ONE of the most important gardens in Clackmannanshire is the Japanese Garden at Cowden between Dollar and Muckhart.

It is one of only a handful surviving in the UK as a whole. It was the brainchild of Ella Christie whose home was the now demolished Cowden Castle.

Born in Midlothian in 1861, she was the daughter of John and Alison Christie who bought the 524 acre Cowden estate in 1865.

In 1904, following the death of her father, she travelled solo to India, Tibet and Malay and went on many expeditions, becoming the first Western woman to visit Samarkand and Khiva in Uzbekistan.

However, it was her visit to Kyoto in Japan in 1907 that inspired her to develop her seven-acre garden into an oriental paradise

Unlike many other Japanese gardens, this one was designed and overseen by Japanese gardeners whose knowledge of horticulture produced one of the most spectacular and closest to a real Japanese garden in design in the early 20th century.

The garden was designed in 1908 by Taki Handa, the first and only woman to have designed such a Japanese garden, with Professor Jijo Suzuki overseeing the project although the gardens were maintained by Shinzaburo Matsuo.

Suzuki, who had lost his entire family in an earthquake in Japan and had come to Scotland, spent the rest of his life maintaining the gardens at Cowden. He once said that Cowden's garden was "the most important Japanese garden in the Western world".

An artificial lake was the centrepiece of the garden with a central island garden that was designed by Christie herself, with bridges, including a zig-zag one leading to the main island, a tea-house garden, a stroll garden and the Fuji slope where trees were planted.

In the far western corner of the garden stepping stones led to a red entrance gate known as Torii, or Scared Place, which led to the Shinto Shrine, brought to Scotland in sections from Japan, dedicated to Imari.

Among trees in the garden were Oriental Spruce, Himalayan Cedar, Japanese Maple, and Korean Pine, a seed of which was brought from Japan in 1908. Half double pink cherry trees were probably the prettiest flowering trees in the garden. However there were also more common trees such as Weeping Douglas Fir, Silver Birch and Alder.

Among the shrubs planted were the ever popular rhododendrons, which were a favourite with Victorian estate owners, lilac bushes and azaleas. Bright yellow Laburnam replaced Wisteria as it did not grow well in the soil at the estate.