There’s a Secret Scottish Garden Hiding in This Portland Neighborhood

Crocus bloom at Elk Rock Garden
Crocus bloom at Elk Rock Garden | © Bill Reynolds / Flickr
Photo of Katrina Nattress
20 September 2018

On Dunthorpe’s Elk Rock Bluff sits a hidden oasis: the Elk Rock Gardens of the Bishop’s Close.

For locals and travelers alike, the gardens most associated with the city of Portland are perhaps the Japanese or International Rose Test Garden. Both Washington Park-located spaces will stun visitors, showing off some of the city’s storied history. But there’s another garden that is arguably just as stunning and vast, yet few know about it. In the affluent Dunthorpe neighborhood, Elk Rock Gardens of the Bishop’s Close is a hidden gem – and the only Scottish garden in Portland.

In 1916, Peter Kerr started the gardens on his 13-acre estate. The Scotsman came to Portland in 1888 and began a grain business. With the help of praised architects John Olmsted and DE Lawrence, he constructed a Scottish manor on Elk Rock Bluff in 1914 that overlooked the Willamette River and majestic Mount Hood.

An amateur gardener, Kerr started on his plans for an extensive garden upon his house’s completion. He planted a mix of treasures he’d obtained on his travels and Northwest native plants and spent nearly six decades developing his beloved garden before his death in 1957 at the age of 95.

When Kerr passed away, his daughters, Anne McDonald and Jane Platt, gave the estate – as well as an endowment for its maintenance – to the Episcopal Bishop of Oregon on the stipulation that it had to be open to visitors.

Today, his lush Elk Rock garden is free to the public and provides a magical escape from the city. Winding paths lead to rare magnolia and chrysanthemum blooms, while crocus accents the foliage with purple and yellow. Fish ponds and streams spot the trails, and bishop’s hat hugs the oak trees. It’s a place of serenity in a world filled with chaos, and a quiet reprieve free of tourism traffic.

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