The Newliston Estate: A Silent Eloquence


‘A fine and subtle spirit dwells
In every little flower,
Each one its own sweet feeling breathes
With more or less of power.
There is a silent eloquence
In every wild bluebell
That fills my softened heart with bliss
That words could never tell.’

Anne Brontë

Even locals may not have heard of Newliston House, eight miles west of Edinburgh. There’s little advertising, no brown road signs, no crowds. One might feel, ambling alone through Newliston’s bluebell woods, alongside its languid water courses and down its deserted paths, that you are the sole survivor of the human race rather than a tourist visiting an historic house during peak season.


We begin our walk down a grassy avenue past an enormous high-walled orchard. At the end of the avenue the path turns right and we are in the bluebell woods on a path that circuits the edge of the estate. No one else is around; we feel as though we have the place to ourselves. A slim roe deer bounds towards us, skids to an alarmed standstill at the impossible sight of a human being, about turns and is gone just as quickly.

IMG_0102 I turn back to photograph the bluebells, and my sister, who cannot bear to wait for photographing, quickly disappears into the distance. She walks at the speed of an ostrichone that’s realised it’s late for an appointment to collect its prize for the land speed record. Then, just as quickly, she’s back. She’s been exploring. ‘Let’s walk round the edge,’ she says. I thought we were already walking around the edge of the estate, but no, it turns out that beyond the thicket of Ilex bordering the estate there’s an outer outer path and a ha-ha with a ten-foot drop, beyond which are arable fields. ‘This used to look out on to an improving landscape,’ my sister informs me. She knows a great deal about Newliston, having researched the Robert Adam house and its estate for a paper that she presented at a Historic Scotland conference to an audience of like-minded architectural historians who use phrases like ‘improving landscape’. The gardens, once very formal, are crossed with a sort of Union Jack pattern of paths, and each path lines up with some significant landscape feature: the church at Kirkliston, Niddry Castle, Dundas Castle, Arthur’s seat. I point out that any straight line will eventually line up with something or other, but my sister is already off again, beating a path through untrod woodland, clambering barbed wire fences, striding into the wind like a valkyrie. Going for a walk with my sister often results in being on the wrong side of a fast-flowing river in the gathering dusk, so I begin to bleat about getting back to the ‘real’ garden and reluctantly she agrees.


IMG_0114Soon we’re standing by a long, formal canal, and then in the distance we hear a puffing and chuffing, a little parp-parp, and a tiny steam engine huffs into the valley, crosses a bridge and then disappears round a corner so quickly it might never have happened. Intrigued, we proceed up another of the innumerable long grassy paths to the centre of the park past an impressive statue of Hercules. Shortly, we meet a gentleman with three dogs who tells us he lives in the doocot yonder, a tiny converted dove house with a log pile and car parked outside it. Just when I think the garden couldn’t get any more random, we see the little steam engine reappear at the bottom of a long, wide grassy slope. My sister and I hasten down the slope like overgrown Railway Children; all we need are some pairs of red knickerbockers to complete the scene. There, at the bottom of the little valley is the miniature railway. Bridges, station clocks, signal boxes, points and sidings are all of Liliputian size. The station is a garden bench. Soon the train appears energetically along the track, and the wooden seats are full of adults. So, this is where all Newliston’s visitors are. The driver, who is wearing a hoody and jeans, calls, ‘You wanting on?’, and we clamber astride the wooden seats. A parp parp, and off we go round the track, the wind in our hair and smoke in our eyes.


My lasting impression of Newliston is a romantic, deserted, wistful place that embodies the graceful decline of the great country estate. Newliston remains the family home of descendants of the Hogg family who rebuilt the house in 1789, and the quiet dedication of its current owners to maintain such a large estate and keep it open for visitors is commendable.

Newliston House is open from 1st May to 4th June 2016 on Wednesdays to Sundays 2-6pm, or by appointment. Entrance is £4, or free to Historic Houses Association members and friends.


The bluebells are coming, oh ho!



First things first: I did not grow these greeny-white flowers, whose name you are all going to fill me in on. I bought them several weeks ago from the Gretna Services M&S on my way home from Cumbria. I also bought some red roses (whose by now dried rose petals I scattered round a chocolate mousse cake to great effect). These flowers long outlasted the roses and I’m hot on recycling, so why not use them again? I cut them down afresh for this small glass vase, and added the only flower I have in abundance all over gardens front and back: bluebells.


When thinking of the title of this post, all I could hear was Percy the Small Engine’s song in Stepney The “Bluebell” Engine by Rev. W. Awdry. Funny how things like this hang about in your neurones, un-thought of for thirty years yet leaping reliably to the fore the very moment they are called upon to do so.


The vase is another charity shop find; I do appreciate charity shops for vases. If you look carefully among the china and glass, you can almost always find a treasure lurking behind something dreadful. Happening upon good vases in unlikely locations echoes the spirit of Cathy’s Monday vase challenge in which we search our gardens for flowers and foliage in what can be sometimes (in my case, at least) unpromising botanical conditions.



Geraniums from cuttings

While staying with my grandmother over the bank holiday weekend, she kindly took me round her garden and told me the names of almost every plant, quite remarkable for a 92-year-old woman who is practically blind. ‘Gardening gets in to your blood,’ she remarked. My grandmother has a fund of gardening knowledge, and could describe the management of most plants, shrubs and trees without thinking.

Coveted salmon-pink geranium

I praised a salmon-pink geranium she had growing at the front of the house and my grandmother told me it had flowered all winter, and agreed to show me how to take a cutting that I could then take back to Edinburgh with me.  I was very pleased about this for several reasons, not least that one of my favourite childhood books, The Little White Pony, featured a great deal of salmon-pink geraniums.  I love that soft, hazy sunset hue and geraniums in general, and I also very much like the idea of taking cuttings, the idea that your favourite plants can divide and grow and be given away as gifts or multiplied around the garden so easily. If only one could do that with shoes.

My grandmother found on the mature geranium plant a smallish woody offshoot with about three leaves on it. She broke this off and left it on the draining board to dry out for a few hours. Geraniums like to be a little dry, she said. (I thought with horror about the big geranium back home that I’ve been madly and ignorantly watering.)

She then told me to take a small pot and fill it with damp potting compost, then to stick the wee geranium offshoot straight in. And that’s it. No propagating or putting bags over or any other funny business. Just stick it on the windowsill, she said, and in about six weeks pot it on, ie. put it in a larger pot. Geraniums like sunshine and will happily live on a windowsill, in a porch or conservatory, or outside.

No funny business

My grandmother lives in Derbyshire, almost 300 miles south of Edinburgh. It’s interesting what a few degrees less longitude will make to a garden. Hers is practically in summer mode, with irises and peonies (my favourite) ready to burst in to flower any day now whereas my own irises and peonies are still all leaf and no buds. She has bluebells everywhere (‘they’ve taken over’) and plenty of other gorgeous things like late tulips, forget-me-not, and blossoming fruit trees


Border from above
Bluebells taking over
Peony ready to burst
Japanese quince blossom

What a bit of sunshine can do

My car broke down on Friday night, at 9pm on a lonely stretch of the A68 in Northumberland. I pulled on to the verge and rang for roadside assistance, and presently a chatty Geordie chap turned up in a brightly-coloured relay van and took me, and my car, back home to Edinburgh.

The sunniest Easter weekend

And this is how I found myself unexpectedly in Edinburgh on the sunniest Easter weekend in the history of sunny Easter weekends, rather than 300 miles away with my family in Derbyshire, where by all accounts the weather was fairly pants. I felt perversely lucky to have broken down and therefore be sunning myself on a bench in our Edinburgh garden, the sun-starved Brazilian strumming his guitar contentedly by my side.

In this way I got to observe first hand what a weekend of cloudless warmth and sunshine will do to a garden in April. The plants in our garden were so happy to bathe in sunshine; you could practically see them growing. Remember my poor, diseased purple sage? Not a month ago it looked ready to die. Well, it is now producing healthy leaves.

Today: recouperating sage
Not a month ago, ready to die.

The clematis is budding beautiful purple lanterns.


The rhubarb is shooting up bright stalks that are deliciously ready to eat.


The tulips are almost out (way behind everyone else’s, as usual). The azalea has produced orangey-red buds that are ready to burst.

Azalea: ready to burst

The lilac is putting forth green flower buds that will soon be purple and scented.


The geranium is flowering beautifully.


The weird spirally bulb things by the back door are actual bluebells!

Weird spirally bulb things
Actually bluebells

The lavender and rosemary think they are back in Provence where they belong. Birds are singing, bumblebees whizz past (straight past: no actual flowers to feed on yet), and the garden is generally humming with health, relief and happiness after the long winter. Who knew that a cold, northern city like Edinburgh could produce such warmth and growth and horticultural wonderment?

This blog is mainly about my gardening ignorance and education, about trying and doing and failing and learning and about occasional successes; this weekend for once I let myself sit back and enjoy the garden for what it was without judgement or correction.

The Brazilian