‘I want Bute to succeed. I believe it because I’ve seen it and done it’

Don Murray casts his eye over the rock garden at Mount Stuart.
Don Murray casts his eye over the rock garden at Mount Stuart.

We find out about the background and the ambitions of Don Murray, the Mount Stuart Trust’s head of island landscapes and horticulture.

Don Murray does not seem to be a man for whom thinking in small steps comes naturally.

Perhaps that’s not terribly surprising when you consider his professional background: he’s collected plant samples in the Amazon, he’s carried out botanical studies in Belize and Peru, and he’s been responsible for running the biggest conservatory in the world.

That last job was at the Eden Project in Cornwall, where he spent the best part of a decade and a half first looking after the biggest rainforest in captivity in the world, and then working as the whole project’s head of horticulture.

So what is it that persuaded him to uproot from the hugely successful Eden Project and take up a new job on Bute? Simple, really: he’d worked here before, back in the early 1990s, and, like many thousands of people before and since, he was well and truly bitten by the Bute bug.

Since last summer Don has been the head of island landscapes and horticulture for the Mount Stuart Trust. It’s a detail I have to clarify at the end of our conversation, though. “It seems to change regularly,” he says with a self-deprecating smile. “Originally I was head of island landscapes and horticulture, then it was head of landscape and horticulture. Sometimes it’s just landscapes. Sometimes it’s just ‘grunt man’. But I kind of like ‘head of island landscapes and horticulture’ - it seems quite grand.”

Raised in Grangemouth, near Falkirk, the young Don caught the gardening bug from his father and grandfather, to whom he would lend a hand - “I had a thing for digging holes when I was five, apparently” - with the raspberries, strawberries, potatoes and lettuce in their small fruit and veg patch.

Leaving school knowing that he wanted to forge a career as a horticulturist, he spent three years training with the National Trust for Scotland, first at Belhaven Gardens near Edinburgh, then at the Threave School of Gardening near Castle Douglas.

Then, in 1990, came the moment he was infected with the Bute bug, when he was appointed to a new role at Mount Stuart by the sixth Marquess, responsible for laying out the Kitchen Garden on a five-acre site around a conservatory which had been used at the Glasgow Garden Festival two years previously.

That six-month contract was extended to a year, and was followed by the offer of a longer-term job - but it was an offer Don turned down, instead taking up the opportunity presented by a three-month internship at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Florida.

There he developed an interest in tropical and sub-tropical gardens, in tree canopy research and in orchids and bromeliads in particular.

“I was meant to be there for three months, but it turned into ten years,” he says.

“One of the world’s top experts took me under her wing, but eventually she advised me to go and get a masters degree, so I came back to Britain and did a Masters at the University of Reading in science and plant taxonomy.”

Turning down the chance to work towards a PhD in the United States, he instead applied, successfully, for a job as director of the Birmingham Botanic Gardens and Glasshouses, before moving onwards - and upwards - to that Eden Project role in 2000.

“It was my dream job,” he reflects. “I was missing the tropics - I was so full of enthusiasm for hot houses and thought the chance to run the largest rainforest in captivity in the world was ideal.

“Within a few years I’d moved up to become head of horticulture at the Eden Project, and I held that post for seven years.”

He readily admits that it took a good deal of soul-searching before he and his wife Becky opted to leave Cornwall behind and move to Bute - but the opportunity of bringing some of the Eden Project’s magic to a place he still regarded as home was too good to turn down.

“I learned so much at the Eden Project,” he says. “The rainforest biome is still the largest conservatory in the world.

“But the Eden Project, the Birmingham Botanic Gardens and the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens all have little pots of fairy dust throughout them - and that’s what I want to bring here.

“Some people use the phrase ‘hidden gem’ when they’re talking about Bute or about Mount Stuart. Well, stuff that. We’re not hidden, but in this house and in these gardens we have got a real gem.

“The volume has been turned very low on the gardens in the last 25 years, but some of the plant collection here goes back to the 1800s. Some of the plants in the living collection are incredibly rare, and we have 17 registered champion trees.

“The gardens should be among Europe’s finest. They were always laid out to be a showpiece, and I see Mount Stuart as a major botanical garden.

“In the last couple of days I’ve just started thinking about a masterplan for the gardens and the landscape.

“We’re talking with Historic Environment Scotland, landscape architects, architects - we might want to build a brand new conservatory, for example.

“Why not build something grand? Bute deserves it. Or some sort of game-changer for the whole island that captures the island’s imagination and the imagination of people beyond Bute.

“Let’s not forget our history. Bute used to have 100,000 visitors, just in the summer. Falkirk and Grangemouth, near where I grew up, has the Falkirk Wheel, the Kelpies and the Helix Park. In a couple of years Dundee will have the V&A Museum of Design. Edinburgh and Glasgow have their world-famous attractions. Why not extend that central belt to us?

“Bute deserves a game-changer. It’s the right time to be thinking big.

“Having lived and worked here before, this isn’t just a job for me. It’s a passion. My heart has always been here on Bute - I’ve got mates I’ve had for 26-27 years. I’ve always come back here on holiday while I’ve been on my travels. Bute has always felt like home.

“Becky and I have a real vested interest in Bute and in Mount Stuart, and I want to see Bute succeed. I believe it because I’ve seen it and done it. The Eden Project turned an old quarry into one of the top visitor attractions in Britain.

“Some people might think I’m just talking out of my backside, but other projects in other places have succeeded, so why can’t we?

“Let’s get all the crap out of our systems about the reasons why this can’t happen. Then let’s get on with the job of moving on and making it happen.”

And when you consider the popularity of gardens and gardening in Britain - the sector contributes more than £1 billion to the British economy every year - it’s hard to think of a reason not to aim high, and to combine that passion with Don’s popularity and try to create something which might put Bute on the national and international map all over again.

“It should no longer be a case of fixing a wee path here and there,” he says. “It should be a question of looking at the whole thing afresh and starting again.

“I want to encourage visitors of all ages and abilities to come and enjoy the gardens here. I really want to open the gates, allow people to enjoy the place, and persuade them that this is their garden as much as it is mine.

“We know the passion this country has for gardening and gardens, and we know that long-term investment in tourism works, if we’re wise about what we invest in.”

But Don’s enthusiasm doesn’t begin and end with a vision of how he can use Mount Stuart’s gardens, and its wider island estate, to boost Bute’s visitor numbers: he sees Bute as the ideal place to train the next generations of world-class horticulturists.

“One of the most important things I did while I was at the Eden Project was help develop Eden Project Learning,” he says. “We started with local schools and went on to develop quite an extensive apprenticeship programme.

“The Trust has just appointed an education officer, who started work on Monday, and I’ve begun a conversation about a Bute apprenticeship programme, for young people who specifically want to work in horticulture, or in the land sector in general, as a career.

“I think it would be good for us to be part of quite a big programme, and I want to have conversations about doing the best for Bute.

“Who are the best people in their sectors - horticulture, forestry, arboriculture? If Bute could partner with the very best, who would it be?

“This would not be about picking one training provider over another. It would be about doing the best for young people, saying you do deserve the best apprenticeship programme and the best employment opportunities.

“And the prospect of doing that on Bute is just amazing. I think Bute really does deserve the best, so why not have that ambition?”