Local News

The Lost Gardens of Orkney (1) War Memorial Garden

Gardens can take the form of any shape or size. Over the centuries garden design has evolved to reflect the fashions of the time. New plants arrive and new features adorn our gardens. They can be very public places or private ones filled with flowers ,trees, shrubs, vegetables and fruits enough to feed a family. Whatever size or type of garden there is, it is always a place where people can go to relax and reflect.

This series will explore the hidden gems of the gardens that have either been lost in Orkney or that have changed substantially since they were first created.

Orkney Memorial Garden Scheme 1949

The war memorial which stands adjacent to St Magnus Cathedral was first unveiled on 17th of October 1923. It was erected to commemorate the men and civilians who had lost their lives serving in the 1914 – 1918 war.

After World War 2, it was decided that changes had to be made to reflect the service personnel and civilians who had lost their lives in that conflict. People were undecided on how to do this and various ideas were put forward. On 23rd of February 1949 a public meeting organised by Kirkwall and St Ola Welcome Home Committee was held in Kirkwall and attended by about 50 people to consider what could be done.

Two proposals were put forward to Kirkwall Town Council:

  1. A Memorial Garden in front of St Magnus Cathedral
  2. A Memorial Gateway at the Palace Road entry to the St Magnus Cathedral churchyard.

The councillors in Kirkwall decided that they would make the land available and pay for the upkeep of whichever proposal was eventually chosen. It was explained by councillor John Ross that possibly the term ‘garden’ was misleading. That there would likely be flowers but what was envisaged was principally lawns and seats. Intersecting the lawns would be carriageways and paths.

A bit of confusion surrounds this proposal because Councillor Milne thought that there was already a plan for a garden on the Kirk Green which had been drawn up by Mr Watson, the architect for the Cathedral.

Ideas which were proposed at the February public meeting and which were rejected reappeared and by April more options were being suggested.

  • A plaque in the Cathedral Churchyard wall near the 1914-1918 Memorial Gateway.
  • A Book of Remembrance containing the names of the Fallen placed where it may be referred to by the public.
  • A Memorial Scroll to be sent to the next of kin of each of the Fallen.

In April of 1949 the members of St Magnus Cathedral Kirk Session asked the council to lay down chips or gravel on the worn parts of the Kirk Green in front of the steps at the West Door.

By June of 1949 a competition was announced to design the proposed ‘Garden of Remembrance – to the memory of the fallen in the late war’. The entry fee was five shillings and a prize of £5 would go to the winner. With a closing date of 30th of June 1949 there wasn’t much time to get those entries in. Judging the designs would be the artist and former Director of the National Art Galleries in Edinburgh, Stanley Cursiter.

There were 5 entries to design the memorial garden, all of which were very good, and sent in under a ‘nom-de-plume’ so that choosing the winner would be without favouritism.

In July 1949 the winner was announced.

Two of the designs were so outstanding that it came to a draw. The designers were ‘K’ (Mr Robert S. Carmichael, Town and County Planning Officer for Orkney) and ‘Mega’ ( Mr William C Wood, an employee of the Orkney County Roads Department). Both men shared in the £5 prize.

And what of the designs?

Both of the designs were put on show in the window of James Tait & Sons in Broad Street, Kirkwall for all the public to see for themselves. The Welcome Home Committee decided that part of either or of both designs may be used for the memorial garden. Indeed they even may use layouts from any of the other designs that were submitted but didn’t win.

I haven’t been able to find any copies of the designs that entered the Memorial Garden Competition. If any readers have more information about this lost garden please leave a comment or email: fiona@theorkneynews.scot

Alterations to the War Memorial were still being put forward to the council by the Kirkwall and St Ola War Memorial Committee over the following years:

  • In 1953 two pillars at each side with plaques and a set of steps from Broad Street
  • In 1954 new steps and the removal of a tree, a small patch of grass each side of the gateway

Today the area around the War Memorial is mostly grass with trees now with lights strung around them. There are bulbs in the Spring and several seats for people to rest on. To mark special days the cathedral is lit up in different colours. Islanders also take the opportunity to use the area of the Kirk Green for protests about causes important to them.

And, of course, the War Memorial Gateway is a reminder of those who lost their lives in World War 1, World War 2, and most recently Northern Ireland.

Kirkwall War Memorial

Fiona Grahame

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