We recently spent a long weekend under a raincloud in Kintyre. Well, we weren’t just under a raincloud; we also alternated between a wigwam and a pub. You get the idea though. 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. Not just because Gigha is tiny and there’s a limited amount to visit, but because it really is (or should I say was…?) something special. Although the mansion house already existed, it was in 1944 that Achamore began to flourish… literally. 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 incredibly sad.
As we wander, the extent of Achamore’s abandonment becomes more obvious, but yet more intriguing. Are you a fan of discovering deserted buildings? Because I love it. There’s something so addictive about trying to piece a story together from tiny, scattered clues… And Achamore had many of those…
Peacocks appearing from bushes, toilets with fresh soap by the sink, a 2015 gardening catalogue, an abandoned jacket, three solitary pets’ gravestones… All the traces that led us to the realisation that the honesty box itself was rather dishonest. And so was the internet. Where does it say that Achamore is no longer the botanical nirvana it once was? (I suppose there’s a hint of the Gigha community’s unrest here though).
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’re hurting for this place. And then B discovers that one of the locks on the huts is open. He pulls 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 fall into extinction. It’s so sad.
The mystery of Achamore Gardens isn’t that they’ve been left to rot. It’s not that Gigha’s community couldn’t afford to look after them, couldn’t spare the manpower or just couldn’t be bothered. Everyone has a life to lead, I get that. The real mystery, though, is why the gardens’ collapse isn’t being publicised. It takes two seconds to print a sign or change a website to say, ‘Please don’t donate, because we’re not using your money at all’.
Maybe I’m wrong, who knows? 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 its tourists, I really hope so.