Ten Gothic Gardens

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It has taken years for me finally to reach Yester - even southern Scotland is a long way away from where I live. My visit confirmed my old suspicion that this, too, was a Gothic Garden, though now it exists only in a phantom form (appropriately enough).

In the 1750s Lord Hay of Gifford employed
the Musselburgh gardener and designer James Bowie to remodel Yester House’s existing formal garden into something more Picturesque with lawns and follies. One element Bowie suggested retaining, and indeed enhancing, was the ancient Chapel of St Bathan yards from Yester House itself; his Lordship decided to make it his family mausoleum, and adorned it with an elaborate Rococo-Gothic frontage. Bowie wanted to separate it from the rest of the grounds by ‘a fence rudely formed’ so that it ‘may be a piece with the antiquity of the place’ (‘rude’ was Bowie’s favourite descriptive word: he advocated facing over a set of stone arches with ‘rude stones naturally disposed, the lower ones to form a Grotto, the upper ones a rude Cavern’).

Yester Chapel
This image of Yester Chapel isn't mine, by the way - it's Jimmy Denham's care of Wikipedia. Much as it may look like a horror movie set now, it was probably intended to conjure up different associations in 1753.  

But outside the immediate grounds of the house, the Gifford Water carved a  steep gorge - just the same as at other Gothic Gardens - running eastwards along which walks seem to have been laid around the same time as Bowie’s work near the mansion; their destination was the wooded ruin of Yester Castle, a 13th-century fortress finally abandoned by the Hays in 1557. Today the walks continue to the next village, Garvald, but I imagine the 18th-century visitors to Yester would have taken the loop around the Castle and then returned back, a round trip of about a couple of miles.

Having once failed to reach the Castle from the east due to impossibly boggy ground, I took the other direction and approached from the Gifford end. Yester House is private so the effect is now muted, but just east of the grounds you join the paths which lead through the woods - woods which now obscure the sides of the gorge, unfortunately, but the way the path winds to and fro across the tumbling, rocky stream of the Gifford Water shows how artificial the landscape is. My assumptions were confirmed by the presence of two beautiful bridges, one just beside the main path which is completely unnecessary although it's much more fun to ignore the signs warning of a 'dangerous structure' and traverse the stream to follow the path to the Castle, and the other further in the wood, near the Castle itself.

bridge in the woods at Yester
Bridge at Yester
The path winds and turns back on itself and, beyond the second bridge, just as you think you've gone the wrong way, there the Castle is up a knoll among the trees. There's not much of it left, and it's hard to see, but that can't detract from the fact that - it's a ruined castle!
Yester Castle
Yester Castle
Ruins are great, but they're just antique remains with historic associations and the ability to provoke reflections on destruction and loss. But Yester has another thrill in store for visitors, both in the 1700s and now. This is the strange subterranean chamber below the Castle known as the Goblin Ha'. The Goblin Ha' was constructed in the time of Sir Hugo de Gifford, about 1267; Sir Hugo dabbled in alchemy which brought him a sulphurous reputation, and such was the  strangeness and splendour of the vaulted underground chamber he inserted beneath the Castle that nobody would believe it had been built merely by human agency. The chronicler John de Fordun wrote that de Gifford raised an army of infernal creatures to assist him in the work of building the Ha', and centuries later Walter Scott repeated the story in Marmion. Imagine that being the destination of your post-prandial walk from Yester House.
And I have to say - it's horrible. You can't go in except by special arrangement, but just looking through the grille-covered windows reveals a chamber which has, even to this insensitive soul, a deeply nasty atmosphere; a sense that visitors are not welcome.  This is nothing more than autosuggestion, I'm sure, but it's hard to shake the feeling that something very disagreeable has happened here, quite different from the slightly campy excitement I've met at other Gothic Gardens. The Goblin Ha' at Yester

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