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The Japanese Garden at Cowden: ‘the Place of Pleasure and Delight’

Nestled discreetly among the foot of the rolling Ochil Hills is one of the best kept ‘secret gardens’ in Scotland. The Japanese Garden at Cowden is also known as ‘Sha Raku En’ which translates to ‘the Place of Pleasure and Delight’. That name is the perfect description for this incredible hidden gem, and we are so excited to share more about it with all of you. So, join us as we head to the hills just north of Edinburgh and explore exactly how “the most important Japanese garden in the Western World” (a quote from Professor Suzuki and more on him to come) came to be built in Scotland.

We owe thanks to one amazing woman that we have such a treasured site as the Japanese Garden at Cowden. Isabella ‘Ella’ Christie was born in 1861 into a privileged life in Midlothian Scotland. The daughter of wealthy landowning parents, Ella was afforded opportunities to travel during her childhood which inspired amazing adventures into adulthood.

Isabella 'Ella' Christie

In fact, Ella was mentioned in the ‘Petticoats and Pinnacles’ exhibition as her travels were pioneering feats for a woman of her time. She undertook trips to such far-flung places as Tibet, Pakistan, and India. According to the Japanese Garden, “at Chorbat Pass she camped in the snow; she sailed in a cargo ship full of pigs; travelled by packhorse and cart in the Kashmir wilderness; and trekked by foot for 60 miles in the Desoi Mountains”! Indeed, Ella was an astonishing woman, and her travels inspired her. In 1906-1907, she travelled on a tour that included China, Hong Kong, and Japan. It was in Japan where she learned about Japanese gardens and decided to create her own.

What is particularly fascinating about the story of the origins of the Japanese Garden at Cowden is that it features another accomplished woman- Taki Handa. Taki “studied at Doshisha Women’s College, Kyoto, and uniquely, for a Japanese woman, at Studley College in England. Ella hired Taki to create her special Japanese garden- ‘Sha Raku En’. I think that it is wonderful that two pioneering women of their time were the ones to design and plan such a lovely, historic garden.

All the shrubs, plants, and stone lanterns were imported from Japan. When completed, the Garden was a marvel and was regularly cared for by Professor Suzuki, 18th Hereditary Head of the Soami School of Imperial Garden Design. He visited often to consult as well as to prune the imported shrubs and trees. In fact, he said the Garden was “the most important Japanese garden in the Western world”. Daily, on-site care of the Garden was under the careful eye of Shinzaburo Matsuo who Ella hired in 1925 based on the recommendation of Professor Suzuki. Matsuo lived and worked at the Japanese Garden at Cowden until his death in 1937.

Ella passed away in 1949, and the Garden and land was inherited by her nephew, Robert Christie Stewart. Unfortunately, our story takes quite a sad turn in 1963, when teenagers broke into the Garden and completely vandalised it. They burned the bridges and two historic teahouses to the ground and pushed the antique lanterns into the water. The Garden eventually overgrew with time and was a shell of its former glory.

Fortunately, in 2012, Ella’s great niece, Sara Christie Stewart, began a fundraising effort to bring the Japanese Garden at Cowden back to life. Renowned gardener, Professor Masao Fukuhara, was put in charge of the historic restoration and responsible for the splendid garden we can now enjoy once again.

Please enjoy the photos below to take a virtual visit to the Japanese Garden. While the photos don’t do justice to the exquisite beauty of it in real life, I hope they can still provide some sense of the serenity that can be found there.

Next to the Japanese Garden is the Stewart Woodland where there are trails for lovely walks as well as a children’s adventure park.

The Japanese Garden at Cowden Castle charity (unfortunately the Castle only exists in name now) was formed in 2014. All the sales from the entrance fees, café, and wee shop go towards the ongoing upkeep of the Garden. We highly recommend a visit to the Japanese Garden at Cowden if you happen to be driving through picturesque Clackmannanshire. Head to their website for more information on how to plan your visit.

Until next time- Explore & Discover!


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