Archives for category: gardening


There are not many places you can visit in Scotland that still feel like time has stood still. The little village of Culross (pronounced ‘koo-rus’) in the Kingdom of Fife is one such place, with narrow cobbled streets and charming 17th-century cottages nestled into a steep hillside by the Firth of Forth. At 5’4″ (163 cm) I felt like a giant next to the tiny front doors, and I had to fight the urge to peer into windows to catch a glimpse of history. In this town peering would be very rude, as real people live in these houses, which have been carefully restored by the National Trust for Scotland.


The ‘jewel in the crown’ of this historic port town is Culross Palace, a mansion complex built by wealthy coal and salt merchant Sir George Bruce. The first house was completed in 1597, and when Sir George needed more space to accommodate all his important visitors he built the north wing (above) in 1611.

Sir George Bruce was Laird of Carnock, and he made his fortune first in salt production (which involved boiling salt water in large, shallow pans to evaporate the water) and later in coal mining. He was trained as an engineer and in 1595 he established the first coal mine in the world to extend under the sea with a tunnel deep under the Firth of Forth. Sir George exported coal and salt by sea to other ports on the Forth, and to Dutch and Swedish ports as well. His ships returned with Dutch ceramic roof and floor tiles and window glass as ballast, and these were used in the construction of Culross Palace.

Culross palace interior

Thanks to much painstaking restoration of the interiors, visitors can get a real sense of what life was like in the 17th century for a wealthy Scottish merchant and his family. There is wood panelling in every room, with decorative murals adorning some ceilings and walls. Because these rooms are so well preserved, several episodes of the popular television series Outlander have been filmed here.


In the first series, the town is known as Cranesmuir and the Mercat Cross above (minus the modern cars) is the scene of a 17th-century witch trial. There are so many beautifully preserved buildings that I’m sure very few changes were required for filming.


Culross town hall

The Culross Town House above served originally as a court house and prison. Today it houses an exhibition gallery and gift shop. In the foreground of this photo you can see a stone plinth and a wooden post. These mark the spot where merchants brought their produce to be weighed at the Tron, the official burgh weighbeam as shown in the artist’s drawing below. You can see the Town House still under construction in 1625. The clock tower it has today was added some years later.

Culross info sign

Culross and its distinctive ochre-coloured palace are impressive enough, but even more surprising is the terraced garden that extends up the steep hill behind. This has been planted with flowers, fruit and vegetables that would have been grown in the 17th century.

Culross flowers


Thanks to a long, hot summer this year, the garden is flourishing! There are shady bowers, wooden seating, stone walls and crushed seashell paths. From the top level, visitors have a stunning view across the Firth of Forth.

Culross garden bower

Culross garden inscription

seedling shed

A small orchard has not only fruit trees but also a collection of Scots Dumpy chickens. Apparently these supply eggs for the palace cafe, where we stopped for lunch. And like everything else in this magical place, the food was outstanding!


(Many thanks to Mark Rickards and Danae Apeiranthiti for the photos shown here.)


Every few months, our local Botanic Gardens hosts a weekend Cactus and Succulent Show. Growers bring a wide variety of prickly cacti and smooth succulents, from pin-cushion size to almost shrub proportions. At the last show, my daughter found the little ones irresistible, and came home with six tiny prickly things in pots. Given her busy student lifestyle, these are perfect on her window sill, waiting patiently until she remembers very occasionally to water them.

cactus n aloe veraBecause I live in a flat two floors up, and our shared north-facing garden is damp and uninviting, I do all my gardening on my kitchen window sill. As it faces south-west, I have the illusion of being a brilliant gardener because everything flourishes happily there. The spiky Aloe Vera you see above was once the size of my hand, but several pots later it is now taking over the kitchen! Next to it is my Christmas cactus, which bursts into riotous pink bloom every November. Now that spring is on its way I can see some new pink buds developing…

money treeI had a very old Jade plant for several years but it was getting tired, or so I thought. Then I noticed it had snuck one branch into a neighbouring pot and sprouted a new plant! When the sprout got to be about 8cm tall I took it out carefully and put it in a new pot. In no time at all it grew into the giant tree you see above. All it took was a little watering now and again. You can see why I’m a fan of these amazing regenerating plants!

jade plant flowersI discovered recently that a Jade plant (official name Crassula ovata) can have pretty white flowers like the ones above. I must find out how I can encourage my plant to do that!

At the last cactus show I stopped to chat with a grower about a tall, pink-tinged plant I quite liked. He explained how easy it was to start a new plant from a cutting or even just one leaf. He broke one off the tall plant I was admiring and gave it to me. Hurrying home, I found a pot and planted the little leaf. I placed it in the sunny kitchen window next to my Jade plant and waited.

baby cactusAnd waited. And waited. After about six months I could tell that the leaf was more firmly rooted (like a baby tooth becoming less wobbly). Then a few days ago, a tiny sprout appeared! My husband is dubious, and thinks this may be a weed, but I am not so pessimistic. It is growing bigger every day so we’ll soon see what sort of plant it is. I am convinced it will be a glorious succulent like the one I admired at the show.

If you’re looking for tips on how to grow cacti and succulents indoors, there are some good pointers HERE in an article by Heather Rhoades. I also found all sorts of interesting facts about cacti and succulents on a Texas website where these plants are native and grow outdoors. It even includes some cactus recipes!

And now for an update on my little plant’s progress. You’ll be pleased to learn that the sprout was not a weed, and five months later, this is how it looks:

rubber plant

The original leaf withered away and the healthy new plant is doing beautifully!

Tiger English

March 2015 seemed ages away when I was working with the Scottish Book Trust and a group of fun, creative ladies in Fife to produce a picture book on the theme of healthy eating. But now it is nearly upon us! Being Early Years Writer-in-Residence 2013 was a brilliant experience, and I am delighted to announce that our finished book is now in print!

Tiger English back

Eilidh Muldoon has done a lovely job with her charming and comical illustrations. I’m sure they will be a huge hit with their target audience, ie. every toddler in Scotland! The Scottish Book Trust will be distributing our book free to thousands of children as part of their Bookbug scheme. It’s a fantastic initiative which encourages a love of reading from an early age, and facilitates the sharing of books between parents and their children.

This was my first collaborative writing project, and I really enjoyed working with the lovely ladies at Home-Start Levenmouth and the great group of mums who helped me formulate the story. If you want to read more about the whole process, we put together a blog about it called The Methil Makars. You can see some of the fun things we did to explore our healthy eating theme, like making food art and visiting the Buckhaven Community Garden.

I am very grateful to everyone at the Scottish Book Trust who helped bring this book to “fruition”! The Early Years team are a great bunch of people and it was a genuine pleasure to work with them. I’m looking forward to seeing them again (and meeting the illustrator Eilidh Muldoon for the first time) at our Book Launch in a few weeks.

And if you missed out on the 2015 distribution of Never Bite a Tiger on the Nose, you can still find a copy on my website HERE.

©2005 Lynne Rickards

©2005 Lynne Rickards

Spring has returned at last, and all sorts of weird and wonderful minibeasts are waking up. Not everyone likes playing with bugs, but if you look closely they can be very interesting. When I was nine I had a little plastic cylinder with a magnifying glass at one end and a removable cap at the other. If I was quick enough I could catch beetles and grasshoppers in the cylinder, pop the lid back on and then look through the glass at the amazing creature I had captured. Of course I would always set them free again!

Cam n worm

When my son was little he loved worms and snails. Anything slimy had great appeal, and he would forget all about racing if he found a worm on Sports Day! For some reason, insects and other creatures tend to sneak into my books now and again. In Jacob O’Reilly Wants a Pet, the little boy gets a pet snail which suits him perfectly.

©Shelledy Elementary School, Colorado.

©Shelledy Elementary School, Colorado.

In another story I have a little housefly who is unhappy because he wants to be a more colourful and impressive bug. He looks at the beautiful butterfly and the bouncy grasshopper and the shiny ladybird and wishes he was like them. The story is written like a poem, and it’s called Buster the Fly:

Buster 1

Buster 2

Buster 3

Buster 4

Buster 5

In the end, Buster’s mum convinces him that he has his own special talents and that he should be proud of who he is. Buster the fly is OK!

If you’re studying minibeasts at school, I’ve found a fun BBC Minibeast video you can watch. It shows all sorts of amazing creatures, including beetles that look like an old leaf, and others that can squirt hot liquid or horrible tasting goo to keep from being eaten! Very clever.

©2002 Lynne Rickards

©2002 Lynne Rickards

I think some beetles are very beautiful. A while back I did some paintings of beetles, including the one above which was shiny and golden. It is similar to the scarab beetle which was seen by the ancient Egyptians as a symbol of their sun god Ra. In the early morning these dung beetles could be seen rolling balls of dung along the ground, just as Khepri, the morning sun god, was believed to roll the sun across the sky. Because these beetles were sacred, the ancient Egyptians made beads, amulets and small carvings of them for good luck.

This ancient Egyptian carving shows a sacred scarab beetle.

This ancient Egyptian carving shows a sacred scarab beetle.

Beetles take all sorts of interesting shapes. There are some with triangular bodies that make me think of Art Deco brooches. There are others with great horns like a deer. They come in a huge range of colours, too!

©Christopher Marley

©Christopher Marley

It’s amazing how beautiful minibeasts can be. Take a look at these fantastic stamps:

©2007 Royal Mail

©2007 Royal Mail

If you’d like to try some free minibeast activities (like crafts, puzzles and colouring) you can visit Activity Village which has lots of ideas. Get thinking about your favourite bug, and see what you can create!

Mull Calgary

One of my favourite islands on the west coast of Scotland is the Isle of Mull. It has everything you could ask for – white sand beaches, dramatic cliffs, ancient castles, beautiful wildlife and even a whisky distillery. The photo above shows Calgary Bay, a fantastic stretch of sand facing west which always looks amazing in the late afternoon sunshine.

Tobermory harbour

Recently we spent a week on Mull and stayed in a self-catering cottage up the hill from Tobermory harbour. It was a great place to explore with all its brightly coloured houses and quirky shopfronts. The local handicrafts reflect strong wildlife and nautical themes, and you can find puffins, eagles and all sorts of sea creatures on tea towels, greeting cards, paintings and ceramics.

Tobermory blue shop

This blue shop was displaying a puffin tea towel, sailboats made of shells and an elaborate chart of sailors’ knots. Another shop was painted bright pink and had lots of tempting holiday treats on display.

Tobermory pink shop

In the window of the Tobermory Corner Shop was a poster showing the cast of the BBC children’s programme Balamory which was filmed here. I remember watching that show with my kids when they were small. My favourite character was PC Plum because he had a great singing voice!

Balamory poster

As I wandered around the other shops I came across one called the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust. This was a lovely place full of crafts and toys, and its purpose was to raise awareness (and funds) to support research, education and conservation of Scottish whales, dolphins and porpoises. Perhaps they are interested in promoting puffins as well, because I came across a small selection of books at the back of the shop which included my two Picture Kelpies, Lewis Clowns Around and Harris the Hero! What a nice surprise!

puffin book display The town of Tobermory is perched on a steep hill overlooking the harbour. We climbed up one afternoon to look down across the whole area, and explored the grounds of Tobermory High School and a local park up on the hill.

top of Tobermory

From Mull there are excursions to other nearby islands. We decided to take a boat trip to Staffa and Iona, which are two very different islands. Staffa (which means “Pillar Island” in Norse) is a strange and wonderful volcanic formation that rises from the sea like a whale’s mouth.

approaching cave

Most famous for its dramatic caves, Staffa gets lots of visitors every summer. Fingal’s Cave (shown above) is the subject of an overture composed by Felix Mendelssohn in 1829 that you can listen to HERE. After his music was played in public, Staffa became very popular as a tourist destination. Even Queen Victoria wanted to see it!

cave approach

To get to the cave you have to walk around the edge of the island. Because the approach is slippery and uneven (and you might fall into the sea) there is a strong handrail to hold onto. When you get around the corner to the cave mouth, this is what you see:

cave mouth

The unusual column formation of the basalt rock was produced 60 million years ago when continental plates on the earth’s crust shifted and pulled apart, and volcanic lava rose up from the ocean floor. As the molten rock cooled it shrank and fractured into geometric columns as it hardened.

basalt columns

You can actually climb some way into the cave, and the picture above shows the rock at the cave mouth. As I walked further in I could see water crashing down below, with glowing blue jellyfish floating near the surface. Once in a while the waves would make a low, thundering noise as they hit the far end of the cave and echoed around the walls.

inside cave

The further in you go, the darker and scarier it gets! The hardest part was getting back out, as there were lots of people holding onto the handrail for dear life!

Photo ©

Photo ©

The second island we visited was Iona, which couldn’t be more different. While Staffa is only inhabited by seabirds on its grassy top and steep cliffs, Iona has been a settled community since 563 AD when Columba, an Irish missionary priest, came to the island and established the first Christian community there.

Iona Abbey

The many visitors to Iona today are drawn by its peaceful atmosphere and the spiritual legacy embodied by Iona Abbey. This is the site where St Columba founded his monastery in 563 AD, and from that time Iona became a focal point for Christian practice and missionary work. The buildings you see above were built over a period of several hundred years. The original abbey was developed between the 12th and 15th centuries, and then substantially rebuilt in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Turus Mara boat

We had two hours to explore the island and learn about all the ancient Scottish kings buried at the abbey (including Macbeth, they say!) Then it was time to get back on our boat and chug back to Tobermory.

Lip Na Cloiche

On our last day as we headed for the ferry home, we stopped at a charming garden called Lip Na Cloiche (Gaelic for “Edge of the Rock”). The little cottage stands near the road, and the garden climbs up the hill behind in an amazing jumble of exotic and beautiful plants, decorative pathways, wooden bridges and weather-beaten driftwood and iron implements.

Lip Na C bridge

One woman, Lucy Mackenzie, has created this unique garden over a number of years and she allows the public to wander around it at no charge. You can buy potted plants, crafts and cards, and even stay in the house for bed and breakfast if you like!

Lip Na C garden

If we hadn’t been booked on our ferry home, we might have been tempted! It will have to wait until our next visit.