The garden at Broughton House in Galloway provided a rich seam of subject matter for one of the most successful Scottish painters of the Edwardian era.

Hidden behind high walls in the historic centre of Kirkcudbright lies a garden created by one of Scotland’s most celebrated artists. It may be almost 90 years since Edward Atkinson Hornel, passed away, but his presence can still be felt in the garden today

E A Hornel, a leading figure amongst the ‘Glasgow Boys’, that group of artists who at the start of the 20th century set the foundations for Scottish modernist painting, was as devoted to his garden as he was to his art and together with his trained eye and the proceeds from his successful career, he made a space where his love of nature, form and colour could be celebrated.

The garden covers half and acre and it stretches westwards from the pink-washed walls of Broughton House to the estuary of the River Dee, where boats lie at anchor not far beyond the garden railings.

Originally the garden would have been half this size, a typical  medieval ‘lang rig’, but Hornel, bought up the house next door in order to extend his plot and then set about laying it out in the arts and crafts style,laying lawns, creating narrow paths and flower-filled borders, erecting a glasshouse of his own design and planting decorative trees.

Amongst Hornel’s favourite plants was the wisteria and the gnarled, and twisted vines that he planted in the garden still flower today, filling the garden with scent in early summer.

Scottish Gardener: Wisteria smothers a wall above a border filled with dark purple aconites.Wisteria smothers a wall above a border filled with dark purple aconites.

Wisteria is a symbol of the East and it was the visits that he made to Japan that most influenced Hornel’s designs for the garden. He planted cherry trees and maples, filled corners with moss and ferns, laid winding paths and channelled water from his studio roof into a network of pools and streams, and then he built a summerhouse in which to enjoy the results of his work.

The most famous feature at Broughton House, however, is the stepping stone pond, which nimble-footed visitors must navigate on one route through the garden.

Scottish Gardener: Irises and water lilies break the surface of the pond.Irises and water lilies break the surface of the pond.

“We have to keep a close eye on that in spring because when the cherry tree above it drops its blossom the water is hidden and it is very easy for unwary folk to end up getting their feet wet,” says Mike Jack, lead gardener at Broughton House.

“In fact we have the record of one maid who fell into the pond while carrying a tea tray to the summerhouse.”

Fortunately not everyone has to negotiate this obstacle and during Lockdown a new wide and smooth path has been laid from the studio to the lawn to allow less-agile visitors to reach the heart of the garden, where lawns are lined with closely-trimmed golden yew and vegetables grow in deep, fertile soil.

Scottish Gardener: A multi-faceted sundial stands at the centre of the lawn.A multi-faceted sundial stands at the centre of the lawn.

Here in the south west that soil warms up early and in February snowdrops, a favourite subject of Hornel’s paintings, grow in abundance and early rhubarb ripens under clay forcing pots.

The high walls surrounding the garden provide extra shelter and the garden’s position, elevated above the River Dee also bring advantages.

“The garden sits on what is effectively a raised beach and so the soil drains very readily,” says Mike.

As the year progresses peonies flourish, ancient apple trees become smothered in blossom, and the heritage pelargoniums in the glasshouse erupt into vivid colour. Tulips are followed by alliums while Irises add further evidence of Hornel’s obsession with the East.

The area closest to the house is in shade for part of the day and it is here that toad lilies (Tricyrtis), and Kirengeshoma palmata (another Japanese native) grow under the canopy of a double white pear tree, which was already here when Hornel arrived.

Blossom from apples, cherries and pears features prominently in the work of Hornel, some of which can be seen in the gallery when the house is open to the public.

Scottish Gardener: In spring the ancient apple trees are smother in blossom.In spring the ancient apple trees are smother in blossom.

Broughton House and its garden may be closed at the moment, but work in the garden continues including turning the compost heaps, spreading mulch on the vegetable garden and planting the dahlias that from summer onwards will create a vivid splash.

Later in the year the yew hedges will get their annual trim.

Mike says:“Originally the hedges were box, but they got blight and so eventually they had to be removed and golden yew was chosen to replace them. And it works well, it frames the different areas of the garden as if they were paintings.”

Hornel would no doubt have approved.

Shared Pleasures

Hornel was not the only gardener to live at Broughton House. His sister Tizzy, with whom he shared a home, was a knowledgable plantswoman who spent much of her time working in the borders and in the greenhouse. She kept up a lively correspondence with nurserymen and she had several plants named after her.

More recently a hardy orchid named ‘Tizzy Hornell’ was introduced into the garden and today the tabby cat that greets visitors is also named ‘Tizzy’ in her memory.

Mick Jack says: “In his later years Hornell became more immersed in his vast book collection and I think at that time the running of the garden may have passed to his sister.”

Evidence of this comes from the account given by Jay Charters, a housemaid at Broughton House in the 1930s, who said of her employer: “She never bothered you, she was out in the garden every day, taking cuttings an’ that.”

Scottish Gardener: Sundials and stone troughs are scattered around the garden.Sundials and stone troughs are scattered around the garden.

Passionate about the Past

Aside from art, plants and books, Hornell also indulged a love of artefacts and the garden at Broughton House is filled with all kinds of stoneware, from querns and troughs to millstones and curling stones. Five sundials occupy spaces around the garden including a multi-faceted sundial, for which Scotland is renowned.

There are Japanese stone lanterns too and, most significantly, the  Dalshangan Cross, a 12th century way marker which once guided pilgrims through the Galloway Hills to the early Christian site at Whithorn.

Garden Notes

Broughton House Garden,
12 High Street, Kirkcudbright, DG6 4JX
Tel: 01557 330437

Check with website for opening times.