Much of Argyll’s appeal lies in its rugged, untamed beauty. But when nature is tamed, nurtured and arranged in ways that appeal to the human senses, the results can make for a deeply relaxing experience. This is exactly what awaits those who make the journey to Crarae Gardens, 10 miles south of Inveraray on the A83 close to the banks of Loch Fyne.
Crarae offers you the opportunity, unique in Britain, to immerse yourself in a Himalayan-style woodland garden. Tranquil yet spectacular in places, Crarae features a gorge, a tumbling burn, waterfalls and cliffs.
The gardens are worth a visit at any time of year and its hillside setting sees woody plants radiating out from the Crarae burn. Rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias and magnolias are much in evidence in the early part of the year, gradually giving way to a variety of shrubs and trees which put on a spectacular display of autumn colour. The combination of naturalistic planting of carefully selected trees, shrubs and other plants together with the conifers towering above and the natural drama of the setting creates the feeling of a Himalayan valley.
The National Trust for Scotland acquired the 50-acre site in 2001 and since then the organisation has embarked on a programme to restore the infrastructure, a process which includes renewing bridges, steps and paths, together additional plantings which include many recently collected, wild-origin rhododendrons.
Spring is considered by many to be the best time of year to visit Crarae given the spectacular displays put on by the several hundred different species and hybrids of rhododendron and azaleas. The garden explodes in a riot of colour in late April, with stunning displays everywhere you look. This continues into June and July when the gardens are scented by many of the later flowering varieties.
As new foliage bursts forth, Crarae is a wonderful place for the artist in the early part of summer, with the colours and textures changing week by week. This time of year also allows you to see the care and attention to detail that has gone into the process of placing exotic and alien species together in a way that somehow looks totally natural within the local landscape. Hydrangeas and buddleias bloom, the latter attracting a variety of butterfly species. The summer is also a great time to appreciate the national collection of southern beeches as well as the many different species of eucalyptus.
You’ll enjoy spectacular autumn colours at Crarae thanks in part to a huge variety of maples, birches and rowans from around the world. September and October are particularly impressive. But the display is not just confined to the canopy, the shrub layer is just as spectacular. The abundance of berries ensure the gardens are also a great attraction for native and visiting birds and this is also a good time to spot red squirrels who are busy storing food for the winter months.
Even during the dark days of winter Crarae can be worth a visit. The brightly coloured bark of bare deciduous trees, the winter flowering shrubs and even the ice and frost of the season itself add colour and interest to the gardens at this time of year. Natural icy sculptures sometimes appear in and around the Crarae burn and there are usually some early rhododendrons in flower too.
You may spot deer with their fawns, birds including treecreepers, ravens, woodpeckers, dippers and birds of prey such as buzzards, sparrowhawks and peregrine falcons.
When you’ve finished your Himalayan adventure at Crarae, it’s time to head to Inveraray for something completely different! Explore Inveraray Jail and Inveraray Castle, browse the great independent shops and refuel in one of the town’s many cafes and restaurants.
Find out more about things to do and see in Inveraray and Kilmartin Glen.