Cowden was celebrated as an especially authentic and successful example of a Japanese-style garden in the West and remains known as such in modern scholarship. Although it does not survive intact, enough of its basic structure survives for it to hold its place among one of very few remaining sites of this kind and era in the UK.
A historic Japanese-style garden designed and maintained by Japanese practitioners Taki Handa and Professor Suzuki in the early 20th century for the explorer Isabella (Ella) Robertson Christie (1861-1949). It incorporates elements of three Japanese garden forms; a pond and island garden, a stroll garden and a tea-house garden. The garden was seriously vandalised in the 1960s and none of the built structures remain. However much of its essential form remains, including plantings, the plan and form and low-lying structures, including symbolic stones.
Located 2.5km north east of Dollar, the Japanese-style garden is set within the undulating park and woodland grounds of the former Cowden Castle estate. The garden itself occupies a relatively low-lying area close to the Cowden estate boundary wall. It is centred on an artificial lake created from what was once a tract of waterlogged ground and is secluded around much of its perimeter by higher ground, shelter-belt plantations and the mature specimen trees and shrubs of the garden itself with the notable exception of an open and panoramic outlook to the west towards the Ochill Hills. The concept of shakkei or borrowed landscape is a common device in Japanese garden design, and this view is significant in how the garden was intended to be experienced.
Cowden Japanese-style garden was the brainchild of explorer Ella Christie (1861–1949). She is known to historians as one of a handful of pioneering explorers who broke with traditional ideas about the role of women in the later 19th and early 20th century in order to mount ambitious and far-flung solo expeditions (Birkett 2004). Her early trips included Tibet, India and Burma in 1904–5, China, Korea and Japan in 1907 and Russian Turkestan in 1910 and 1912 where she was the first British woman to reach Khiva in modern Uzbekistan.1
In between expeditions, Christie transformed her home environment at Cowden Castle, evoking scenes from her travels by filling rooms with artefacts.2 It was her journey to Japan, however, that inspired her most ambitious home project. Enchanted by the gardens, temples and flowers of Kyoto and Tokyo in the late spring of 1907, and having taken a nine hour walking tour around Mount Fuji, she settled on the idea of creating her own Japanese-style garden.3
The wider context for Ella Christie’s personal interest was the end of Japan’s self-imposed isolation in the mid-19th century and the ensuing vogue in the West for its art, culture and nature. Garden-making was a popular manifestation of this trend, fuelled by the sudden availability of exotic plants, bulbs and ornaments, the work of artists and writers, such as Josiah Conder, author of the influential 1893 Landscape Gardening in Japan, and the trend-setting example of early gardens like that at Gunnersbury House, Middlesex. By the time of Christie’s trip east, the British cultural love-affair with Japan was approaching its height. Within the space of just six months in 1910, some eight million people visited the Japan–British Exhibition in White City, London, with its gardens, tableaux and miniature landscapes.4
Whereas most early 20th-century Japanese-style gardens in Britain were a pastiche or mismatch of elements, Cowden was distinguished from the start by the involvement of experienced Japanese garden designers who applied fundamental concepts of the design tradition to create a more convincing design.5 First of these was Taki Handa from the Royal School of Garden Design in Nagoya and another female pioneer in her field. While still in Japan, Christie had been advised by Josiah Conder to source ‘English speaking experts’.6 and Handa certainly fitted this description, having studied horticulture and botany both in Kyoto and in the UK. Commissioned by Christie in 1907 to establish the framework of the garden, Handa spent six weeks at Cowden shaping the ground and placing stones.7
Japanese garden design is an ancient and complex discipline in which practitioners devise entire landscapes in microcosm. Scale, proportion and harmony are prioritised in order to compose highly refined views of nature, rich in meaning and symbolism. At Cowden, the overall layout was determined by these conventions. It was inspired partly by the ‘ancient rule’ of the Imperial Palace Gardens and partly by Josiah Conder’s writing.8 ‘An absolute sense of proportion was observed from the very beginning’, wrote Christie.9
Carefully composed photographs taken in the years immediately afterwards show the bare bones of the new garden. There was the newly created lake itself, the main island accessed by wooden bridges, timber structures and symbolic stones, lanterns and small shrubs all set within an open, still treeless landscape. Paths and stepping stones marked out the route around the lake, punctuated by a thatched gateway on the south side of the lake, a Shinto shrine on the west, and a revolving summerhouse on the north. The garden was named Shāh-rak-uen, meaning a place of pleasure or delight.
Christie then initiated what was to become an enduring professional relationship with a second key figure: Professor Jijo Soya Suzuki, Master of the Soami School of Imperial Design, who had forged a successful career in the UK from c.1910 onwards.10 Suzuki visited Cowden on occasion to advise on garden form, planting and architecture and to execute very specific pruning methods on the growing trees and shrubs. His surviving letters provide valuable insight into the philosophy behind the practical garden work at Cowden, and one of his most well-known modifications was to persuade Christie to remove one of the original bridges and create a new, zig-zag (yatsuhashi), bridge in its place (NLS Acc. 5058).
The third Japanese individual associated with Cowden was employed by Christie in order to provide continuous, on-site care. Recommended by Suzuki in 1925, Shinzaburo Matsuo lived and worked as gardener at Cowden until his death in 1937 where according to some accounts he proved ‘as great an attraction to visitors as the exotic plants’.11
The combination of Christie’s drive and vision together with the involvement of individuals familiar with the nuances of Japanese garden design meant that Cowden achieved some degree of fame in its hey-day as a particularly authentic Japanese-style garden. According to Professor Suzuki, it was, in fact, the best in the Western world (NLS Acc. 5058).
NLS: National Library of Scotland
© Crown copyright, Historic Scotland. All rights reserved. Mapping information derived from Ordnance Survey digital mapping products under Licence No. 100017509 2013. Compilation and management of the Inventory is undertaken by Historic Scotland on behalf of Scottish Ministers. Inventory status is a non-statutory designation. However, Inventory status is a material consideration in the planning system. All enquiries relating to proposed works to an Inventory site or its setting should be addressed to the local planning authority in the first instance. All other enquiries should be addressed to: Listing and Designed Landscapes Team, Historic Scotland, Room G51, Longmore House, Salisbury Place, EDINBURGH, EH9