Overtoun House is a good representative example of a mid to late 19th-century parkland landscape with picturesque burnside walks and the remnants of a contemporary garden. The influence of landscape designers Edward Kemp and Henry Milner adds greatly to the interest of the site, as there are few known examples of their work in Scotland.
Type of Site
A large, mid-late 19th-century parkland landscape with picturesque burnside walks and remnants of a contemporary formal garden.
Location and Setting
Overtoun House is situated in the hills to the north-east of Overtoun. It lies at the end of a minor road reached from the A82 just West of Dumbarton, by turning north through the village of Milton. The house stands on a platform with the Lang Craigs to the east. The wooded Barwood Hill lies to the south of the house, and the Overtoun Burn lies to the west. Overtoun estate is well concealed from public roads and only comes into view after one has proceeded up Milton Brae, the minor road that leads off the A82. There are views from the house and formal garden over the Firth of Clyde, and views from Dumbarton of the backdrop of planting of the Overtoun estate. The Lang Craigs from a dramatic backdrop to the setting of the house and the designed landscape. The soils are predominantly clay and the average rainfall is just over 950mm.
Overtoun appears on Johann Blaeu's Atlas of c.1650 which is largely based on Timothy Pont's maps of c. 1590. General Roy's Military Survey of 1747-55 indicates 'Overtown' as a farm, a small house and walled enclosure, surrounded by cultivated but unenclosed land. The 1st edition OS 1:10560 and 1:2500 (6' and 25'), 1859, show little in the way of planting around Overtoun, although the neighbouring small mansion of Garshake is shown surrounded by square parks divided by straight strips of woodland which are still visible today. The designed landscape was extended twice during the 19th century. Firstly, the addition of the estate of Crosslet, which comprised a small ornamental park and kitchen garden, and secondly with the acquisition of the neighbouring Garshake property in 1892. The landscape now extended across the Overtoun Burn and a new western approach was created. By the 2nd edition OS 1:10560 and 1:2500 (6' and 25'), 1899, James Campbell White's designed landscape is clearly in place. The designed landscape has been reduced in extent with the sale of land for housing at Crosslet. The west lodge is now isolated, but the drive remains partly as a footpath through the housing development.
Overtoun House, designed by James Smith of Glasgow and built in 1860-3 to a Scottish baronial design, is set on a slope and consists of three and two storeys with a five-storey square tower at the north-west corner. The rectangular Terraced Garden to the south of the house is enclosed by buttressed and bull-faced ashlar retaining walls with an ashlar parapet. There are central steps and circular bastions at the south-east and south-west corners. The Bridge over the Overtoun Burn, designed by Henry Milner, consists of a single span with smaller side arches under which there are footpaths, now neglected. Castellated bastions hang over the bridge, which would have provided vantage points up and down the burn. Much of the burnside planting is now over-mature and parts of the views have become obscured. The West Lodge, probably built c.1892, the year the Garshake land was purchased for the creation of the long-planned picturesque west approach, is stone-built with crow-stepped gables and a corner tower with slated pepperpot roof. There are pierced stone curved Entrance Walls. The remains of a Fernery are set into a bank on one of the burnside walks to the north of the house. It is a very derelict structure but some white tiles and an iron-rimmed centrepiece remain. A small stone Bridge in the park to the south of the house carried the drive to Overtoun Farm.
Drives and Approaches
There are two drives to Overtoun. The earlier east drive provides a fairly direct route to the house. There are wide grass verges with park railing. The mixed deciduous and coniferous planting includes species such as Scots pine, beech, holly, lime, sycamore, and Lebanon cedar, mostly underplanted with Rhododendron.
The west approach is now divorced from the estate by recent development, including the County Police Headquarters to the rear of the lodge, and the County Buildings on the opposite side of the drive. These in turn are surrounded by housing. The first part of the drive has been reduced to a footpath. A new entrance to Overtoun House, marked by reproduction gate piers, has been made further up the drive, now reached via Garshake Road, which runs roughly parallel with the line of the old drive.
At the west lodge there are remains of the late 19th-century bands of perimeter planting which include Scots pine, beech, horse chestnut, silver birch, and lime. Within the band of perimeter planting by the road (A82) are the remains of park railing.
Proceeding up the Garshake Road to the new west gate on the east side of the road, there are the remains of 19th-century perimeter planting, including oak, beech, and Scots pine.
On the old west drive north of the new entrance gate piers there is much regenerating silver birch, elder, hawthorn, and larch. From here there are glimpses through to Barwood Hill which is mostly beech and oak.
As one nears the house, the planting becomes noticeably formalised and includes holly, box, specimen conifers, dogwood, cherry laurel, and purple 'Pissardii' plum.
Paths and Walks
One of the main features of the Overtoun designed landscape is the network of picturesque walks around the Overtoun Burn and to the falls at the Spardie Linn. There is direct access to these burnside walks from the formal gardens by the house. Above the burn is a Rhododendron walk which leads to a sloping path to the walks. The sound of rushing water can be heard at several points on the walks, which are now much degraded but can still be followed. The area around the bridge has been unmanaged, but obviously made a very attractive feature in the past. A brick-lined shallow drainage channel carries running water under the bridge over a weir-like drop and into a still reflective pool before releasing the water further down into the burn. A stand of beech trees can be seen on a knoll just to the north of this area. The knoll may be natural but it seems likely that it was part of the works of picturesque enhancement carried out in Kemp and Milners' time. Elsewhere around the burn, there is generally a mature canopy of oak, sycamore, and larch.
Another of the historic design features of these burnside walks is a pond, which lies in the northern area of the burn. A photograph c.1910 shows the pond planted around with Rhododendrons and coniferous trees. The picture also shows a fog-house, no longer extant. Much of the planting has also now disappeared.
The Scottish Wildlife Trust have reconstructed many of the paths to the north of the house, but in some places old features survive such as a set of stone steps in the pond area. Further to the north are two small footbridges, which take the walker across the burn. Many of the burnside paths have become overgrown and are not being maintained.
There are small areas of parkland around the house to the north-east and south of the house and south of the new west drive. Approaching the house from the east drive, the parkland area to the south of the house provides a foreground for the house. The planting today, however, is much depleted, comprising a couple of limes in the centre of this small area. To the north of the house, to the east of the walled garden and old stableyard site, there is nearly 100 per cent loss of tree cover. The perimeter belts still equate with those shown on the 1st edition OS 1:2500 (25'), 1859, and the belt outline indicates that a certain amount of attention was paid to their detail. The parkland is grazed.
Most of the woodland is centred around the Overtoun Burn, apart from the wooded knoll of Barwood Hill to the south of the house. This forms part of the policies of Barnhill and is mainly a deciduous mix of beech and oak.
The formal garden on the south-west side of the house consists of a bastion-walled platform. There are two terraces immediately adjacent to the house. The upper has a gravel walk, the other is just a grassy bank. There is a gravel path around the perimeter of the grass platt and holly shrubs are planted by each of the bastions. The gravel paths are overgrown. Steps, once gated, lead down from the garden to a lower area of formal walks and exotic trees, including Monkey puzzle and giant redwood. On the east side the steps lead down to a bowling green. The formal walks and bowling green are now much degraded. The planting in this area includes clumps of Rhododendrons with lime, copper beech, horse chestnut, ash, sycamore, and mountain ash.
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The following is from the Historic Environment Scotland Gardens and Designed Landscapes Inventory. For the most up-to-date Inventory entry, please visit the Historic Environment Scotland website:
Reason for Inclusion
A good representative example of a mid to late 19th-century parkland landscape with picturesque burnside walks and the remnants of a contemporary garden. The influence of landscape designers Edward Kemp and Henry Milner adds greatly to the interest of the site, as there are few known examples of their work in Scotland.
Main Phases of Landscape Development
Mid to late 19th century
In 1859, Overtoun Farm was acquired by James White who had retired from the legal profession in 1851 to join his father and uncle's chemical manufacturing business which had been founded at Rutherglen in 1810.
The original land of Overtoun was confined to the east side of the Overtoun Burn, and the farmhouse of Overtoun stood on the site of the present formal garden. A tree-lined approach to the house from the south came across the park and crossed the valley to the east of the Spardie Linn by a small stone bridge. The bridge is still extant.
Although there are no surviving plans, it seems almost certain that the ornamental grounds were designed by Edward Kemp (1817-91). A report in the Dumbarton Heraldon 11 June 1863 states:
'. . . the grounds were laid out under the superintendence of Mr C Kemp, Birkenhead, and have been transformed from their naturally rugged condition into a state of extreme beauty.'
Although the initial is incorrect, it seems extremely unlikely that this could refer to anyone but Edward Kemp, superintendent of Birkenhead Park under the famous designer Joseph Paxton, from 1845 until his death in 1891. Paxton had previously supervised Kemp when he was in charge of the gardens at Chatsworth in Derbyshire.
Kemp practised as an independent landscape designer whilst superintendent of the park, and designed a number of public parks and private gardens throughout England. He published several works, including his General Guide in Choosing, Forming or Improving an Estate, 1850. There was a second edition entitled How to Lay Out a Garden, A General Guide in Choosing, Forming or Improving an Estate, 1858, with a further edition in 1864.
When James White died in 1884 his son, John Campbell White employed Henry Milner to design a bridge to join Overtoun with Garshake. Milner was also a landscape gardener, and his father Edward Milner had been another of Joseph Paxton's assistants. It seems certain that he would have been responsible for the planting on the west drive but who did what on other parts of the estate presents problems, given that Kemp's and Milner's dates and styles are so similar. Henry Milner's few known Scottish commissions include the enlargement of Princes Street Gardens in 1891. Like Kemp, Milner also put his thoughts on paper, in his case The Art and Practice of Landscape Gardening, 1890, which is very much based on the work of his father, Edward Milner. His father, like Kemp, had been a gardener at Chatsworth under Paxton and was then appointed to supervise a number of other Paxton projects. He was also engaged on several private commissions, the best known being Bodnant, North Wales.
Although there are no plans still in existence for the west drive, it seems obvious when one compares the layout with his writing that this is Henry Milner's design, given the fact that he was responsible for the bridge. This last phase in the layout of the estate did not occur until the death of James White in 1884. His son, John Campbell White, later Lord Overtoun, acquired the lands of Garshake on the death of his mother and was thus able to commission the building of the mile-long west approach. The last period during which the estate was managed and developed came to an end when John Campbell White died in 1908.
White had no children of his own so the estate passed to his nephew, Dr John Douglas Campbell White (1872-1940). Dr White was a GP in London and rarely came to Overtoun. Lady Overtoun continued to live at Overtoun until her death in 1931. The estate was gifted to the people of Dumbarton in 1938, thereby ridding Dr White of a costly burden.
The house was adapted as a maternity hospital and continued as such until 1970. However, many of the structures within the landscape, including the South Lodge and the Folly Castle were demolished prior to this date. Tenders were received for demolition of the walled gardens 1959-60.
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- Features & Designations
Historic Environment Scotland An Inventory of Gardens and Designed Landscapes in Scotland
- Country House (featured building)
- Description: Overtoun House, designed by James Smith of Glasgow and built in 1860-3 to a Scottish baronial design, is set on a slope and consists of three and two storeys with a five-storey square tower at the north-west corner.
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