The words ‘life is the green leaf’ complete the Charles Rennie Mackintosh saying inscribed on the bespoke bench in Sir Charles and Lady Fraser’s exquisite shell house in their East Lothian garden. 

Sir Charles and Lady Fraser and their miniature wirehaired dachshunds Katie and Blossom. Their four sons and their families are frequent visitors.

Built in 1690, on the site of a shepherd’s cottage, Shepherd House is located in the tranquil village of Inveresk, an 18th century village on the outskirts of Edinburgh.

Surrounded by 12 feet high stone walls, the soil is neutral to alkaline, an acre in size and triangular in shape. Charles and Ann have allowed the garden to emerge organically into its current complex layout, taking inspiration from gardens of their childhood and the many gardens they have visited during nearly 60 years of their marriage.Areas include a formal garden of box parterres, a woodland area, a stone planting wall for alpines, a vegetable garden, a sculpture collection and some quirky topiary.

Although located right on the outskirts of cosmopolitan Edinburgh, Inveresk village remains a rural idyll. Shepherd House sits at its heart, as the roughly triangular site lies at a crossroads in the centre. It was Charles and Ann’s first home when they married 58 years ago now, and the garden started off as a playing field for their four sons, serving as a rugby and football pitch in winter and a cricket pitch in summer. 

‘We both have the gardening gene though,’ Charles admits. ‘We were brought up in amazing gardens, Ann in Calcutta where her father built a Lutyensesque garden on the banks of the river Hoogley, moving to her family’s home in the Borders as a teenager, which is now the Roxburghe Hotel, where her father again designed a magnificent garden.’ Charles, a minister’s son, was brought up in manses with large, impressive gardens.

It was a bit of a building site when they bought it and they hurriedly put it into reasonable shape, laying a large banked lawn, edged with borders. Charles planted some vegetables. As a young couple, they maintained the garden, planting a few trees, which have now grown into magnificent mature specimens. ‘I bought that Japanese Pagoda (Saphora Japponica) for half a crown in Woolworths,’ Charles recalls.


It was not until the boys grew up and left home that the gardening gene really hit Ann. It coincided with her attending Edinburgh College of Art as a mature student, followed by a further year of study in botanical painting at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh. ‘People often ask which came first, the garden or the painting, and I find that difficult to answer.’ The fact is, a lifelong interest in art simply became entwined with an inherited love of gardening and flowers.

No garden design was ever made at Shepherd House and no garden designer has ever been employed. ‘Even if we could have afforded it, it would not have worked for us,’ Ann explains. ‘We are constantly finding new sources of inspiration, the garden is evolving all the time, we believe that it should never have a blueprint that is set.’ Charles adds that the wonderful thing about a garden is that, ‘unlike a good book, it never ends.’ A quality that is really enjoyable and satisfying to him, ‘the saying “the process is the purpose” is so true of gardening!’

On arrival you cannot help but be struck by the gardening that Ann and Charles have done on the street: more than a little overspill has occurred over the years. ‘Why not, we thought? We no longer restrict ourselves to behind our walls.’

Nothing is symmetrical in the house or the garden. At a quick glance there is a formality, but look carefully and you will see a scattergun approach mixed in: tulips pop up in March, for instance, all over the place like wild flowers. The small woodland area is abundant with trees, shrubs, bulbs and early-flowering perennials. Noticeably the wild garden is furthest from the house; the more formal knotted herb garden is near. Gertrude Jekyll’s advice was to have formality near the house and more natural gardening further away. This suggestion has worked for Ann and Charles, by accident as much as design, and has enabled them to bring some sort of order to their plethora of ideas and inclination for intensive planting.


The addition of the alpine wall, replacing a grass bank, was a real turning point in the life of the garden. Inspired by a similar structure in the Edinburgh Botanic Garden, it defined the terrace, adding very definite structure. Espaliered crab apples sit atop now, Red Sentinel, the idea borrowed from a similar display at Alnwick. Blossom appears in April, and they are covered with red fruit all summer, creating a beautiful division between the courtyard and the lawn.

A galanthophile, Ann has 72 varieties of snowdrops (galanthus); ‘The 3 Ships come out for Christmas, the rest continue to appear until the end of March. The Hellebores come out in March, the tulips in April.’ Tulips are a favourite subject matter for her exquisite botanical paintings, particularly the velvety black variety. Ann exhibits widely in London and Edinburgh and her work graces many private and public walls.

What makes this garden so special?
‘That is for other people to decide,’ Charles feels, ‘for us it is special because it is our family home.’ 

The latest addition is the exquisite shell house. ‘Ever since childhood I have been fascinated by shells,’ Ann explains. ‘A shell house has always been a dream and it was only having seen the one at the Edinburgh Botanic Garden in memory of the Queen Mother that we thought we might build one. We approached the architect, Lachlan Stewart, co-director with his wife, Annie, of the architecture and design company Anta, and asked him to do the plans for us.’

Having obtained planning permission, they started building in July 2013, ‘but it was not until December 2013 that we were ready for the shells,’ Ann recalls. ‘Five art students arrived with boxes of scallops (from fish merchants), limpets and mussels and together we worked out a design. We had also collected shells with the family and there was no shortage of cockles and mussels on the beach at Musselburgh.’ 

Ancient shell houses dating from the 18th century already exist in East Lothian nearby, at Newhailes, Gosford and Cockenzie House. The aforementioned, handmade seat, graces this amazingly serene, contemplative space. You can reflect on the words of the great designer and artist, Charles Rennie Mackintosh: ‘Art is the flower, life is the green leaf,’ to your heart’s content.

The garden will be open from Tuesday 23rd April and every Tuesday and Thursday from 2pm to 4pm until Thursday 11th July. Also for the weekend of Saturday 8th and Sunday 9th June from 11am to 4pm. Arrangements can be made for groups on other days by emailing Our charity this year is ‘The Battle of Pinkie Cleugh Musselburgh Tapestry’.

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