Views of Little Sparta

This blog marks the current collaboration between Little Sparta and the National Galleries of Scotland and is written by Sharing Little Sparta Project Coordinator Alexia Holt.

Little Sparta is the garden of Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006), one of Scotland’s most important and influential poets and artists. I have been working for the Little Sparta Trust for over a year now and it is a privilege to spend time in such a unique and fascinating place.

'See Poussin, Hear Lorrain', Ground plaque, Portland stone, 1975 (with John Andrew). Photography by Robin Gillanders.
'Picturesque', broken fence, wood with carved inscription, 1996 (with Peter Coates). Photography by Robin Gillanders.

The garden was developed from 1966, when Ian Hamilton Finlay and his wife Sue Finlay moved to the farm of Stonypath near Dunsyre in South Lanarkshire. Spread over five acres and set at the foot of the Pentland Hills, amid the most wonderful scenery, the exposed and uncultivated nature of the site presented a particularly challenging location in which to create a garden. It was, however, the perfect context in which Finlay could further his experiments in concrete poetry, moving text from the two-dimensional surface of the page to three-dimensional forms within the landscape. This work was done in relationship to the slow and painstaking creation of the garden, a project that was shaped directly by Sue Finlay’s horticultural knowledge and skill. Through this close collaboration, and those he forged with sculptors, stonemasons and letter-cutters, Finlay’s vision of the garden as a total work of art came in to play: the individual elements of the landscape - water, plants and even the sound of the wind through the trees - were as important to his concept as the individual artworks themselves.

'AD', Tree Plaque, Portland stone and leather, 1980 (with Nicholas Sloan). Photography by Robin Gillanders.

My first visit to Little Sparta was in 2004, just two years before Finlay died. Having made the walk from the carpark to the gate we discovered a private event was taking place. Turning to head back, Finlay himself appeared at a side gate and offered to take us on a tour through a number of what he referred to as the ‘specific landscapes’ within Little Sparta. We followed Finlay through the Front Garden and the Wild Garden before arriving at Huff Lane in the English Parkland.

From this point on, we were directed towards Lochan Eck and encouraged just to wander at will. By 2004, Finlay had welcomed numerous visitors and collaborators to Little Sparta (and by several accounts encouraged those that claimed to be just passing by to carry right on passing by); we were very fortunate not only to see the garden for the first time on a dry day, but also to meet Finlay and hear his own account of how Little Sparta and his vision for this exceptional place had developed over time.

The Little Sparta Trust was established in 2005 with the aim of preserving the garden and the 270 individual works it contains. Remaining true to Finlay’s vision, the Trust and Head Gardener George Gilliland ensure the garden can continue to be experienced by visitors during June, July, August and September each year, at which time the garden is in full leaf and the interplay between the landscape, its natural elements and the artworks is expressed to maximum effect.

View of Temple Pool Garden, Little Sparta. Photography by Robin Gillanders.

My role over two years is to develop new ways of engaging artists and visitors with Little Sparta. This has led to the Little Sparta Residency Programme, launched in 2016 for poets, writers and visual artists based in Scotland and developed in partnership with the National Galleries of Scotland, the Scottish Poetry Library and the University of Edinburgh. To date we have worked with six artists - Thomas A. Clark, Gerry Loose, Peter Manson, Martin Parker, Sarah Rose and Sarah Tripp - exploring the ways in which the garden can continue, as it was when Finlay was there, to be a place where ideas are discussed, tested and shared and where new work can be developed.

Read more about Little Sparta and Sharing Little Sparta at

Visitors can travel to Little Sparta by bus from Scottish National Gallery of Art, Modern Two every Saturday up to and including 30 September 2017. Further information can be found here.

By Alexia Holt, Sharing Little Sparta Project Coordinator, 2 August 2017