They might be hard to find but historic Ellon Castle Gardens are well worth a visit. Gayle helps a squad of volunteers with some autumn chores…
Billed as Ellon’s “secret garden”, I was warned it might be tricky to find.
I pondered this thought as I gazed up at the huge stone walls and wondered how on Earth to get in.
Luckily, the lovely Elizabeth Cameron spotted me loitering and pointed me in the right direction.
Elizabeth, a volunteer gardener, then treated me to a mini-tour – past the impressive castle ruins, along a path lined with yew trees, and down to the Deer Park.
There I found Dr Alison Craigon, director of events and volunteering for Ellon Castle Gardens Trust, waiting patiently.
What followed was a pleasant few hours of meeting volunteers and chipping in with a bit of pruning and raking leaves.
The walled gardens, which were built around one of the country’s largest collections of ancient yew trees – some thought to be up to 800 years old – were gifted to the community of Ellon in 2014 having lain derelict for decades and fallen into disrepair.
Since then, a board of trustees and group of dedicated volunteers have worked hard to restore them to their former glory and there was huge excitement when they opened to the public in June last year.
As you stroll around, you get a real sense of being “hidden” – of being somewhere secret.
The site is tranquil, secluded and very scenic, with the crumbling ruins of the 15th Century castle overlooking the grounds.
The yew trees are impressive and the rambling roses, begonias and snapdragons offer a pop of late autumn colour.
Birds tweet and chatter and red squirrels are here in abundance.
There’s no shortage of work to do and I find volunteers pruning, planting, strimming, weeding and raking leaves.
Ronald Scougall, from Mintlaw, who describes himself as a “jack of all trades”, has been volunteering here since 2014.
The former builder has done everything from ripping out tree stumps to fixing up walls, planting grass and installing lawn edging.
Neil Ritchie, from Logierieve, started volunteering in the summer after retiring from the oil and gas industry.
For many folk, it’s a chance to socialise – bearing in mind social-distancing restrictions – and a great opportunity to get outdoors and do something fulfilling.
While word is starting to get out – it’s less of a secret garden than it was – the trust is keen to invite more people to enjoy the site. And they’re always looking for volunteer helpers.
“It’s a really special space for people of all ages to enjoy,” says Alison.
“Annual membership is very reasonable (it’s £10 for an adult or £7.50 for a senior) and that allows you free access when the gardens are open.
“It’s lovely to see people walking round the gardens, enjoying the peace and beauty, and it would be great if more locals realised they’ve got this amazing gem right here on the doorstep.”
There’s plenty of work still to be done – and the gardens need to be constantly maintained – but one of the highlights of 2020 was the unveiling of a restored 18th Century sundial thought to be one of only two of its kind in Scotland.
Work didn’t stop during lockdown – volunteers cracked on and created new “pink” pathways running through the gardens, allowing easy access for wheelchairs and prams.
Meanwhile, a project to restore an old fountain is under way and there are bold plans to revamp the old garden house and transform it into a cafe and heritage centre.
“Anyone is welcome to lend a hand – nobody needs to be a gardening expert,” says Alison, no doubt keeping a beady eye on me as I try not to massacre a rose bush.
“We have around 20 regular gardening volunteers and 10 on the gate welcoming people and taking in money.”
The aim is to create a visitor attraction which tells the story of this stunning, historic location, while constantly evolving to reflect the changing seasons.
It’s steeped in history and legend. There are tales of a dispute between neighbours that ended in murder, a mistress in the castle and a secret tunnel, thought to have been an escape route for Jacobites, or perhaps it’s more likely it was used for smuggling brandy.
Funding to restore the castle gardens has come from various sources but local businesses – including builders and contractors – have been hugely supportive.
The Trust runs events throughout the year and 2020 began with a Snowdrop Festival.
The planned bluebell event moved online and the Easter event was cancelled thanks to Covid-19.
On Saturday November 28 the gardens will open from 11am to 3pm for a special tree festival to mark National Tree Week.
There will be fun tree-themed activities for all ages, garden tours, a scavenger hunt and the chance to sponsor a yew tree.
Ellon Castle Gardens are open to visitors on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays from 11am to 3pm, although times may change as winter bites.
Dogs on leads are welcome.
Entry fee is £3 for non-members and free for members. For details on volunteering, see elloncastlegardens.net or Facebook.