NA­TURE WOR­SHIP

In­spired by the seren­ity of Greek ideals, Scot­tish poet and vis­ual artist Ian Hamil­ton Finlay and his wife Sue trans­formed their gar­den into a spir­i­tual ode to Sparta.

Scottish Field - - CONTENTS - An­toinette Gal­braith in­ves­ti­gates

Lit­tle Sparta is a Greek-in­spired gar­den in the Pent­land Hills

‘The wood­lands are fully ma­ture, cre­at­ing a mi­cro-en­vi­ron­ment at­trac­tive to birds and other wildlife’

Lit­tle Sparta. The name it­self con­jures up an air of mys­tery and in­trigue. All the more when you learn that the Scot­tish poet and vis­ual artist Ian Hamil­ton Finlay named his gar­den be­cause he wanted to cre­ate an Ar­ca­dian idyll in­spired by the ideas and ideals of clas­si­cal Greece.

Sparta was a city state in di­rect con­flict with Athens and as Ed­in­burgh is the Athens of the North, so Lit­tle Sparta sits in op­po­si­tion to the cul­tural hi­er­ar­chy of its more il­lus­tri­ous neigh­bour.

For­merly known as Stony­path, the gar­den is lo­cated at the west end of the Pent­land Hills and is reached via a stony track run­ning through fields of sheep with two gates to open. It was to this in­ac­ces­si­ble and windswept spot with its spec­tac­u­lar views of the La­nark­shire Hills above Dun­syre that the poet and his wife Sue moved in 1966, tak­ing pos­ses­sion of an L-shaped col­lec­tion of aban­doned farm build­ings with a soli­tary ash tree.

Re­al­is­ing they needed shel­ter, the cou­ple, who soon had two chil­dren, be­gan plant­ing trees. Now, just over 50 years later, and thir­teen years af­ter Finlay’s death aged 80 in Ed­in­burgh, the wood­lands are fully ma­ture, cre­at­ing a mi­cro-en­vi­ron­ment at­trac­tive to birds and other wildlife. It is also home to a col­lec­tion of ap­prox­i­mately 280 in­di­vid­ual art­works re­flect­ing the poet’s in­ter­est in phi­los­o­phy and his­tory. Cur­rently run by a trust headed by jour­nal­ist Ma­gus Linklater, the gar­den is tended by Ir­ish-born Ge­orge Gilliland, a lit­er­a­ture grad­u­ate who worked at Ed­in­burgh’s Fruit­mar­ket Gallery for con­tem­po­rary art be­fore un­der­go­ing a ca­reer change and re­train­ing in hor­ti­cul­ture at the Royal Botanic Gar­den in Ed­in­burgh. In 2011 he took up the post of head gar­dener at Lit­tle Sparta, at­tracted to the project from hav­ing pre­vi­ously stud­ied Hamil­ton Finlay’s work.

The job of ‘keep­ing the gar­den as it is’, as per Finlay’s in­struc­tions, is both ex­cit­ing and chal­leng­ing. ‘A lot of the gar­den is to do with the process and phi­los­o­phy of de­cay,’ says Ge­orge. ‘Trees gets larger and stone de­te­ri­o­rates, so you have to try and gauge what he would have done.’

Finlay, Ge­orge ex­plains, was work­ing as a poet when he came to Lit­tle Sparta, but soon re­alised ‘he could move lan­guage into the

The whole gar­den needs to be read as one sin­gle piece

land­scape, cre­at­ing in the process a gar­den which has to be read to be un­der­stood – not so much an ar­range­ment of plants as a place­ment of ideas.’

An ago­ra­pho­bic who only left Lit­tle Sparta shortly be­fore the end of his life to seek med­i­cal at­ten­tion, Finlay ‘wrote let­ters with in­struc­tions to trusted con­trac­tors, carvers, metal and stonework­ers, de­scrib­ing in minute de­tail how he wanted things to be,’ ex­plained Ge­orge.

Th­ese let­ters and the poet’s books are kept in the house, where two small rooms were joined to cre­ate a li­brary and study area. Ad­di­tional vol­umes are found in Finlay’s bed­room, where yel­low Post It notes still mark spe­cific quo­ta­tions in books. Th­ese, Ge­orge ex­plains, are the sources Finlay worked on be­fore they found their way into the gar­den.

‘He took quo­ta­tions from say, Vir­gil, changed the con­text or words around, put them on a piece of work and cre­ated a puz­zle for peo­ple to work out. He rein­tro­duced po­etry into the land­scape but he made it very con­tem­po­rary.’

With much of Finlay’s sculp­tural works dis­persed around the seven-acre gar­den that ra­di­ates from semi-for­mal ar­eas near the house to the wilder moor­land at the top of the hill, this land­scape rapidly evolved into his most im­por­tant artis­tic achieve­ment.

‘The whole gar­den needs to be read as one sin­gle piece; four or five ma­jor themes emerge and un­der­stand­ing th­ese is key to un­der­stand­ing the gar­den,’ says Ge­orge. Th­ese in­clude the sea and its ships, Clas­si­cal An­tiq­uity, the French Rev­o­lu­tion and the Sec­ond World War. There is par­tic­u­lar em­pha­sis on our re­la­tion­ship to na­ture.

As a ‘Gar­den of the Sea’ the gar­den ref­er­ences a ro­man­tic no­tion of boats, their names and the sound of waves echoed by the wind whoosh­ing through the tree canopy. The sea is fur­ther il­lus­trated by un­du­lat­ing box hedges clipped like waves and boat va­ri­eties en­graved on step­ping stone paths.

The nau­ti­cal theme con­tin­ues in the Ro­man Gar­den tucked into a cor­ner by the front bound­ary, where a row of stone war­ships and air­craft car­ri­ers that dou­ble as bird­baths are raised on plinths.

‘Finlay ad­mired the out­line of an air­craft car­rier as much as a Corinthian build­ing: this one is hol­lowed out to form a bird­bath,’ Ge­orge says. ‘The birds swoop­ing down be­come lit­tle aero­planes.’ There is a play­ful­ness at work here – Finlay is ask­ing you to ques­tion what it is that you’re see­ing, read­ing or un­der­stand­ing.

To the east is The Al­lot­ment, a small but pro­duc­tive plot known as ‘the en­gine room’, where Finlay grew his own veg­eta­bles. It is flanked by the Tem­ple of Bau­cis and Phile­mon.

The Clas­si­cal theme or Ar­ca­dian Idyll is clearly ev­i­dent in the Tem­ple Pool Gar­den where the main build­ing, the

in­fa­mous Tem­ple of Apollo, was the sub­ject of a dra­matic stand­off in 1983 be­tween the poet and Strath­clyde Coun­cil, who ob­jected to his re­fusal to pay taxes on the grounds that the tem­ple should be un­der­stood as a re­li­gious build­ing. Finlay suc­cess­fully ral­lied his sup­port­ers to see off the in­vad­ing Sher­iff Of­fi­cer.

Nar­row, twist­ing stone and brick paths – some of which are dead ends – wind their way un­der trees and past shrubs through the Wood­land Gar­den, and then if you turn right you are met with the open lawns of English Park­land, a ref­er­ence to the work of the two great English land­scape de­sign­ers of the eigh­teenth cen­tury, Ca­pa­bil­ity Brown and Humphry Rep­ton. Here, the stand­out fea­ture is per­haps the Huff Lane, a refuge for the dis­grun­tled, an en­closed hedged space where the viewer is in­vited to med­i­tate on in­scribed benches.

A sec­tion of the lawn is formed into mounds, each topped with a stone carved with the name for wave in dif­fer­ent Euro­pean lan­guages, ex­tend­ing the idea of an in­land sea. An­other ‘for­mal’ av­enue is lined with black­cur­rant bushes – a sen­sory pas­sage­way.

Turn left, climb up the hill onto the open moor to dis­cover the spring-fed, peaty wa­ters of Lochan Eck. Here the war is again ref­er­enced by the smooth, gen­tly rounded shaped mono­lithic Nu­clear Sail emerg­ing from the lochside path – the con­ning tower of a nu­clear sub­ma­rine. Fur­ther, be­yond a lit­tle wooden fence, the path drops into the wa­ter with the sin­gle word ‘Pic­turesque’ in­scribed on its sur­face; look­ing out over the wa­ter and the hill­side, it refers to Finlay’s vi­sion of an ideal land­scape.

Halfway up the hill­side an ar­range­ment of large, flat, grey stones en­graved with a philo­soph­i­cal quo­ta­tion from Louis An­toine de Saint-Just, the ro­man­tic hero of the French Rev­o­lu­tion,

stops you in your tracks. The Present Or­der is the Dis­or­der of the Fu­ture.

‘The idea of stand­ing on a hill­side in La­nark­shire be­ing pre­sented with a quo­ta­tion from the French Rev­o­lu­tion is bizarre but it neatly en­cap­su­lates Finlay’s ideas,’ laughs Ge­orge. The moor­land is espe­cially dra­matic in late sum­mer and early au­tumn when the heather is in full bloom.

The net­work of nar­row paths con­tin­ues over a stile (it­self in­scribed with a po­etic def­i­ni­tion) and past an iconic pair of brick col­umns topped with hand grenades – pos­si­bly one of the sim­pler gar­den puz­zles. ‘Grenades bear a phys­i­cal re­sem­blance to the fruit and so pineap­ples were a slang term used by sol­diers for th­ese ex­plo­sive de­vices,’ says Ge­orge.

The path­way con­tin­ues past the golden head of Apollo and a for­mal stone aque­duct, one of many chan­nels for the wa­ter run­ning off the hill through the wood­land to the Hor­tus Con­clusus, the last gar­den above the Tem­ple Pool.

Af­ter the poet’s death a short line of derelict farm build­ings were de­lib­er­ately re­built as a ruin to en­close small for­mal gar­dens. The fi­nal room of the space con­tains a cir­cu­lar pool which has in­cised on its slate rim the names in Latin of all the va­ri­eties of cloud which are re­flected in its wa­ter.

Ge­orge points out that Finlay has a ‘high pro­file in­ter­na­tion­ally but is not so well known lo­cally. There are peo­ple who live nearby who don’t even know the gar­den is here. The more you walk around the gar­den the more ab­sorb­ing it gets. Even af­ter eight years I am still mak­ing dis­cov­er­ies. It is a priv­i­lege to see the gar­den and be part of its con­tin­u­ing de­vel­op­ment. In the end the im­por­tance or suc­cess of any work of art is that it al­ters your per­cep­tion of your­self or your place in the world, and that is what Lit­tle Sparta does.’

The spirit of Sparta: The Tem­ple Pool Gar­den is full of Ar­ca­dian in­spi­ra­tion.

Above: Full aerial view of Lit­tle Sparta, by cour­tesy of The Es­tate of Ian Hamil­ton Finlay and drawn by Gary Hincks.

Clock­wise from top left: Slate tablet ‘wood wind song’ carved with a con­crete poem echo­ing the sound and move­ment of the wind in the trees; boat on the banks of Lochan Eck; Gera­nium – ground cover; Tem­ple of Apollo; boat va­ri­eties en­graved on step­ping stones; three-part wooden bench, The Sea’s Waves/The Waves’ Sheaves/The Sea’s Naves.

Above: The Present Or­der is the Dis­or­der of the Fu­ture Saint Just. benches.

Bot­tom: Huff Lane, beech hedge en­closed

Be­low: The Tower of a Nu­clear Sail.

Top: Col­umns topped with hand grenades re­sem­bling pineap­ples, the sym­bol of hos­pi­tal­ity.

Cen­tre: Apollo’s golden head.

Left: For­mal box lay­out en­closed by derelict farm build­ings.

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