lake surrounded by trees with small island in centre and bride connecting it to shore

Did you know that deep in the Clackmannanshire countryside you can visit a beautiful Japanese Garden?

The Japanese Garden at Cowden is the creation of two dynamic Scottish women. It has recently been restored and revealed to the public for the first time since the 1950s.

water with trees reflected in the surface

The Japanese Garden at Cowden, © Sara Stewart

Ella, Enchanted

Ella Christie was a noted adventurer who travelled all over the Far East at the start of the 20th century. She visited India, Tibet and Borneo, attended a banquet with the maharaja of Kashmir, and dined with Lord Kitchener.

In 1907 she visited Japan, where she fell in love with the formal style of gardening. Unlike a lot of people coming back from their travels full of never realised good intentions, Christie began to create a Japanese-style garden at her country estate.

Adventurer Ella Christie, © Sara Stewart

Adventurer Ella Christie, © Sara Stewart

Japanese Dream Team

Ella Christie enlisted the help of several Japanese designers to create the garden. These were:

  • Taki Handa, the female garden designer responsible for the original design (known as Shah-Rak-Uen, ‘the place of pleasure and delight’)
  • London-based Professor Suzuki, who advised on key principles for the garden as it matured in the 1920s
  • Shinzaburo Matsuo, who lived and worked as gardener at Cowden from 1925 until his death in 1937.
Japanese man in 1920s clothes stands in a garden holding secateurs

Shinzaburo Matsuo at Cowden, © Sara Stewart

As a result, the garden became famed for its authenticity – unusual in the UK where this type of garden was often more of a pastiche. The garden at Cowden incorporates elements of three Japanese forms:

  • a pond and island garden
  • a stroll garden
  • a tea-house garden

In 1925, it was hailed by Professor Suzuki as the best Japanese garden in the Western world!

Sacrilege in the Sixties

Unfortunately in the 1960s, the garden was badly vandalised. By this time Ella Christie had passed away, and with no resources available to restore it the Japanese Garden fell into ruin.

Enter the second woman in the tale, Christie’s great great niece, Sara Stewart. In recent years she has spearheaded restoration efforts to bring the garden back to its former glory.

three people stand on a bridge over a pond lined by trees

Sara Stewart showing our HES staff round the garden

Despite the vandalism, the essential features of the garden endured. Cowden is an exceptional example of the Japanese-style garden tradition in the UK, and is the only Japanese-style garden on our Inventory of Gardens and Designed Landscapes.

We were therefore proud to part-fund a landscape management plan to help guide the restoration. We also collaborated with the Cowden Team, providing advice and encouragement.

Time Honoured Tradition

Continuing the tradition of using Japanese expertise at Cowden, Sara Stewart engaged Professor Masao Fukuhara to guide the restoration.

An expert on Japanese garden design, Professor Fukuhara has worked on restoration projects all over the the world. He has also won a gold medal and best in show at the Chelsea Flower Show!

two people stand discussing work to do in a garden

Professor Fukuhara guiding restoration work in 2016

During the project many original garden structures were uncovered, including broken lanterns, moss-covered stones, and mature planting. Local craftsmen used traditional designs to create new structures, representing ongoing collaboration between Scottish and Japanese design, skills and craftsmanship.

Under the skilled and dedicated direction of the Scottish and Japanese team at Cowden, the garden has been saved for future generations. It’s amazing to see it once again re-emerging as Shah-Rak-Uen, ‘the place of pleasure and delight’.

Explore the Secret Garden

So take a trip to Cowden this summer – to stroll around the lake, take a seat in one of the Japanese rest houses, admire the planting, enjoy a cup of tea overlooking the lake and soak up the atmosphere of this very special place.

The garden is now open every Wednesday-Sunday, 11am-5pm until Sunday 28 October.

path through a garden lined with trees and rocks

The restored garden, © Sara Stewart

They are hosting a Japanese Summer Festival on Saturday 1 and Sunday 2 September: two days of Japanese inspired events in the garden to celebrate the first year of Cowden being open to the public since 1955.


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About Author

Catherine Middleton

Catherine works in the Heritage Management Directorate dealing with casework relating to Scotland’s nationally important gardens and designed landscapes. Outside of work, she is a keen gardener and walker.