The story of the magnificent Blair Castle is set out in full on our feature page about it. On this we page cover the gardens and grounds surrounding the castle. Not all of them: the Atholl Estates cover a total of some 145,000 acres or nearly 60,000 hectares. Instead we focus on two highly individual and very different gardens to the north and east of the castle, Diana's Grove and the Hercules Garden. Full information about opening hours and admission prices can be found on our Blair Castle feature page.
First a little history. The development of Blair Castle began with the building of what is now known as Cumming's Tower in 1269. Shortly afterwards there is a record of a church standing a little to its north east on the site now occupied by the ruin of St Bride's Kirk. The church may have been built by the occupants of the new castle, or it may already have been centuries old: either way, this is a landscape with a story to tell from long before gardens were first contemplated here.
The first real gardens were laid out in the 1600s in a walled enclosure to the west of the castle. They have not survived. In 1724, James Murray , the second son of the 1st Duke of Atholl, inherited his father's title and became second Duke. His older brother had supported the Jacobite cause in the 1715 uprising and was in exile in France, losing the chance to inherit the title as a result. From 1740 James began the work to transform the medieval Blair Castle into a grand Georgian mansion, something he went on to complete despite its being besieged by his younger brother, Lord George Murray, another Jacobite, during the 1745 uprising.
By the time he started work on redeveloping the castle in 1740, James had already spent three years laying out the two gardens which today form such an integral part of any visit to Blair Castle. Diana's Grove lies a short distance to the north of the castle itself and occupies both banks of the Banvie Burn. The garden is named after the Roman goddess of hunting, Diana, whose statue forms a focal point for the garden, with paths radiating out from it.
Diana's Grove was planted with large numbers of trees, including many exotic species previously little known in Great Britain. Some of the first European Larch planted in the country made their appearance in the grove, and they were followed by firs from many parts of the world, especially from North America. The work was given greater impetus by the 7th Duke, who introduced Japanese Larch in 1884. In 1893 a great storm blew down many of the trees and destroyed the statue of Diana. the 7th Duke replaced it and replanted the grove. Many of the trees you see there today were introduced by him.
Highlights to be enjoyed today include the Grand Fir. This was officially measured for the Tree Registry in February 2009, and at 62.70m high is now confirmed as the second tallest tree in the UK. Also on view is the tallest Japanese Larch in the UK at 44m high, and the tallest Red Fir in the UK at 39m high. At the east end of Diana's Grove it is possible to visit the ruin of St Bride's Kirk.
The Hercules Garden was also planned by John Murray, 2nd Duke of Atholl, and much of the work was undertaken by his gardener John Wilson. It extends to some 9 acres and occupies both sides of a shallow valley running east, away from the castle. As walled gardens go, the Hercules Garden is extremely impressive, and it is its sheer scale which strikes you first. The garden is named after the life-size statue of Hercules placed on top of a small hill just outside the south wall of the garden in 1743. The idea was that guests would walk from the castle along the outside of the garden wall to the statue, whereupon they would be presented with a stunning view taking in the entire garden laid out across the valley below them. The effect is every bit as impressive today.
The central axis of the garden is formed by a long artificial lake, shaped to give the effect of wooded islands and pinched together in the middle where it is crossed by the Chinese Bridge. A number of swan and duck houses have been established at points around the lake. The east end of the garden is home to McGregor's Folly, a gazebo added in 1888 and named after a friend of the Duchess's. Standing between the gazebo and the end of the lake (which forms a curling pond) are six statues, four of cherubs and the other two a pair comprising a shepherd and a shepherdess.
After thriving for two centuries, the Hercules Garden was left untended during World War One, and by the end of World War Two was overgrown and derelict. A failed attempt was made to run it as a market garden in the 1950s, and afterwards it was again left to run wild. It was the 10th Duke who began to restore the garden in the 1980s and the work continues today. McGregor's Folly contains a series of displays showing what has been achieved to date, and what more is planned.