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Benmore Botanic Garden is accessed from the A815 some seven miles north west of Dunoon and not much more than two miles from the head of Holy Loch. It is one of three specialist gardens in different areas of Scotland that form part of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. The others are Dawyck Botanic Garden near Peebles and Logan Botanic Garden south of Stranraer.
Sometimes still known as the Younger Botanic Garden, Benmore Botanic Garden covers an area of some 120 acres or 48 hectares. Set within in a bowl of steeply rising mountains, Benmore enjoys a spectacular setting. Starting from the car park and visitor centre in the valley of the River Eachaig, the garden climbs the lower slopes of A'Chruach or Benmore Hill to a high point at a spectacular viewpoint 450ft above sea level.
The topography is considerably more complex than this brief description makes it appear. Much of the mountain character of the garden is associated with a steep-sided ridge which runs down its centre, from the viewpoint at its northern end to the cliffs near the fernery in the south. This is truly a garden in three dimensions, and the central and western parts can be quiet challenging in places, complete with some very steep paths. Other parts of the garden are much more accessible: and the lower, eastern, half includes an easy route that takes in all the key features on paths suitable for wheelchair users.
The complexity of the garden means finding your way around could be quite difficult. This has been avoided by the map issued to each visitor on arrival, and the larger versions of the same map on display, complete with invaluable "you are here" indicators, at just about every important junction of paths in the garden.
The mountainous topography and rocky geology are two of the factors that make Benmore such a good location for a botanic garden intended to replicate the conditions of a temperate rainforest. The third is its climate, which sees between 80 and 120 inches of rain fall each year, with rain falling on up to 250 days each year. Meanwhile, the winters are mild, though the garden is prone to frost at almost any time of the year.
All these factors combine to make Benmore an ideal home for a very large number of plants from many different parts of the world, including Chile, China, Bhutan, Tasmania, the Pacific coast of North America and the Scottish Highlands.
Your visit begins in the visitor centre near the car park. Here you find the ticket office, plus the Botanics Shop and the James Duncan Cafe. After crossing an ornate footbridge over the River Eachaig, you enter the main part of the gardens themselves, and are faced by the impressive sight of the Redwood Avenue. These trees were planted in 1863 and are now over 50m or 165ft high.
Beyond the far end of the avenue is Benmore House, an imposing if not especially pretty Scots Baronial mansion built and extended during the Victorian era. This is used as an outdoor education centre and is not open to the public. To the north of the Redwood Avenue you come into the formal gardens at Benmore, complete with pond, fountain and lawns. Things to look out for here include "Puck's Hut", also known as the Bayley Balfour Memorial, and the courtyard buildings beyond, home to the garden's offices and to the Benmore Gallery, in which exhibitions regularly take place.
Further to the west the garden climbs, steeply in places, to the ridge which dominates its centre. Here it becomes obvious that Benmore is home to one of the world's largest collections of Rhododendrons, with some 250 species and 100 subspecies. These dominate many of the steeply sloping areas, with some plants growing to 30ft in height. The upper end of the central ridge is home to the Wright Smith Memorial, a shelter which offers a superb viewpoint. The lower end of the ridge, whose far, western side becomes almost sheer in places, is known as the Tasmanian Ridge and is home to a number of species native to Tasmania.
The central ridge comes to an abrupt halt near the southern end of the garden, and paths actually lead around the cliffs here. The upper reaches of the end of the ridge provide an unexpected location for the fernery. This is an extremely large and very unusual example of a Victorian fernery, but for many years was simply a derelict ruin. The image shown on this page, taken in June 2009, shows the fernery in a nearly completed state after major renovation and restoration.
The further, western, end of the garden is home to the Benmore Hill Arboretum and Glen Massan Arboretum. It is also home to two of Benmore's more specialised areas. The Bhutanese Glade contains a large number of plants grown from seed gathered during a 1984 expedition to Bhutan and steadily added to since. The most recent major development, at the far western end of the garden, is the 15 acre Chilean Rainforest Glade, planted in 1995 with seeds and cuttings brought back from Chile.
Once part of the hunting estates of the Dukes of Argyll, deliberate planting of trees began at Benmore in the 1820s. The estate's then owner, James Lamont, replaced an existing manor house on the site with Benmore House in 1851. An extension was added to the house by the wealthy American Piers Patrick after he bought the estate in 1862. The following year he planted the Redwood Avenue. From 1870 a new owner, Greenock sugar refiner James Duncan, undertook extensive planting. In 1889 he sold the estate to the Edinburgh brewer Henry Younger.
He and his son, Harry George Younger, planted many of the matures trees which contribute so much to Benmore today, and employed a staff of 40 to maintain the woods and gardens. In 1924, Harry George Younger proposed giving Benmore and its estate to the nation. At the time the time the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh was badly in need of more space to plant the large number of plants brought back to Scotland from China by plant collector George Forrest: and the Cowal Peninsula provided the ideal environment. The result was the opening in 1929 of the Younger Botanic Garden, the first outstation of the RGBE.
Today the Benmore Botanic Garden is thriving as never before, and the restored fernery will add an important new attraction. As you wander round the garden, especially the more challenging parts, spare a though for those who have to keep it in such superb condition. Where the Younger family employed 40 gardeners in the early 1900s, Benmore Botanic Garden today employs just eleven people in total, counting everyone up to and including the curator.