Sinclair Williamson’s Job Talk – 27 June 2023

Sinclair Williamson is our club’s very own Monty Don with his own remarkable horticultural and garden-design pedigree. He entertained the members greatly with his excellent job talk, outlining an unplanned career path which allowed him to describe many of the most beautiful properties and gardens in the country as his “workplaces”.

Sinclair left school for what he thought would be a short-term job in a Presto store in Inverness, which lasted five years. Making the first of a number of career adjustments he enrolled for a course of study at the Scottish Agricultural College at Auchincruive where he graduated in Horticulture with distinction in 1996.

His first job (a one-year sandwich placement during his studies at Auchincruive) could hardly have been in a more exciting location: Woodside is a large, detached house with 35 acres of gardens in Old Windsor in Berkshire and since 1975 it has been the home of Sir Elton John. The Rococo gardens of Woodside were laid out in the mid-18th century and were subsequently redesigned in the 1980s and 90s under the direction of renowned garden-designers Rosemary Verey and Roy Strong. That esteemed duo became Sinclair’s mentors – how could a young student gardener ask for more?

With that experience under his belt, Sinclair’s first post-graduation job was that of head gardener at Cambo Gardens in Fife. Cambo Estate lies 7 miles south of St Andrews and has been in the Erskine family for over 300 years. It is included in ‘An Inventory of Gardens and Designed Landscapes in Scotland’ as an important example of a picturesque, model estate and is famed for its snowdrops.

Three years later Sinclair returned to Auchincruive to study Landscape Management and Garden Design which enabled him to start up his own business. His first design commission came from Waterside Farm, a substantial country house near Newton Mearns in a magnificent rural location with views extending over Glasgow to Ben Lomond. That was followed, inter alia, by design jobs for House of Craigie, Kilmarnock, a beautiful, large Georgian former Manse within extensive private grounds and Ladyburn House, Maybole, set in a rural paradise of “the most beautiful valley in Ayrshire” on the edge of the magnificent estate of Kilkerran. Ladyburn is surrounded by mature, wild and formal gardens, woods where Sinclair redesigned many borders whilst adding a pond, bog-garden and azalea glades for his clients. Despite hugely enjoying self-employment, a job opportunity arose which Sinclair found too difficult to resist: the job of Head Gardener at Kellie Castle, near Pittenweem in Fife with the National Trust for Scotland. Unexpectedly, his role was quickly extended to full management responsibility for the Castle itself as well as the garden grounds. Commercial success brought further promotion to Area Manager, Fife where the other properties in his enviable port-folio included Hill of Tarvit, Falkland Palace, Culross Palace and Balmerino Abbey.

After this role ended, and during a major staff restructuring within the NTS, Sinclair, looking for another interesting role, moved with little persuasion into the NTS post of Garden Adviser North with responsibility for advising Head Gardeners. His role involved supporting them with major development projects at locations including the prestigious Inverewe Gardens in the north-west highlands where rare species survive and flourish due to the warming effect of the gulf stream. Other sites were at Leith Hall (initiating the restoration of the 1920s rock garden), Brodie Castle (famed for its daffodils) and Pitmedden Garden (a re-creation of the original Scottish Renaissance walled garden with formal parterres and vibrant floral designs, and a Museum of Farming Life). Sinclair was also responsible for coordinating the School of Heritage Gardening, describing that role as “very satisfying”.

Three years later it was the NTS East region which beckoned with a one-year secondment opportunity, and Sinclair was given overall responsibility for the commercial and conservation management of the region, covering 22 historic buildings and gardens in Fife, Edinburgh, the Lothians and Borders including the House of the Binns (family seat and home of the late Tam Dalyell). After this secondment, Sinclair was offered the opportunity to manage operations at Ayrshire’s own Culzean Castle, NTS’s most popular visitor attraction. There he was Property Manager, in charge of the wide-ranging operations from the Country Park’s general gardening duties and forestry to its commercial activities including retail, membership, hospitality and catering. He was ably supported by a team of 9 department managers, two hundred staff and volunteers and was clearly proud of the way that he and his colleagues had managed to turn around an ailing business. His work managing the conservation and commercial operations across the diverse property, enabled the General Manager to project-manage and delivery a wide range of investment projects including Adventure Cove, the new playpark which significantly increased visitor numbers and income to the NTS.

Having achieved so much with NTS over fifteen years, Sinclair took the opportunity, six years ago, of voluntary redundancy during another major staff restructuring. This enabled him to utilise his now well-honed business and hospitality skills by embarking on a new venture as co-proprietor of the successful and top-rated Lochinver Guest House in Park Circus, Ayr; and yes – he has already redesigned the garden!

Douglas Haddow gave the vote of thanks.

Sinclair with Euan Frew