Peter Evans recalls the dream-makers who cultivated a Japanese garden in the Clackmannanshire countryside as a haven of beauty lost in time.

TUCKED away in a quiet corner of Muckhart churchyard, with the green slopes of Seamab hill in the Ochils rising steeply behind, there is a small headstone. Dwarfed by the grandeur of the Christie family tomb beside it, the lichen-encrusted stone has an intriguing inscription.

``Matsou,'' it reads. ``For Twelve Years Trusted Keeper of the Japanese Garden at Cowden. Died October 20, 1937.'' An unsuspecting visitor stumbling accidentally across the grave, which is not easy to find unless you know where to look, would be justifiably surprised to see it here in the middle of the Clackmannanshire countryside.

Loading article content

After all, who on earth would consider this a suitable place for a Japanese garden, let alone one tended by a Japanese national back in the nineteen twenties and thirties, before the arrival of the sunrise industries and the ease of international travel?

Exist the garden did in all its oriental splendour, however, and nurtured it was by ``the wee Jap'' as he was affectionately known by local schoolchildren. This cultural misfit, who had lost his entire family in an earthquake, arrived in 1925 without a word of English to tend the seven-acre corner of a foreign field reminiscent of his homeland.

The garden he ministered to was the vision of Scots spinster Isabella Christie, who lived at Cowden Castle, between Muckhart and nearby Dollar. Like others of the Victorian era with the means to do so, Christie took up world travel, experiencing mule riding through the mountains of Ladakh, travelling by train across the Siberian wastelands, and shooting the rapids of a central Asian river in a goatskin raft.

In 1907 she set eyes on the beautiful, stylised gardens of Japan. ``Dreams of loveliness'' she called them, in a letter home to her married sister Alice. A few years earlier their father had died, leaving his fortune to charity, but his daughters contested the will and reached a settlement.

So enraptured was she with the Japanese gardens that Christie resolved to create her own on Scottish soil in the grounds around Cowden. To begin with, the burn running through a seven acre hollow was dammed to create a small loch as the central water feature.

Then Christie enlisted the specialist help of Taki Honda, a student from the Royal School of Garden Design at Nagoya. Student became mentor and Taki Honda came to Cowden for six weeks, tutoring Christie in the ancient art of the Japanese garden. The willing pupil learned about the correct arrangement of stones, how to pay due respect to the garden gods, and the principles of Japanese entertaining. The importance of scale, proportion, balance and harmony had to be recognised.

So Shah-rak-uen - Place of Pleasure and Delight - gradually took shape. In the years that followed up to 1925 and the arrival of Matsou, Professor Susuki, world renowned eighteenth hereditary head of the Soami School of Imperial Design, came regularly to Cowden to prune the imported shrubs and trees in the maturing garden and assist with improving the design.

Japanese custom, outlook and mode of life were portrayed by a series of stones, shrines and lanterns, interspersed by flowering shrubs, trees and evergreens, carefully blended together. There were meandering lines of stepping stones, three small islets in the loch, bridges, tea houses, and a boathouse.

That Christie went to such pains to obtain the right skill and knowledge from Japan, and the fact that she was able to get such faithful service from strangers from a far off land, was the reason for the subsequent success of the enterprise.

Not everything was as it should have been, due to the limitations imposed by soil and climactic conditions over the years. Wisteria, which ought to have been present in abundance, adorning the shelters and shrines, failed in the acid soil and was replaced to an extent by laburnum.

A gale in 1935 ruined the Japanese dwarf pines, and the irrepressible sycamore sprouted between the Korean pines. Other shrubs and trees - azaleas, rhododendrons, lilac, iris, Japanese maple and flowering cherry - flourished instead to provide a correct general impression of colour and species.

Christie outlasted her faithful gardner Matsou by 12 years until she, too, died in 1949, at the grand age of 87. Ownership of Cowden is now in the hands of Christie's great nephew, Robert Christie Stewart, Lord Lieutenant of Clackmannanshire and a former Territorial Army colonel.

Last open to the public in 1955, the Place of Pleasure and Delight is now unrecognisable as the vision it once was, the only hint left the lily-lad covered loch, choked in parts with rushes. The tea houses were burnt down by vandals in the early sixties; the bridges were broken and the lanterns and shrines knocked down. Further degradation has occurred since.

As we stand in the sunlight of a warm June evening, Stewart reminisces. ``I used to come up here as a child with my great aunt to take tea on a Sunday. It was always done in style and everything was done as they did it in Japan.''

He talks of restoration, and a certain amount of clearing work has been done. In order to prevent vandalism, he wants planning permission to build a house so that a custodian can be installed. Discussions have taken place with the local authority, but Stewart wants to retain ownership of the garden and is set against handing it over to the council, though he says he would allow public access.

The place would undoubtedly repay being restored to its former glory and opened to visitors, but there has to be scepticism that it will ever come to pass. A great deal of money and determination will have to be found first if ever the dream can become reality a second time.