The Villa Toranto - A Scotsman's Garden in Italy

(Originally published in The Arboricultural Association’s ARBMagazine in 2014)

The botanical garden at The Villa Toranto, on the western shore of Lake Maggiore in northern Italy, is one of the world's few botanical centres of excellence. Each year, more than 150,000 visitors come to wander through the site's 16 hectares and marvel at the astonishing range of trees and plants it contains, but few are aware of its history and the remarkable man whose creation they are enjoying. 

The Giardini Botanici Villa Taranto was created, almost from scratch, by a Scot, Captain Neil Boyd Watson McEacharn (1884 - 1964). A multi-millionaire and Linnaen Academician, McEacharn had been an exceptional botanist since his twenties, and had always wanted to make a great garden in the English style with the effect of nature on man as its theme. 

He was the laird of Galloway House, a 4,000 hectare estate near Wigtown in south-west Scotland which he had inherited in 1910 when he was 26. His father, Sir Malcolm Donald McEacharn, had bought the estate in 1908 when he returned to Scotland after making his fortune in Australia and Asia from shipping and farming (he introduced the frozen meat trade to Britain). However, he died just a year after moving in and his wife died soon afterwards. 

Alone, the young McEacharn set about redesigning the gardens, seeking advice from his neighbour, Sir Herbert Maxwell of Monreith, and from the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh. 

Two years later he married, and at the start of the First World War, joined the King's Own Scottish Borderers and served in Salonika. When the war ended, he returned to resume work on his garden but things were not the same. His marriage started to break down and in 1922, a private detective saw him meet a woman at Victoria Station from where they were followed to a hotel in Brighton. His wife, Marie, divorced him. There were no children from the marriage, and by the mid-1920s, McEacharn, who never remarried, realised that he wouldn't be able to create his dream garden in Galloway.

For years he searched for a suitable property, but was unable to find the right site.

However, in 1930, while he was travelling home through northern Italy on the Simplon - Orient Express after another fruitless search, he saw an advertisement in The Times for a property the Marchesa di Sant'Elia wished to sell at Verbania on the western shore of Lake Maggiore. He got off at the next stop and went to see it, and even though it was "a tangled overgrown mess" and the house was undistinguished, he knew straight away he had found what he was looking for. 

Lake Maggiore lies 300 metres above sea level with mountains to the east and west, and the Alps at the northern end. The temperature varies widely, but frost does not last long. Rainfall can be 2,500 mm in a year, and 100 mm in an hour, but there are few days when it rains continuously. It is a paradise for the large-scale gardener as it rains more in summer, when the temperature can reach 35
, than in winter. Having once been the bed of a larger lake, the soil is a black silt rich in humus and has no lime. 

He bought the property and renamed it Villa Taranto, after a forebear of his named Etienne-Jacques-Alexandre McDonald, a Marshall in the French army who had been created Duke of Taranto by Napoleon. In 1932 he moved in, and with two gardeners and several hundred labourers, devoted the rest of his life (and money) to creating his garden paradise. 

He swiftly bought up a dozen adjoining properties until the site spread over 16 hectares. For six years he worked at levelling, terracing and banking the site. Walls, steps and bridges were built of the local silver-grey granite, and over five miles of paths were laid. A reservoir filled by water pumped from the lake was created to feed the gardens through seven miles of pipes. Highly efficient drainage was installed to protect the topsoil from erosion in torrential downpours. 

Meanwhile, the Galloway estate was sold and McEacharn was fortunate to hear of Henry Cocker, a graduate of Kew and an Associate of Honour of the Royal Horticultural Society, who was completing work elsewhere in northern Italy. McEacharn got into his Rolls-Royce and drove to see Cocker, who became the garden's superintendent for the next 26 years. 

Leaving Cocker in charge, McEacharn set off on six round-the-world trips searching for specimens for the gardens. Such buying trips would not be possible today, but in those days the cost of transport was the only problem. 

In 1940 when Italy entered the war, McEacharn went to Australia leaving Antonio Cappelletto, his business partner, in charge. Without the funds to pay more than six gardeners, Cappelletto recruited 30 boys from a local reform school and trained them to do the work. In 1946, an anxious McEacharn received a telegram from the Vatican; "Your property saved by Antonio!". He immediately set off for Italy, taking 600 varieties of new plants with him. 

Always something of an eccentric, dressed in a Sherlock Holmes cape and carrying a shooting stick, he became familiar sight to the locals who called him "Il Capitano Scozzese", and sang a song about him and his garden. He was granted the Freedom of Pallanza, and died in 1964 aged 80, on the veranda of the villa overlooking his garden.

He did not build the gardens as a public enterprise, and it was not until 1952, nearly 20 years after he began, that with some hesitation he opened them to the public.

On his death, the gardens and the whole property passed to the Italian state. He had made a gift of it in 1937, subject to his maintaining a life interest, so that his work could continue. Since then, the gardens have been under the control of a non-profit- making institution, the Ente Giardini Botanici Villa Taranto (Captain Neil McEacharn). 

Today the gardens contain over 20,000 species of trees, shrubs and plants of botanical importance from five continents. A catalogue of the plants introduced was compiled by McEacharn in 1963, shortly before his death, and runs to 341 pages.

Almost as soon as he started gardening at Taranto, he noticed that plants seed much more freely there than in most of Europe. As a result, the gardens have participated in international seed exchange programmes since the 1930s, collecting and dispatching seed to institutions worldwide. Along with admission fees, the sale of seeds and plants are the gardens' primary source of income.  

Amongst the most outstanding and notable tree specimens are:

  • a Dawn redwood Metasequoia glyptostroboides, planted in 1949 which is around 35 metres tall and still growing vigorously.

  • a Handkerchief tree Davidia involucrata, planted in 1938 by Infante Don Jaime of Spain in the "Meadow of Personality”.

  • Emmenopterys henryi planted in 1947. A member of the same family as coffee and gardenia and native to the temperate forests of China, they are noted for their rare flowering. When this one flowered in 1971, it was the first time an Emmenopterys had flowered in Europe.

  • Dicksonia antartica, tree ferns which were so dried out when they arrived after their long journey from Tasmania, that McEacharn had them anchored in the lake for a  month before being planted.
  • Saharan cypress Cupressus dupreziana, from the Tassili Mountains in the Sahara desert and almost extinct in the wild. 
  • Creeping pine Microachrys tetragona, which only exists on a few mountain peaks in Tasmania.

Villa Taranto is on the Strada Nazionale at Verbania, between Intra and Pallanza, on the western shore of Lake Maggiore. The gardens are open from 21st March to 1st November. 

© TCG 2021