Little Sparta

‘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.

Saint Just sculpture
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


  1. Richard Liley 28 September 2011 at 7:35 am

    I used to teach a student (an ex-girlfriend of Ian Hamilton Finlay and one-time Guardian art critic), who helped him build this garden.

  2. Jocelyn 28 September 2011 at 12:50 pm

    Little Sparta was an influence on me many years ago when I was a Landscape Architect especially as I originate from that part of the world.

    I have a book by Yves Abrioux called “Ian Hamilton Findlay – A Visual Primer” which may be of great interest to anyone who wants more information on his work and can’t get to Little Sparta. (ISBN 0 948462 35 3)

  3. jane parry 29 September 2011 at 12:26 pm

    Great to see Hamilton-Finlay’s work featured – loved his work and poetry since a student…as above, the ‘Visual Primer’ a big old tome… thanks, Jim!

  4. Simon McCormack 29 September 2011 at 8:56 pm

    Thanks Jim – I enjoyed your account of the garden. In the late seventies I worked on a scheme for landscaping around Peterhead Power station which Hamilton-Finlay contributed to. I was a student at the time and moved on – I don’t know if it ever got built. He was notoriously irascible!

  5. Elizabeth 12 January 2012 at 10:11 pm

    Although Ian collaborated with a number of artists and creatives during his career, the unsung hero of Stoneypath and Little Sparta is his wife Sue, a gardener, whose family own the land and who also travelled extensively to install and present his work.

  6. james cowan 13 January 2012 at 11:58 pm

    I have always admired the way that Ian Hamilton Finlay acknowledged his collaborators unlike so many contemporary artists today.Sue Finlay of course was his collaborator in the making of the garden, the history of which she wrote up in her memoir “The planting of a Hillside Garden”. Most information I have read do mention her part in the project, but it could easily be forgotten.


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