Ecological History

Taken from a pamphlet written by Robert Christie Stewart, aged 29, on the occasion of the last public opening of the garden in May, 1955


The area of approximately seven and a half acres, which is now known as the Japanese Garden, was originally a large expanse of waste, swampy ground, through which there flowed a burn. The burn was supplied by a good, natural spring of water, and in 1906 an embankment was made, and the burn and swamp were transformed into the pond that exists today. Around this water there was still a considerable extent of waste land and the natural slopes of this ground together with the fact that it was already well sheltered from the north by belts of trees was soon appreciated by Miss Christie as an ideal spot for a typical Japanese Garden. The whole garden as it is today, was gradually built up round this pond, while rare and suitably chosen trees and shrubs were brought from various parts of the world to supplement the indigenous specimens.

Several of the old beech trees on the West end of the area were cut to give that view of the Ochils which, although perhaps not typically Japanese, adds to the rare beauty of the place.


The General Layout


The main entrance is through a small wicket gate at the East end, and this end of the garden is of no real significance. There is a series of small winding paths surrounded by shrubs through the middle of which runs the outlet from the pond.

The centre part of the garden consists of two main approach paths on either side of the water, bound on the north side by single specimen trees. There is in this part a fairly considerable outbreak of heather, which has spread perhaps rather more than was originally intended. On the south side, which is the main approach, a thatched entrance and one, or two small wooden lanterns are the first signs of the Japanese garden itself. From this side there is a zig-zag wooden bridge, which leads to the ‘Scattered or Outlying Isle’ in which there is a Japanese tea-shelter. The structure of this bridge is such that the owners and their friends could, if they so wished, cut themselves off from the main garden by just lifting the planks.

The two main approach paths lead to the two entrance gates of the real Japanese part of the garden, the ‘Shãh-rak-uen’, which lies in the very sheltered west corner. On the south side entrance gate to ‘Shãh-rak-uen’, which means ‘a place of pleasure and delight’, is suspended a piece of crytomeria wood from Japan, on which is carved the name of the garden in three ornamental Japanese characters. The entrance gate on the northern side represents the ‘Sweeping Gate’ or ‘Gate of Rubbish’, through which, theoretically, the litter was removed.




The shrubs and trees in the garden were, wherever possible, selected and planted to typify the ideal Japanese Garden; but owing to limitation in plant growth and soil conditions a true representation was not entirely possible, although the general impression of colour and species is correct. The most noted and unfortunate omission in the garden is the Wisteria which should be in abundance, adorning the shelters and shrines. This plant does not do well in this soil, and is replaced to a certain extent by laburnum. The finest flowering tree in the garden is one of Japan’s half double pink cherry trees. There are successions of flowering shrubs, azaleas, rhododendrons, double thorn, lilac, syringa and iris, while there are one or two very fine maples, prunus and in particular pines, korean and otherwise, give a very good idea of the natural native growth of Japan. Here at Cowden there are also many of the more important trees and shrubs which are in their natural habitat. It is this variety of selected and natural growth, the selection of planting sites in relation to the other feature of the garden and perhaps most importantly, the careful pruning, that makes this garden not only a true picture of what the artist originally intended, but also and more important still, unique and beautiful in its setting.

Among the many trees and shrubs in the east side of the garden can be found:

  • The Weeping Douglas Fir
  • The Silver Birch
  • The Lawsons Cypress
  • Syringa
  • Berberis (hookerie)
  • The Spiraea (discolour)
  • The Sea Buckthorn or Sallowthorn
  • The Pyramid-shaped Alder

In the centre part of the garden can be found:

  • A group of fine oaks including the Turkey Oak and the Red Oak
  • The Blue Spruce or Colorado Spruce (Pungens)
  • The West Himalayan Spruce (Smithiana)
  • Oriental Spruce (Orientalis)
  • The Weymouth Pine (Strobus)
  • The Himalayan Cedar (Deodora)
  • The Western Hemlock (Tsuga Canadensis) USA
  • The Mountain Hemlock (Tsuga Pattoniania) USA

In the main garden (Shãh-rah-uen’), just a few specimens amongst many lovely trees are:

  • The Japanese Maple
  • The Eagle’s Claw-cut-leaved Maple
  • The Norway and the large-leaved Maple
  • Korean Pine (Koraiensis) of which the seed was brought from Japan in 1908
  • Thuya (several species)
  • The Napoleon Willow (trained as a sunshade near the entrance gate)
  • The Sequoia Wellingtonia (N. American red wood)

In this part of the garden the Japanese dwarf pine trees (Matsu-no-i) prunus trees, maples and azaleas are the best specimens.


The Significance of Shãh-rak-uen’


Inside this part of the garden, Japanese custom, outlook and mode of life is portrayed by a series of stones, shrines, and lanterns, interspersed by successions of flowering shrubs, trees and evergreens. Both the living plants and dead material were blended together in the design of the garden to give a conventionalised idea of the native scenery. The grouping of the stones, whether single, or in clusters, was based strictly on Japanese custom; the stone lanterns and the Shinto shrine came from Japan; otherwise the stones were carefully selected from local sources and shaped as required. Additions have been made to the original plan from time to time, and one or two of the special stones have unfortunately been removed, but the general arrangement of the stones as laid out by Taki Handa remains unaltered. The stepping stones, meandering paths and the structure of the seats, bridges and summerhouses are equally true to Japanese custom.

In Japanese gardening the layout and choice of stones is always the primary consideration. Their size must be in proportion to the size of the garden, and they should deter­mine the scale of all the materials used. The number of symbolic and decorative stones in a Japanese garden may vary from five important ones up to as many as one hundred and fifty, each with its special sense and function, while any grouping or clustering of the stones is usually done in threes or fives. The stones are mostly limestone, while the slabs and entrance steps are granite.

In the south side of Shãh-rak-uen, and just inside the main entrance gate there is a Welcoming Stone, whose shape symbolises ‘Heaven’, ‘Mankind’, and ‘Earth’. Continuing through this section there are a series of stepping-stones, all specially laid for comfortable walking. There is a Water Basin stone covered with moss near the main garden tea shelter right out in the water (the more ancient moss ridden stones become, the more naturally Japanese in character they are). In this corner of the garden there are two representations of typical Japanese lanterns.

The most famous of these, the ‘Kasuga’ lantern of which there are two at Cowden, belongs to the ‘Standard’ type; it is a single stemmed Kasuga shaped stone lantern which came from Kyoto and is dated 1823. It got the name ‘Kasuga’ shaped after a Shinto god to whom the well-known Nara temple is dedicated. The other type of lantern, which is represented in this garden is of the Legged class, of which the most famous is the Snow scene shaped lantern, which stands out on the water by itself and is approached by stepping stones (the term snow scene is given to this lantern because the Japanese love the effect of snow as much as of flowers, and the shape of the lantern presents wide surfaces for the lingering snow). These lanterns are carved in granite, and incidentally are practically entirely ornamental, serving no official lighting purpose, although they are hollowed out at the top that an oil lamp could be attached.

On the north side of ‘Shãh-rak-uen’ are the slopes of Fuji, so named after the famous mountain in Japan. On those slopes there are numerous stones most of which are named and self-explanatory. Perhaps the most famous is the Seat of Honour stone, near which there is a cupressus chair and a juniper fan, which is supposedly meant to waft fresh breezes. From the typically Japanese shelter at the top of this hill, the best view of the garden can be obtained. The trees and shrubs have been pruned very carefully on the slopes to maintain the correct impression of this type of garden, and in particular to preserve the views and reflections on the water beyond. Other characterised stones in this part of the garden are: the Face Washing Stone, the Master’s Stone, the Cave Stone, the Widower Stone, the Two Deities Stone, the Kwannon Stone, and the Moonshadow Stone.

‘Moonviewing’ is a favourite pastime of the Japanese, but the great Moon Festival is on the fifteenth day of the eighth month. Special flowers and shaped branches of Korean and dwarf pines surround the ‘moonviewing’ stones and seats. The Kwannon Stone usually in an isolated place in the garden symbolises a deity worshipped on mountain heights. Near the worshipping stone is a specially arranged group of the five stones of the five virtues. Patriotism, Fidelity, Loyalty to family life, Obedience to parents and lastly, Faith.

One of the little Islands reached from the foot of the slopes by stepping stones is The Master’s Isle. This is particularly beautiful and apart from The Master’s Stone itself; there is also nearby the stone of Easy Rest and the stone of Amusement. The little island next to this is the Guest’s Isle where there are five important stones: the Guest Honouring Stone, the Interviewing Stone, the Shoe-Removing Stone, the Water Fowl Stone and also the Sea-Gull Resting Stone. Storks and Mandarin ducks are the most common of the wild fowl found in the gardens in Japan, and it is hoped to start a colony of Mandarins in the very near future in this garden at Cowden.

At the extreme western corner of ‘Shãh-rak-uen’, stepping stones lead up to the most sacred part of the garden. A red lacquered ‘Torii’, which means ‘Sacred Place’ is the entrance gate to the Shinto Shrine dedicated to Imari the great benefactor of Japan, who introduced the cultivation of rice into the country. The carved wooden pet foxes in the shrine are always part of the altar equipment; two with golden balls in their mouths and two with golden rolls, which represent the good fortune that came of their Master’s gift. The roof is made of a special crytomeria, and the whole shrine was brought in sections from Japan.


Robert Christie Stewart

May 1955