Little Sparta - Scotland's "modern, mythological garden"

Little Sparta, near Edinburgh in Scotland has been described as both “a modern, mythological garden” (Jonathan Jones) and “the most important new garden in Britain since 1945" (Sir Roy Strong).  It’s certainly one of the most intriguing landscapes I’ve visited yet on my travels, although it won’t appeal to those in search of borders or beautiful horticultural symmetry. “Garden” in the traditional sense, is a misleading word for this extraordinary site, because although you’ll find plenty of greenery, in reality it's an open-air museum showcasing the talents of poet and artist Ian Hamilton Finlay. 
The Temple Pool Garden
Located in a secluded part of Lanarkshire, with views over the Pentland Hills, everything about Little Sparta hints of allegory and illusion, from the warships in the garden, to the references cut into stone and wood detailing his battles with the council about the use of his home as a museum. Hamilton Finlay acquired the five-acre property - originally a farmstead called Stonypath - in 1966 and spent the next forty years of his life toiling the land and adding to his collection of concrete poetry. He is acknowledged as Britain's foremost "concrete poet", and if you visit, you'll understand why - it's filled with sculptures bearing inscriptions, from bridges to pathways and gates to stone walls.
Hamilton Finlay had an interesting upbringing - born in Nassau and reputedly the son of a bootlegger, he returned to Scotland with his parents in the 1930s. He left school at just 13 and briefly attended the Glasgow School of Art before the outbreak of World War II. He also lived and worked as a shepherd in Orkney, and after a brief first marriage, settled down with his second wife at this derelict farm where he would spend the rest of his life. 
The front garden is a series of shady glades with different pathways - keep looking down to see Finlay's words
Little Sparta is quite unlike any other garden you'll see, and although it has neither the scale nor the space of Scotland's other really unique property - The Garden of Cosmic Speculation - it is no less extraordinary.Unlike Charles Jencks' garden at Portrack, the joy of Little Sparta is that it opens regularly throughout the summer and you don't have to make a special trek to mingle with thousands of others on the only open day of the year. 
"Arch n. An Architectural Term A Material Curve Sustained by Gravity As Rapture By Grief"
Perched at the top of a hill and accessed by a farm track through fields, the Hamilton Finlays made sure that their little slice of Eden was away from prying eyes and were happy to share it with the public. Today the property is run by the Little Sparta Trust which continues to maintain the status quo and keeps the garden open throughout the summer months. After a hike up a half-mile track from the main road, you arrive at a beautifully crafted wooden gate, which gives you an idea of what you'll find within. 
The Wild Garden at the rear of the farm, is filled with many different artworks and mature trees
The garden includes more than 200 of Hamilton Finlays' artworks, in what Sir Roy Strong would describe as an "emblematic" garden, popular in the last half of the 16th century. It was his wife, Sue, who was responsible for all the planting here, and although much of the garden is actually open spaces, planted with trees and shrubs, making full use of the landscape views beyond, there is structured planting in the Roman garden, the front garden, the Allotment and the Temple Pool garden.
Carefully placed inscriptions underline the remarkable landscapes beyond the garden
But wherever you are at Little Sparta, it's the astounding countryside that will catch your eye - used to full advantage by Hamilton Finlay to showcase his collection of strategically placed stonemasonry (below) and underlining the view beyond. He did all the landscaping here and the result is a modern Stowe, with buildings, artefacts and inscriptions that ask visitors to examine our place in both nature and society. Combine that with his use of words and you will understand why Roy Strong paid him the tribute he did.
Temple of Apollo with inscription "HIS MUSIC HIS MISSILES HIS MUSES"
Words and pictures cannot really tell the story of this extraordinary garden - there is so much to see with more than 200 of Hamilton Finlay's works on show. You need to visit for yourself to understand the magic of his former home and reflect on his concrete poetry. To read an  interview with the man who created this garden, see the thinkinGardens feature by Ambra Edwards. Little Sparta is open from 14.30-17.00 on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays from 1st June - 30th September. Admission is £10, with an additional £5 fee for photography.


  1. Thank you for this interesting story and lovely pictures of Little Sparta.

  2. I love that garden; it seems to make "whimsical" stylish!

  3. Love this garden Charlotte, another gorgeous one!

  4. After seeing the "Horizons Long"picture, I immediately wanted to be there and trace the letters with my fingers. I have always wanted to see the gardens in England and now Scotland. This is my favorite blog. Thank you for beautiful pictures.

  5. Thank you for little Sparta, very interesting and inspiring!


  6. I guess its a lot of simplicity and green with stonework & status here compared to manicured lawn and floral works.
    It does give that cool green warm feeling.

  7. What a great design and theme. Really inspiring to see such a effort to create such great space and visual interest. Beautiful pics. ♥Janine (


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