Scotland on Sunday Travel Wishlist – A Scottish Zen garden inspired by a Victorian adventurer’s travels in Japan

From Kyoto to Cowden, Eastern-inspired gardens are places of tranquility

Wednesday, 7th October 2020, 10:25 am

Ella Christie in the Japanese Garden she created at Cowden near Dollar in 1908

A vibrant pink lily on the still waters, a lichen palette of green on grey stone, a tame robin and a bounding red squirrel were all magical in their own restful way.This sense of peace is what I remember from visiting Japan. Amid the relentless bustle of the cities there would be an unexpected haven of calm. Kyoto was the garden capital, but Tokyo and Hiroshima had their silent sanctuaries as well.It was in Kyoto that I first encountered the concept of the rock garden, or Karesansui. It was in Ryōan-ji’s Zen garden that I relished the challenge of finding the stones in the seemingly featureless expanse of grey. That step from bigger picture down to detail is a deeply calming experience.And that same feeling envelops me on the slopes of the Ochils. From the grand views across the Forth Valley, through the postcard-perfect scene of the garden itself, down to the water lily.Yet this peaceful garden is the vision of a woman who had a great energy for adventure. Born in 1861, Isabella “Ella” Christie travelled the world when most Scottish women of her social standing were running the Victorian home. Scotland has a long tradition of adventurers and explorers, but to travel as widely and freely as Ella did is noteworthy in itself.As her great-great-niece Sara Stewart explained: “She went to places that no Western woman had been. She was unbelievably brave and that was how she wanted to spend her life. Ella had been brought up as though she had been a son, so she had been very well educated and wanted to see more of the world.”The Royal Geographical Society recognised that spirit with a fellowship – one of the first awarded to a woman. Travelling with her servant Humpries, and trunks with formalwear for any glamorous events she might be invited to, her destinations included India, Malaya and Tibet and she was one of the first western women to meet the Dalai Lama.Ella was in her 40s when she travelled East, taking in China, Hong Kong, Russia and Japan in 1906 and 1907.In Kyoto she met Ella and Florence du Cane, authors of The Flowers And Gardens Of Japan, and on her return set about creating Shã Raku En, “the place of pleasure and delight”, helped by Taki Handa, a rare female garden designer trained at the at the Royal School of Garden Design in Nagoya.By employing specialists in Japanese garden design, Ella’s garden soon established an international reputation – Professor Jijo Suzuki, head of the Soami School of Imperial Garden Design, declaring it “the best garden in the Western World” and it became a tourist attraction in the 1920s and 1930s as well as a regular attraction in Scotland’s Garden Scheme, which Ella’s sister Alice Stewart helped found.Ella died soon after the end

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