Visit to Hospitalfield.  A report from Fiona Gordon.

After an informative tour of the house, we headed to the adjoining walled garden, entering through a door in a high red brick wall, which completely surrounds the garden: the wall blends perfectly with the dark red sandstone of the house.  The walled garden is in turn surrounded by a shelterbelt of trees, the latter being enclosed by a stone wall.  The walled garden sits on the seaward-facing side of the house.

It was a beautiful warm sunny day, with a gentle breeze coming off the sea:  perfect for a tour of the garden, led by SGLH Vice Chair and Honorary Research Advisor Christopher Dingwall.

In recent years the garden has undergone considerable redevelopment from the old 1960s/70s garden of island beds and overgrown trees.  Nigel Dunnett, Garden Designer & Professor of Planting Design and Urban Horticulture, University of Sheffield, created the original plan for a new garden layout.

‘’My aim for the design at Hospitalfield is to create a framework for exploration and discovery of the diverse histories and productive and symbolic uses of plants over the 800 years of the gardens’ existence, from their Medieval monastic origins through to the heights of Victorian exotica”.

Work began in 2018 and the new garden opened in 2021.

The garden is compartmentalised in much the same way as it was in the 19th century though with a slight rotation of the central axis so that the focal point is now the main mass of the house and towers rather than the kitchen wing.


Ordnance Survey, Forfarshire Sheet XLVI, 6-inch, 1st edition, 1865 ©NLS

The garden compartments now comprise of lawn, formal garden and romantic garden.

A large expanse of lawn surrounded by herbaceous borders is adjacent to the house. Today there was a collection of Emma Hart sculptures – Big Time – displayed on the lawn. The use of sculpture in the garden reflects the current use of the site as an artists’ residence which dates from when the previous owner, artist Patrick Allen Fraser, bequeathed the property in 1902 for the promotion of education in the arts.

A hornbeam hedge separates the lawn from the formal garden which is accessed either through a gate in the main axis or a path to the far left, which is the one we took.  We found ourselves in a physic garden which links the garden back to the origins of the house as a ‘hospital’ for Benedictine pilgrims visiting Arbroath Abbey in the 13th century.  This garden has recently been further developed by herbalist Terrill Dobson following the three principles:

  • doctrine of signatures
  • roots, shoots and flowers
  • sensory garden

It is laid out in a grid of beds and connecting paths at the centre of which is a sculpture, Rio by Eduardo Paolozzi (on loan from The Hunterian Gallery, Glasgow), which highlights the contrast between manmade – human – and nature. The four beds surrounding the sculpture are edged with upright slates, giving a sharply defined edge that echoes the sculpture.  All the other beds are edged with lavender which spills onto the paths, softening the scene.  Fruit trees add height.

We next crossed over the central axis to the orchard which has been quartered with a statue in the middle.  Growing here are heritage variety apple trees under planted with wildflower and meadow mix, as well as Phacelia tanacetifolia with its distinctive purple flowers which are particularly good at attracting bees and other insects. The informality of the planting was a lovely contrast to the more formal arrangement of the physic garden.

We returned to the central axis in the formal garden which is bordered by colourful herbaceous beds complete with planting being undertaken by volunteers with Irish yew providing structure and a dark green foil for the planting.  Theses borders are also backed by hornbeam hedges.

The last area of the walled garden is the romantic garden, which we accessed through a gate in a wall which separates the romantic garden from the formal garden. We found ourselves in an area full of roses and flowering perennials.  The area is elongated, with a path at right angles to the central axis.  The beds either side have been divided into sections using hornbeam hedges.  The resulting beds nearest the central axis contain flowers and those furthest away at each end have edibles.  The division of the space and the feeling of confinement creates a more intimate atmosphere.

From here we left the walled garden behind and headed to another area of garden ground beyond the walled garden which is referred to as the paddock, with a grassy path traversing the area.  It is bordered by trees and originally contained a circular walk with four statues: it is also thought to have had a rockery.  The sea is visible through the trees.

We crossed the paddock then took the path back through the trees to the house, passing on the way a tall Japanese stone lantern.

Back in the walled garden we had the opportunity to go into the fernery which was originally built in 1870 at the time of the Victorian craze for all things fern related.  It fell into disrepair in the 1920s and was in a state of considerable dilapidation before it was restored by architects Carouso St John and reopened in 2021.  It is now B listed and features planting by the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh.

Despite the glazed roof the interior feels like a grotto, with rusticated walls housing cubby holes for ferns.  This contrasts with the simple exterior of cut stone.  Stone staircases lead up to a platform for viewing ferns from above and paths at floor level create a feeling of being enclosed by the vegetation.

Our garden tour ended with a lovely lunch in the café next to the fernery.

Many thanks to Simon Stuart for kindly agreeing to us publishing his photographs.