Scotland’s Drummond Castle was recently cast in a starring role. Such is its likeness to Versailles, complete with terraces linked by staircases, a magnificent parterre, sculptural topiary, and busts and fountains, that it served as the (smaller) set location for the archetypal French garden in the historical television drama Outlander. The imposing Scottish castle keep and its later chateau-style mansion house preside over a parterre of spectacular proportion. While visitors are struck by the sheer geometry of the plantings and manicured shapes, Drummond is particularly memorable when its grounds are whitened with winter frost.

Frosted in Time

Drummond Castle (circa 1490) and Mansion House (1648)

The formal garden design was devised in the seventeenth century to beautify the fortified stronghold, a sober edifice built in the late 1490s by the first Lord Drummond. Subsequently, the “pleasure” garden rose and fell with political developments and, in times of peace, reflected prevailing fashions in horticulture and landscape design. Over time, the formality became more relaxed and naturalized, with mass plantings of indigenous trees, notably in the mid-eighteenth century, when Capability Brown’s popular designs were adopted. 

Frosted in Time

Drummond Castle (circa 1490) and Mansion House (1648) preside over the twelve-acre parterre, which is symmetrically decorated with hundreds of frost-rimmed topiary shapes in an assortment of boxwood, holly, and yew.

But elaborate plans were drawn again for a grand, formal parterre in the nineteenth century. The residing Clementina Drummond and her husband, Peter Robert Burrell (later Baron Willoughby de Eresby), called for gardens that would be “fit for a queen,” and, indeed, Queen Victoria visited in 1842. To mark the occasion, Her Majesty planted two beech trees. One survives on the grounds, while the other fell victim to a storm in 2012.

The essential structure and sentiment of that nineteenth-century design survive, though it was later simplified. The twelve-acre rectangular parterre is imaginative, original, and (largely) symmetrical. It appears to radiate from a focal point—an obelisk sundial crafted in 1640 by John Mylne, master stone mason to Charles I. The area’s overarching design replicates the Scottish national flag, defined by its white St Andrew’s Cross set against a field of blue. Broad swaths of shorn grass convey the flag’s diagonals, the lines edged with silvery-white lamb’s ear. Wedge-shaped flower beds fill the space between the diagonals, which are crisscrossed with lacy box rivulets. These spill over with heraldic red and yellow bedding plants to reflect the colors of the Drummond family’s coat of arms. Specimen trees, heathland shrubs, and sculptural topiary fill in the fabric of the flag. 

A Champion tree, or what is more commonly known as a Paperbark maple, assumes a dignified, if frosted, profile.

The Victorian passion for discovering and harvesting plants is reflected throughout the gardens, which contain more than thirty ancient and unusual champion trees—from giant redwoods to purple-leafed oaks, some dating to their original planting. The parterre teems with exquisite maples: red-leafed Japanese maples; paperbark maples; and Drummond’s own seedling discovery, the variegated Norway maple.

Not unlike their penchant for creating elaborate architectural details, the Victorians adored topiary forms. The garden at Drummond reflects that obsession, with silhouettes of all shapes and sizes carved from an array of plantings, including boxwood; cypress; silver, golden, and variegated hollies; Portuguese laurel, and silver-edged yew.

The parterre’s design depicts Scotland’s national flag. Grass ribbons form the diagonals between intricate boxwood wedges. Towering Leyland cypress trees dwarf assorted signature yew, holly, and boxwood topiary.

The garden faded considerably in the period during and between both World Wars. However, in the 1950s, the American-born Nancy Phyllis Louise Astor, wife of James Heathcote-Drummond-Willoughby, sought to reinstate the parterre, keeping its historic design intact and augmenting the impressive herbaceous borders. Today, her daughter and Drummond’s chatelaine, Baroness Willoughby de Eresby, continues the family’s gardening legacy. Head Gardener, Edith Barnes, along with four staff gardeners and two volunteers, ensures that the expansive parterre is maintained in the spirit of the Drummond family tradition.

Meticulously clipped topiary shapes stand in contrast to majestic specimen trees, including (center rear) a beech planted by Queen Victoria in 1842.

As Barnes explains, “The garden is designed and planted to peak in summer when the castle would fill with family and their guests, there to enjoy the grouse shooting and red deer stalking seasons.” The summer parterres radiate with the sunshine-yellow floribunda “Top Rose” and the red floribunda “Evelyn Fison” rose, together with color-coordinated bedding plants echoing colors of the family’s crest. In autumn, the flowers subside, allowing the magnificent maples, formidable beech hedges, and outlying trees to light up the estate.

It is in winter, though, that the garden can be best admired. For the season, the parterre and topiary have been meticulously clipped. Sugar-dusted silhouettes stand against grounds blanketed in white, while hoar frost hangs heavy, icing majestic estate trees. Drummond’s ever-evolving historic parterre is frosted, not frozen, in time.  

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This story appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of MILIEU.