Archive Documents

Tending the Kailyard

Tending the Kailyard.

One of Assistant Gardener Lynne Maclagan’s tasks is to tend the Kailyard, Little Sparta’s vegetable patch. Here Lynne tells us about how she learned some of the history of the Kailyard from Helen Douglas, book artist and friend of Ian Hamilton Finlay, who cared for the Kailyard from 2002 to 2012.

Kailyard 2019

My first summer working at Little Sparta was very, very hot. For around eight weeks it didn’t rain. That 2018 summer saw the water source to the house cease and the Temple Pool dry up. The sun was constant and great patches of grass turned yellow. We watered our pots and vegetables by filling the watering cans in Lochan Eck. Most of the crops in the Kailyard quickly ran to seed. That summer, Helen introduced herself and we talked for a few  minutes. I later discovered that Helen had looked after the Kailyard and that the glorious self-seeding poppies — which were thriving in the hot and dry conditions — were a legacy from her time. I had a great many questions.

The task of planning our 2021 crops for the Kailyard has kept my spirits up through the long winter lockdown. Spring seemed never too far away. My curiosity about the evolution of the Kailyard as an artwork and a kitchen garden for the house grew. I talked with trustee Ann Uppington, looked at old photos for clues and found snippets of information in the Trust’s conservation management plan. It felt like a good time to reach out to Helen and talk gardener to gardener.

Flowers and a model boat in a window at the cottage

“I understood its meaning as an artwork, but my sense was that it was an allotment for growing vegetables, for food for Ian,” Helen explains. “And right from the start, I said that there has to be flowers for the house as well.”

Helen looked after the Kailyard for ten years (2002–12), initially combining its care with weekly visits to see her friend. In a series of Helen’s photos from 2004 and 2005, I can see runner beans, peas and broad beans growing up garden canes. Salads, radishes and cabbages look lush and plentiful. And, importantly, as I came to learn, there are lots of flowers. Nasturtiums billow over the side of the small fence, poppies and snapdragons burst with colour among the mint. A vase of flowers sits alongside a model sail boat in the cottage window.

The Kailyard I knew at first was the one described in the Little Sparta guide book: “… a tribute to the group of nineteenth-century writers such as JM Barrie and SR Crockett who wrote of ordinary Scottish people in a sentimental way, often unjustly disparaged by critics” (J Sheeler, 2015). Images of great big cabbages, hardy kales, leeks and potatoes came to mind.

A question that I’m often asked by visitors is one that I’m never too sure how to answer: What did Finlay grow and enjoy eating from the garden? I assumed kale, but didn’t really know. Archival pictures and planning information could only tell me so much about its practical use.

“Ian wasn’t a great vegetable eater,” Helen explains. “But potatoes were always good. Spinach, broad beans and peas, he did love peas.”

Kailyard 2004-5

“He really enjoyed planting things in the greenhouse,” Helen remembers. “He would call me twice a day, morning and night, and he’d tell me what was going on and what was growing and what was coming up in the allotment. That was a big part of it really. He kept an eye on it, looked it over and would do any necessary watering.” The lovage and poppies were planted by Helen and return with vigour each year. She grew vegetables and flowers in a neat abundance. “Each bed was full and you could see the rows without it being too formal.”

The Kailyard is not the original vegetable patch. At first, Finlay and his wife Sue grew vegetables on the east side of the front garden. Raspberries and other fruit bushes are sturdy remnants from that time. As the front garden developed, an allotment was created behind what is now the Temple of Philemon and Baucis. Once it became shaded out by the maturing trees in the woodland garden, the vegetable patch moved again. In 1996, a section of the donkey paddock was turned into the Kailyard, with help from Maggie Stead, complete with sheds and greenhouses and a yew hedge for shelter from northerly winds. Helen took on the tending of the Kailyard in 2002 and that was when it was divided into beds with a central path. Ralph Irving, Little Sparta gardener until 2016, who supported Finlay for many years, also worked in the Kailyard. One particular focus was keeping the rabbits out so that the plants could survive. Several more gardeners have tended to the Kailyard during and since Finlay’s time.

Our focus this year is to continue growing productive and decorative crops. We’ll try Sutherland kale again, a heritage kale once grown by crofters in the very north of Scotland, and other heritage crops including runner bean ‘Sunset’ and pea ‘Epicure’. We’ll nod to Helen’s floriferous touch. There will be marigolds and nasturtiums, and the poppies will reappear with comforting constancy.

  • Photos in the Kailyard 2004 and 2005 kindly provided by Helen Douglas (copyright Helen Douglas).