The big picture: gardener of Eden

Robbie Lawrence’s poignant portrait of botanist Jim Taggart captures a man whose life was devoted to an alternative paradise

Jim Taggart by Robbie Lawrence, from the book A Voice Above the Linn
Jim Taggart by Robbie Lawrence, from the book A Voice Above the Linn. Photograph: Robbie Lawrence

This portrait of Dr Jim Taggart, a renowned botanist and climate activist, was taken not long before he died last year, aged 84. Over 50 years, Taggart created one of Scotland’s most magical gardens on the Rosneath peninsula in Argyll and Bute. With his son, Jamie, Taggart had collected around 4,000 plant species from across the world, including rare magnolias and acers, 40 kinds of bamboo, and 300 different rhododendrons. Right up until his death, visitors were welcomed to the three rocky acres of Linn Botanic Gardens with soup and sandwiches, and given a philosophical guided tour of the rarities that thrived in its curious subtropical microclimate.

Among those visitors to Linn in 2016 was photographer Robbie Lawrence, who returned to capture the garden in all of its misty seasons, and struck up a friendship with Taggart. A book of Lawrence’s photographs, A Voice Above the Linn, is published this month, with poems by John Burnside. The book stands as a celebration of a singular life. Above the Italianate villa at the centre of his private jungle, Taggart had hoisted the red flag. He was a stalwart of anti-nuclear protests at the Trident base at nearby Faslane on the far bank of Gare Loch.

Taggart had studied botany and theology at Oxford. If his garden had begun in a revolutionary spirit, as an alternative paradise, by the time of Lawrence’s photographs it had matured into something far more poignant. On a plant-hunting trip to a mountainous region of northern Vietnam in 2013, Taggart’s beloved Jamie went missing; his body was only found a couple of years later, in one of the mountain’s high passes, where he had fallen. Since then, despite failing health, Taggart kept the garden going, first in hope of his son’s miraculous return, and then in memory of their shared vision of utopia.

A Voice Above the Linn is published by Stanley/Barker (£38)