Nestled alongside the Tarra River near Yarram the Eilean Donan gardens are one of the region’s most important; from an historical point of view and for their sheer beauty. The gardens are owned by Bruce and Anthea Albert who for the past 18 years have cared for them.
“People talk about us being custodians of the garden, but I am really just like one of the little blue wrens that gets to come and visit the garden.” The birdlife is one of the highlights and an aspect that Anthea particularly enjoys.
The Eilean Donan gardens were established in 1911 by the young married couple, the McKenzies.
W.H.McKenzie and his new bride Amy bought the property and called it ‘Eilean Donan,’ meaning Island of Donan, after a Scottish connection.
The couple immediately began altering the original ‘L’ shaped cottage and began the garden.
Today many of the original trees are still standing in undisputed grandeur. They are the Grandiflora Magnolia alongside the stone entry gate providing a grand first impression. Quercus palusrtris (Pin Oak), Liquidamber, Japanese Maples, Holly IIex sp., Piittosporum variegated, livisiona australis (Cabbage Tree Palm), Corylus avellana (spanish hazelnut), Cyathea australis, (rough tree fern), Dicksonia antartica, (smooth treefern), Phoenis canariesis (Canarary Island Palm), Poplus nigeras (lombardy poplar) are other trees of note. The side garden features the large Lombardy poplar which is listed as a tree of significance.
In the mid 1920s, the McKenzies moved back to the original family homestead ‘Calrossie’. The Coomber family lived at ‘Eilean Donan’ from then until 1939. Mrs Coomber ran the telephone exchange from the house, and when the exchange was moved she went with it. In 1939 Bill and Amy moved back to Eilean Donan and continued to garden, adding some wonderful features and collection of plants. Family and friends were welcomed for the next thirty years. Extensive alterations took place and the house took on its current appearance of a Californian Bungalow. Wide bay windows and French doors feature in every room. Queensland Maple was used for the internal doors, cupboards, skirtings and picture rails all of which remain in tact. In 1969 W.H McKenzie died in his 100th year.
Early in the 1940s Italian stonemason Peter Moresco constructed the stone fence running along the front of the property, the front gate pillars and four flights of steps to the river. He was also responsible for the beautiful stonework at Tarra Valley National Park, and at the Tarra Falls. Seventy years later, the stonework is still in good condition.
In 1973 Amy died and the property was passed down to her niece who later sold it to Malcolm and Margaret May in 1976.
Margaret planted many of the camellias. She also planted an Alnus jorillensis (evergreen alder) now a massive tree in the front garden.
The May’s replaced a timber pergola at the entry to the home with bluestone pillars to support the climbing roses and wisteria. The showy camellia reticulata ‘shot silk’ at the front gate, which flowers in Autumn and Spring was also planted at that time.
In 1988 the property changed hands again. New owners with nursery experience, had a five year plan and a vision for the garden. “With respect to the established framework they created a beautiful garden with under-storey plantings, trees, meandering paths and a haven for birds, plants, animals and people,” said Bruce.
It was then that the Stationmaster’s cottage from Yarram was relocated to the property and it was established as tearooms and a plant nursery.
After six years of hard work they offered it for sale. By chance Bruce and Anthea were attending the wedding of a friend’s daughter at the garden in February1994. In May 1994 they became the new owners.
“In the past 18 years we have planted new trees, removed dead ones, established new lawn areas, planted hedges, built nook and cranny seating. We painted inside and out, ensuites were strategically built into each bedroom. Balconies were added to each bedroom so house quests could sit outside and overlook the garden, listen to the birds and watch the stars and the moon,” said Bruce.
High rainfall over the past three summers has seen the gardens flourish and the river with a constant flow.
“The river is changing all the time,” Anthea pointed to a section of the riverbank that had slipped away during heavy rains. The elegant stone paths to the riverbank, cascading ferns and the ‘riverwalk’, a narrow dirt pathway that follows the curvature of the river, have created a lush wonderland.
The ‘riverwalk’ pathway ends and then steps lead up to the orchard and the seven acre paddock. A small outbuilding smothered in an old white rose bush was once used as a home for the ‘onsite’ gardener and as a store for the fruit and vegetables.
The gardens have evolved under the gaurdianship of the Alberts. The growing trees have created more shaded areas and as things have died due to the seasons, new areas of lawn have been created, or other shrubs grown wider.
“These are perfect growing conditions here. It is like a microclimate. Things really do grow twice as fast,” said Anthea.
A large area of the garden to the north of the house is a forested area with meandering pathways to the river, a perfect spot in the heat of summer.
Birds form an important part of the garden and Anthea has considerable knowledge about the varieties that regularly fly in. During our tour of the garden she easily identified the many that flitted through the canopy and understorey.
There are scrub wrens, thornbills, wattle birds and easter spinebush, “they are really great company and really are an interesting aspect of the garden.” A pair of eagles are often seen doing a ‘flyby’ in the afternoon under the canopy of the large trees, to scope out the understorey for food.
Touring the garden there is the ever-present sound of the flowing river and the hum of the bees that swarm over the wisteria and among the hundreds of flowering plants.
A white waratah, one of Anthea’s particular favourites is in bloom in the lower garden and the perennial beds are massed with flowers.
Bruce’s domain is largely maintaining the large sections of lawn and the many pathways that snake through the gardens. His favourite tree is the fruiting Haas avocado that grows tall near the area they call the ‘cathedral’. That section of the garden is dominated by the canopy of the pinoaks.
Today Bruce and Anthea are preparing for a new phase in their life and have decided to sell. They intend to spend more time visiting family who are spread far and wide and they hope that the future owners of the Eilean Donan gardens will respect the heritage and the essence of the garden as they have and as have the generations before them.