Inventory Garden & Designed Landscape


Status: Removed


There are no additional online documents for this record.


Date Added
Date Removed:
Local Authority
Planning Authority
Keithhall And Kinkell
NJ 81229 18894
381229, 818894

The gardens at Balbithan are famed for the outstanding plant collection built up during the 20th century by the botanical artist Mary McMurtrie.

Main Phases of Landscape Development

Early 19th century structure with gardens more fully developed in the 1960s and maintained to present.

Removal Reason

Site no longer meets the inventory criteria as a garden and designed landscape of national importance.

Artistic Interest

Level of interest

The gardens have high value as a Work of Art in their layout and use of materials.


Level of interest

The gardens have little Historical value as they have largely been created since 1960.


Level of interest

The plant collection has outstanding value due to its collection of pinks, roses and primulas which are in good condition.


Level of interest

The garden provides the setting for a category A listed building.


Level of interest
Not Assessed


Level of interest

The secluded setting of the house has no value scenically within the broader context of the surrounding landscape.

Nature Conservation

Level of interest

The site has some Nature Conservation value due to the collection of wild orchids and other wild flowers established in the garden.

Location and Setting

Balbithan House is situated in a valley on the north bank of the River Don approximately 2 miles (3km) north-east of the town of Kintore, almost equidistant between the B993 and the B977. The site is exposed to winds from the east and south-east and is susceptible to frost. Soil conditions are acid with heavy clay in parts. The surrounding landscape is predominantly agricultural. The remains of a beech avenue extend from the house to the minor Fintry/Kinkell road to the south-west. There are filtered views through the shelterbelts on the east boundary to the hills beyond. Balbithan is exceptionally secluded; it has no real significance to the landscape as a whole as only the woodlands can be seen from the road descending into the valley or from the surrounding countryside.

The designed landscape is confined to an area of some 10 acres (4ha) around the house. Documentary evidence, confined to the 1st & 2nd edition OS maps of c.1850 & 1910, shows that the extent has not changed.

Site History

The gardens at Balbithan are known to have existed prior to 1840, the date of the oldest remaining trees in the policies. There are no known design plans.

Earliest records of Balbithan indicate that it was owned by the Abbey of Lindores. By 1490, it was owned by the Chalmers family who retained the estate until c.1696 when it was acquired by James Balfour, an Edinburgh merchant, following his marriage to Bridget Chalmers. Within three years, ownership had been transferred to Willliam Hay. In the early 18th century, it belonged to a branch of the Gordon family who passed the estate between generations until 1801 when it was entailed and a nephew, William Forbes of Skellater, inherited. He was responsible for extensive alterations to the house but his son, General Benjamin Forbes, tried to break the entail and, on failing to do so, neglected the house and grounds. Restoration was begun in 1840 when his cousin Benjamin Abernethy Gordon inherited the estate. In 1859, he sold it to the Earl of Kintore and in 1914 it was sold again to the Duncan family of the nearby Ardmurdo estate.

They sold the house during World War II but, during their ownership, cut down the 'Great Beech of Balbithan' described in the Statistical Account of 1843. The property was subsequently purchased by the Stotts of Crichie who sold it to the McMurtrie family in 1960. Mrs Mary McMurtrie, the present owner, is a talented flower painter and uses plant material grown in the gardens of Balbithan for her water-colour studies. Many of these fine works were recently featured in her book 'Wild Flowers of Scotland'. Until recently she ran a nursery at the garden where the plants which she had propagated were sold.

Landscape Components

Architectural Features

Balbithan House, listed category A, was originally built c.1560 as a keep with a round tower in the north-west corner. It was added to in c.1600 and again some thirty years later. Between 1760 and 1860 the interior was altered. Extensive restoration work has been carried out since 1960 with the aid of grants from the Historic Buildings Council.

The Garden Walls extend to the east of the house; this east wall has been rebuilt since 1960. The sundial, in the garden to the south-east of the house was constructed in the early 1960s on a millstone base.


The woodlands enclose the gardens on all sides and provide shelter, particularly from the prevailing easterly winds. To the north and south are conifer shelterbelts many of which have been planted since 1960. To the east, beyond the garden, is a plantation of beech and hornbeam. To the south-west of the house, beyond the lawn, are deciduous (beech) and coniferous woods, with some beech trees dating from c.1840.

The Gardens

The only historical record of the gardens is a letter of 1841 in which Mr Benjamin Abernethy Gordon writes 'I believe Miss Forbes had a regular flower garden prettily laid out, but I suppose all that is now wild and defaced'. It referred to the neglect permitted by his cousin, Major Benjamin Gordon. Mr Abernethy Gordon was a keen gardener and gave instructions for many vegetables, fruit trees, flowers and roses 'of which I should like to have plenty' to be planted.

It is not known for certain if any of the material planted by him remains in the present gardens. They were laid out in three linked compartments by Mrs McMurtrie in the 1960s. The simplest garden is that which flanks the main approach to the house from the west. It is largely lawn, with specimen trees of oak and copper beech, the latter dating from early 19th century. A wild area at the back of the lawn still has wild orchids, snowdrops, crocus, primulas, narcissus and wild anemones within it.

The main garden is fenced, lying to the east of the house. In the south part of this garden, hidden behind the wall which runs due east from the house, is the main collection of plants. Through the gate in the wall, a path runs the whole length of the garden parallel with the east/west wall which was also rebuilt in the early 1960s. On the north side of the path is a mixed old rose border and, to the south, a hedge has been formed from six varieties of old Scots roses. Down the centre of the path are two raised scree beds planted with alpines. South of the rose hedge lies a large lawn which was the site of the old kitchen garden. At the east end of the lawn, a semi- circular yew hedge shelters the garden from the prevailing wind and encloses a circular bed of 'Tuscany' or 'Old Velvet'. The sundial is the centrepiece. South of the lawn is a large peat bed in which are planted numerous gentians, violas and many ericaceous plants. A wooden summerhouse overlooks the lawn from the west.

The list of specialist plants in the garden is extensive. Mrs McMurtrie's interest lies primarily with old roses, pinks, primulas and violas and many rare varieties have been found and propagated by her for the garden. Many native wildflowers are also grown.

Walled Gardens

Due east of the house, two Irish yews flank the garden entrance and beyond them lies the herb garden which hosts, amongst its range of species, a collection of mint. North of the herb garden is the nursery area and greenhouse. Further east, beyond a hedge, lies the kitchen garden and orchard where climbing roses scramble over the branches of the apple trees, the remains of an old orchard.




Printed Sources

Glasgow Herald, July 1986

CL Nov 30th 1978


Castles of Aberdeenshire

New Statistical Account

G.A. Little, 1981



NMRS, Photographs

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


Balbithan House, detail of opening in garden wall and steps, looking north, during daytime, on a dry day with partly cloudy sky.
Balbithan House, view down lawn and formal raised beds, looking west northwest, during daytime, on a dry day with
Balbithan House, view over raised beds and herb garden to rear of house, looking east southeast, during daytime, on a dry day with partly cloudy sky.
Balbithan House, view along garden wall with flower beds, looking east, during daytime, on a dry day with partly cloudy sky.
Balbithan House with drive and lawn in foreground, looking east, during daytime, on a dry day with partly cloudy sky.
Balbithan House, view across formal lawn with sundial feature in foreground, looking west northwest, during daytime, on a dry day with partly cloudy sky.

Printed: 04/10/2023 03:56