Owned and cared for by the National Trust for Scotland, Pitmedden Garden is easy to overlook against the background of the fine castles and stately homes the NTS also care for in Aberdeenshire, all of which come complete with their own gardens and estates. Why bother with a garden on its own when you can enjoy one together with the house or castle it was built for? The simple answer is that if you overlook Pitmedden Garden, you overlook one of the most spectacular and distinctive gardens in Scotland, a 1950s recreation of the "Great Garden" first established here in the years from 1675.
If you do so you also, incidentally, overlook the fascinating Museum of Farming Life created almost as an afterthought and housed in the farm buildings occupying part of the site. Pitmedden Garden is one of Aberdeenshire's most understated visitor attractions, and well worth seeking out.
The starting point for any visit to Pitmedden is the car park, reached by a loop of private road signposted from the A920. From here you proceed to the south wing of Pitmedden House, which is home to the visitor reception, shop, and tea room. It is worth noting that this is the only part of Pitmedden House that is open to visitors.
Once in the garden itself there is little immediately on view beyond enclosing hedges and the sculpture of two boxing hares. Rounding the rear of the house brings you into the true upper part of the garden. This is home to broad lawns and finely sculptured and regulated trees and hedges, and to two parterres. A parterre is a highly formalised garden usually involving closely clipped hedges and laid out in a symmetrical pattern. The idea started life in France and England in the early 1600s, but most were replaced when the fashion for landscape gardening took hold from the 1720s.
The two in the upper garden at Pitmedden were created in 1993 and 1996. The more southerly of the two has extensive low box hedging with the gaps in the design planted with lavender, chives and other herbs that would have been known to gardeners in the 1600s. The northerly upper parterre has an identical pattern, but the areas within the box hedging are covered with coloured gravels rather than plants, producing a striking (and historically valid) variation on the theme. Between Pitmedden House and the farmhouse to its north are a number of more intimate gardens which, though still tightly enclosed by clipped hedges, have a slightly less formal feel to them.
Having seen the two parterres nearest the house, it is easy to follow the natural focus of the garden provided by the fountain and the avenues of clipped trees to the gateway in a low wall directly east of the central axis of Pitmedden House itself.
Prepare to have your breath taken away, because your first view across Pitmedden's lower garden is remarkable. Here, apparently sunk into the ground (in fact terraced into the side of the slight slope on which the whole garden is built) is an enormous walled enclosure with a central tree lined avenue and four distinct parterres. Taken with the two on the upper level, these provide a history of the development of a parterre. And if you have ever recoiled at the idea of trimming your hedge at home, spare a though for those responsible for keeping the six miles of closely trimmed hedging at Pitmedden in such magnificent condition.
It is worth asking how 1950s garden restorers knew what to plant in order to recreate a 1675 garden. The answer is a complicated one. The "Great Garden", as it was known, was initially created by Sir Alexander Seton to accompany his house at Pitmedden. In 1807 Pitmedden House suffered a major fire which destroyed most of the house and contents, including any records which might have existed of the original design of the garden.
Sir William Coote Seton had the ruin replaced by a new Pitmedden House in 1853. Even if you assume that anything of the original garden design had survived the changes of taste of the 1700s, none of it emerged intact after running wild between 1807 and 1853.
Pitmedden House and Garden were passed to the National Trust for Scotland in 1952 by its then owner, Major James Keith, who farmed extensively in the surrounding area. The Trust made a number of changes to the house, but the main focus of their activity was the garden itself, and their ambition was nothing less than to recreate something like Sir Alexander Seton's 1675 "Great Garden".
In the absence of surviving documents describing the garden in any detail, they turned for inspiration instead to a vertical view of Edinburgh produced in 1647 by James Gordon of Rothiemay. This included detail of the gardens then laid out at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, and the design of three of these were used as the basis for three of the parterres then established in the lower garden at Pitmedden. The fourth was designed from scratch to incorporate elements celebrating the Great Garden's founder, Sir Alexander Seton.
It was thought in the 1950s that sticking rigidly to the design rules of the late 1600s might not appeal to modern visitors, so the garden also incorporated modern features such as the planting of annual bedding plants within the parterres, and the establishment of herbaceous borders. In all the garden now includes some 40,000 annual plants which have to be raised in the garden's glasshouses and planted out each spring.
Pitmedden Garden is therefore sometimes viewed today as a 1950s pastiche rather than a true restoration of the Great Garden, and it may also be viewed as a little piece of Edinburgh Old Town transplanted into Aberdeenshire. But none of this detracts from the sheer wonder of the garden you see today, nor the value of visiting it.
When the NTS was given Pitmedden House and Garden, it was also given the neighbouring farm and an extensive collection of farm implements. This now forms the core of the Museum of Farming Life, an excellent museum housed in a number of buildings just to the north of Pitmedden House. These include a farmhouse with rooms presented as they might have been in the 1800s, and stables complete with all the fittings you'd expect, and a horse and groom you might not. Nearby are the farm buildings, now home to a wide range of agricultural machinery, workshops and even a bothy in which agricultural workers would have lived.