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Islands and buried treasure go together. Well that's the myth, anyway: we all know that real life is usually less wonderful. But just occasionally the myths can turn into reality, and that's exactly what happened after the Fyfe family purchased the long-derelict Ascog Hall in the village of Ascog in 1986. Hidden under part of the deeply overgrown three acres of garden they found real life buried treasure.
The treasure in question dated back to about 1870 and was in the form of a large L-shaped Victorian fernery, carved out of the solid rock of the landscape and covered with an ornate iron-framed glazed roof. Or, at least, it had been once. By 1986 the structure of the roof was rusting away and most of the glazing lay amongst the mud, rubble, shrubs and brambles that filled much of the interior.
The idea of restoration followed the discovery of an article in The Gardeners' Chronicle of 25 October 1879 written not long after the fernery had been completed. This included a woodcut picture of the interior, and a complete inventory of the ferns housed here. The inventory meant that it might be possible to restore not only the physical structure of the fernery, but also something very close to its original contents.
The Fyfes focussed their early efforts on the restoration of Ascog Hall itself. But in 1995/6, with significant support from Historic Scotland, they started work on the roof of the fernery. Meanwhile, the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh lent their enthusiastic support to the project, using the inventory in the Gardeners' Chronicle to very accurately restock the fernery as it had been when originally completed. They had to start almost from scratch: only one of the large ferns had survived, though in 1879 this was described as being already over 1000 years old.
The fernery opened to the public in June 1997 and it remains an important stop on any tour of Bute. The roof is at ground level, and entry is via a set of steps that lead you down into the interior. Having the body of the fernery below ground helps maintain an even temperature. For lovers of ferns a tour is a remarkable experience: others will perhaps give more thought to the amazing construction - and the still more amazing reconstruction - of the fernery. And all will be struck by the statue you encounter of a lady in classical Grecian dress holding a frog in a bowl in her hand and, apparently, wondering whether in the right circumstances it might turn into a prince...
The Fyfes did not stop with the restoration of the fernery. The surrounding gardens have also been reclaimed from the jungle they had become by the 1980s, and restored to something like their former glory. Of particular note is the Rose Garden, which has as its focus a walk through trellises weighted down with heavily scented flowers. Nearby is a gravel garden, in the area once used as a tennis court.
Ascog Hall lies towards the southern end of the settlement of Ascog, which is itself a couple of miles south east of Rothesay. The story of the hall began in 1844 when the Rev James Monteith moved to Bute from Dalkeith. The hall was purchased in 1856 by Robertson Buchanan Stewart, and it was his son, Alexander Bannatyne Stewart, who oversaw the construction of the fernery. He also built the coach house and stables, whose ruins still lie in a corner of the gardens.
From 1880 Ascog Hall had a series of short term owners, and in the 1930s it was used as a hotel. It lay largely undisturbed and disused from 1945 until its discovery and purchase by the Fyfes in 1986.