A short distance from my grandparents’ cottage in the west of Scotland was a realm that exerted an irresistible, magnetic attraction, enticing me to stroll up the steep, country lane and cross the main road. Here, nestling amidst beech trees, was an imposing Scottish baronial ruin. With conical turrets and crow stepping, it harked back to a medieval world of austere castles and manor houses; instead, it was an early 20th century architectural fantasy. Lying derelict for many years, the rickety house was now the haunt of owls, rabbits and mobs of cackling jackdaws that restlessly tumbled in the sky above and perched on its disintegrating gables. I ignored the notices that warned of danger and ducked under the surrounding barbed wire fence to explore the remnants of the parlour and dining hall, their floors strewn with a jumble of slate, plaster and brick. Disgorged metal pipes clanked in the breeze and creatures furtively rustled through the undergrowth. The crumbling building was known to locals as the ‘Haunted House’; ghost stories conjectured that it harboured the phantom of a World War Two airman. Behind the house was a sumptuous wood composed of regimental rows of stately beech trees. Rising from thick leaf mould were a covered well and at the wood’s perimeter, a few squat gateposts adorned with conical peaks and crowned with spherical stones. The wood and the ruin belonged to a vast, unfinished country estate.
Shortly before the First World War, construction of the enormous stately home sited at the heart of the estate abruptly ceased. The wealthy rubber baron who had funded the design and construction of what he had planned to be his own luxurious dominion, a house for his many treasures, lost most of his money in a failed investment. Bereft of plaster, electrical wiring, plumbing and furnishings, the big house had remained abandoned and forsaken for over half a century. But if you followed the road to the southwest that passed the Haunted House, you came to another grand building, the gatehouse, with its arched entrance to the estate’s interior. From the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s, the period of my frequent visits, this was the only inhabited part of the estate. Ornamental stone monkeys clambered across the roof and a courtyard was enclosed by massive wooden gates reputed to originate from London’s Newgate Prison.
The gatehouse was occupied by a diminutive, elderly woman who took it upon herself to maintain the estate as best she could. She routinely toured the policies, seeking to banish any unwanted visitors. With her dogs, and it was rumoured, a particularly vicious goose, she patrolled the estate in an archaic automobile, metal whistle at the ready to summon help and frighten intruders, especially children like me. Although I was perennially fearful that I might encounter the aged crone, this could not divert me from the inexorable lure of the estate. Indeed, once she had suddenly materialised from a distance of a few yards, shrieking ‘Who do you think you are! Get off my property!’, before filling the air with her piercingly loud whistle. I ran back through the woodland, my ten-year-old legs shaking, my heart pumping, not knowing what fate might ensue had I dallied. Upon reflection, I realised that she was probably as scared as me.
To reach the mansion at the heart of the estate, I followed a route that included a stroll through woodland, a meander across two luxuriant meadows, and a tussle through thick undergrowth and brambles. As I drew closer, I would always recall the astonishment and unease I experienced the first time I had come across the massive building, aged eight. Peering through a thick mass of saplings and canes, the suddenly glimpsed mansion loomed, its great mass and size exerting an overwhelming material force that seemed to advise that I should go no further. It’s lofty chimneys and turrets, vertically elongated windows and solid grey stonework, together with a pervasive silence, suggested that unfathomable, hitherto undisturbed uncanny energies might lie within. But pushing these anxious imaginings aside, I tentatively moved forwards. Following a course that became familiar, I descended into the extensive, overgrown ornamental gardens that surrounded the mansion.
Upon arrival, I would amble along a raised, mossy stone platform, adorned with a sturdy balustrade, that led to a two storeyed summerhouse, an excellent location from which to observe roe deer, tree creepers and woodpeckers, and listen to birdsong. This gazebo overlooked a large walled garden that in spring and summer was vibrantly coloured with exotic blooms that still forced their way through the swaying grasses and shrubs that had colonised the ground. In the middle of the garden was a circular stone fountain that had never spouted. Grassy tussocks grew in its wide bowl, and in spring, frogspawn would collect in the murky rainwater that collected there. Around the perimeter of the fountain were four impassive guardians, carved stone lions who had been designed to spurt water from their mouths into the pool below. In the centre of the bowl was erected a column on which were inscribed three chilling injunctions, grave reminders of the transience and fragility of human mortality:
YESTERDAY RETURNETH NOT
TODAY IS THINE, MISUSE IT NOT
TOMORROW PERCHANCE COMETH NOT.
In this unfrequented realm, these solemn phrases weighed heavily, soliciting disquiet.
Beyond the gazebo, paved footpaths covered with moss and a thick mulch of pine needles traversed unkempt woodland. These passages had originally been bordered with formally planted yew and pine hedges but over many years had grown into an overarching umbrella of dense foliage, forming gloomy arboreal tunnels. In the centre of one long path, if you scraped away the organic debris, a decorative pattern at the centre of which was a heart-shaped slab was revealed. If you looked to the side, barely discernible in the surrounding woodland, and generating a shocking jolt when first glimpsed, was a stone statue of a strange lion-beast atop a cylindrical plinth. The view ahead disclosed an even more peculiar, moss-covered, medieval human figure stationed at the end of the tree-shrouded path. While these strange, derelict gardens initially felt sinister, once I became accustomed to them, the estate became a magical place, my own secret garden. Lingering here for many hours, contentedly moving, looking, listening, usually alone, I loved this shaded, unruly, eccentric realm.
Despite the freedom of movement afforded by the gardens, the mansion’s interior was inaccessible, thoroughly barricaded against intrusion. Except on one occasion. On a cloudy spring day when I was nearing my fourteenth birthday, I wandered past the house and noticed that a large window on the ground floor was wide open. It offered an opportunity to hoik myself up and into the never-occupied interior; the invitation was impossible to resist. Once inside, I found myself in a spacious, crepuscular storeroom that appeared to be cluttered with indistinct objects. After my eyes had adjusted to the murkiness, I was surprised to see dozens of cinema seats stacked in loose rows, spattered with bird droppings and accompanied by archaic slot machines. Besides his rubber plantations, the industrialist had invested in Glasgow’s early movie palaces and had stored furnishings from these places in the unfinished building. The sight of these bygone fixtures was the prelude to a far odder, creepier spectacle: I stumbled across a large display case that contained the stuffed body of a two-headed calf. This gruesome specimen testified to freakish displays that titillated the lurid, prurient imaginations of Victorians and Edwardians who would gawp at the monstrous bodies of humans and non-humans, alive or dead. Subsequently, after composing myself, I noticed a flight of stairs to a landing on the first floor that opened out onto a grand hall, its brick walls devoid of plaster. On one side of the room, large bay windows offered a view out onto a verdant expanse of lawns festooned with thousands of daffodils. While gazing upon this lush vista, my attention was quickly diverted by the crunching sounds underfoot. A scan across the bare concrete floor revealed the intact skeletons of dozens of pigeons and songbirds who had somehow found their way into the building. Once they had fluttered into this room, they were unable to escape and must have suffered a slow, agonising death. After having witnessed these shocking and macabre sights, and because the creaks of the building were intensified by the silence, my thoughts drifted towards fearful things. Thoroughly spooked, I left the house and marched swiftly homewards to divulge my adventure. Later, I regretted exploring only a small part of the mansion’s interior; there was never another opportunity to gain access during my numerous subsequent visits.
Several years after this escapade my grandmother died, and I did not revisit the area for a long time. Yet these powerful youthful experiences of the estate continue to enchant my memories. The Haunted House inspired my long fascination with ruins, their happenstance and surprising aesthetics, their inscrutable traces of the past, and their sensory and affective potency. Yet most of the estate was not a ruin, but rather suspended in a delicious state of indeterminacy, the garden continuously changing as plants and trees grew and died, the mansion largely insulated against the damaging effects of entropy.
Years later, when I finally decided to return, I was shocked into disappointment. The land has been converted into a private estate and all buildings have been restored and refurbished. The haunted house has been rebuilt and inhabited, and the previously unfinished mansion has been completed, redesigned to accommodate luxury apartments. Both have become homely. The ruined gardens have been replanted and assiduously tended to closely resemble the original plans. Flower beds have been recreated, lawns are neatly manicured, and the stonework of the fountains, walls, balustrades and gazebo has been cleansed of foliage and blasted clean of lichens. The tree tunnels in the woods have been heartlessly reshaped into the hedged walkways that were originally intended. These lavish horticultural surroundings consolidate an impression of exclusivity and extravagance.
My secret garden has been stripped of its eerie potency, reshaped according to the familiar, conventional aesthetics of the country house. A unique, unruly realm has been aesthetically disciplined into a commonplace space. Refurbished, pruned and tamed, there are few surprises, no hidden places in which to loiter, and little to stimulate the imagination. Like so many other overdesigned, over-regulated places that spread across the land, the estate presently suffers from a surfeit of order, subject to a neurotic regime of maintenance in which wild energies are curtailed. Mystery has been expelled and the ineffable has been exorcised.
Tim Edensor is Emeritus Professor of Social and Cultural Geography at the Institute of Place Management, Manchester Metropolitan University. Amongst other works, he is the author of Industrial Ruins: Space, Aesthetics and Materiality (2005), From Light to Dark: Daylight, Illumination and Gloom (2017), Stone: Stories of Urban Materiality (2020), and Landscape, Materiality and Heritage: An Object Biography (2022), a book about a Scottish medieval cross. He is co-editor of The Routledge Handbook of Place (2020) and Dark Skies: Place, Practice, Communities (2023).
Photographs by the author.