Inventory Garden & Designed Landscape

Blackhills HouseGDL00409

Status: Designated


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Date Added
Supplementary Information Updated
Local Authority
NJ 27284 58449
327284, 858449

Blackhills House is recognised for its important naturalistic 20th century woodland garden and extensive collection of species rhododendrons. The collection was first established by Thomas North Christie around 1913, within the shelter of two adjoining steep-sided, glacially-eroded valleys. It continued to evolve until the 1980s-90s. Contemporary documentary evidence of the creation of the gardens during this period links the plant material to other contemporary horticultural collections and plant hunting expeditions. The collection includes many wild rhododendron species, including rare varieties from the China-Himalaya region that would normally be considered too tender to flourish on the northeast coast of Scotland but for the sheltered growing conditions and moisture-rich soils that exist within the glacial valleys around the Blackhills Burn. The garden has been commended for its collections as one of the UK's best collections of wild origin species rhododendrons, and for its design.

Type of Site

An estate landscape including country house and naturalistic woodland

gardens with a large and diverse collection of species rhododendron.

Main Phases of Landscape Development

7th century; 1837-1880; circa 1911-1935; 1968-1980.

Artistic Interest

Level of interest

Interest in this category derives from the appreciation evident in late 20th century and early 21st century accounts of the garden in its current form, as created by Thomas North Christie. For example, the garden was praised by Dunbar (1999) as a 'remarkable Himalayan oasis' and a place of 'untamed beauty' where 'the natural majesty of the plants is honoured'.


No earlier accounts testifying to appreciation of the 19th or earlier 20th century garden are known. The layout of the garden is not connected with a designer who achieved national renown, and there is no known evidence to suggest Blackhills House performed a trendsetting role for the development of later gardens.


Level of interest

Interest in this category of assessment relates to the position of Blackhills House Gardens within the wider tradition of woodland gardens in Scotland created from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries, together with the survival of contemporary documentary material.


The gardens at Blackhills were planted with rhododendrons and other wild origin plant material derived from the China-Himalayan region and elsewhere. The collection includes species that would not normally survive this far north and east. Most woodland gardens with such collections are located on the west coast of Scotland where tender specimen trees and shrubs thrive due to the higher rainfall and the warmer temperate climate provided by the Gulf Stream. Blackhills is an unusual example of this kind of woodland garden in the northeast of Scotland.


Thomas North Christie's connections with renowned plant hunters such as George Forrest are also of interest here. An extensive documentary archive of letters, plans, purchasing lists of plants, and planting schemes was kept by Thomas North Christie covering the period from circa 1917 to around 1930. This details purchase of seeds from George Forrest's expeditions supplied by the Royal Botanic Gardens, and indicates that Blackhills was providing seed to the Botanic Gardens and to Brodie Castle during this period. Information shared about the plants' cultivation, propagation and siting possibly influenced the development of the garden.


A second note book covers the period 1980-1990s, with some gaps, updating the species list for the rhododendrons, and their locations within the gardens. The correspondence indicates that the owners continued to propagate seeds at Blackhills, which were supplied to the Royal Botanic Gardens.  The lists have not been updated in more recent times.


Some further historic interest derives from the earlier history of Blackhills and its connection with the Innes family and the Earls Fife.


Level of interest

The garden has an outstanding collection of species rhododendrons that is particularly notable for its relatively northerly location on the east coast of Scotland. The collection includes three Great Britain and Ireland Champions, four country champions and 23 county champion trees ( 2018).


The quality and importance of the Blackhills rhododendron collection has received praise by specialists. Dunbar (1999) described the collection as 'one of the largest private collections of rhododendrons in the world'. Cox comments that Blackhills has 'a very fine collection of rhododendron species, including many not normally considered hardy in this area…' and is, 'one of the UK's best collections of wild origin species ..' (Cox 2014: 87).


The garden has experienced challenges in recent years including scale insect infestation and there have been some losses of hybrids. However, most of the species rhododendron shown on Christie's original maps are still surviving. There are signs of natural regeneration and the owners are taking active steps to support renewal (2018) including cutting back to manage the impacts of disease. Labelling of the collection is evident. On balance, the garden merits 'outstanding' under his category.


Level of interest

The garden is the setting for Blackhills House, built in the 1830s, and recognised for its historic and architectural interest. The former laundry, kennels and other former estate buildings contribute to the overall architectural interest of the site. On balance, the site merits high value in this category.


Level of interest

There are no scheduled monuments within the boundary of the designed landscape. However, high value in this category derives from the presence of a prehistoric incised and cup-marked stone, incorporated as a feature within the designed landscape.


There is also high archaeological potential for the survival of buried evidence relating to the 16th century tower house of the Innes family, the exact location of which is unknown (2018). There is also potential for information to survive related to the history of water management on the estate around the Blackhills Burn, including milling activity during the 18th century.


Level of interest

Blackhills House gardens are deliberately secluded and inward looking. Some interest in this category derives from the line of tall conifers that stand high on the ridge above the Warren and which are visible from outside the designed landscape, particularly from the north. There is also some scenic interest derived from views into the designed landscape from the B9103, across the 'new pond' to the woodland garden behind. These features create a marked contrast between the different elements of the site and the surrounding agricultural land, which in turn contributes visual interest to the wider landscape. 

Nature Conservation

Level of interest

Although there are no natural heritage designations, the woodland flora and fauna provide high nature conservation value. The varied habitats contained within the garden include mixed woodlands, ponds and bog, mature trees and open pasture. These provide a rich habitat for birds including nesting osprey, animals including red squirrel, otter and pine martin, rich aquatic life around the ponds, as well as insects. The garden is managed in a way to encourage birds and other wildlife, for example trees that have died are left to decay naturally as a habitat for wildlife.

Location and Setting

Blackhills House Gardens is located 6km southeast of the city of Elgin, at around 100m above sea level and the flat coastal plain of Morayshire.


Covering around 31 hectares, Blackhills House and its gardens occupy gently rising ground amidst farmland towards the upland hills of the Brown Muir to the south. The house is situated on the northern side of the designed landscape with shelter belt planting to the north, and a rock garden on a hillock immediately to the south.

The main feature of the designed landscape south of the house is an extensive woodland garden, created around two adjoining steep-sided, glacially-eroded valleys which connect to form the shape of an inverted letter 'C'.


The first valley runs in a northwest to southeast axis and is a kettle hole, a hollow created when buried blocks of glacier ice melted after the ice age. The second valley to the south, runs in a west-east direction and is known as 'the Warren' because rabbits were formerly a problem. It is bisected by the Burn of the Elms, also known as Blackhills Burn, which meanders through the southern portion of the designed landscape.  Two ponds, a former curling pond known as 'the old pond', and a 'new pond', make use of an abundant supply of spring water within the kettle hole and the Warren. Sheltered from the prevailing winds, these valleys benefit from moist, peat-rich soils. These factors have helped to create a suitable habitat for a wide range of trees and shrubs from the China-Himalaya region that would normally be considered too tender to flourish on the northeast coast of Scotland.

Site History

The designed landscape around Blackhills House began to take shape during the 16th-18th centuries when the grounds formed part of the estates of the Innes family of Blackhills (Shaw 1882: 352; Aberdeen University Archives – see for example MS3824). Pont's map of Elgin and northeast Moray (printed c.1583-96) depicts a tower house while, by the mid-18th century, Roy's military map (1747-55) shows the house located to the north of the Blackhills Burn, surrounded by garden grounds or enclosed fields, within a rectangular belt of shelter planting.


The estate including Blackhills House was sold by John Innes to Sir Archibald Dunbar in 1796, during whose ownership the designed landscape appears already to have been well established: 'there is a commodious mansion house, spacious well stocked gardens, and extensive plantations' (Shaw 1882; 356). In 1798, Blackhills was acquired by Lachlan Cuming of Demerara (now part of Guyana). Mr Cuming returned from Demerara around 1820 and made Blackhills his principal residence until his death in 1836 when his trustees sold Blackhills to the 4th Earl Fife to form part of the earl's extensive land-holdings in the area. 


Around 1837-8, Earl Fife commissioned the current Blackhills House. There are no known records indicating involvement of a particular landscape architect with the earl's designed landscape at Blackhills. The 1st Edition Ordnance Survey map (surveyed 1870, published 1872) shows shelter belt planting to the north of the house, with extensive woodland plantations around the kettle hole and the Warren. Garden grounds appear to have been laid out to the north of the house, comprising '….. pleasure grounds, vegetable and fruit gardens attached: in the latter is a pear tree supposed to be the oldest in Scotland as it is said to be bearing fruit for about three hundred years..' (Ordnance Survey Namebook for Morayshire 1868-71). By the time of the 2nd Edition Ordnance Survey map (surveyed 1903-4, published 1905), the Duke of Fife had created a curling pond and installed a cistern and hydraulic ram, likely to supply water from the Blackhills Burn to higher ground within the estate.


In 1911, Thomas North Christie, a retired tea planter, acquired the properties of Blackhills and Kellas from the trustees of the Duke of Fife. At Blackhills, he set about remodelling the house and creating a naturalistic woodland garden in the manner of William Robinson, Gertrude Jekyll and others. At Blackhills, 'formality has no foothold' (Christie, 1968: 27). Construction of a rock garden and new flower garden occupied the initial years before Christie turned his attention to rhododendrons and the creation of a woodland garden. From around 1917-1935, Christie collaborated with the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Castle Kennedy, Lochinch, Crarae, Brodie, Inverewe and others in sponsoring the plant hunting expeditions of George Forrest and in exchanging propagated plants and seeds with them.


Thomas North Christie died in 1939 after which the garden was left neglected until a storm in 1952. By this time the gardens had passed to Christie's nephew, Sylvester Falconer Christie, who, inspired by the garden's capacity for natural regeneration after the storm, set about re-opening old paths and uncovering shrubs (Dunbar, 1999).  The gardens continued to evolve during the 1960s-80s and thereafter withfurther rhododendron species added from plant-hunting expeditions to Southwest China and Tibet during the 1980s, and from seed collected by the family in Eastern Tibet around 1994.  Blackhills House remains in the ownership of the Christie family. The current owners continue to curate the gardens, working with nature, ensuring the gardens are accessible for people, and maintaining the rhododendron collection.

Landscape Components

Architectural Features

The designed landscape provides the setting for Blackhills House (LB8433). It was designed by Elgin architect William Robertson and built around 1837. It incorporates modifications around 1870 by A&W Reid (Dictionary of Scottish Architects) and later modifications around 1920. The house was devastated by fire in November 2015 and is being restored at the time of this assessment (2018). There is a small square stone sundial in the gardens on the north side of the house.


On the slope of the wooded rock garden immediately to the south of the house is a circular dovecot (Canmore ID 16406) of possible 18th-century date, tiered with two ledges and a building of rough stones above. A winding path with two wide flights of stone steps, leads towards the summit of the hillock past stone troughs, a press, an inscribed lintel and other stone ornaments. It emerges at a small semi-circular stone enclosure, which forms a look-out over the house below. Three small iron cannons, apparently recovered from a wreck in the Moray Firth, have been mounted on mock stone battlements.


Ancillary estate buildings of possible 18th-century date include a former estate laundry (in use as a pottery showroom (2018)) on the west boundary of the property, and a gardener's house to the northwest. Additional surviving buildings include a U-plan complex of farm buildings, and a small stone kennel with pantile roof. Likely post-dating the 18th century, these were in place by 1870 (Ordnance Survey maps, surveyed 1870, published 1872).


To the west of the house an incised and cup-marked quartzite stone (Canmore ID 16404), probably of prehistoric date, stands under cover within a hexagonal shelter of stone pillars. The stone, known by the owners as 'the goddess', was originally found at Clackmarras (around 3km to the west of Blackhills) and is understood to have been moved to Blackhills from Strypes Farm, around 1913. Other standing stones within the estate gardens are recent artistic creations (2018).


A family burial ground (Canmore ID 272211) occupies a secluded location at the head of a promontory overlooking the kettle hole and the Warren, surrounded by rhododendrons and beech trees. It was first used around 1923.

Drives & Approaches

Historic maps show that the main drive into the designed landscape was in place by the later 19th century. The main approach to the house from the northeast, off the B9103, is shown on 1st edition Ordnance Survey maps (surveyed 1870, published 1872). The drive leads past a single stone gate post with a lion carving, sweeping round to the south of the house, with a back drive leading to the farm buildings beyond. Trees and shrubbery growth conceal the house from view until close by.

Paths & Walks

A network of informal woodland paths provide the basis for walking trails around the woodland garden. This largely follows the layout shown on 1st edition Ordnance Survey maps (surveyed 1870, published 1872).


A 'blue route' leads walkers through the kettle hole in a circle around the old pond, offering views across the water to groups of rhododendrons and an overarching canopy of Scots pine. After passing the new pond, it joins up with the 'primula path' which leads through the wide valley floor of the Warren by the Blackhills Burn, with views upwards to the thickly wooded slopes. The circular 'red route' winds through glades and around trees with steps and rustic bridges taking paths across slopes and over the burn. Openings in the canopy provide occasional glimpses across the valley floor, with massed rhododendrons cascading down the full depths of the opposite sides of the valley. Two wooden 'fairy houses' positioned on high sloping ground are places to be alone for contemplation, and also provide more formal vantage points to appreciate the woodland garden from within

Woodland Garden

The woodland garden was created by Thomas North Christie within the glacial valleys of the kettle hole and the Warren. Christie made use of the sheltered growing conditions, moist, peat-rich soil and existing canopy of mature Scots pine and European larch planted by the Innes family around 1750, to create a naturalistic woodland garden of rhododendrons, with an understorey of herbaceous plants including meconopsis, primula and gentian, akin to the environment found in Southwest China. Planting began on the south-facing banks above the old pond, before extending to the north-facing bank, and then beyond, into the Warren.


At the time of this assessment (2018) there are 360 different species of rhododendron within the kettle hole and the Warren, all of wild origin. These include almost all the species rhododendrons recorded in Thomas North Christie's archive, such as R. lacteum 'Blackhills', collected by George Forrest in Yunnan (Dunbar, 1999), R. leptophrium, R. arboretum subsp. Zeylanicum from Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), and important specimens of R. rex and R. thomsonii. The majority are from seed collected in the Himalayas but many came from North America, Central Asia, and Northern Europe. About half the species were planted between 1920 and 1935, with the others planted in the past 20 years by Thomas Christie's successors who themselves took part in expeditions, for example with Peter Cox to Yunnan in 1992. 


The best concentrations of the rhododendron collection are on the sloping, north-facing ground of the Warren, to the south of the Blackhills Burn, where tall species rhododendron of remarkable size and maturity such as R.lacteum are sheltered within a canopy of conifers, particularly Douglas fir and Scots pine, mixed with others trees, including giant redwood, and exotic Himalayan larch. Tall specimens of Grand fir stand high on the ridge, together with hemlock and Douglas fir planted in the 1930s. These form an impressive line of conifers visible from outside the designed landscape.

Water Features

The Burn of the Elms/Blackhills Burn flowing through the valley of the Warren is a key feature of the designed landscape. Possibly around 1780 and certainly by the time of the 1st edition Ordnance Survey maps (surveyed 1870, published 1872), the burn had been diverted and a mill damn with sluice and mill lade created to supply an estate corn-mill at Milltown, immediately to the northeast of the designed landscape. By the 2nd Edition Ordnance Survey map (surveyed 1903-4, published 1905), the mill was no longer in existence. At the time of this assessment (2018), the burn has mostly reverted to its natural course, but the remains of the lade and damn are still visible.


Harnessing the naturally abundant supply of water continued to be a feature in the evolution of the designed landscape, and the ponds add significantly to the scenic quality of the woodland garden. The old pond was created by the Duke of Fife as a curling pond, within a naturally marshy area formed within the kettle hole, and is fed by spring water. Underlying the pond are layers of peat and glacial moraine. A curling hut at the east end of the pond no longer survives.


Making further use of water draining from the Blackhills Burn, the new pond at the east of the kettle hole was created between 1968-72 by Sylvester Falconer Christie, fitting with the garden's motto as a place for 'maximum leisure and pleasure' (Christie, 1968: 27). The current owners continue to make changes to the surroundings of this pond including the addition of a stepping stone path (2018).

The Gardens

The gardens that existed in the mid-later 19th century and which appear on the 1st edition Ordnance Survey maps (surveyed 1870, published 1872) survive in outline. Two orchards flank a central area in front of the main elevation of the house, which is filled with large rhododendron specimens, and a small stone sundial. To the north, a line of shelter belt planting shown on the 1st edition Ordnance Survey maps survives, either side of an access track to the gardener's house. To the south of the house, the rock garden was planted by the Christies with a wide variety of labelled dwarf rhododendron species and larger specimens such as Rhododendron neriiflorum. During the 1960s, the rock garden had around 70 species of alpine rhododendrons (Christie 1968).








Canmore: ID 192873 (Blackhills House); 16404 (Cup-marked stone); 16406 (dovecot); 272211 (burial ground)

Maps, plans and archives

Ordnance Survey (surveyed 1870, published 1872) Elginshire XIII.6 (with extension XIII.2) (Elgin and St Andrews Lhanbryd). 25 inch to the mile. 1st edition. Southampton: Ordnance Survey.

Ordnance Survey (surveyed 1903-4, published 1905) Elginshire XIII.6 (Elgin; St Andrews Lhanbryd). 25 inch to the mile. 2nd edition. Southampton: Ordnance Survey.

Pont's map of Elgin and northeast Moray, ca. 1583-96. National Map Library of Scotland. Adv.MS.70.2.10 (Gordon 23) (accessed 31/07/2018)

Roy Military Survey of Scotland, 1747-55.

Thomas North Christie's bound Catalogue of Rhododendrons at Blackhills House, Lhanbryde, Morayshire – a record of species and planting locations, with an accompanying map.

Printed sources

Christie, S F., (1968) Blackhills an irregular garden in Morayshire, Rhododendron and Camellia Yearbook. pp.22-31. Royal Horticultural Society.

Cox, K. (2014) Scotland for Gardeners. London

Cox, P.A (1990) The larger rhododendron species. London

Dunbar, R. (1999) 'Rich Inheritance', Garden, vol.124, 5, pp.322-325. Royal Horticultural Society.

Magor, W. (1987), 'Blackhills: a note', Rhododendron and Camellia Yearbook. P.48 Royal Horticultural Society.

Online sources

Blackhills estate, Elgin - (accessed 31/07/2018)

Christie J. 2018 Blackhills, oasis of tranquillity? (accessed 20/08/2018)

Dictionary of Scottish Architects – Blackhills House - (accessed 31/07/2018)

Ordnance Survey Name Books Morayshire OS Name Books, 1868-1871, Morayshire, volume 11 / OS1/12/11/95. (accessed 31/07/2018).

Shaw L. 1882, The history of the province of Moray. Comprising the counties of Elgin and Nairn ed Gordon, J F S. Copy available online at (accessed 31/07/2018)

The Tree Register of the British Isles, Champion Tree Database

(accessed 31/07/2018)

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The old pond, Blackhills garden, looking northwest. Clear day. Reflections on the water. Trees around the pond.
Blackhills House rock garden, with cannon overlooking house.
Incised, cup-marked prehistoric stone, standing within a stone shelter in the grounds of Blackhills House.
: Rhododendrons beside the old pond, looking south, on a sunny day.
Rhododendrons and tall trees, a sunny day.
Blackhills House, looking north, during daytime, on clear day with blue sky. Rock garden rises to the right of the image.
Rhododendrons, trees and the Blackhills Burn, meandering through the valley floor, on a sunny day.
Path through rhododendrons and trees, on a sunny day.

Printed: 24/06/2024 02:25