Et in arcadia ego….

A tour round little Sparta, the amazing garden in the Pentland Hills created by artist and poet, Ian Hamilton Finlay

Words & Pictures: Catharine Howard

Ian Hamilton Finlay died less than 10 years ago but he is already a legend. A visit to Little Sparta - open 3 afternoons a week during the summer - will leave you fretting over the puzzle of the man. Dip into his letters to Stephan Bann to complete the sense of discombobulation. In 1964 readers of his new magazine: ” Poor. Old. Tired. Horse” were meant to receive a lollipop sellotaped to its cover. And then there is his fight over language with his former best friend Hugh MacDairmid, high priest of scottish prose. Hamilton quarreled with him over his use of “synthetic scottish” and published a series of beast poems in demotic Glaswegian. It was a deliberate attempt to confront.

A querulous fellow and prone to breakdowns, he retreated to his garden at Stonypath in the Pentland Hills and renamed it Little Sparta - a verbal gauntlet thrown down to Establishment Edinburgh, known as the Athens of the North. “A garden is not a retreat but an attack” was one of his bon mots and when the local council despatched an officer to collect rates arrears he encountered mock French revolutionary armed resistance. Finlay Hamilton’s argument was that as a pagan temple, Little Sparta was exempt.

Poems and waterlilies

Cars get left at the bottom of a stoney track that wends up through fields of sheep and cattle. It is a fair old distance, 10 minutes brisk striding to take you round a corner and bring house and garden into view. The site hugs a knoll very much like the sacred groves of the Abyssinian highlands, where the gods are in the trees. Nip in through the gate and tracks through the trees and boulders over fast running peaty streams will have you scurrying in delight.

Moving water and the sound of it as quite mesmeric and there are views out, over dry stone walls, through rough chestnut palisade to sunny heather uplands, herds of suckling cows. The place is in total harmony with its setting.

The jokes begin to play: wobbling over peat-washed stones, I wondered what “Iles de Peupliers” was. (The resting place of JJ Rousseau, silly me). The enchantment is in the susurration of the water, the wind in the pines, the glimpses of distant views and the beckoning message on a boulder “Wayfairer Tree 2 yards.” An oversize stile pulls the visitor up and over the boundary and out into the gratifyingly large but domestic and cloud-billowing horizon.

Concrete poetry

Call it lazy or slow but I preferred the idea of visiting this famous garden without doing any prep beforehand. I’d shunned the leaflet and  not read about the lollipop before my day out.  So it was that impressions gathered pace as the sun came and went, the birds sang and driving rain squalled through. The latter a blessing as the place emptied magically.

The mood of the written word took hold. Concrete poetry is that in which the meaning or effect is conveyed partly or wholly by visual means, using patterns of words or letters and other typographical devices.

The alluring wordy, birdy jokey calligraphy was glorious.  ”On the path of language there are wild flowers, consonants and vowels.” A neatly painted tender, oars akimbo and named “Evermore” hunkered low with its prow drowned in a loch. A dry-stone wall was scribed “folding” and I’d gone with the teasy ease of “Stile n. and escalation of the footpath” It was irresistible and I found myself standing, feeling completely satisfied with piecing together the giant cracked stone message: “The present order is the disorder of the future”. It looked so good lying there in the heather.


Turning back into the garden I came across  stage flats  of grey bricks scribed with wildflowers: lavender, campion, polyanthus and the like.  Lavender, for instance, had become Verleand and they were hammered out in bronze with the profiles of battleships.

This war-like mood became more pressing. Where there should be pineapples on gate posts, a pair of large hand-grenades have been substituted. Think you are going down to the washing line? The finger post battles with your mind to send you “Zur Siegfried Linie”. Trying to sneak round the corner to the building with an alter? There is Apollo in a niche at chest height waving his machine gun at the sky.

If disquieting, all this symbolism which skips about with classical allegory, can be seen as the thought process of an artist who was truly agrophobic and reluctant to welcome guests to his hillside martial state. He designed Little Sparta stamps and had a flag made up emblazoned with a machine gun. Just incase this lot did not get his message across, there were always his  truncated sound poems: “Agh, agh, yah, boo, ach, och, yugh, pugh, poo, pshaw and dash it”. Says it all, I think.

Plants for a simple life

Little Sparta is an evocative garden littered with art  put there deliberately to challenge and alter or sway a mood.  Concrete poetry,  sometimes bossy, sometimes whimsical and sometimes plain perplexing,  reinforces this.

Really it could make your head spin and why doesn’t it?  The secret is in the maintenance and planting. The palette of plants used is very restrained.  There are trees, willow coppices and vast scrubby patches of gorse and on the outer periphery heather and birch.  The perennials are kept well in check: astrantias are freely planted in the wooded area but round water the plants are scabious, meadow sweet and rushes.  Epilobium gives the impression of  running where it will but is kept under close control.

This gives a harmonious feel to the site, reinforced by the lovely borrowed views all round the garden.  The secret weapon of Little Sparta is that it is immaculately gardened.  Not in the manner  raking daily or fussy weeding or clipping but maintained in the wisdom of knowing exactly when to stop so that the harmony of man with nature is kept in perfect balance.  It almost looks as if no humans are involved at all.  There is no ego in the maintenance regime here and it is perfect.

The gardens reopen on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday afternoons from June to September. It is not child friendly and the car park is half a mile from the garden but your dedication will be amply rewarded.

For further details see the Little Sparta Trust website