The Fruiting Trees of Clestrain Hall?

By Bernie Bell

As a keen gardener, a headline in ‘The Orcadian’ letters page caught my eye……. “Apple Trees: Can You Help?”

The letter is from Amber Connolly and Mark Shipperlee, and asks folk on Orkney who have apple trees of identified varieties, if they would consider letting Mark take small cuttings ( known as scions), as part of a project involving The Fruiting Tree CIC, which hopes to promote an increase in local fruit growing.

What really made me sit up and take notice, was the mention of a correspondence found by Caroline Beaton in the Orkney Library & Archives, between John Rae Snr, of the Hall of Clestrain, and the Watt of Skaill House, listing various fruiting trees which appear to have been doing well in Orkney.

Referring to Mr. Watt as “the Watt” isn’t being rude – it’s the correct way to refer to the head of a family, or clan.

The mention of Clestrain got me wondering if this correspondence might cast light on whether there were trees at Clestrain, and, in particular, fruit trees, growing in the lovely walled garden there?

The walled garden intrigues me. It’s huge – far too big to have just been the fruit & veg patch for the house.  There is a wall running most of the way up, about a third of the way along.  How I see it is –  The nearer part, was for supplying produce to the house. The large section on the right – hand side, was a formal garden, for the ladies of the house to promenade and take exercise, and also a pleasant place to take visitors for a stroll. John Rae and his family will have had many ‘important’ visitors, and there was a fashion, at that time, for wealthy people to have that type of garden.  I envisioned paths, arbours, a fountain the middle.

walled garden Bel

On one of the Clestrain Open Days,  Mike went wandering down to look at the trees (there is a hawthorn tree there – unusual for Orkney), and, when he came back to the gate, told me that there is what looks like the  remains of the stone rim of a pool, in the far side.  I honestly think that is what the space was used for, and a lovely place it would be, too.

As you know, it is possible to find the lay-out of gardens of the past, even if they have been over-grown for a long time.  I thought of Time Team – but I don’t think Time Team exists any longer – shame – that would have been perfect – get it done for free!

I must admit, that following up this kind of lead, isn’t something that I would undertake to do – staying quiet in libraries was never my forte –  but, if someone is interested,  enjoys scouring archives, and would like to find out more about what’s in this correspondence, it might help to fill out the picture of the Hall of Clestrain in its hey-day.

There has been valuable work done on the Hall, in the Library & Archives already….

Maybe this is another dimension which could be worked on specifically – the walled garden and its possible contents?

The letter in ‘The Orcadian’ also mentions that Mark Shipperlee is bringing with him scions from some of the  varieties of apple named in the ‘John Rae’  letter, when he comes to Orkney in February.

Extending that out, would it be possible that, somewhere in Orkney, someone still has, in their (very sheltered!) garden, a descendent of the fruiting trees of Clestrain?

Letting my imagination roam farther still – Kierfiold House, in Sandwick, was originally intended to be the Dower House for Skaill House, and was inhabited by the families of the Lairds of Skaill for many years.

Could John Rae Snr have given the Watt of Skaill, a scion of an apple tree from Clestrain, which might then have been nurtured, and planted out in the walled garden of Kierfiold House? And that tree, or one of its scions, could still be there. In which case, would it be possible for a scion of that tree, to be taken, and nurtured, and planted in the walled garden at Clestrain?

The wanderer – returns.

A bit fanciful, but, maybe so?

If you would like to find out more about John Rae, and the Hall of Clestrain – have a look at the John Rae Society website……. And, Mark Shipperlee is running a grafting course, here on Orkney, on the 15th February.  If you have known varieties of apple trees to share, or would like further information about the grafting course, please contact Mark at, or on 07854 694429

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  1. There is one remaining – very old apple tree in the garden here at Kierfiold. Mark Shipperlee took scions from it in his visit in February!

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