Ralph Irving (1947-2022): friend and garden maker at Little Sparta


It is so sad that Ralph Irving passed away in March this year after a long illness. He was too young to go and will be much missed by all of us connected to Little Sparta. He was a kind and decent person – helpful, warm hearted and good humoured.

Graeme Moore, who was briefly Ian Hamilton Finlay’s gardener, left in 1991. So Ian put an advertisement for a gardener at Little Sparta in The Scotsman. He recollected that Ralph arrived for the interview in his Jaguar car. This caused some consternation as Ian considered this a very posh car and not one a gardener would normally drive. He was also anxious about employing Ralph. According to Ian, Ralph had been selling Pringle sweaters in Edinburgh and had little gardening experience. However, in the end Ralph was employed and it all worked out admirably: the posh car was replaced with a four-wheel drive ‘land rover’ type car to deal with the rutted track uphill to the garden. Ralph worked alongside Ian for fifteen years and continued to garden for the Little Sparta Trust, retiring as head gardener in 2012 and continuing part-time until 2016.

Over time Ralph developed many skills beyond that of a usual gardener. Paths were laid, artworks were sited and cared for. A memory I have over several summers is spending many hours digging out mounds of pond weed from the lochan with him. Ralph needed to dig out the weed each year and there were several ponds in the Wild Garden and the Temple Pool to do as well. He would lend me his waist high rubber waders at the drop of hat as this was an irksome task to do alone.

Ralph was conscientious and did everything he could to make the garden run smoothly: planting hundreds of trees and several boundary hedges. He also did the purchasing and collecting of plants, bought the bird food for the swans and doves, fixed lawnmowers. The list goes on. He never said ‘No’ to any task. He was versatile and accepted challenges. You name it and Ralph would do it with his usual kindness and good nature. He even packed a Welsh coracle for shipping to the USA after he had sailed it on the lochan. He seemed to be able to do anything. He labeled the coracle ‘Fragile’ and it got through the check-in at British Airways. He chuckled when I told him the BA staff asked if it was some sort of jacuzzi.

The Little Sparta day began with Ralph knocking at the door around 8 am with a cheery hello. There would be a comment about the weather and a quick exchange of news. Then after breakfast Ian would feed the doves around the house, lay the fire and walk the narrow paths of the garden with the cats, to where Ralph was working. They would talk of the tasks in hand.

Spring comes late to Little Sparta and Ian and Ralph both shared an interest in grass (they also had strong feelings about nettles). Oversowing did not always work. Both of them disliked bare patches on the paths. Grass and its failure to thrive was a major factor in when or if the garden could receive visitors and why we still wait until June to open. The mowing could take the best part of two days. Before the garden opened to visitors, the grass would need strimming and the artworks would have to be cleaned. As I write, I see Ralph in my mind’s eye dashing around with the strimmer buzzing.

Just before his 75th birthday in 2000 Ian made the decision to travel, visit friends and go shopping. This caused Ralph quiet concern as he was often required to drive Ian places and this meant less time in the garden.

However, one of Ralph’s pleasures was to accompany Ian’s artworks to site. He always helped when needed with packaging and transportation, travelling in Europe to Germany, Switzerland and France to deliver and install. For several summers between 1997 and 2003 he worked at Fleur d Air, the garden Ian designed in the South of France, named after the Windflower, the anemone.

When Ian died in 2006, Ralph had to adjust to gardening more or less alone. He must have missed Ian’s presence and there was still at least one cat to feed. Ralph was by himself with very little regular help or contact. Early on, there was an expert who came to prune roses and blackcurrants in the Front Garden. Then there was the occasional intern, a few friends and a local arborist to help with storm damage, as well as Ralph’s son, who joined him for a while.

In 2008, with the help of John Brazenell, he transformed the ruined barn into the Hortus Conclusus. This was funded by the Little Sparta Trust in memory of Ian and supervised by Pia Simig. He fell and injured himself in this work but carried on bravely after a short recuperation.

In a conversation about the waterways of Little Sparta, recorded in 2008, Ralph recollected the beginning of The English Parkland. This was created by transforming the Donkey Paddock, which was then full of “meadow sweet and nettles”. Ralph said “We had the digger for the pipes [for] the new water supply for the house, and had to dig out a trench all the way down from the top of the hill … Let’s have some fun with the digger before it goes back. It is here now, we paid for the transportation, lets dig a couple of new ponds. That is what started off the English Garden.” Thus, although the beginning of The English Parkland came about almost by accident, it was also a product of their mutual trust and collaboration in the garden over all those years.

Ian and Ralph worked together, physically and conceptually, gardening the English Parkland, making the waterway and the ‘English’ pond and preparing the places for the installations. Both he and Ian in their different ways could see the ‘possibility’ (a word Ian liked to use) of the Donkey Paddock and relished the transformation. Ralph was involved in the installation of all the twenty-nine artworks in the English Parkland – and many more throughout the garden.

Few people know that Ralph was a good photographer and built up an extensive archive of images of the garden. He took a keen interest in recording the changes he made with Ian. Above all he was loyal to Ian. He also had a daring side. Once he posed for a calendar photograph for a local charity, inspired by the film Calendar Girls, on an Icelandic pony wearing only a cowboy hat.

Little Sparta can have many weathers. Sun, wind, snow and rain are all possible in one day. The winds coming up and across the valley can be searing. During all those years and all that weather through which Ralph gardened, I will remember him – cosy in his small hut by the Kailyard, warmed by a small portable heater, sitting in his chair surrounded by piles of newspapers and magazines, his gun at hand (to shoot rabbits and pheasants if needed), his radio by him and warm food for lunch.

Missing you, Ralph – your warm, comfortable, big presence.

Ann Uppington 2022