The Magic of Nature - Interview with Hamish Martin

“Do you believe in magic?” asked Colin.  “I do hope you do.”

- The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett 


Nestled on the outskirts of Edinburgh lies the Secret Herb Garden, an enchanting and ramshackle herb nursery alive with nature and rustic charm.  And it’s name no coincidence.  Hamish Martin, along with his wife Liberty, discovered the 7.5 acre piece of land whilst out dog walking.  Overgrown, with a vast derelict glass house, they were taken with the space and the possibility of realising their vision of ‘opening the door to the magic of herbs’.

Some years on, the glass house lovingly restored, bursting and vibrant,  the Secret Herb Garden will celebrate it’s fifth birthday this May.  I sat down with Hamish on one of those quiet and restorative afternoons between Christmas and New Year to talk about his love and appreciation for Frances Hodgson’s Burnett, The Secret Garden, and how this classic story became such a huge part of his life.

I begin by asking how old he was when he first discovered The Secret Garden.  He works backwards from the age of his eldest son.

It was in my late twenties when my first son was born, so quite late, and since then, gosh, I don’t know how many times I’ve read it, from the audio book on long journeys - I love it - because one word is used more than anything - magic.  It’s all about the magic of nature and its healing properties.

And, what was it that first captured your imagination from the story?

The idea of finding a key and unlocking the magic of nature, finding this barren piece of land that most people would walk past, to think it’s actually not, it’s filled with wonder and amazement.  The only limitation with working with nature is your own imagination - everything is possible.

I ask if he has a favourite passage from the book - his answer is immediate.  He reaches for the shelf behind him, retrieving his well-read copy from a row of favourites, mostly first editions, he tells me, of his favourite author Eleanour Sinclair Rohde, a garden historian and horticulture writer.  He opens the book at random.

See look, there you go, first page - “they’re belief in the magic was an abiding thing” - you don’t need to go much further than that.  Magic is nature.  That’s not the bit I wanted to share with you, that’s just demonstrating how amazing this book is at any page.  You just need to open this book, and there’s magic everywhere.  Not magic with a magician’s wand and a flick of the wrist - this is real magic.  This is where spirits live with plants and there’s another world to be discovered.  It’s a remarkable book if you think about it - on many levels.  Sensitivity wise, to be able to write a book like this, to make it seem like a book, but the undercurrent being - there’s even a chapter called ‘Magic’.

Caught up in the excitement of rediscovering favourite passages, but not quite locating the specific one he’s after, Hamish says he’ll find it whilst we continue talking.  I’m curious to know, when he first had the idea for the Secret Herb Garden, which elements were important to him in bringing to life? 

The key, opening the door, just letting the magic of plants heal you. 

And for someone who hasn’t read The Secret Garden, why would you recommend it?

To be in awe of nature.  There are lots of modern books now written about nature, how to connect.  They’re all beautiful, I have most of them in my study, but this one [The Secret Garden] doesn’t tell you how to do it, it’s not an instruction manual cleverly written to think that this is how you should look at birds, how to breathe, how to act, or explaining how beautiful the mountains are, the rivers, it’s just factual -  it’s like your own heart, your own soul, that might be dark and unloved, the whole place is fairly barren.  You need to find and be brave enough to sweep away that ivy, find the key, go in and start to cultivate and bring light and bring life - and life comes!  That’s the thing about the Secret Herb Garden, before we opened, Liberty asked would anybody come, we had a dream, people will come.  Like you tender a garden, nature will come.  It’s already there in abundance, but for you to see it… I mean, I think there are so many things, on so many levels with this book… it’s amazing. 

With your experience of the outdoors and nature, what advice would you share for experiencing more?

Stop. Breathe. Listen. Look.  That’s about it.  You need to get out there though.  You need to walk over a threshold in your own mind’s eye.  When you’re going for a walk and you know you’re going through a gate, you have to use your imagination and imagine that with that gate you’re moving into a new world.  And look at things, and hear things, and see things.  Don’t go with anybody else - dogs, people.  Allow nature to come to you, but she won’t come if you live in a busy mind.  You have to be able to sit peacefully.  It comes in huge waves if you show patience and love.

My final question I’m looking forward to asking is, do you have any favourite plants or herbs that you feel are often underrated? ‘Yeah’ quietly, he nods.

All what people call weeds, every single one of them.  People have to work out what they think a weed is, and I can tell you that whatever plant they think a weed is - that it’s not worth anything, I can guarantee you it has medicinal and magical properties.

And before ending our conversation, Hamish has found the passage he’s looking for.  He says it’s quite a long one, but that he would he would very much like to read it aloud.

‘But the light had never seemed to touch himself until one day when he realized that for the first time in ten years a strange thing had happened. He was in a wonderful valley in the Austrian Tyrol and he had been walking alone through such beauty as might have lifted any man’s soul out of shadow. He had walked a long way and it had not lifted his. But at last he had felt tired and had thrown himself down to rest on a carpet of moss by a stream. It was a clear little stream which ran quite merrily along on its narrow way through the luscious damp greenness. Sometimes it made a sound rather like very low laughter as it bubbled over and round stones. He saw birds come and dip their heads to drink in it and then flick their wings and fly away. It seemed like a thing alive and yet its tiny voice made the stillness seem deeper. The valley was very, very still.

As he sat gazing into the clear running of the water, Archibald Craven gradually felt his mind and body both grow quiet, as quiet as the valley itself. He wondered if he were going to sleep, but he was not. He sat and gazed at the sunlit water and his eyes began to see things growing at its edge. There was one lovely mass of blue forget-me-nots growing so close to the stream that its leaves were wet and at these he found himself looking as he remembered he had looked at such things years ago. He was actually thinking tenderly how lovely it was and what wonders of blue its hundreds of little blossoms were. He did not know that just that simple thought was slowly filling his mind—filling and filling it until other things were softly pushed aside. It was as if a sweet clear spring had begun to rise in a stagnant pool and had risen and risen until at last it swept the dark water away. But of course he did not think of this himself. He only knew that the valley seemed to grow quieter and quieter as he sat and stared at the bright delicate blueness. He did not know how long he sat there or what was happening to him, but at last he moved as if he were awakening and he got up slowly and stood on the moss carpet, drawing a long, deep, soft breath and wondering at himself. Something seemed to have been unbound and released in him, very quietly.

“What is it?” he said, almost in a whisper, and he passed his hand over his forehead. “I almost feel as if—I were alive!”

I do not know enough about the wonderfulness of undiscovered things to be able to explain how this had happened to him. Neither does any one else yet. He did not understand at all himself—but he remembered this strange hour months afterward when he was at Misselthwaite again and he found out quite by accident that on this very day Colin had cried out as he went into the secret garden:

“I am going to live forever and ever and ever!”

The singular calmness remained with him the rest of the evening and he slept a new reposeful sleep…’

That basically is what I’m talking about, and I said sit peacefully, but there’s the word there - still.  That’s what it’s all about.

The Secret Herb Garden is open daily from 10am - 4pm (apart from this January, February & March, it will be closed on Monday and Tuesdays) To discover more about this magical garden visit the Secret Herb Garden


‘And the Secret Garden bloomed and bloomed and every morning revealed new miracles’