‘The most important new garden in Britain since 1945’ says Sir Roy Strong, about Ian Hamilton Finlay’s garden ‘Little Sparta‘ set in the Pentland Hills, 25 miles from Edinburgh. Not the easiest garden to visit by public transport, but a minibus runs on certain days from Edinburgh and it was during the Festival that the opportunity arose and the bus drove through typical wet Scottish weather, before arriving in brilliant sunshine at the small car park.From there, it is half-mile walk up hill on a rough farm track that leads to the garden gate. The house itself is called ‘Stoneypath’ which was the original name of the property. The garden then was renamed Little Sparta after Findlay’s battles with Strathclyde Regional Council over the classification of his byre as a commercial premises which he considered it to be a ‘Garden Temple’.
Classical references abound in this garden built on ideas and language. It follows the neo- classical tradition of garden design with sculptures set among trees and seen through vistas and is in part cultivated and wild, formal and informal. Started in the 1960s when the artist was experimenting with Concrete Poetry his visual puns and metaphors took shape and became integrated into the garden setting. His themes of fishing boats, the French Revolution, the two Word Wars, together with philosophical discourse and political argument, set the scene within this dense and complex garden. The aesthetic appeal of shrubs, trees and flowers have been hijacked and shaped into containers for thoughts and ideas, home to sculptures and carvings, words and statements which ambush you at every turn. High up in the Pentland Hills miles from anywhere don’t expect an easy time or a cup of tea for that matter, there is no cafe or restaurant You have to put yourself out for Finlay, A garden as he said – ‘should be an attack, rather than a retreat”
Jim Cowan, OCA tutor and assessor