Inventory Garden & Designed Landscape


Status: Designated


Where documents include maps, the use of this data is subject to terms and conditions (


Date Added
Last Date Amended
Supplementary Information Updated
Local Authority
NO 28852 2426
328852, 702426

Balbirnie is a country estate landscape designed in the informal style and developed during the 18th and 19th centuries by Robert Robinson and Thomas White. It has a well-documented history and an important 19th century woodland garden including an extensive rhododendron collection and a number of champion trees. Balbirnie House, listed at category A, provides the focal point to the estate and a range of listed, former estate buildings provide an architectural framework for the landscape. Mixed broadleaf woodland and shelterbelts contribute to the surrounding scenery.

Type of Site

An 18th and 19th century estate landscape with country house focal point and woodland gardens. There is a 20th century, 18-hole golf course overlay onto the parkland.

Main Phases of Landscape Development

Circa 1779, circa 1815 and circa 1849-1875.

Artistic Interest

Level of interest

Balbirnie was laid out by Robert Robinson around 1779, and reworked by Thomas White Jnr after 1815. Both were landscapers who achieved renown during their lifetime. Although evidence of their work in the present landscape has been reduced by reconfigured tree planting and other incremental changes (see condition and integrity below), the current design continues to broadly reflect the informally laid out framework as depicted in Robinson's plan of 1779 and the early Ordnance Survey editions of 1864 and 1898.

Positive accounts of the landscape written in the late 18th and 19th century indicate that Balbirnie was valued as a work of art in its own right, which contributes to a high level of interest in thie category (eg. The Old and New Statistical Accounts, 1799 and 1834-45).


Level of interest

The landscape development at Balbirnie between 1779 and 1870 largely follows the informal, naturalistic style introduced to Scotland after 1715 and popularised after 1750 as the picturesque landscape movement. Although not an outstanding representative of this movement, nor a 'trendsetter' for subsequent landscape designs, Balbirnie does have high historic value for its collection of historical documents.

Estate documentation including policy plans and drawings from 1770 onwards illustrate the historic development of the landscape. They survive due to members of the Ballingall (Ballingoul) family continuously holding the post of estate factor at Balbirnie from 1771 to 1916.


Level of interest

Balbirnie has one of the most significant collections of rhododendrons in the east of Scotland, comprising around 200 varieties from India, China and the Himalayan provinces. The plant collection has been recorded and is clearly labelled throughout the grounds.

The ornamental woodland garden has a number of mature exotic and native specimen trees including five county champions, mostly planted between 1770 and 1850, and a notable yew tree near the west front of Balbirnie House.


Level of interest

Stob Cross, scheduled on account of its national importance (Ref. SM 824), is a 7th or 8th century cross-incised stone associated with the nearby church dedicated to St Drostan. It is located beside the Balbirnie East Lodge on the Stobhill Cross Road.

The Balbirnie Stone Circle is also located within the boundary of the designed landscape, near the North Lodge. The circle was moved 125 metres in 1971 as part of an A92 road widening exercise. The circle is not a scheduled monument. Relocation has removed the likelihood of associated below-ground archaeology.

Further value in this category derives from the potential for any future survey or investigation to reveal further information about the landscape over time.


Level of interest

The landscape of the surrounding area is characterised by urban development to the south, east and west, and small scale rural settlement to the north. The nature of the landform is inward-looking and tends to confine the views mainly within the former policies and screen the designed landscape components from the surrounding area.

However, the expanse of mixed woodland shelterbelt at Balbirnie is visible from various vantage points in the Lommond Hills to the north and provides a contrast with the adjacent suburbs of Glenrothes. This is of some value in this category of assessment.

Nature Conservation

Level of interest

There are no national nature conservation designations at Balbirnie. However, there is some nature conservation interest on account of the variety of habitats present including woodland areas, grassland and wetland. These give valuable refuge for birds and mammals including heron, bats, red squirrel, voles and deer. There are also two biodiversity sites of local interest in the grounds (Balbirnie Park Wetlands and Balbirnie Park Wildlife Pond) ( 

Location and Setting

The designed landscape of Balbirnie in Fife covers an area of 140 hectares (345 acres) next to the towns of Markinch to the east and Glenrothes to the south. The B9130 road defines the designed landscape to the south. The A92 road defines much of the western boundary and the Stobb Cross Road marks the extent of the designed landscape to the east and the north.

Balbirnie House is the focal point of the design, located towards the centre of the landscape. The surrounding landform is gently hilly with significant tree cover, rising to around 106 metres (350 feet) at Fir Hill to the east of the house. Balbirnie Park contains a variety of habitats including woodland areas, grassland and wetland, and two biodiversity sites (Balbirnie Park Wetlands and Balbirnie Park Wildlife Pond) ( The Balbirnie Back Burn flows through the park from the northwest to the east.

Woodland shelterbelts around the perimeter give a secluded feel, confining views to within the designed landscape. Longer range views over the surrounding countryside are possible only from Fir Hill. The site is underlain by extensive coal measures.

The parkland and woodland garden areas of the present landscape are managed as a municipal park by Fife Council. There is also a golf course on the former parkland to the west and to the north of Balbirnie House.

Site History

In 1640, the Balfour family acquired the Balbirnie estate. Active in agriculture and industry, they acquired the estate from the Balbirnie family, former heritable sherriffs of Fife.

General Roy's mid-18th century military survey provides the earliest indication of a designed landscape at Balbirnie. It shows a small, formal landscape with planting and regular enclosures surrounding what was probably at that time an L-plan tower house, on or near the site of the current Balbirnie House.

A large collection of estate documents survive, including plans and accounts from 1770 onwards. This is mainly due to the estate factor's post being handed down through one family, the Ballingouls, from 1770 to 1916. John Balfour, who rebuilt the 17th century house between 1777 and 1782, employed Robert Robinson, the renowned Scottish landscape gardener and draughtsman for Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, to draw up proposals for improvements to the Balbirnie policies. The rolling topography of the site provided a framework for laying out the grounds in the informal or 'picturesque' style, which was increasingly favoured over the more rigidly formal landscapes of the earlier 18th century.

Balbirnie was a late and lesser example of the work of Robert Robinson. Earlier sites where Robinson practiced his transitional semi-formal style include Castle Grant, Morayshire; Glamis Castle, Angus and Paxton House, Berwickshire (q.v. Inventory).

While Tait notes that Robinson's work at Balbirnie 'showed no real extension of the ideas displayed at Castle Grant fifteen years earlier' (1980: 75), contemporary writers were more generous.  In 1799 the Statistical Account of Scotland described Balbirnie as 'delightfully romantic' with 'surrounding eminences [...] covered with fine thriving plantations' and 'clumps of trees on the higher grounds, arranged and disposed in such a manner as at once to please the eye and to afford shelter to the adjacent fields'.

A comparison of Robinson's 1779 plan with the 1st Edition Ordnance Survey map of 1859 indicates that the overall design structure of open parkland and woodland belts did not change significantly during that period. It suggests a gently progressive evolution of Robinson's original layout in 1779 and which continues to broadly inform the present landscape.

In 1815, John Balfour's son, General Robert Balfour commissioned Thomas White Jnr to make adjustments to Robinson's layout including the thickening of existing shelter belts and the addition of more single specimen trees to the open parkland and grassland areas. Thomas White Jnr worked in the 'Landscape Movement' style most often associated with Lancelot 'Capability' Brown in England. At Balbirnie, his main contribution was to remove aspects of Robinson's geometry in the landscape and to create a more open landscape scene (Tait 1980: 81).

In the same year, Balbirnie House was remodelled. The architect, Richard Crichton, added new apartments with grand neoclassical facades to the south of the earlier house. The improvements were funded partly by income from coal mining across the estate and from increased estate rentals.

The New Statistical Account of Scotland described Balbirnie 'as a complete and elegant residence […] surpassed by few north of the Tweed' with its hills 'clothed with some of the finest trees in the country […] rendered as to command at every turn varied and picturesque views of the surrounding country, from the Lommonds to the shores of the Firth of Forth' (1834-45).

Robert Balfour's son John carried out further alterations to the estate between 1849 and 1875. Cardinal approach drives from the north, south, east and west were either newly created or rerouted during this period along with lodge houses at each entrance.

Robert Balfour's brother George was a friend of Sir Joseph Hooker, the famous plant collector, and sent specimen plant seed back to Balbirnie from India, thus starting the woodland garden collection from the mid-19th century. A significant proportion of this planting survives in the present landscape, including a rhododendron collection of around 200 varieties and a number of veteran specimen trees.

The 1st edition Ordnance Survey map (surveyed 1859) shows a small terraced garden area extending round to the north side of the house. Photographs from the latter part of the 19th century show the terraces laid to grass with steps descending from the house. In the early 20th century, when two generations of Balfours shared the house, the garden was divided into two by yew hedges and a long central herbaceous border was planted.

Workable coal seams were mined at Balbirnie up until the 1930s. The Balfour family continued to live at Balbirnie until 1969 when the Glenrothes Development Corporation purchased the estate in order to address the need for recreational facilities in the area, converting much of the park for public use. An 18-hole golf course with clubhouse was laid out in the parkland in 1980.

Balbirnie House has operated as a hotel since 1990 and the stables have been converted for use as a craft centre. A small caravan park is located within a wooded area to the south. Residential expansion around the periphery of the historic designed landscape core has occurred from Markinch to the southeast, Tofthill and Viewforth from the west, and Mount Frost from the south.

Landscape Components

Architectural Features

Balbirnie House is a grand neoclassical mansion designed mainly by Richard Crichton in 1815, adapting a slightly earlier house of 1777-82 on the same site by John Baxter. It is listed at category A.

A further eight listed buildings within the designed landscape have an ancillary association with Balbirnie House. The stables, located a short distance to the southwest, were built in circa 1780 and are listed at category B. They have been converted to craft centre workshops. There is a large, trapezium-plan walled garden, built around the same time, to the south. The West Lodge is listed at category B and was designed in 1823 by Richard and Robert Dickson who completed work on Balbirnie House after Crichton's death. The East Lodge, or Lodge at Stob Cross, and former Game Keeper's Cottage are mid-19th century and located along the eastern boundary of the designed landscape. The 1861 South Lodge, listed at category B, was designed by David Bryce. The former Home Farm Dairy and a small bridge over the Balbirnie Burn in 'The Den' area are listed at category C.

Drives & Approaches

The 18th century approach to the house partly survives as a secondary road to the west of the stables and walled garden. The lower part of this drive was rerouted to the east during the mid-19th century but a pedestrian path marks its curved route across the golf course and into what is now the Mountfrost residential development.

Meandering approach drives from the north, south, east and west of the house were added or reworked around 1850. The drives from the south and east have followed broadly the same route since that time. The approach road from the west entrance no longer exists, having been overlaid by the golf course development while the north drive has been partly truncated by a road serving the Viewforth residential development on the western periphery of the park.

Paths & Walks

The serpentine route of walks and pathways through the ornamental woodland garden largely follow those depicted on the 1st Edition Ordnance survey map of 1859.


The parkland at Balbirnie was an important aspect of the 18th century design. It was created across naturally rolling ground with trees planted individually and in clumps, mainly with beech, sycamore, oak, elm and Scots pine. Some of the surviving trees date from around 1780 but most of the clumps are later, established during the 19th century.

Contemporary accounts refer to the picturesque views of the parks from the woodland walks. More recent tree growth and planting now obscures some of these views, while a large part of the former park is now used for golf. In 1980 an 18-hole golf course and club house was laid out in two 9-hole loops, one in the south park and one in the north park and largely within the historic designed landscape parkland footprints as depicted on the historic plans. Aerial imagery from 1979 indicates where trees were felled when the golf course was developed in 1983. Later tree planting, largely to demarcate the fairways, currently does not reflect the historic parkland character of individual tree planting (2016).


The policy woodlands were planted in the late 18th to early 19th century in the form of curving shelterbelts and clumps as part of a picturesque designed landscape. The shelterbelts were extended in the early 19th century. Common policy woodland trees such as beech, oak, ash and lime are planted on the higher ground covering the ridges and hillocks and a number of more exotic specimens are widely distributed throughout the mixed woodland. The extensive mixed, predominantly broadleaf woodland areas make important contributions to the local landscape with the peripheral shelterbelts largely defining its boundary.

Woodland Garden

Ornamental woodland is located on and around Fir Hill and the East Drive. The area consists mainly of hardwoods including oak, sycamore, beech and Scots pine and includes a number of trees planted in the earlier 19th century or before.

There are also many trees planted around 1850, including a giant sequoia raised from the first seeds in Scotland in 1853. There are five county champion trees, notable for their variety and height, including a Nikko fir and an Oriental spruce. A row of monkey puzzle trees includes the tallest example in Fife (

The woodland garden also contains one of the most significant collections of rhododendron in the east of Scotland. Labelled and recorded by the Royal Horticultural Society, the collection contains around 200 varieties from India, China and the Himalayan provinces.

The Gardens

The formal garden lies along the southwest front of the house. The garden is currently laid to lawn with surrounding shrub beds and an Italianesque stone seating area. A yew tree of 18th century origin is located near to the west front of Balbirnie House and an 18th century sundial has been relocated to the east side.

Walled Gardens

The large, trapezium-form walled garden was constructed at the end of the 18th century and is now in use as a nursery for Fife Council. It is located to the south of the stables on a gentle slope with a southerly aspect and with the inner face of the walls lined with brick for heat retention. It has seen at least two phases of development and features an unusual outer garden to the south and west. There is a range of glasshouses along the southwest facing wall, and there are shrubs in the areas to the west and north of the garden.



Maps, plans and archives

Roy W. (surveyed 1747-52) Military Survey of Scotland – Highlands.

Robinson R. (1779) Improvement Plan for Balbirnie, Fife.

White T. (1815) Plan for the improvement of the grounds at Balbirnie.

Ballingoul W. (1822) Plan of policies at Balbirnie.

Ordnance Survey (Surveyed 1859, Published 1864), 1st Edition Ordnance Survey Map, 25 Inches to the Mile, London, Ordnance Survey.

Ordnance Survey (Surveyed 1896, Published 1898), 2nd Edition Ordnance Survey Map, 25 Inches to the Mile, London, Ordnance Survey.

Printed sources

The Statistical Account of Scotland (1791), Markinch Parish, Fifeshire

New Statistical Account of Scotland (1834-45) Markinch Parish, Volume 8

Tait A. A. (1980) The Landscape Garden In Scotland, 1735-1835. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. pp.78-81.

Local Landscape Designation Review – Draft Report (2008) prepared for Fife Council by Land Use Consultants in association with Carol Anderson and the Small Town and Rural Development Group, p.157.

Internet sources, Canmore ID: 91911 - [accessed 5 February 2016].

Fife Direct, Balbirnie Park - [accessed 5 February 2016].

Rhododendron, Camellia and Magnolia Group, Royal Horticultural Society (p.12) -

National Tree Register of the British Isles - [accessed 5 February 2016].

Woodland Trust - Ancient Tree Inventory - [accessed 5 February 2016].

About the Inventory of Gardens and Designed Landscapes

Historic Environment Scotland is responsible for designating sites and places at the national level. These designations are Scheduled monuments, Listed buildings, Inventory of gardens and designed landscapes and Inventory of historic battlefields.

We make recommendations to the Scottish Government about historic marine protected areas, and the Scottish Ministers decide whether to designate.

The inventory is a list of Scotland's most important gardens and designed landscapes. We maintain the inventory under the terms of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979.

We add sites of national importance to the inventory using the selection guidance published in Designation Policy and Selection Guidance (2019)

The information in the inventory record gives an indication of the national importance of the site(s). It is not a definitive account or a complete description of the site(s). The format of records has changed over time. Earlier records may be brief and some information will not have been recorded.

Enquiries about development proposals, such as those requiring planning permission, on or around inventory sites should be made to the planning authority. The planning authority is the main point of contact for all applications of this type.

Find out more about the inventory of gardens and designed landscapes and our other designations at You can contact us on 0131 668 8914 or at


Balbirnie House, west elevation,  during daytime with blue sky
Aerial view of Balbirnie House designed landscape, centred on walled garden, surrounded by trees
Ornamental Woodland Gardens, looking north during daytime with cloudy sky
View from Fir Hill towards East Lommond Hill on the distant horizon during daytime with cloudy
Balbirnie House, formal garden area with Italianesque seating, during daytime
Balbirnie House, south elevation during

Printed: 29/11/2022 11:33