Unlike architecture, which requires solidity to provide shelter over time regardless of style, landscaped gardens are ephemeral by nature. They may possess a degree of flamboyancy and fantasy expressive of the philosophical tone of their times and their creators without concerns for function. This is particularly true among the rolling hills of southwest Scotland, where in Portrack, just north of Dumfries near the English border, Charles Jencks, the American theorist, architect, and (increasingly) landscape architect, and his late wife, Maggie Keswick, created a 30-acre garden on a family estate that engages both the mind and the senses. Known as the Garden of Cosmic Speculation, it was completed for the most part in 2002. Every landscape design by Jencks, no matter how bucolic in appearance, incorporates a symbolically loaded theory, since for him, traveling and creating gardens is a challenging and liberating intellectual pursuit.

In this pastoral setting at Portrack, however, suddenly one hears the long drone of a train whistle as freight cars rattle by just beyond the garden. Although Keswick’s father had screened out Railtrack’s right-of-way across his property with a double row of poplars that rustle soothingly in the wind, the London–Glasgow line makes its presence felt as trains speed along the garden’s edge before crossing the River Nith.

When Railtrack, now Network Rail, announced in 2002 that the 1845 bridge over the Nith and a sandstone viaduct leading to it were dangerously weakened by heavier loads of coal freight, Jencks was faced with the company’s proposition to move the tracks 98 feet farther east, still on the property. With his customary ingenuity, Jencks offered, and Network Rail accepted, a counterproposal: He, along with engineers Scott Wilson Group, would design the new bridge across the river if the company would construct and fund a 2-linear-acre garden for him along the original tracks using the detritus from the old bridge and the railroad bed. This garden would encompass the spirit of Leo Marx’s “noise clashing through harmony,” from his book The Machine in the Garden (1964), where he quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journal entry: “I hear the whistle of the locomotive in the wood. Wherever that music comes it has its sequel. It is the voice of the civility of the Nineteenth Century saying, ‘Here I am.’ ”

Jencks sees the rail garden as a continuation of his adjacent Garden of Cosmic Speculation, only on a new theme. For the earlier garden, Jencks devised the Snake and Snail grass mounds (the latter wrapped around with pathways in the form of a double helix) interpolated with paisley-shaped lakes. Reflecting Keswick’s expertise in Chinese gardens, a series of seven fanciful, bright red bridges cross the streams and rivulets channeled into this former swampland.

For the theme of the new garden, Jencks pays tribute to his adopted country by saluting the events and forces responsible for the evolution of Scotland from a bellicose clan culture into an autonomous region with sophisticated urban centers. After reading Arthur Herman’s The Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World(2002), he discovered, he writes, a “narrative adequate to the impact of trains on social progress”—hence, The Garden of Scottish Worthies. Jencks took his cue from William Kent’s Temple of British Worthies at Stowe in Buckinghamshire (circa 1734), a Roman-style masonry screen with 16 busts of Whig heroes set in niches.

One need only travel through the Dalveen Pass in Scotland on the way to Jencks’s garden to perceive how the soft green hills sloping into valleys have created a mound culture. In lieu of niches and busts, Jencks has constructed 17 moundettes on the old rail bed parallel to the new one, each a tribute to a man or woman who influenced the Scottish Enlightenment. They contributed to the rational, creative, even poetic aspects not only of Scottish society but the world at large from the 18th to the late 20th century. Planted with yellow-blossomed mahonia japonica, each animal-like mound is secured by a boulder head, concrete beam, and ballast shoulders. A red flange element from the old bridge supports a raised, 10-foot, brushed-aluminum sign where the name, dates, and a saying of the worthy are laser-cut in open letters and read against the sky. Taken together, these “epigrams” compose a single train of thought over time. At the head of this chain of progress, a petite yellow, green, and red engine, contributed by Network Rail, appears to be pulling the mounds and their “passengers” into the landscape. The philosophers Frances Hutcheson and David Hume, and the political economist Adam Smith, lead off, followed by the poet Robert Burns (who lived near Portrack), industrialist Andrew Carnegie, and writer Rebecca West.

Pathways wind down from the mounds—the high road—through green slopes to the original screen of 40 poplar trees along the low road. Dangling from each tree is a red aluminum banner with a plain aluminum cut fringe demarcating events over 1,700 years, which Jencks calls The Bloodline—blood referring to clan and tribal vendettas and later warfare, as well as intermarriage. 

As the culmination of the garden’s design, the first moundette gradually transmutes into two long, sloping mounds like legs that terminate in a hillock-cum-derrière, a lookout point over the swift-flowing Nith and the new railroad bridge. A splendid piece of industrial architecture, the single-span arches and zigzag trusses of the 295-foot-long bridge are painted rust red, as are the massive fluted concrete piers on land, relating them to the small bridges in the Garden of Cosmic Speculation. A remaining section of the old bridge, also painted red, cantilevers out as a walkway over the river, offering views of the natural contours of the Scottish hills beyond. The true rail garden, with a crisscross of rusted rails in a field of red ballast and interplanted with zigzag rows of wild strawberry plants, is on an incline between the two bridges.

The restored 19th-century sandstone viaduct, with its four arches along a meandering stream, lives on for Jencks, like a ruin in the Roman campagna of Poussin’s paintings. A third bridge, a new red flange connecting two berms, serves as a gateway to open meadows.

With all these endeavors, Jencks acknowledges the assistance of his head gardener and master craftsman, Alistair Clark. In framing the theoretical concept behind the garden, Jencks refers to landscape historian John Dixon Hunt’s three natures of gardens, from his Greater Perfection: The Practice of Garden Theory (2000): first the wilderness, then farming and husbandry, and finally the development of the art of gardening. To this sequence, Jencks adds a precursor, the underlying laws of nature, and a successor, today’s landscape of industrial waste. By artfully using and reshaping the remains of the railway, and incorporating rather than camouflaging the speeding trains in the pastoral setting, he designed the new rail garden to complement in structure and technique his earlier achievement. Jencks clarifies his goals, saying, “I don’t do ornament, I do symbolism.” He has delved so deeply into the character of place that he seems to have adopted the epigram of one of his worthies—Sir Walter Scott’s “This is my own, my native land.”