Poetry Pilgrimage: Little Sparta

Two days ago, I went to Little Sparta, Scottish home of poet Ian Hamilton Finlay – whose garden contains words set in stone, playful and very often anti-war symbols – a place of imagination with 300 word/art works.

“The garden functions as a political statement…. it suggests that as it is possible to transform this hillside into a garden, so it is possible for man to transform the world or society.  It is an example of action and that’s very important to me.”

Ian Hamilton Finlay (in conversation with Melvyn Bragg, 1983

A theme which Ian brings into the conversation is how gardens have become a place for pretty flowers – whereas in the past, the 1700s, they were regarded as a art form, at the centre of the culture.

Where is it?

Strap on your walking boots and a sense of adventure.  Finding it is very difficult.  The website warns that putting in the postcode will have the Satnav misleading you.  So I followed the instructions given by the Little Sparta website.  Until they told me I should be there – and – I wasn’t.  I drove on, the road became one of those pink asphalt roads, with spatterings of sunlight, the road was all curves: up and down, round bends – even the hills could fairly be described as “rolling” in the distance. Stuck, I put on the satnav again – it told me to drive forward 3 miles and then turn right – but right at this point, I glanced right and saw a large white sign “Little Sparta” together with a small parking area.  Then a gate and two track stoney path leading apparently nowhere.  I parked and advanced.


After walking uncertainly a little, I looked back and took this photo.  The sheep in the field at the right stared at me blankly, as though to ask what I was doing?  I was wondering this myself.  The walk was gently uphill, for about three quarters of a mile.

Little Sparta, once found

The gardens were a labour of love; keeping them going is also a labour of love, fighting the tendency to grow back into wildness.


The sign showed a certain amount of wear and tear.  The lady greeting me was welcoming and cheerfully agreed that they were hard to find, you had to really want to be there – it was like a kind of “pilgrimage”.  Well said.  I was then given a map showing the layout of the multiple gardens within the garden.

And so I set out from the house, going anticlockwise.  (Later, when I returned to the house, I heard the greeter advising to go in a clockwise direction which is much better).


Right in front of the glass covered verandah (which contains umbrellas for loan and a refuge if the rain tips it down) was a line of bold, bright mosaics tiles set into concrete:


The greeter, when asked, explained this to me – it is a series where the letter U is written as V as the Romans did in Latin – but is also the symbol used in proofreading where two letters are transposed.  So the the word begins at the left as Unda, which means wave, letters are changed and changed back, so that at the end, it re-emerges as Unda.  Wave upon wave.  As already observed, the whole landscape seems like waves.

However, I had previously looked at this one section and read it as DV (=Deo Volenti, if God wills) followed by DNA and that the symbol was like part of the Helix of DNA.  So that was a different, personal take.


In the front garden, there is a boat between waves of hedging, and a string of stepping stones each with a different word for a ship, leading to the oblong slab poem shown.

There are sundials in many places, but the sun was not shining brightly enough when I visited, to make the most of them.  The photo of the thin passageway through the hedges shows just how tightly the hedges interact with your legs/trousers (good if wearing waterproof trews).  It’s a very architectural practice – being squeezed through a narrow space before entering into a wide, open space – it increases the felt sense of the space.


This must surely be one of the most beautiful, scenic washing lines!  Surrounded by trees, it has the delicate air of a cobweb.  And what a path – I loved the curving paths throughout, so inviting!


A series of white bee hives with specifically painted wording on them and the humorously titled: “Flautist, noun, a stone carver” made your mind boggle like the wiggle lines carved on the urn.

There are too many artpieces to take in at one visit.  By the time I was halfway through, I was visually exhausted.  You can get that way in a good, large gallery – but a gallery would usually have a welcoming cafe with coffee/tea and cake to refresh and catch your breath before going out again, to look with renewed interest.

Recommended for Visitors

  • before you go, read some of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s poetry to get a sense of his wordplay and fun
  • set out on a sunny day with enough time to get lost before you eventually find the Garden (travel with the phone number of the building, so you can ring it for directions if you get totally lost)
  • check out the info on the garden’s website at http://www.littlesparta.org.uk/
  • allow lots of time to explore.  Bring your own food and drink to nibble as you go – there is unfortunately no hospitality in the house
  • bring very waterproof shoes
  • look carefully at the ground as you walk, paths are broken and often uneven
  • have a sense of fun about what you will see – I went solo, although I actually think there is fun in discovering what is there with a few friends, and comparing notes (there is too much for just one pair of eyes to see it all)
  • Read the published book “Little Sparta: a guide to the garden of Ian Hamilton Finlay”.  It is on sale directly at the garden itself (around £15) – and if you buy it there, ALL the proceeds of the sale go into the Trust which looks after the garden.

As I was leaving, I heard a few ladies in the front garden, discussing and exclaiming over the words hidden in the garden.  There was delighted laughter – I like to think that they were ‘getting’ the jokes placed there forty years ago by Ian Hamilton Finlay.  It was a lovely image and sound to take away with me.

Recommended Improvements for Venue:

I’m so glad that people are taking the time and trouble to keep this garden viewable.  I think you could vastly increase your takings if you provided postcards or something to take away which was a reproduction of what is there – something you could put into your own garden at home.  Perhaps little pegs for indicating names of plants growing – headed with a little boat shape or word quote from the garden.  Perhaps a miniature flag of the Little Sparta flag.  A postcard of a sundial on a sunny day.  Or a postcard of a piece of the garden with flowers in bloom (likely that it won’t be in bloom when visitors are there, to take photographs).

It’s a faff to set up, but if you could run a very simple tea/coffee/cake facility – or even just a fridge with cooled drinks and some small prewrapped packets of shortbread – available in the existing sunroom, it would help to make a person feel more welcome.  Perhaps you could keep the red tape simple, by running it as a ‘suggested donation’ rather than a set price cafe.  It does take some energy walking around a garden that large, so it would be helpful to have refreshments of some type available – I think it would increase the chances of people staying longer.  And you definitely have a sure sales pitch in such a remote spot.  Absolutely no competition!

Creative Takeaways

In this short interview (4 and a half minutes) with the poet’s son. Alec Finlay, there are 2 observations which stay with me:

Firstly, the healing process of making and interacting with our personal surroundings:

“He was someone who suffered very badly from agoraphobia and spent some years in the city, unable to even leave his room – and the garden freed him from that.  It was an act of incredibly deep healing for my father ”

Secondly, the encouragement for everyone to take a creative interest, in small-scale ways, into their garden design:

“It was saying: ‘Anywhere can be like this – anyone with a little garden can think of it and experience it like a work of art.’ Art itself doesn’t need to be just what we see in galleries – it can be in a landscape”

creative idea: paint the name of someone who has nurtured you on a watering-can
creative idea: carve a few favourite words/poem on a pole


  1. I loved this article about the poet and his beautiful garden that I was vaguely aware of but really knew nothing 😊 thank you and I will visit in 2019.

    • There is also a lovely hardback book with pics, worth getting and reading beforehand. It does take a little perseverance to find Little Sparta – unfortunately there isn’t a cafe there and it’s essential to go on a good weather day because there’s so much to see. Enjoy!

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