In the the valley of Loch Eck and the River Eachaig, some 7 miles north-west of Dunoon, Benmore Gardens are part of the Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh. The gardens climb 450’ up the hillside side and is one of the best collections of trees in the country, with plants from across the globe. Over a third of the hardy conifer species in the world can be found growing here along with over 300 different species of rhododendron as well as many different species of deciduous trees and shrubs. It is also important in the conservation of species now threatened in the wild.
Until the 1800s, the estate now known as Benmore was the hunting grounds of the Dukes of Argyll, and belonged to the Campbell Clan of Ballochyle. It was known as Innasraugh, "the sheltered valley".
The development of the estate as we see it today began c.1820 when large quantities of Scots pine, spruce and larch were planted in what is said to be the first coniferous plantation in the Cowal Peninsula. They thrived on the acid soils and heavy rainfall of the area.
The estate had several owners before being purchased around 862 by James Piers Patrick, a wealthy American, who carried out extensive work to the house, including the addition of the tower.
He began to develop the garden including the planting of an avenue of Giant Redwood trees, which were very much a C19th status symbol at the time. These can grow up to 100m and live for 3500 years. The trees in Benmore gardens are still very much ‘babies’ at around 50m and 150 years old. They are still imressive.
He sold the Benmore estate to James Duncan, a Greenock sugar refiner and philanthropist, in 1870 who also purchased the neighbouring estates of Bernice and Kilmun, extending the area owned to over 10,200 acres. He planed over 6 million trees across the estate. Much of the present layout of the gardens with lodges and gates, paths, fernery, pond and walled garden, is the result of his work.
He was responsible for the wonderful Golden Gates which were exhibited at the Paris Exhibition of 1878 and were at the main entrance to Benmore House.
Henry Younger of the Edinburgh brewer Younger's, bought the estate in 1889 for £110237. With his son, Harry George Younger, he made many improvements to the woods and gardens, employing 40 staff. Many of the plants here were introduced by famous plant hunters like Ernest Wilson and David Douglas who were sponsored by the Younger family. This included many species of Rhododendrons, many of which are now very old and very large. They are best seen in flower between late April to early June.
H.G. Younger donated the Estate to the nation in 1928. The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh was looking for a place to take the large collection of plants which the botanist George Forrest had brought from China. Many of these plants needed a mild and moist climate to thrive which Edinburgh couldn’t provide. The high rainfall at Benmore was ideal.
Benmore House opened as Scotland’s first School of Forestry, providing free accommodation, equipment and training. In the 1930s the Forestry Commission established Kilmun Arboretum, to try out tree species in the humid climate conditions. It is still an important site for seed production and test plantings. The school shut in 1965 and Benmore House is now the City of Edinburgh Outdoor centre.
The surrounding woodlands which form the major part of the estate, are managed by the Forestry Commission as part of the Argyll Forest Park.
The Gardens are open daily from the beginning of March until the end of April. It has a good shop, plant sales and and a refreshment shack.