The Lost Gardens of Orkney (8) Gardeners

Over the past weeks this series has looked at many gardens from the past and what people grew in them. Today we are turning our focus on those who make all of that happen – the gardeners.

farmer standing and loosening soil in countryside
Photo by Greta Hoffman on

Whilst many people garden , fewer are those who are employed as such. Lairds, owners of large properties and public institutions all employed gardeners. The garden was as important as the inner decorations of any big house – it was the garden that would give that first and very important impression. For public institutions like town councils, hospitals etc having neat and tidy grounds reassured people that inside the buildings everything was running smoothly when outside was too. Towns took a pride in their appearance, the building and the parks that they owned.

Melsetter House, Longhope, Hoy had one of the finest gardens in Orkney. (More about that in a future publication). Nathaniel Cantley was the gardener there – although there would have been a team working for him. Nathaniel was born in 1764 in Borgue Kirkcudbrightshire. After serving in the army he ‘retired’ to Kirkwall firstly and then was employed for 18 years at Melsetter House, Hoy. He died in 1843 and although of an old age his death was due to ‘inflation of the kidney and bladder.’

The gardens and grounds were extensive and over the years employed many gardeners including William Watters. He was also a veteran of military campaigns and had fought in World War 1. William had been a ploughman before the war. During World War 2 he was the gardener at Melsetter house all during its use by the Admiralty. He continued to garden there until 1957.

John Sinclair was a gardener at Kierfiold, Sandwick in the late 19th century – another of Orkney’s fine gardens, famous today for its spring showing of daffodils.

William Towers was gardener at Binscarth Finstown. Gardening like many skills is often carried on within the family . William’s father, David Towers had also been a gardener. Born in Stronsay David was employed as a farm servant at Quoydandy Farm, Kirkwall. In his later years he was working as a gardener.

The original Balfour Hospital (now the West End Hotel) in Kirkwall also had gardens and of course a gardener.

Orkney Herald and Advertiser 15th December 1909

When the new hospital was built – The Garden Memorial Building – gardeners were employed there too. In 1939 Thomas Gorn was appointed as the gardener. Today the 21stCentury £65million Balfour Hospital has within its grounds a sensory garden and a sanctuary as well as polytunnels.

The gardener does not love to talk,
He makes me keep the gravel walk;
And when he puts his tools away,
He locks the door and takes the key.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Fiona Grahame

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