The (not so) Secret Garden of Canna House


There is something tantalising about a closed gate. The old green gate into Canna House garden always intrigued me when we walked passed on summer holidays long ago. It gave that hint of a secret place waiting to be discovered. A smart new garden gate is still closed but the garden itself is now open to the public and it is well worth a visit.

In three years of hard work, Neil Baker has done a wonderful job in restoring the old walled garden, reclaiming the herbaceous border from brambles and nettles, uncovering neat lines of rope tiles edging the paths, pruning old fruit trees, resuscitating rhododendrons and revitalising the escallonia tunnel that leads up to Canna House.  It is hard to remember just how wild it all looked four years ago (is it really four years!) when I first began exploring the Canna House archives.  Our first – and slightly nervous – visit to the island in many years coincided with a National Trust for Scotland work party heroically hacking through raspberry canes to find the old ghost of a pebble path. (See also Fay’s blog)

As you can see from the pictures Neil’s beautifully restored paths run straight through borders dug and ready for a new season of flowers, fruit and veg. The restoration of the garden has been funded by US patrons  of the National Trust for Scotland and when we were there on our most recent visit, in April this year, Neil was getting ready for a trip to New York with plenty of pictures to show Thomas and Anne Hubbard, just how well their money has been spent.

Neil and his family are now moving to live on Islay but he leaves behind a garden full of life, replenished with Margaret’s favourite roses  and fit for the birds and butterflies John loved.

If you happen to be visiting Canna you can see it for yourself. House and garden are now open to the public.  And through Scotland’s Garden Scheme Canna House garden is also open on 7th May and 17th August from 10.30 am to 4pm




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7 Responses to The (not so) Secret Garden of Canna House

  1. David Waanders says:

    Dear Sir/Madam,

    it is now 7 years ago I worked for the NTS on Canna House and Garden. My name is David Waanders, and in that time I came to Scotland for my practical workexperience of my university. Together with Jan Haenraets I did this project, the survey of the old and current situation. It looks now very wonderful, lots of work has been done. Is it possible to send me more photo’s of the garden, how it looks now because I am very curious.

    Kind regards,
    David Waanders

  2. Ray says:

    Thanks for your comment David. Canna House garden has been transformed over the past few years, from wilderness to near its former glory. The initial work was done by Neil Baker, who left the island last year, but now Graham Uney is building on Neil’s achievements. Our pictures – which we will email to you – were taken in March last year, when the garden was not at its best, but Graham’s wife Olivia, who is a photographer, has some more recent excellent ones on her website ( Graham also has his own site, which is great on Canna’s birdlife. (

  3. Graham Uney says:

    Dear Ray & David,

    Many thanks for your comments Ray. Unfortunately, despite the fact that I have worked as a writer for the past 17 years, with 15 books to my credit not to mention countless magazine features, the NTS have told me not to write anything about my work in Canna House Garden. My intention was to start a ‘garden blog’, and to publicise the garden through horticultural journals, but this is not possible. However, I do enjoy posting news of the wildlife of the island.

    Sorry I can’t be any more help.
    Kind regards,
    Graham Uney

  4. David Waanders says:

    Dear mister Graham,

    THanks for the photo’s you recently send me. I did the survey on the estate couple of years ago, really my best student time. So I was really curious how it looks like now, especially now Jan Haenraets told me about the thistle camps and the gardener who works there.
    Do you have any more pics? And is the Bask lady still living on the island, I have forgotten her name.

    Kind regards,
    David Waanders

  5. Jan Haenraets says:

    Hi Ray, it’s great to see your article and the photographs here and recall the fine days on Canna.
    I thought I add a little background to the project.
    Around 2003 I made an initial visit with Pete McHugh to Canna and the house, and we started envisioning the revival of the walled garden. Together with Pete we worked out the idea to get the voluntary Thistle camps involved in the conservation work of the walled garden, while continuing other island activities with the Thistle camps. At that stage the garden was a complete wilderness and overgrown and there was no gardener. Over a period of 4 Summers we managed to strip back the wilderness and slowly uncover the original layout and plants of the garden. In 2004 David Waanders helped as a placement student with our first historic garden survey and planning work. We interviewed Magda and the late Margaret and collected all historical documentation and images we could find. With the volunteers we continued to slowly uncover this island garden’s canvas. The ongoing camps and conservation vision documents generated wider support and the NTS fundraising team introduced the project to the NTS US Patrons who much appreciated it, also given the work required on the island and for the safeguarding of the most significant Gaelic archive in the house. The resulting support of a major private US donor meant that we could move a next step forward in our vision. We felt that to restore the use and presentation of the garden required ‘to restore’ the gardener posts. Towards the 4th or 5th Summer of our garden Thistle camps (around 2008?) we finally had Neil in place as the on-site NTS gardener, who moved there with his family. This also was a part of the NTS’ attempt to increase the number of people who were living on Canna. The old canvas of the garden had by that time been uncovered and with Neil we finally could start the more detailed restoration.
    Neil did the most amazing job and the garden looks better than we ever could have dreamed of when we started to envision this. I now wish Graham all best in his ongoing efforts.
    I believe that this is one place that deserves much more attention. That said, the garden is only one small effort of the work undertaken on Canna by the residents of Canna and the NTS, and as always, there are sensitivities relating to every initiative. Having been welcomed on Canna since about 2003 I much wish to thank the Canna residents, many volunteers and students, and NTS staff and supporters for their amazing efforts. Canna is magic.
    Jan Haenraets

  6. Pingback: Canna is magic | The Man Who Gave Away His Island

  7. Neil Baker says:

    Hi Ray and all,
    I hope you are all well and thriving.

    Does anyone have any contemporary photos from 2013?
    Just before I left I planted a swathe of new roses together with some herbaceous perenials. I’d would love to see if they have taken.

    Kind regards

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