Update: With thanks to Colin for sharing this news, several gardeners were employed in March 2020 to oversee Achamore. I’m looking forward to returning one day.
We recently spent a long weekend under a raincloud in Kintyre.
After doing a bit of research and discovering we could get to the Isle of Gigha for a measly £5 return on foot, we slid across the still water towards the island and Achamore on the only clear-sky day of our holiday.
If you do a bit of Googling, you’ll know that Achamore Gardens is up there with one of the number one sights on Gigha.
Although the mansion house already existed, it was in 1944 that Achamore began to flourish. Sir James Horlick created the gardens as we knew them, bursting with azaleas, camellias and various sub-tropical shrubs.
You can imagine it’s typical for an isolated estate to change hands multiple times, but throughout this period Achamore Gardens were tended and remained blooming. Until a few years ago when the Gigha Heritage Trust — who bought the island in the biggest community buyout in British history — took over.
When we visit Achamore — just a brief walk from the ferry port — we’re none the wiser. The noticeboard at the gate looks a bit weatherbeaten, the surrounding plants more brown than blooming, and yet the sign says ‘adult entry £6’.
We follow the muddy trail, finishing at two huts and an honesty box for payment. The huts would reveal Achamore’s secret in time, but for now we paid and wandered on.
We take the tarmac road towards the house, a beautiful and big cream-painted affair that’s quite unexpected on this small island (it’s for sale at the moment, if you’ve got a spare £900,000).
Behind it are the walled gardens, but once we pass through the red gates we realise they’re no longer cared for. It’s hard to imagine how beautiful these four walls must have been as we gaze at cracked glasshouses, suffocating plants, an overgrown bamboo maze and untamed grass.
It reminds me of St Peter’s Seminary: forgotten but haunting in its natural state.
In the garden, we meet a gentleman and his son.
They’re visiting from Cambridge, the elder one tells us. He remembers these gardens in the sixties. ‘They were stunning. It’s such a shame now.’
They wander off and we repeat their footsteps up to the viewpoint which looks over to Islay and Jura. Wood-carved animals are littered at intervals, the toil of an artist left to rot on the ground with the twigs. It’s somehow sad.
As we wander, the extent of Achamore’s abandonment becomes more obvious, but yet more intriguing.
There’s something strangely addictive about trying to piece a story together from tiny, scattered clues. Achamore had many of those.
Peacocks appearing from bushes, toilets with fresh soap by the sink, a 2015 gardening catalogue, an abandoned jacket… All the traces that led us to the realisation that perhaps the honesty box was, ironically, a bit misleading in itself.
By the time we return to the huts — past the rotting pond (lilies still floating), the small summerhouse, the camellia path, the huge sheds — we feel sad for what this place must have been.
As we’re about to leave, we notice that one of the locks on the huts is open. We pull the door gently. It’s a small ‘learning room’, splattered with dead leaves, leaflets and maps of the grounds. There’s even a clipboard with paper on it. I look.
Visitors that were here just a few days before us have given their address to Gift Aid their entry payment. Everyone has paid the full amount to see these beautiful botanic gardens slowly be swallowed by untamed nature.
The mystery of Achamore Gardens isn’t that they’ve been left wild.
The real mystery, to me, is what will happen in the years to come. There wasn’t a sign or website telling us that Achamore had been abandoned to nature. There was nothing to reveal what had happened, or what might be possible with people’s money.
I hope in my heart that whoever has the keys to the honesty box is saving up for a gardening army, a brigade that will descend on Gigha with watering cans and rakes at the ready.
Perhaps Achamore will be ready for the summer. For the sake of Gigha and all who visits, I really hope so.