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.
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.