SITTING in an Edinburgh drawing room one afternoon, I turned to a Scottish farmer, just down from the Highlands, and asked what he thought I must see on a first visit to Scotland. ``The east coast fishing villages, the west coast in general, Edinburgh's unparalleled Georgian architecture, and some magnificent gardens.'' Asked to elaborate, he did. ``Begin with the Edinburgh Botanic Garden.'' So I did.
But I also drove north from Edinburgh, almost to Aberdeen, across the highlands to the west coast and south to Glasgow. And I saw a fair bit of Scotland and quite a few gardens, some of only moderate interest and others of extraordinary beauty.
In the center of the city, the Edinburgh Botanic Garden is a good place for refreshments and a chance to change from tourist to participant in the inner life of Edinburgh. Begun in 1670, the Botanic Garden is the second oldest in Britain, and while it has botanical and horticultural research facilities, along with training programs for professional gardeners, the garden itself plays a role similar to that of New York's Central Park.
Here, students from the university walk after classes; handsome, white-haired dowagers pass a quiet hour or two along the Rhododendron Walk; and tweedy types kneel in earnest contemplation of New Zealand sub-shrubs in the Rock Garden.
Even for visitors with a sketchy interest in plants, the Rock Garden holds an attraction. It is where people seem to linger longest and is certainly one of the ``sights'' in Edinburgh.
Near the East Gate, off Inverleith Row, the Rock Garden is arranged in mounds around pools and twisting paths. As you walk through miniature gorges, up craggy hillsides, and along valleys festooned with rare plants, you feel as if you're exploring areas of the Himalayas and Mediterranean, where some of these plants originate.
Along the rough stone steps, which seem to have been hewn from the hillside but were in fact hauled in, are plants from New Zealand, regions of the Arctic, and some familiar North American natives -- most with labels.
While there are certainly peak seasons in the Rock Garden -- Primulas in spring and early summer, for example -- there is something in bloom almost year-round. The garden's Rhododendron Walk, in bloom April and May, and a variety of greenhouses and the Palm House are definitely worth a visit.
For those travelers preparing to go into the Scottish hillsides, areas of interest will be the selection of Scottish mountain plants above the Rock Garden waterfall and the Heath Garden's collection of over 30 varieties of common Scottish heather (Calluna vulgaris), in flower from June to October.
In the area of Aberdeen, Crathes, a 16th-century baronial castle 15 miles west of the city, is worth a visit. Begun in 1553, Crathes was built in the tradition of fortress castles, a style of Scottish architecture centered around the Tower House, a combination residence and small fortress.
While Crathes is considered a fine architectural example, its popular reputation lies with its herbaceous borders. The castle's six acres of gardens are surrounded by high stone walls and hedges and divided into borders and small gardens, each with a theme.
There is a white border featuring roses, mock oranges, and white campanulas and a June border rich with the contrasting colors of Oriental poppies, lupines, and a rainbow of bearded iris. A pool garden near the castle is predominantly red, yellow, and purple, a theme carried from the borders right up the walls.
The castle is open every day from May to Sept. 30, but the peak time for the borders is June and July.
Certainly a favorite destination for the west coast of Scotland is Inverewe, a garden property of the National Trust for Scotland.
But Inverewe is more than a garden, it is a kind of living memorial to Scottish tenacity and stubbornness -- a strange and beautiful mix of the most rugged and the most gentle qualities of this country.
Although sharing the same latitude as Leningrad and Labrador, it enjoys the moderating influence of the Gulf Stream, and many of the tenderest plants from New Zealand and Chile can be grown here. This unusually hospitable climate, in a rugged country where crofters can get snowbound for weeks, is even more dramatic to travelers who have driven hundreds of miles across treeless heaths and moors to get there.
The gardens at Inverewe were begun about 120 years ago by Osgood MacKenzie and continued by his daughter until she gave it to the National Trust for Scotland in 1952. The area is like something out of an English Gothic novel, a barren, windswept, rocky peninsula jutting into the loch, with the single existing tree a three-foot willow. Since nothing was present but peat bogs and rocks, soil has been carried in to provide planting areas. A rabbit and deer fence has been constructed right across the peninsula to cut it off from the mainland.
Inverewe has something in bloom almost year-round and is open every day. In May and June, the Rock Garden is at its peak, while the herbaceous borders and Walled Garden peak in July and August.
Having visited in June, I would like to see Inverewe when the rhododendron are in bloom, from about mid-April to mid-May, with azaleas following. In the woods, where the majority of azaleas and rhododendron were planted, paths lead along ridges overlooking the water, through valleys and up to vistas of the rugged countryside. A walk here in peak season would be well worth the trip from Edinburgh.
While color is abundant in these areas, the garden's main strength lies in its natural setting, the large number of exotic and rare plants, and the spectacular surroundings of rocks, hills, and water. If you wander farther into the woodland and find yourself, as I did, walking back at dusk in solitude with the water and hillsides still golden, you'll find the light and air take on an unusual transparency and brilliance.
But be forewarned, there is a breed of voracious midge (in season) that can make this transcendent experience pure misery if you forget to liberally anoint yourself with insect repellent.
Scotland has a ruggedly beautiful coastline, so it is not surprising many of the best gardens have been developed on or near the coast. One of these, Crarae Woodland Garden, on the west coast, features about 50 acres of trees, shrubs, waterfalls, and magnificent views across Argyll's Loch Fyne.
The entrance to Crarae, a small side road off the coast road, is a bit tricky to find. Even when carefully watching for the sign, I passed it twice. Primarily a rhododendron garden, Crarae is at peak in spring, late April and May. If you find yourself in Argyll in autumn, there is a lot of color with larches, silver birches, maples, and deciduous azaleas in crimson and gold.
The setting at Crarae is magnificent, with bridges over mountain streams, footpaths clinging to the edge of hills, and high, plunging waterfalls. Even in the midst of summer, the air in the hills above is charged and practically effervescent, as if a thunderstorm had just passed.
The majority of the planting at Crarae took place in the 1920s and '30s. In many areas, the rhododendron, many of which were grown from seeds collected around the world, are mature, 15- and 20-foot high mounds of white, mauve, red, rose, and lavender. The collection is of interest to serious botanists, with numerous rare rhododendron, along with Ghent, Mollis hybrids, and Japanese hybrids tucked into crevices and hanging over rocky ravines. Also of interest is a forest garden with rare specimens like Burmese silver fir and Chinese mourning cypress, as well as special plants from Spain, Chile, and Japan.
The beauty of Crarae is that its creator, Sir George Campbell, was sensitive enough to know when he had a good thing and leave it alone. He let the natural setting shape the placement of trees and shrubs over the years, and let his imagination run wild visualizing the effect. Practical Information: Open daily from March to October, Crarae is about 10 miles south of Inveraray, a picturesque drive (Route A83) that cuts in and out along Loch Fyne. Crathes Castle and Inverewe are trust properties. A membership in the Royal Oak Society, 41 East 72nd Street, New York, N.Y., 10021, or a membership in the National Trust in Great Britain will admit members to properties and gardens of Scotland's National Trust. A membership in the Scottish Heritage Society, 281 Park Avenue South, New York, N.Y., 10010 will also admit you to Scotland's National Trust properties. A copy of Historic House Castles and Gardens, updated yearly, gives the exact hours and fees of the gardens mentioned as well as all the trust properties; available from the British Tourist Authority, 40 West 57th Street, New York, N.Y., 10019.