Inventory Garden & Designed Landscape


Status: Designated


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Date Added
Local Authority
NH 48366 58024
248366, 858024

Strathpeffer Spa Gardens comprise an unusual example of pleasure grounds laid out as part of a 19th century health resort. They illustrate a contemporary acknowledgement of the important curative role of landscape and gentle recreation.

Type of Site

Picturesque pleasure grounds and ornamental walks, part of a Spa development.

Main Phases of Landscape Development

Mid 19th century – mid 20th century.

Artistic Interest

Level of interest

The design of the picturesque pleasure grounds skillfully integrates a variety of amenity requirements on a comparatively small site. Its picturesque character is significant in the Strathpeffer townscape and essential to the locality.


Level of interest

The gardens are an important aspect of the development of Strathpeffer Spa as a premier health resort. They are interesting for their associated social and economic history, and constitute an unusual example of a specific type of pleasure grounds.


Level of interest

The collection of exotic specimen trees gives this site high Horticultural value.


Level of interest

The Spa Gardens are a prominent feature in the Strathpeffer townscape and are integral to the picturesque landscape character of the town.


Level of interest

The Spa Gardens have high Scenic value due to their important contribution to the townscape, as well as the overall landscape character of Strath Peffer itself.

Nature Conservation

Level of interest

The Spa Gardens provide a variety of wildlife habitats, particularly birds. This gives the site some Nature Conservation value.

Location and Setting

The Spa Gardens are in the centre of Strathpeffer, on the south side of the A834. They are laid out on a north-facing hillside and bounded to the south by the fields of Park Farm. The Peffer enters the gardens from the west and runs eastwards, parallel to the A834, through the north part of the gardens.

Views out from the gardens extend into the town. The gardens are an important component of the Strathpeffer townscape.

The gardens expanded eastwards to accommodate new bowling greens in 1904. They have retained the same boundaries since that time and measure c 2.2ha (5 acres).

Site History

Strathpeffer belonged to the Cromartie Estate (see Castle Leod; Tarbat House; Cromarty House). The value of 'Castle Leod Waters', as the mineral springs were then known, was recounted to the Royal Society in London in 1772. Thereafter, in 1777, Colin Mackenzie, factor to Cromartie Estate, suggested to the Board of Commissioners for the Forfeited Estates the value in building a house nearby to attract visitors. The wells were enclosed to prevent cattle fouling them, but his suggestion came to nothing. It was in 1819 that a wooden Pump Room was constructed, over one of the wells. The work was supervised by Dr Morrison, who moved from Aberdeenshire to Strathpeffer after being cured of chronic rheumatism by the sulphurous waters (Fortescue-Fox, 1896).

Thereafter, the reputation of the Spa grew. Dr Morrison, who recommended a stay of six weeks and three to four tumblerfuls of spa water both morning and afternoon, strictly supervised visitors' diets. By the mid 1800s, the Cromartie Estate again turned its attention to the potential attractions of the waters, which were 'so beastly as to prove there must be some virtue/reality in it' (Andrew Scott, the factor in 1857 quoted in Landscape Conservation Studio, 1996). The 1850s saw plans for the building of a harled Poor's House and a stone house over the Upper Well, wooden bridges over the burn and gravelled walks through the adjacent plantations – gentle exercise being part of the regime. By this time there were three wells, the Upper Well being within the gardens. The walks were constructed in 1853 at a cost of 13/4d per linear yard and the plantation was enclosed with a wire fence.

The 1860s saw the promotion of the Spa in earnest. The impetus came from George Granville Sutherland-Leveson-Gower (1828-92), created 3rd Duke of Sutherland in 1861. The Spa was the catalyst for the development of the settlement at Strathpeffer and the landscape of the Strath itself. This was then serviced by the main Dingwall-Strome Ferry railway line opened in 1869 (Close-Brookes, 1995). The estate commissioned the architect George Devey to plan the proposed expansion but, although the layout of the roads relate to his proposals, his full scheme was not adopted. Altogether, the Duke spent about £2,500 in capital to lay out a new Pump Room (which replaced the original wooden one) and Bath House, a Well-Keeper's House, shops, post office and Postmaster's house. By 1876 the Pump Room (demolished 1950) was complemented by a latrine block, screened by shrub planting (1876, OS 6").

The 1880s saw the further expansion of activities and facilities. Renewed impetus was given to the Spa with the arrival of the Dingwall-Strathpeffer branch line of the railway (1885), new Ladies Baths and experimental peat baths. Explorations for new springs in the shale strata resulted in new wells in 1884 and 1886, which increased the volume of sulphurous waters from 279 gallons (1867) to 1482 (1886). A fourth well, named Lady Cromartie's Well or the Challis Spring, was exploited in 1889. Strathpeffer Spa Pavilion, designed by William Joass, was built 1879-81. It was designed to be the social focus of the Spa, as opposed to the medical and curative centre at the Upper Pump Room. It provided a refreshment room, tearoom, billiard table and games room. The central concert hall was overlooked by a gallery, which housed a reading room, and the whole building was surrounded by a covered verandah. An octagonal Bandstand (removed when the main road frontage was fenced in, c 1908), stood at the entrance to the complex, in view of the town centre.

From early on in the planning and promotion of the Spa, the pleasure grounds and drives were recognised as important aspects of the town's promotion. John Martin, assistant factor, renewed the plantations in 1864 by interplanting many evergreens in the belts and transplanting trees from a plantation along the public road, to form an approach. The walks were planted and path junctions were highlighted with 'clumps of evergreens with a spiral or weeper plant in the middle to relieve the mass' (SRO, GD305/2/1858 p.39).

In 1867, William Gunn of Nutwood, successor to Andrew Scott, wrote about 'the constant brushing up during the Season required by the Spa Beltings and Sundry plots of fancy plantation, together with the gravelling & Keeping in order of all the public roads & walks around the Spa ...'. The Spa Gardens were considered integral with the Spa itself. Gunn recalled in 1889 that the Strathpeffer estate had been 'exceedingly bare of Wood, and with no Hedges' when he had started in post. He was responsible for extensive planting and woodland improvement throughout Strath Peffer as far as Castle Leod. A major feature was a walk made in 1888 for visitors to reach the summit of Ord Hill and admire the views. In 1898-1900, a pleasure drive was made through Blackmuir Wood, a 93ha (230 acres) pinewood planted c 1820, by way of the Knockfarrell vitrified Fort. Other walks, furnished with rustic rain-shelters, were laid out through the Kinettas Plantation, Ord Hill.

A tennis/croquet terrace behind the Pavilion (1882) provided recreation within the gardens. A four-rink curling pond (1890) was followed, in 1904, by a Bowling Green incorporated into an eastward extension to the gardens. These facilities all necessitated terracing the hillside with stone-retaining walls.

In 1908 the Spa Syndicate Limited acquired the rights to the Spa wells. The Spa facilities were run on more commercial lines, thus the gardens were enclosed and an entrance fee charged. Park Farm Road, which led through the middle of the gardens, from north to south, was removed, and the garden paths adjusted to accommodate this and further changes. Summer entertainments were important to the venture, so the Curling Rink was converted into tennis courts and curling moved to the Jubilee Pond. A major change in 1909 was replacing the 1870s Pump Room with the present Upper Pump Room.

Thereafter, from 1914 to 1949, there were few changes in the gardens. A leaflet of c 1925 describes the:

'spacious pleasure gardens, charmingly laid out with lawns, pergolas of roses, parterres of flowers, noble trees and dainty summer houses, while a picturesque note is supplied by a little burn which wimples over falls or broadens into little lakes...' (Landscape Conservation Studio, 1996).

In 1949 the gardens were sold to the owner of the Ben Wyvis Hotel. Subsequently, the Spa manager's house was demolished, the fountain pool infilled and the tennis court area redeveloped for curling. Management of the gardens was abandoned due to costs, in 1970. The Highland Council now owns the gardens.

Landscape Components

Architectural Features

The Spa Pavilion, designed by Joass in 1879, was subsequently altered and extended. It is harled with applied timber framing. A large multi pane lunette-window fills the north gable facing the town square. The slate roof has a ridge skylight and the eaves are coved and barge-boarded. A continuous, originally fully open verandah supported by timber columns, skirts the building. The verandah also has a slate roof and dogtooth eaves decoration.

The Pump Room, (originally known as the Upper Pump Room) built in 1909, is constructed of rubble masonry with dressed quoins and margins. It has a complex slate roof and a verandah on its north-eastern elevation. Other architectural features within the gardens include retaining walls, steps and ramps associated with the garden terraces and the Band House and a number of small pavilions associated with recreational facilities.

Paths & Walks

The main entrance from the public road leads into a yard between the Upper Pump Room and the Pavilion. From here, a drive leads between two Wellingtonias, to climb uphill to the Curling Rink terrace, the Band House and the rear of the Pavilion. A network of informal footpaths leads through the gardens at different levels along the hillside. Ramps and steps link the terraces. Footpaths were originally gravel surfaced, and boulder-edgings survive in certain locations. Although benches and small summerhouses once located along the path network have not survived, seating recesses still remain.

Woodland Garden

The gardens are essentially wooded pleasure grounds. Some notable specimen conifers remain, including Wellingtonias, deodar cedars, Douglas and noble firs planted c 1870-80. The earliest surviving planting is from c 1850 and includes some large deciduous specimens, notably beech, oak and sycamore. Later plantings included lime, horse chestnut, Norway maple, copper beech, poplar and many Lawson cypress. Laurel and Rhododendron are surviving shrubs, although there is some snowberry and remnants of more recent shrub planting, including cornus, fuschia and lilac. Patches of herbaceous and groundcover plants are found, but in general the garden has suffered from overshading, waterlogging and the regeneration of invasive species. Early 20th century photographs illustrate the then extent of open lawn in the grounds, which enabled a more open aspect. The terraced areas for recreation are important within the garden design. The site of the Curling Rink, redeveloped as a concrete platform (1960) remains intact. It occupies one of the hillside terraces retained by dry-stone walls and with bench recesses overlooking the rink. Behind the Pavilion is another terrace, previously used for croquet, bowls, tennis and putting. The large Bowling Green to the east of the Pavilion is still in use.



Maps, Plans and Archives

1876 survey, 1st edition OS 1:10560 (6"), published 1881

1904 survey, 2nd edition OS 1:2500 (25"), published 1906

Scottish Record Office: RHP 45180; RHP 34705


Printed Sources

Close-Brookes, J. Exploring Scotland's Heritage The Highlands (1995), pp.22-3

Fortescue-Fox, R. Strathpeffer Spa, Its Water and Climate (1896)

Historic Scotland on Behalf of the Scottish Ministers, The List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest

Landscape Conservation Studio. The Spa Gardens, Strathpeffer. Report to The Highland Council (September 1996)

Old Statistical Account, Statistical Account of the Parish of Fodderty, vol. 7, (1793), p.410

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.

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Printed: 26/05/2024 21:17