Out & About

Conifers in the Mist

murthly_castle Having previously spent a marvellous two days looking at the magnificent trees and forestry in the vicinity of Dunkeld, Perthshire, a county that now quite rightly markets itself as “ Big Tree Country”, a number of the party gathered at Murthly Castle on a decidedly damp Sunday morning. I suspect that many of us might well have been seen this as a subdued coda to the preceding extravagant arboreal symphony but, if that were the case, then how quickly and comprehensively our preconceptions were shattered. The swirling mist and torrential rainfall that welcomed us gave the day a sense of having been transported to the Pacific North West, an impression strengthened by the stunning approach down the East Drive with its seemingly unending avenues of towering trees, Tilias and Sequoiadendron giganteum, Giant Redwood principally, that took one’s breath away and laid down a marker saying here be giants, arboreal giants!


Having stopped gawping for long enough to find the car park the 14th Laird of Murthly, Mr Thomas Steuart Fotheringham welcomed us with a few well-chosen words and introduced us to our guide Mr Tom Christian of RBG Edinburgh. Tom has become very familiar with the arboreal wonders of the estate over the last few years, through his overseeing the planting programme of a diverse range of exotic conifer introductions at Murthly via the International Conifer Conservation Programme (ICCP). It became immediately apparent that we were in a very capable and knowledgeable pair of hands.

The designed landscape at Murthly extends to approximately 2,000 acres although only a small part of this is now managed as “policies”, the Scottish term for “park “ or “grounds”. At the centre of this landscape lies Murthly Castle itself with the present 15th century building being thought to have replaced an even earlier royal hunting tower. At that point the surrounding area would have still been dominated by Birnam Wood immortalised by Shakespeare in Macbeth.

The designed landscape has been through many changes over the centuries, a process documented in many maps, the earliest being Pont’s map which depicts a tower house and woodlands at the cusp of the 16th and 17th centuries. The last period of major change was in the 1830’s when John Wallace was recalled from Windsor to create the winding terraces which were then planted up with a range of new conifers from Western North America, especially Pseudotsuga menziesii, the Douglas fir.

These now form one of the finest groves of Douglas fir in the British Isles. Before starting our tour Tom revealed that the lawn on which we were standing, directly south of the current house, was the site of Murthly “new” castle. This was built in the 19th century as part of the so-called “Palace Race” between three wealthy Perthshire landowning dynasties – the Dukes of Atholl who began construction of Dunkeld Palace a few miles away, the Marquesses of Breadalbane, who built Taymouth Castle at the head of Loch Tay, and the Stewarts at Murthly. An amazing story well documented in Marcus Binney’s Lost Houses of Scotland.

Tom led us off through the walled garden passing a garden house, one of the earliest examples of the Dutch architectural style in Scotland dating from circa 166. This makes it four decades older than the line of limes lining the drive around the outside of the walled garden. The limes are the oldest verified plantings on the estate, dating from 1711.

The main path through the walled garden is part of an axis over half a mile long that commences with an impressive lime and yew avenue to the south, passes through the walled garden and terminates in an ancient and sombre avenue of yews known as the “Dead Walk”. This leads to the door of the richly decorated Catholic Chapel of St Anthony the Eremite partly designed by the flamboyant creator of the High Gothic Revival style, A. W. N. Pugin. The avenue gained its name because of the long standing family tradition that the Laird of Murthly may only pass down the avenue from the house to the chapel once – in his coffin! These tremendous trees appear in Thomas Pakenham’s Meetings with Remarkable Trees.


From the chapel end of the yew walk we descended the chapel steps passing by a gargantuan Thuja plicata, Western Red Cedar that demonstrated perfectly the species habit of layering to form an atmospheric multi–stemmed tree. At the base of the steps we came to one end of the sunken terrace, constructed in 1852-53 at considerable expense apparently. It is now home to a collection of Rhododendrons with the upper banks being planted with an avenue of whitebeams which replaced an ageing avenue of Cedrus deodara, Deodar Cedars that were felled in the latter part of the 20th century.

This was one of many demonstrations of the dynamic nature of gardens and the vital need for the ongoing commitment of generations of enthusiastic guardians if the landscape is to retain its character and vitality. Leaving the sunken terrace and continuing down the chapel steps we emerged at the end of the winding terrace, part of the aforementioned terraces with their incredible grove of 19th century Douglas Fir and from there we abseiled down a steep bank to the Jubilee Terrace, part of the River Tay floodplain.


Here the damp habitat supported fine clumps of Cirsium heterophyllum, the Melancholy Thistle whose handsome purple flower heads enlivened the misty scene with their pointilliste splashes of colour. This is an area with strong royal associations with an avenue of Noble Firs being planted to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. This was removed due to disease in the 1950’s and was replaced by a planting of Beech to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee in 1977-78. It is also home to one of the densest concentrations of Champion Trees on the estate.

At the far end of the avenue are a trio of original trees of Picea omorika, Serbian spruce, introduced in 1894 and planted here in 1897. One of these is now the tallest example of this species in the UK and Ireland and another the widest. An Acer platanoides, cut-leaf Norway maple is also a UK and Ireland champion. Another remarkable tree, although not a champion is the magnificent Tolkienesque Hornbeam. Elwes and Henry remarked on this tree in their monumental publication, The Trees of Great Britain and Ireland (1906) citing it as one of the largest examples in the northern parts of the British Isles.

This part of the policies have, since 2008, become home to a new collection of trees which are part of the ICCP. New additions to Murthly include plantings of Fitzroya cupressoides, Patagonian Cypress, Prumnopitys andina, Plum-Fruited Yew, Austrocedrus chilensis, Chilean Cedar, Podocarpus nubigenus, Chilean Totara and Athrotaxis laxifolia, Summit Cedar from Tasmania. Many of these species have not been properly grown in Perthshire before and, in spite of some losses, most have proved to be quite successful, especially Fitzroya which has also been planted at nearby Dunkeld as a result of the Murthly successes.

The far eastern end of the Jubilee terrace features a small pocket of riparian woodland which, either in 1897 or possibly as early as the 1860’s, was planted with a collection of Japanese conifers, the survivors of which are mainly Chamaecyparis species. Here further planting has taken place in recent years including a collection of unusual Japanese broadleaves including Aesculus turbinata, Japanese Horse Chestnut, Acer capillipes, Red Snake Bark Maple, Cercidiphyllum japonicum, Katsura Tree and Zelkova serrata, Keaki.

Recent coniferous additions include the very rare Vietnamese yellow Cypress, Xanthocyparis vietnamensis, which was only discovered on limestone mountains in northern Vietnam in 2002. The plant at Murthly is one of several dozen that have been distributed by the ICCP to test the hardiness and performance of this unusual species in cultivation.

At this point Tom commented on the fact that all plants grown for the ICCP programme are raised in “air pots” whose perforated sides prevent root girdling in the pot and whose ability to be split and peeled off of the root ball help to ensure rapid establishment on planting, an observation I can corroborate from my own experience.

Heading back towards the castle, approaching the Douglas Fir Terraces from the east, we passed by another tree supplied by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, a Nothofagus alessandrii, Ruil. This rare species may have the unhappy distinction of being one of the rarest trees in South America. It is endemic to a small area of Chile’s coastal mountain range where, since the late 1950’s, its range has been dramatically reduced by the conversion of native forests into pine and eucalypt forestry. The remaining fragments of Nothofagus alessandrii forest are still at a severe risk from threats including fire and the encroachment of non-native species.

Close by to this tree was another champion, a Tsuga mertensiana, Mountain Hemlock with largest girth in the UK, nearby is the highest, phew! Murthly’s tallest tree is also close by, a Tsuga heterophylla, Western Hemlock that towers to 51m (167’) when last measured in 2007. A fitting denouement to our visit to this place of astonishing arboreal wonders.

I owe Tom Christian a double debt of gratitude, firstly for being such an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide to Murthly’s marvels on a very murky Sunday morning and secondly for allowing me to shamelessly plagiarise his notes on our visit after my scribbling had descended into a soggy indecipherable pulp, many thanks Tom!

Conifers in the Mist – A report on a Woodland Heritage visit to Murthly Castle, Perthshire Sunday 15th June 2014

Jim Buckland
October 2014

2 thoughts on “Conifers in the Mist

  1. Pingback: St Roche’s Arboretum |

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