Duttonia: framed wilderness


‘making this garden is writing a poem, and walking the paths, reading it’
– G. F. Dutton, harvesting the edge

Alec Finlay, 2011 

of Duttonia

word-mntn (Knock of Balmyle)
Amy Todman, 2011

We visited in Winter. The sun a low yellow foglight on the skyline. There were no flowers. It didn't matter. There are no inscribed words. They were not needed. We opened the unlocked gate with care and left only a few poem-labels as thanks.

Duttonia, as I have named the garden for the purposes of this account, in order to preserve its secrecy, lies on the fringes of the Forest of Alyth, east of the Knock of Balmyle, nor-nor-west of Hill of Kingseat. I am leaving its location vague as its author, the poet Geoffrey Dutton, preferred that it should remain a private garden.

The family still maintain the garden and they ask that anyone interested in visiting contacts them at the address given below.

locating Duttonia

Ken Cockburn, 2011

Within a few miles of Duttonia there are mountain passes – the spittal of Glenshee – and rich Mains farmland. South lie the berry fields around Blair, where the bare December soil is covered with rows of metal hoops. Hamish Henderson used to say how, in the old song-collecting days, he’d only to turn his tape recorder on and it became a bucket filling with ballads and tales from the tap of the traveler's fireside.

                         rasp & lyric

To the north the Grampian foothills grip tight to a rolling band of freezing cloud. We take the turning past Bridge of Cally, breathing in names.


There’s hoar on some of the fields. It’s nearly snow-cold.

Highland woodland follows along the Black Water, half hiding green hanks of juniper. A little higher – 400m – and the land is turned over to peat-bog hummocks and hollows. Sphagnum rich, the Alyth Moss hints at the Celtic rainforest within the shelter of the trees.

lagged with rags
of lichen

speckled with gloss
fluted fungi

word-mntn (Hill of Kingseat) 
Alec Finlay, 2011

The foundations of the wind-towers of Drumderg are sunk into the Mire. This is not the weather to let us see them from afar. 

approaching Duttonia

G. F. Dutton
photograph by Gerry Cambridge, 2004

I was first drawn to Duttonia by Drumderg's windmills brisk in the faraway on the June day that Ken & I visited Dunsinane, on last year’s hosomichi.

Looking from the Sidlaw’s, over Blair, the wind-farm was the farthest distinguishable landmark. The towers stood out as a strange and colossal kin of the armed branches that Malcolm’s band marched over the moor from Birnam.  

War hews
down boughs

Poetry plants roots
flourishes branches

More recently, Amy Todman, another of our skying crew, saw some smaller, nearer turbines at Collace, from the Dunsinane cairn.
Amy waxing on Dunsinane, 2011

To the towers mark, I added a vague notion that the poet G. F Dutton’s wilderness garden was somewhere in the same region. When I finally tracked down Duttonia, with the help of poet Gerry Cambridge, it transpired Drumderg was only a field and bog away from the poet’s woodland.

The synergy of the locations put me in mind of an idea that another contributor to skying Alistair Peebles had proposed, which is the connection between gardens and renewables. I’d considered this connection myself when we visited the birch-lined pool of the Dalchnozie hydro scheme, Comrie’s Giverny.

Today, at Duttonia, the motif of the birch grove will be reiterated.

And so, out of these ideas another skying field-trip began to form in my mind, to compass the poet's 9 acres. 

bordering Duttonia

Amy Todman, 2011

Dutton pictured himself living at the edge, between the wilderness that he loved – mountains to climb, hillside to garden, rivers, lochs and bays for wild swimming – and the Estuarine city of Dundee, where he practiced science. Days in the laboratory tracing glucuronide biosynthetic pathways and processes of detoxification; summer evenings pruning and strimming paths through the thriving wood.

A rounded man, who saw gardening as a combination of craft, art and science; the garden was Dutton’s second laboratory, an arena suited to his ideal, synthesis. Only a few steps to be taken, from the ecological complexity of a wilderness garden, where species compete for scant resources, to the complexities of environmental toxicity and the task of rendering medicines acceptable to our natural biosystem.

In gardening terms he was a poet of pathways and gentle transitions. There are no words in this garden; the benches, rude & true, remain unadorned. Poetics is implicit in the sagacity of his tree planting. To give roots to a tree was, in his words, a way in which you could plant time, a way you could watch time unwind in your own back garden.

In the same spirit, wild-swimming is an embodiment of the creative act; waving good-bye to physical and mental norms. Dutton’s preference was to wear no wet-suit; he let the hairs on his body source information and perform sensory amplifications – as a poem can, in and with language. 

field-trip team: Duttonia

Amy Todman, Morven Gregor, Gerry Loose, AF; photograph Ken Cockburn, 2011

The full team, each with their own reasons for sharing in the ploy:

wilderness gardener & poet

forager & photographer

artist, who reflects on gardens, where they end and begin

poet, because of our shared Perthshire Basho trips on the road north

Ken Cockburn, 2011

Our primary resource were Dutton’s books – which I have only rambled along the edges of, wishing this to be a response to the place, and having a task he did not foresee, of viewing Drumderg from Duttonia.

G. F. Dutton, Some Branch Against the Sky (1997)

The night before the field-trip I note down a few phrases from Some Branch Against the Sky, as poems to tie and leave, written on labels, replanting the poet’s words.

One phrase came to illuminate the day, shining as much light on the wind-towers of Drumderg as the garden which prompted the thought.

in gardens
must be framed 

AF, after GFD

Alec Finlay, 2011 

finding Duttonia

Amy Todman, 2011

Sunset sets in with our picnic lunch. Bitter cold. We huddle around the thermos, wondering where the winter garden is. The blue dot on the iphone map says we’re here, calculating by postcode, but we have to ask at 2 doors and look into the gardens of 3 different houses to make 'here' become a way in. Dutton’s map sketched what had been: we don’t know whether we will find a ruined garden or well-preserved domain.

map, Some Branch Against the Sky (1997)

There was some difficulty in plotting the poet’s map onto the OS – as he preferred to give his scheme without giving away its precise location, Dutton gives the natural features which surround his garden a generic name. What we need to do, it turns out, is exchange Black Water for a burn. This takes us the necessary bridge further.

At Dubh Hall Farm the new owner’s warming himself over the gas stove in his caravan. The house isn’t yet readied for winter, and it is winter. Recently arrived here, he replies to my enquiry:

yes, there was a man before and he did make a garden for trees; it’s just over that dyke there, but you need to walk back down the road the way you came in by, to get in – you won’t see the house, it’s hidden by trees.

If invited, the way to find Duttonia is to stop looking for a garden. The entrance, when we found it, was a small wooden gate, the house entirely hidden was built by Geoffrey & Elizabeth in the late 1950s. Home and garden were built on gifted land.

This poet belonged among the band of arch-pruners and his domain hides behind a tight screen of foliage. Call the pathway that leads in a vein; as we walk the hillside it will become vascular, and the burn a nerve, throbbing with spate.

The OS map loses some authority where it puts the blue line of the burn on the wrong side of the black line of the old dyke, beyond the real trees we are looking through, which conceal it from view. The wood of Duttonia has not yet been surveyed by official cartography.

It is not so common, after all, for a man to plant a wood of his own these days.

Later, when I get home, I look up the map of Dunsyre, to see if Stonypath (Little Sparta) has been recognized as ‘wood’. The trees my mother and father planted are in their third or fourth decade, but the OS doesn’t have a symbol delineating sylvan ‘grove’; nor have the trees been symbolized. However, I see that the composition has been awarded a garden symbol, kissing cousin of the cherry-blossom on a kimono.

Will Dutton’s wood gain that symbolic recognition, or will it fade back into the hillside wildness, as was perhaps his wish, before any official map records it? 

announcing Duttonia

Green as it sounds, I want to begin by thanking the poet for making such a remarkable and thoughtfully conceived garden. As I write this acknowledgement, to a poet who I never had the chance to hear read, I cannot help imagining myself back there again, standing at the back of the house.

I am in the open glade where the first paths reveal themselves and, once again, I sense the character of Duttonia announcing itself, less as a memorial to the poet’s passing than an emblem of careful composition, husbandry and ingenuity.

Alec Finlay, 2011

The invitation to sit and reflect is repeated, episodically; as if each height that the visitor reaches is suited to a different quality of musing. The benches aren't situated for show. They don’t claim spectacular views or commanding conspectus. Tucked away in nooks & bowers, the garden seating is designed for pausing.

Dutton was determined to make a marginal garden: within the limits of what one man can do in the spare of his spare time. Part of the point of making it was was that there should be a further portion of spare time, to sit and think, or perhaps exercise a poem.

(‘in gardens /wilderness / must be framed’, AF, after GFD)
Alec Finlay, 2011
revealing Duttonia
Dutton describes the practice of gardening as a (largely unintentional) form of self-revelation. Speaking out as he did against all forms of compartmentalization, there is a door being held open here, by which we may translate garden thoughts so that they bear on the act of poetry. Composition is the ideal means to discover one’s own idea of order.

Without the distraction of ornament and exotica, the highlights and fussinesses of gardeny gardens, marginal gardens were, to Dutton, all the more revealing – more clearly a realisation of one’s own idiom.

There is no hiding behind hebe or delphinium here and, to an untrained eye such as mine, it feels as if the rich native flora represents everything that could grow on a Perthshire hillside. The delight lies in the way each species seems to have been given it’s rightful place. Nothing flowery shouts for our attention. It all just is.

(‘in gardens /wilderness / must be framed’, AF, after GFD)
Amy Todman, 2011 

defining Duttonia

Duttonian gorge
Amy Todman, 2011

As we climb there is evidence of the year-by-year process of adaptation, as the poet battened woodland against the incursions of weather. Shelter is a word that appears often in his writings. The general air is of a hillside wildness unfolding episodically; but this still allows for the juxtaposing of disparate climates and we notice how the garden was helped to find ways to inhabit the different potentials of patches of soil and rock, accepting the exigencies of the slope.

This ecology Dutton defined in terms of 5 ‘axes’:

(I) highly acidic pine wood & heather moor
(II) moss-hung spray forest
(III) thin, acid, ericaceous birch woodland
(IV) lush neutral valley
(V) mildly acidic juniper dotted turf

(‘in gardens /wilderness / must be framed’, AF, after GFD)
Alec Finlay, 2011

Reflecting on these axes, I can’t help turning to the comparison with two other gardens, Stonypath (Little Sparta), where the intimate grove and small path offer a gentle ordering of ‘diverse secrecies’, and the grander botanical spectacle of Crarae Woodland Garden (Argyll).

Given the terrain, the more obvious kinship lies with Crarae, which is also composed around hillside & burn. There the visitor works their way through the glen by graveled paths. Crarae defines mountain ecologies by plantings, striking up a thematic relationship between the continuum of the garden and the world. As magical as it is, Crarae remains a garden in which the botanical aspect remains upmost. The episodes are a gazetteer of botanical wonders, featuring forms and, above all, colours. The visitor is guided from label-to-label, exotic-to-exotic.

At Stonypath the episodes conduct us through styles and eras, Julie’s Garden, The Henry Vaughan Walk, Heidegger’s Woodpath.

In terms of composition, Dutton refers to the structure of his garden as a series of episodes, each a compartment of happening. IHF refers to these as areas, each presided over by a garden poem, as a reigning deity dedicated to the spirit of place. It follows that, at Stonypath, paths conduct us between areas where we stand to contemplate a poem. While at Duttonia, the episodes are less focused within their own bounds, being as much places to stand and look toward arches and paths, arcs and branches.

Given this distinction between the way the poet’s order our experience, wandering through Dutton’s garden turns out to be surprisingly close to the atmosphere of Stonypath – and this is because of the way the poet-gardeners compose time and space. At Crarae one is invited to imagine the Himalayas. In both of the poet’s gardens the viewer perceives a modeling of time and space.

Where their models differ is that IHF’s is mythic and historical, while Dutton’s is native and vernacular. IHF modeled a portal to the past, yearning for fugitive states of being and feeling best defined in the ideal terms of philosophy and poetry. Dutton’s garden models an ideal version of the richest possible environment, within the restrictions of the ecology of the present. 

The poet-gardeners and their gardens are not opposed: it is a question of emphasis, of philosophy and, as Dutton reminds us, of self-revelation. Both gardens were composed on the margins of cultivation, but where Stonypath is an ideal garden of the poetic imagination, Duttonia is an exemplary statement of biodiversity.

Stonypathian garden poems enact a technology of the imagination. Duttonia proposes a sustainable technology, dedicated to the matrix of wilderness, while always bearing in mind the responsibility to remind us that, in our world, all such wildness must be managed. 

Amy Todman, 2011

Duttonian credo

marginal gardeners
are shepherds of plants –

encourage them
here or there

comfort them in a crisis
but never drive your flora

Ian Hamilton Finlay with Sue Finlay, photograph by Robin Gillanders, 1998

The stone inscribed FRAGILE placed at the border between Stonypath garden and Pentland moor could be transplanted here, were the statement not so clearly made by the trees themselves. To see the richness of Dutton's woodland is also a cautionary and moving reminder of how rare it is to experience this rich equilibrium of native and mountain species.

wandering Duttonia

(‘in gardens /wilderness / must be framed’, AF, after GFD)
Amy Todman, 2011

As I walk through – no, up, and over, and then down – the garden, slowly the realization dawns: this is most accomplished composition of paths that I have ever encountered. The paths laid out at Stonypath are intimate; the hillside paths of Duttonia are touching in the way that they are so lightly marked, as if one were following a set of footsteps in the sand that have been partly covered by a breeze.

Dutton’s guide to gardening makes it clear that such effects are an act of will and skill. The habitual imagery for such leafy domains threaded with myriad paths is maze-like. It doesn’t work here. This poet’s scheme is intuitive, remaining constantly true to the ground itself, which, being a Perthshire hillside, is broken, liable to be riven by spates and roughed up by frosts.

Paths are not folds, they cannot be planned on paper alone. Duttonia’s paths are desire lines: they follow each contour and hollow, tacking up rises, around bluffs, guide us between established trees. There is no such thing as the straight line at Duttonia. It would be an egoistic folly.

There is magic in the recurring feeling that one is invited in different directions, without the pressure of a ‘right’ route. The sensation is of a localized intelligence conducting one, but in such a way that at each moment one is where one should be.

The views are not perspectival or extended; the viewer is not chivvied to find the ‘right’ place to stand. Indeed, as Amy notices, there seem to be few if any ‘views’ out of the garden, except through branches looking toward the sky. The hills are hidden, the burn too, though, as Gerry says, one hears it all the time, deep in the glen.

The poet remained true to his own advice.

plan a path
with feet and eyes
make a trodden way

a path should merge
into the wild
on either side

paths transform
confused ground
into comprehensible order

a path holds
the foreground together
and assembles the distance

paths are interludes between episodes
that crystallize into prospects

a path is not static
the viewer moves
in Time

the surface of a path
should satisfy usage
upkeep and harmony

Alec Finlay, 2011

composing Duttonia

Amy Todman, 2011

an under
of hazel
for restfulness

The wood’s alphabet of trunks and cross-bars shape groves & glades, interiors that are sheeted in a rich mat.

the matter
of moss
lichen and
fallen leaves

Greens and coppers anticipate snow. 
Alec Finlay, 2011
winds can blow
away winter
darkening the snow
to water
AF, after GFD

The ‘rooms’ are only lightly walled – or better, screened, as in an old-time Japanese house. The paths are hints. Obvious to say, the whole is all an agreement of different elements. Again I’m reminded how the gardener-scientist-climber-poet lamented the folly of compartmentalized thought. 

(‘in gardens / wilderness / must be framed’, AF, after GFD)
Alec Finlay, 2011

Dutton paid heed to the bones of topography. The planting appears to be largely native – though it is wintertime and my botany is famously poor. He does refer in his books to mountain species, such as those collected by George Forrest among the stone bowl of the peaks of Yunnan, but, in terms of plants, there is nothing to distract from this continual fidelity to the revealing of mantled earth. 
There are practical essentials, such as the necessity of a deer fence.

There is also Dutton’s ingenuity – he would have liked best Morven foraging for chanterelles and hedgehog mushrooms. I appreciate his wit. Aluminum and tin cans employed to stop the buggery rabbits cause with their winter nibbling. Gardener’s huts.

The map and axes that he proposed are useful guides in terms of ecology, but the spirit of the place simply is; and, rather than particular 'episodes', what stays with me are the little touches, tweaks that reveal his idiomatic thinking and emblematize his presence and, now, his absence. 

hutting Duttonia

Alec Finlay, 2011 

A low stone grotto-like hut, set on pine pillars.

poeming Duttonia

for Ken, Amy, Gerry & Morven
a garden
is a bounded island
a garden is indivisible
interweaving horticulture
ecology & psychology
a garden is a domain
of continued intent
in which time unwinds
a garden is where
frequent pruning
allows you to see
your own idiomatic
idea of order
crystallizing prospects
through the arch
of some dark branches
that frame the wilderness
for no matter
how bare, how marginal,
how mossy you become
your beginning and end
is here
on and of the ground
merging into the wild
on every side
garden, gardener
follow the pathways
your discoveries offer
through the semi-permeable
membrane of the biosphere
always remember
the biomass includes you 
(many of these phrases are cuttings taken from the gardener's writings)

(‘in gardens / wilderness / must be framed’, AF, after GFD)
Amy Todman, 2011

And Ken composed this 'version', untitled, after a poem of Stefan George's.

Come to the garden which might seem dead and view
the empty house, the dripping ferns and mosses.
Between the clouds an unexpected blue
unshades the hollows and the paths’ criss-crosses.
Accept those dabs of yellow, the lichen-greys
that nuzzle birch and hazel like a breeze.
The last rosehips still haven’t lost their red.
They cluster like a garland round your head.
Don’t miss the bank where chanterelles are rife
or the tiny plums, dark and sour and solemn
and gently spool into the face of autumn
whatever still remains of this green life.
for Eck & Amy, Gerry & Morven
i.m. G.F. Dutton

Duttonia–Drumderg: transitional birks

As Dutton consistently insisted, this is a managed hillside.

As we reach the top of the hill there began to be more light and sky. Climbing over the low end of the dyke, around a corner we happened on his final work, a birk plateau. This final coda was as entirely unexpected as it was perfectly judged.

Beyond lay a field, beyond that the heather moor.

Thinned so as to offer a wandering delay and intricacy, the birch offered a delight of managed nature, a final reminder of the construction the entire domain represented.

Only later did I realize that within the shelter of these birches there lay another garden lesson as to how we might consider renewable energy. They had the poetry of a grove, but it is also possible to apply the rhythm of trunks to the bar moor and its wind-towers. 

AF, photograph by Alec Finlay, 2011

    WI ld
la ND

The Drumderg installation is just out of sight of Duttonia, over the lip of the skyline. But we may still adopt it as our site of prospect and consider how installations such as these might be arrayed as a technological garden. We could consider the ecology of the moor in relation to the managed nature of the wilderness garden. And why not ally the Drumderg installation to acts of active ecological renewal.

Call it wind-gardening. As Amy says, all that seems to be missing there is a gardener.

proposal for Duttonia (II)
poem, AF; photograph Amy Todman, 2011

Dutton insisted that biomedicine and gardening could be part of an integrated synthesis: technology reminds us that synergy is not a literal art. A birch is lovelier than a wind-tower, but, in our complex world, they must relate to one another.

proposal for Drumderg
poem, AF; photograph, Amy Todman, 2011

On the specialist maps the Forest of Alyth is an SAC: Designated Special Are of Conservation UK0030152. Neither the SAC nor Duttonia appear on the everyday OS, only Drumderg is marked. It is time we made maps that represented all these specialized visions, so that we might see better how they relate.

the masts are still
the sails all move

AF, photographs by Amy Todman, 2011

The wind towers on Drumderg Hill need not be reacted against as an imposition, menacing the delicate ecology of the moor. They do exact a cost in footfall and access, but there is no reason that the necessity of installing this temporary technology cannot also enrich the moor, in perpetuity, if we bring our awareness and appreciation of the moor, as 'makars' striking a balance between the natural and made.

Amy Todman, 2011

The philosophy of managed equilibrium that Duttonia represents can guide such awareness. The garden frames the wilderness.


Gerry contributed this coda:

Coda: Arbor ventus est

photograph Gerry Loose, 2011

Who knows when the day starts?

What grows unaided may be considered wild. What grows with our aid may be considered cultivated. The overlap is as much internal as external.

Internal wildness may be cultivated. External wildness may be assisted. Both shelter.

Wild landscapes or gardens in Scotland exist only in the cracks where hoes and secateurs do not reach.

What wild mind, that early morning as we left for Geoffrey Dutton’s garden, left three fine liberated salmon (though one had no head) under the hedge outside our boat?

Over what wild sky did the long straggles of southing geese flow before reaching our eyes and minds on the road to the garden, and what weeds across memory have overgrown their trace except “sky”?

We find what we set out with in mind: Geoff Dutton’s garden-gorge; benches, huts and deliberately curtailed views.

What ‘s left is wild: the chanterelles growing under the birches, the hedgehog mushrooms nearby; sloes and hazels.

From the sloes we make cultivated gin. With stratified hazel seeds I plan a grove of nut trees.

Above the garden those wind turbines lost in mists are the latest manifestation of the great wheel dharmachakra

Turbine arms harvest the wildness of geese, of the sky, of the garden and of the salmon through wind-shuddering stems into cultivated domesticity.

The tree is the wind. Arbor ventus est. Geoffrey Dutton fecit.

(Gerry Loose)

proposal for Duttonia; concept Alec Finlay, latin text by Gerry Loose, photograph by Amy Todman

coda (II): later that evening

(Morven Gregor)


Geoffrey Dutton, poet, molecular biologist, marginal gardener, wild swimmer, mountaineer, died in 2010. As the garden is not open to the public we have not given its exact location. If anyone wishes to visit they should contact the family first at: jonesglenquiech(at)googlemail.com


Squaring the Waves (1986)
The Concrete Garden (1991)
The Bare Abundance, Selected Poems: 1975–2001 (2002)

Harvesting the Edge (1994)
Some Branch Against the Sky (1997)

see also

Amy Todman's own account of the visit to Duttonia & Drumderg can be read here

Alistair Peebles:   Brae projects    |    blog