Gardens Near and Far episode 36 – Little Sparta

Little Sparta

Gardens Near and Far episode 36: The Little Sparta garden is South of Edinburgh and lost in the Pentland. It was Ian Hamilton Finlay’s art piece of a lifetime. The late twentieth century Scottish poet and artist was an influent member of the experimental movement referred to as “concrete poetry”.



To reach Little Sparta, you need to cross the meadows on foot to finally enter this extraordinary garden. In 1966, Ian Hamilton Finlay decides to settle here with his wife Sue to design a garden dedicated to poetry where he will be able to create his art and disseminate it throughout his estate. For 40 years, the couple wil shape and modify the landscape: Sue is in charge of the planting and Ian conceives the pieces – numbering beyond two hundred and fifty and created in collaboration with other artists. Multiple themes inspire Finlay; the Second World War is ubiquitous in his work.

Landscape architect Jean-Philippe Teyssier takes us on a discovery of the most beautiful gardens in France and the world. The gardeners, landscapers, horticulturalists, architects, historians and estate managers he meets unveil the art of gardening.  They show us how gardens have been designed, planted and maintained over the centuries. The exceptional gardens Jean-Philippe Teyssier visits make up a myriad of passions, journeys, colors and shapes.


Gardens Near and Far episode 36 – Little Sparta


The garden was first established in 1966 and was originally named Stonypath. Finlay chose the name “Little Sparta” in 1983, in response to Edinburgh’s nickname, the “Athens of the North”, and playing on the historical rivalry between the Ancient Greek cities Athens and Sparta. Little Sparta survived numerous disputes, or “Wars” as Finlay termed them, regarding the rating of the Garden Temple. Finlay lived there until shortly before his death in 2006.

Over their 23-year collaboration Ian Hamilton Finlay and Sue Finlay established Little Sparta as an internationally renowned composition, a combination of avant-garden experiment, Scottish wit and whimsy and the English landscape garden tradition. It comprised the front garden, the most intimate space, with many examples of Finlay’s ‘garden poems’; a woodland garden, extending around a small pool; and a series of paths, areas and sculptures in the wilder hillside landscape. Finlay conceived the garden as composed around inter-connected pools, burns and a small loch, Lochan Eck.

Finlay later extended the garden in the 1990s, creating a small English Parkland in the former paddock. A walled garden, ‘Hortus Conclusus’, was added after his death. These areas were created in collaboration with Pia Simig and Ralph Irving.

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