Caol Ruadh, on the shores of the Kyles of Bute at Colintraive in south Cowal is a dream of a place and a dream of an idea – not just a first for Argyll but possibly for Scotland.
Its 20 acre gardens, effectively created in the past 14 years, are tranquil, teasing, enticing, playful – everything a good garden should be, not overly contained but freed respectfully to be fluent.
Here is light open woodland, hillside, massive rock bluffs, beautiful mature trees, luscious shrubs, a waterlily pond with a rocky planted island in its centre, terraced grassland running to the shore, stone steps chicaning their way up a cliff face, enchanted nooks and crannies, charming secret buildings and a long stony shorefront on the Kyles, with rocky islets and a sea bird colony.
And everywhere there is sculpture – not the massive monoliths one might assume but beautifully sited smaller pieces blending into their locations with seductive ease.
You need to keep your eyes open constantly, searching for something that may not be quite what it seems, that may not be natural but artificed and positioned with skill, imagination and charm.
This is less a sculpture park than an outdoor gallery, with gallery sized pieces it is hard to imagine being estranged from anyone.
Most of them you cannot leave alone. You have to go and look at them from a different angle, creep up on them and take them by surprise. Some you even feel a little guilty in discovering.
There is a little ‘Hansel and Gretel’ house in the trees down by the shore. It’s door was slightly open. There wasn’t anyone around. We had to have a sneaky peek inside and so will you. When you quietly pull the door wide, you find you were expected after all – the back wall is a sort of magnolia in full bloom.
The rain yesterday made some of the objects even more beautiful – in ways which looked planned rather than coincidental.
Business partners in the enterprise, Karen Scotland and Anne Edmonds, are starting with grounds where nature itself has already shaped objects that defy certainty as to whether or not they are man made. As you drive down towards the house (where you park) ‘The Lady of Caol Ruadh’ curls a lip at you from the hillside. This is something Karen Scotland’s family have been slowly creating and its plausible mischief sets the tone of a beautiful but unpretentious gallery.
There’s no ‘right answer’ to any art and particularly to this sort of experiential art – which finds its meaning in the marriage between the object and the observer. ‘The answer’ comes as much from you as from it. Be honest and consult your own responses. You’ll have a blast.
You need hours. And you need to take time to wander, look, think, play, discover. Some day maybe the lovely old boathouse on the shore might become a tearoom with a view you would eat for ever to enjoy?
There are surprises everywhere. Down on the beach are two dimensional figures and a couple of two-dimensional objects made from reflective steel. They’re shape changers – depending on where you stand – because they take to themselves the colour and texture of their surroundings.
Sometimes the figures seem insubstantial, like shades barely materialised and threatening to vanish at will. Sometimes they seem to have a purpose. And they can easily possess you, which is strange and interesting. One simply absorbed Karen Scotland.
In different places on your meanderings you will find a river of slate with two boats sailing down it, one with its sails bellying with wind, one classically rowed; a clearance crofting village; a one-ton ram of an oak seat; a couple who’ve sneaked off to a sylvan retreat for a quiet and private embrace; objects that blend in with flag irises and birch trunks to the point where you really cannot sort one from the other – and translate you into a sort of mythical universe that just may have hobbits hiding in it.
There is a group of slate standing stones on a wooded hill slope, each pierced painfully – crucifyingly – with tightly packed shards of slate. And there’s a listening post.
There is a snake of sinuous leaping fish; punctuation marks at the junctions of paths; a serendipitous sleeper on the grass….
And you can find yourself with some interested company.
This is also an everyday world where people have places to go and things to do. You hear and see the Colintraive ferry to Rhubodach on Bute shuttle nearby across the East Kyle. And the Waverley came paddling through the channel just off the shore, policed by one of the silent standing figures.
The inspired idea for Caol Ruadh is that each summer there will be a new exhibition with new artists – so we can all keep going back for new episodes of fun and adventure. Because it’s a commercial gallery and all the sculpture you see is for sale, it makes this sort of organic change possible, Several pieces have sold already and it’s only been open for a few days. This summer the artists whose work is secreted around the gardens will be adding to the pieces they are showing there – so return visits will regularly throw up the unexpected.
And besides, different times of the day and different states of the tide will daily create radically different experiences for repeat visitors.
The directions to Caol Ruadh include some for those arriving by water – now that would be amazing. There has to be some enterprising spirit in Tighnabruaich who would run folk across the Kyle.
One of the exhibits is a tramp of four giant footprints across the grass slope between the house and the shore. Each footprint represents the ten tonnes of carbon used by each of each of us each year. Evidently the best view of these feet lolloping across the landscape is from the far side of the Kyles, presumably from the viewpoint above Loch Riddon.
Caol Ruadh was completed in 1898 for a Glasgow merchant family. It had three different families between then and the end of World War II, after which it passed into the ownership of Glasgow Corporation. They ran it as a school for children from parts of Glasgow where the conditions and industrial practice of the day threatened their health. They came there in groups for six weeks at a time, taught by a permanent team of staff.
Karen Scotland, whose family bought the estate when it stopped being a school in 1998, says many return to see the old place, bringing friends and family with them. They talk of their days there, staff and pupils, as the best of their lives. It’s very easy to see why.
In a long visit to Caol Ruadh, we thought we’d seen everything but, looking at the catalogue, we still missed quite a lot – and we’ve only shown a fraction here of what we did find. And yes, we are looking for an excuse to go back. This is a place that gets under your skin. Lucky Argyll.
Artists exhibiting: Tom Allan; Kevin Dagg; Guy Elder; Andrea Geile; Angela Hunter; Brunton Hnnter; Andy McClintock; Dugald MacInnes; Ilona Morrice; Rob Mulholland; Deirdre Nicolls; Tim Pomeroy; Jenny Pope; Duncan Robertson; Emma Herman-Smith; Natalie Taylor. (Prices run from a few hundred to a few thousand.)
- Opening Times: From now to October, Caol Ruadh is open Wednesdays to Sundays inclusive 11.00am to 6.00pm.
- Driving: going south on the A886 into Colintraive, take the right turn on to the B866 just after passing the Colintraive village sign. This bends away to the right and about half a mile on the left are the red brick gates of Caol Ruadh.
- Sailing - there is good anchoring to the South East of Caol Ruadh avoiding the small rocks to the west and the shallow from the burn to the East.