Ella Christie’s Japanese Garden enjoys worldwide prominence largely due to it being the only one of its kind to have been designed by a female landscape garden designer. To this day Japanese women are not allowed to be accredited with the design of a garden of this size. In addition, Cowden was maintained by Mr Shinsaburo Matsuo between 1925 and 1937 reinforcing the garden’s credibility of not being a ‘pastiche’ of a Japanese Garden.
Isabella ‘Ella’ Christie of Cowden (1861-1949) was a formidable lady whose achievements include being the first western lady to travel from Samarkand to Khiva and to meet the Dalai Lama. Between 1904 and 1905 she travelled to India and then on to Kashmir, Tibet, Malaya and Borneo. Although at times travelling in hostile conditions, her trunks contained dresses for parties, (which included a banquet given by the Maharaja of Kashmir and dinner with Lord Kitchener then Commander in Chief, India). She camped in the snow at Chorbat Pass, sailed in a cargo ship full of pigs, travelled by pack horse and cart in the Kashmir wilderness and trekked by foot for sixty miles in the Desoi Mountains. Aged 50, while waiting for the train at Dollar station Ella was asked if she was travelling to Edinburgh, the short reply “No, Samarkand” perfectly encapsulates the fearless spinster who was fluent in four languages, including Finnish. On her return from Uzbekistan, where she travelled via train, steamer and droshky, she was in the first cohort of women to be elected Fellows of The Royal Geographical Society. However, it was during a trip to China, Korea (for her maid to be treated for a head injury in an American hospital) and Japan between 1907 and 1908 that Ella became inspired to create a Japanese garden at Cowden and employ Taki Handa to fulfil her dream:
The Japanese Garden at Cowden is situated in the beautiful county of Clackmannanshire, thirty miles north-west of Edinburgh and nine miles south of the renowned Gleneagles Golf Course.
One of the few surviving sites of its kind in the United Kingdom, the Japanese Garden was created by my great, great aunt, Ella Christie (1861–1949). Known for her ambitious solo expeditions in the early 1900s, Ella was inspired to create a Japanese garden at her home, Cowden Castle, during a visit to Kyoto in 1907. At that time the British cultural love-affair with Japan was approaching its height, but while many other Japanese-style gardens in Britain were a pastiche or mismatch of elements, Cowden was distinguished from the start by the involvement of Japanese practitioners familiar with the complexity of Japanese garden design.
Ella’s seven acre garden was designed by Taki Handa, overseen by Professor Jijo Suzuki and maintained by Shinzaburo Matsuo. Centred on a long artificial lake, the garden incorporated elements of three traditional Japanese garden forms: a pond and island garden; a stroll garden; and a tea-house garden.
Ella Christie died in 1949 and Cowden was inherited by my father, Ella’s great nephew, Robert Stewart. Although the castle was demolished, the garden continued to be the favoured destination of many ‘garden tours’, until one night in 1963 when the tea houses, bridges and lanterns were vandalised beyond repair. During this time my father was occupied with county politics, his farm and raising five children. As much as he loved Cowden, he didn’t have the time, or the resources, to invest in full restoration. In addition, schemes suggested by various companies focussed on novelty theme parks; none of the designs saw the value of the garden as the primary destination.
In 2008, when my father was 82, Cowden was handed over to me. It had been my intention for some years to seek sponsorship to restore the historic garden and sensitively incorporate Imperial style Japanese architecture. The surrounding park still contains many of the trees planted by Ella’s father John Christie, a keen arborist.
In 2013 Professor Masao Fukuhara of Osaka University of Arts was giving a lecture in Scotland and asked to visit Cowden. Instantly enthusiastic, and with credentials that included restoring the Japanese Gardens at Tatton Park in Cheshire and Kew in London as well as winning the Gold Medal at Chelsea Flower Show, the family knew that the Professor was the man to oversee the project.
Restoration of this important site is and continues to be a monumental task, but I feel passionately for its success; not just for those with an interest in historic gardens, but for the people of Japan who will be able to visit and enjoy another shared interest in Scotland.