it will be the same for you)

  5. Island Threads

    little did I know that gardening in Scotland I have to do without ‘horticultural grit, decent propagating containers, perlite, interesting herbaceous perennials – oh, and interesting shrubs.’ vermiculite I think I can get but I’ve never used it, so perhaps it not the country but region of the countries we live in! this morning I wanted to buy some drip trays so I can get more pots on my windowsills, I could not get any, I’ve searched online since coming home and so far not luck, no one will send north of the central belt!

    hmm perhaps Catherine doesn’t like onions and fresh veg, you can’t eat grass, for me as much as I love ornamental plants the veg would come first, but then I guess people would not pay to see veg growing and if you are running a business, the customer is always right, Fife has clearly had better weather than the north west, for a garden like this it would depend on where you are in Scotland, maybe you should live in west France where the climate would be more temperate, Cathy you confuse me you chose to live in France but prefer, Scotland and Canada,

    nice inspirational flower beds, thanks for sharing, Frances

  6. Christina

    I do just as you do Cathy; I’ve brough vermiculite home in my luggage on several occasions although I have seen it on line now and will that that. Plants are often tucked into the luggage – once I went to the plant fair at Courson and all my luggage was plants! I also try to squeeze garden visits in if I can when back in the UK. I had imagined that France would be better provided for than Italy as the French are quite keen gardeners now (but obviously not keen enough). But we live where we live and make the best of things!

    1. Cathy Post author

      Many apologies, Christina, for my incredibly late reply. We just got all bound up in other things. I think maybe I shall try sticking plants in my luggage too – I have odds and ends of things from my mother’s garden that I’ve imported that way. I think the problem is just the area of France. We are far away from the wealth and glitz! Which has it’s good side, after all?

    1. Cathy Post author

      Thanks so much Anca – and sorry to be so late replying – I find August not a very inspiring gardening month. And then in September it just gets busy again.

  7. Edinburgh Garden Diary

    A wonderful looking garden, and just a few miles from where I live. Lucky me! Thanks for the heads-up and interesting write-up. How can the French not have horticultural grit? Clearly a niche in the market waiting to be cornered. Perhaps you could start a British Garden Trading Company of some sort and introduce all these British gardening essentials to the French. You might make a fortune.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Sorry for my exceptionally late reply – I’ve decided to leave the Scottish gardens for when I need to look at lovely pictures in the rain! Meanwhile – thanks so much for commenting! Hoping to take part in Cathy’s meme again sometime soon.

    1. Cathy Post author

      I have not touched my blog for ages, so am late replying. Thanks so much for leaving another encouraging comment! I hope to get back in the swing during this autumn.

  8. bittster

    Snowdrops and then this delight in summer. What a combination! I would love to see this myself and I can understand its impression on you.
    I’m fortunate in that I’ve never had access to much of the “good stuff” so being here in the middle of a horticultural desert doesn’t bother me much. But I am lucky to have several great gardens within a few hour’s travel!
    Enjoy your trip

    1. Cathy Post author

      How interesting about your ‘horticultural desert!’ I thought you had to live in deepest France to experience that! It can be hard for someone from the UK – we are spoiled for choice there. Sorry I am so late replaying!

  9. biggardenblog

    [J+D] Lucky though we are with having a wonderful place to live, and plenty of interesting and rewarding things to do, it is very very difficult to get away at all. What we crave are beautiful gardens, and lovely buildings! We look forward to more reports of inspirational travellings!

    1. Cathy Post author

      Hi Janna – I am very slow to respond to comments at the moment, for which I apologise. I am a little irregular in my blogging (too big a garden!) But I hope you’ve found enough to interest you and bring you back! Thanks for visiting.


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