Inventory Garden & Designed Landscape


Status: Designated


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Date Added
Local Authority
South Lanarkshire
NT 05339 48915
305339, 648915

A world famous garden and an outstanding work of art. The sculptor and poet Ian Hamilton Finlay has created a unique blend of landscape, sculpture and poetry.

Artistic Interest

Level of interest

The garden is an outstanding Work of Art in its present form and contains many examples of Ian Hamilton Finlay's work.


Level of interest

Although a comparatively modern garden, Little Sparta has already found its way into the history books as an outstanding representative of its style and as the origin of ideas adopted elsewhere, eg Max Planck Institute of Physics, Stuttgart.


Level of interest

There is no Horticultural plant collection at Little Sparta.


Level of interest

There are no listed buildings, but the collection of ornamentation within the garden gives it high value in this category.


Level of interest
Not Assessed


Level of interest

Although there are fine views from within the garden, very little of the garden can be seen from the surrounding area.

Nature Conservation

Level of interest

The creation of the ponds has provided increased habitats for wildlife within the moorland surrounding area.

Location and Setting

Little Sparta is situated in the western foothills of the Pentland Hills above the valley of the South Medwin, some 25 miles south-west of Edinburgh and 7 miles north of Biggar. The house and garden have been developed from a small farmstead perched on the exposed moorland hillside at 920' (280m) above sea level. There are good views to the east and south from the top of the garden, but the garden itself is concealed from view from the road below.

Little Sparta covers about 9 acres (3.5ha); the house and its associated outbuildings, including the garden temple, surround a courtyard with a central pool. To the south of the house is the former walled garden and to the north of the courtyard are Lochan Eck and the top ponds.

Site History

The gardens have been created entirely since 1967 when Mr & Mrs Finlay moved to the small farmstead of Stonypath belonging to Mrs Finlay's family. Ian Hamilton Finlay was by then internationally known as an innovatory writer of poems and short stories, as a forerunner in the field of image poetry and as a proponent of outdoor sculpture parks. His experiments in new poetic forms at his previous home at Ardgay in Easter Ross were to be continued at Stonypath and have led to commissions for his work at home and abroad, and particularly in Europe.

Work began at Little Sparta in 1967 with the diversion of water from the burn into the top of three ponds, and with the planting out of the front cottage garden. From the outset, visual poems were a part of the design, with the botanical interest and expertise being provided by Sue Finlay, the type and scale of the planting being sympathetic with the designs. Work progressed incrementally as time and money permitted: the buildings were in a dilapidated state and needed attention. In September 1970 work started on Lochan Eck and on extending the gardens to the north of the courtyard. A Doocot was installed into the roof of the west barn, which was restored in 1973 and converted into a gallery for the display of Ian Hamilton Finlay's work and for the sale of publications. Gradually this building has been adorned externally with classical pillars and a portico to fit the evolving neo-classical theme within the garden. This theme has been carried through within the barn's interior to create a garden temple. The garden has been opened to the public in recent years under the Scotland's Gardens Scheme; however it was closed this year due to 'The War' currently taking place between the Finlays and Strathclyde Regional Council over the rating assessment of the former barn as a museum/gallery rather than as a religious building, and in a broader context over the lack of establishment support for contemporary art in this country. According to some (writers), the War has affected not only public access to the garden but also has introduced more military symbolism within the designs.

Landscape Components

The Gardens

The front cottage garden was the earliest part of the garden to be developed and is still used for experiments though many of the exhibits have been made permanent, such as the wave poem. A series of corners contained by foliage surround the sunken garden and are the settings for inscriptions, word poems, different pathway surfaces, sundials and other 'incidents' or focal points, many humorous. The Roman garden, Henry Vaughan walk, Mare Nostrum, the old orchard, Pompeian Garden and the Siegfried Line are all contained within the old walled garden.

Classical themes extend to the Garden Temple and Temple Pool, and through the upper garden to Lochan Eck, and sails and boats appear in many guises around the gardens. Boat themes were a feature of Italian renaissance gardens also and are paralleled appropriately by more modern symbols such as 'nuclear sail'. The development in the top garden of more explicit representation of the classical tradition of landscaping and painting is characterised by the identification of landscape features with the styles of, inter alia, Corot, Poussin and Claude Lorrain. The garden contains continually changing vistas and surprises, with small-scale features and plantings which make it seem much larger than it really is, and yet it maintains its sense of enclosure and refuge.




Printed Sources

Stephen Bann, 1981, A Description of Stonypath,

J. Garden History Vol 1 No. 2 pp.ll3-144,

Yves Abnox, Ian Hamilton Finlay, 1985, Reaktion Books

Christopher Thacker, The History of the Garden.

CL, Oct 6th 1977

Glasgow Herald, Nov 15th 1985

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.

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Printed: 23/09/2021 06:19