From the remnants of Edzell Castle with its formal pleasure garden through woodland by the side of a river gorge to the Rocks of Solitude, this is a walk filled with contrasts
Surrounded by gently undulating farmland, the red sandstone remains of a ruined Scottish castle stand proudly in a green landscape of rich parkland and lush woodland. By their side sits a formal, walled Renaissance garden, dating from the early 17th century.
This is Edzell Castle in Angus. A mile to the east sits the 19th century sandstone town of Edzell, flanked by a wooded wilderness. Here the River North Esk runs through moss-clad boulders to reach the evocatively named Rocks of Solitude.
From formal garden to thundering rock-lined river, this walk covers approximately 7-8 miles. Along the route, it offers an intriguing mix of 17th century and Victorian history, combined with wild nature at its most sublime and atmospheric.
A 17th century garden
There has been a castle at Edzell since the 12th century. The original timber structure was erected to guard the mouth of Glenesk, a strategic pass to the Highlands. The present ruins are the remains of a later, 16th century building, erected by the Lindsay family, who acquired the estate in 1358. Work on a new castle began in the 1520s with the erection of the Tower House and a rectangular courtyard in a more sheltered site. A second phase of work in the mid 16th century, added the West Range. This comprised an entrance gateway, impressive state rooms and a kitchen. The final building work was overseen by Sir David Lindsay, the grandest but also the most spendthrift member of the family. It was he who created the Walled Garden in 1604. Also known as The Pleasance, its vibrant colours, intricate hedgerows and wall carvings attract thousands of visitors every year.
Approaching the castle from the car park and its beech hedges, the path leads through a well-kept lawn, past common beech trees, copper beech and a solitary pear tree. It ends at the Summer House, built at the same time as the garden. With its large banqueting space, this was a sumptuous retreat from the main house for dining and outdoor entertainment.
The Summer House leads directly to the pleasure garden, where nature and art are designed to combine. Sir David wished to stimulate both the mind and the senses. The north wall is part of the castle courtyard, but a 12ft (3.5m) high, intricately decorated wall surrounds the other three sides. On these three walls are carved panels, depicting the liberal arts, the planetary deities and the cardinal virtues.
On the south wall are the seven liberal arts of Grammatica, Rhetorica, Dialetica, Arithmetica, Musica, Geometria and Astronomia. They represent the curriculum of European universities at the time. Today, Astronomia is missing, but the rest remain.
The east wall is home to the seven planetary deities. Luna, Mercury, Venus, Sol, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn adorn this wall. This tapped into the medieval belief that the Earth was at the centre of the universe, surrounded by the heavens. Today, the original planetary carvings are housed in the Summer House to prevent weathering. Replicas are on display in the garden to show how they would have appeared to 17th century guests.
On the west wall are the original carvings of the seven cardinal virtues. The carvings of Faith, Hope, Charity, Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude and Justice are considered the weakest of all the garden’s work. It has been suggested that Sir David was running short of money by the time they were carved. He died in great debt in 1610.
To an educated 17th century visitor, this work would have been highly symbolic. For example, on the garden walls, the armorial device of the Lindsays is depicted with three rows of recesses, featuring blue and white lobelia. These flowers not only fragrance the air, but also represent the Lindsay colours of azure and argent.
No plan survives of the original planting of the rectangular garden. What is seen today was recreated in the 1930s by Historic Scotland, when it took ownership. Box hedges are clipped into letters spelling out the two Lindsay mottos, Dum Spiro Spero, meaning While I Breathe I Hope, and Endure Forte, or Endure with Strength. In each corner of The Pleasance, a box hedge displays a symbolic image. A one-headed thistle represents Highland Scotland, the fleur-de-lis recognises Scotland’s long alliance to France, a three-headed thistle pays homage to Lowland Scotland, while the rose is stands for England.
Bird life was encouraged in the original garden. Seven-rayed stars were carved into the walls, the centre of each star providing a place for a bird’s nest. Today, these are blocked for preservation reasons.
From Edzell Castle, it is a brisk 1½ mile walk along winding country roads to the eponymous town. Alternatively, the route from the castle to the town is an easy drive down Lethnot Road to the B966, which leads south into Edzell.
Originally called Slateford, it was renamed after an earlier abandoned settlement, based round the walls of the castle. Of the first Edzell, or Edale as it was called in 13th century documents, only a graveyard, grassy mounds and the ruins of a burial aisle remain. By the early 19th century, Lord Dalhousie, Earl of Panmure, had built a church at Slateford to replace the one at Edzell Castle. He decreed that the hamlet would be called Edzell after an original settlement next to the castle. Slateford disappeared forever.
Today, life in this quietly bustling town, with a population of less than 1,000, centres around the straight main street. Built on a grid pattern, many of Edzell’s smart, sandstone, two-storey tenement homes sit flush with the pavement.
From the castle, the route enters the northern end of the town. It continues down the straight High Street to the Dalhousie Arch, before returning north.
This arch is an imposing structure built by local tenants in 1887. It commemorates the unexpected and shocking deaths of the highly-esteemed local landowners, the 13th Earl of Dalhousie and his 30-year-old Countess. The couple died within 24 hours of each other while returning from a visit to America. She succumbed to peritonitis, and the 40-year-old earl died in his sleep.
On the right, up the road from the arch, is the Inglis Memorial Hall, with its outstanding stained glass windows. This was built by the son of a local reverend,
Lt Col Robert Inglis, who wished to give something back to his community. In 1898, he gifted the sandstone building and approximately 5,000 books. The hall is still the local library and is regarded as one of the best examples of a late 19th century public library in the UK.
By the riverside
Returning up the main street, the route comes to a lane where a small sign points the way down to the North Esk Water. Walkers quickly reach the Shakin’ Brig, or Shaking Bridge, suspension bridge. Built circa 1900, the footbridge straddles the border between the counties of Angus and Kincardineshire. The walk does not cross the bridge, but instead stays on the left bank of the river. This area is slightly overgrown and fenced in, but soon opens up into a riverside walk among beech trees, with occasional oak and sycamore.
As the walk progresses, there are sheer drops down to the fast-flowing river which builds powerfully in depth and sound volume. The rocks of the riverbank become more dramatic and exposed. Covered in moss and overhung by beech trees, they form a gully through which the North Esk makes its passage.
The Highland Fault Line, which splits Highland and Lowland Scotland geologically, runs through the river. Multiple rock types can be spotted along the route, including sandstone, pudding stone, volcanic rock and granite. The Highland rocks on the northern side of the fault line are older, hard metamorphic rocks of the Dalradian period, approximately 540 million years ago.
The younger, sedimentary Lowland
rocks are from the Devonian period, 400 million years ago.
Over the bridge
After an hour of walking through the forest, hugging the river, the 18th century sandstone Gannochy Bridge is reached. Crossing diagonally over this road bridge, the route goes through a small blue door set in a stone wall. Opening it reveals a path through the forestry. From this point on, the sandstone rock formation builds
in stature, dwarfing walkers as the river roars past.
The path continues on the right-hand side of the river above a 20ft (6m) drop. Signs indicating salmon fishing beats, such as the Burn Beat Cave Pool or the Darlingford Pool, pepper the landscape. The woodland is becoming slightly wilder, with lustrous ferns and an occasional holly tree standing proudly.
A further 30 minutes walk on, a derelict suspension bridge is reached. Here, the water surges past with raw power. A salmon ladder has been created to the right of the bridge, where in autumn it is possible to watch the fish leap heroically upstream. Human visitors are mere specks in the landscape here, as the rock formation swells underfoot.
After reaching this climactic point, the river quietens. Gentle waterfalls trickle down the rockside. A tree stump has been sympathetically created into a bench and viewing point.
As the path curves under the cliffs towards the Rocks of Solitude, there is a noticeable stillness. The river is almost soundless as the rocks come together into
a gully. The origins of this area’s name are a mystery, but accurately describe such a wild and silent place.
From here, the route simply retraces the original path hugging the riverbank back to the blue door. Turning right, the main road passes fields back into the town, approximately 1 mile away. From the solitude of the forest, the sounds of the 21st century start to ebb back.
From an atmospheric ruined castle, past a bustling, elegant town to a wild untamed river, this walk combines both history and nature. It is a journey through a small area of Scotland filled with beauty, both natural and manmade.
By the standards of much of Scotland’s turbulent past, Edzell Castle had a relatively peaceful history. Its most famous guests were Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1562, and her son, James, in both 1580 and 1589. During the English Civil War, Oliver Cromwell stationed his troops there for a month in 1651.
By 1715, mounting debts forced the last Lord Edzell to sell the estate to the Earl of Panmure. He forfeited his lands and estates for taking part in the failed 1715-16 Jacobite rebellion. Edzell became the property of the Crown and years of decline followed.
In the late 18th century, it was bought by the nephew of Lord Panmure and eventually passed to his nephew, the 8th Earl of Dalhousie.
Today, the castle and garden are cared for by Historic Environment Scotland and are open from 1 April to 30 September.
Words: Janice Hopper