The Lost Gardens of Orkney, 10, Melsetter House Garden

Melsetter House overlooks Longhope, Hoy, and was built in 1890 designed by the Arts & Crafts architect William Richard Letharby.

The south gable of Melsetter House Hoy surrounded by yellow flowers and trees to the right. The gable end has four sets of windows, 2 larger ones on the ground floor and 2 smaller above
Melsetter House, Hoy, Orkney © Copyright Wolfgang Schlick

The original house was the home of the Moodie family. They were lairds in the island from the 16th century until they sold the property and estate in 1820. The Moodies were Hanoverian supporters in an Orkney which in the 18th century was very much Jacobite country. The House of Melsetter was looted by the Jacobites during the ’45 campaign. You can read some of that tale here: Janet Fea and the Burning of Sound

This article, however, is concentrating on the garden at Melsetter, said to be one of the oldest in Orkney.

Sadly a survey report by Historic Environment Scotland includes this comment:

“The garden at Melsetter House has little horticultural value although the trees are of silvicultural interest due to the exposure of the site.’

Silviculture is the care and cultivation of woodlands (as opposed to arboriculture which is the care and cultivation of individual trees.) There is a wide range of different silvicultural systems which are, broadly speaking, management prescriptions for particular types and areas of woodland. 

Forest Research

In islands where we have so few trees, where there are even fewer formal gardens perhaps dating back to the 16th century this is a disappointing comment and may suggest more research is needed about the actual garden that once existed at Melsetter because the survey report was mainly about the house.

The grounds at Melsetter are a designed landscape with boundary walls and woodlands all part of a planning process. The woodlands are special because of their rarity in Orkney and for the other species of wildlife that thrive in them.

Being the house of a wealthy laird meant Melsetter had gardeners to keep the formal gardens and the landscape ‘tamed’ and to provide fruit and vegetables for the family. You can read about some of them here: The Lost Gardens of Orkney (8) Gardeners

Advert for a gardener for Melsetter Estate 1949
This advert from the Orkney Herald and Advertiser , January 25th 1949, came under the laws of the time. It would not apply to any man aged between 18 and 50 unless he was exempted from the Control of Engagement Order, 1947

At the turn of the 20th century Thomas Middlemore replanted the gardens. There was also restoration work done on both the house and its gardens in the late 20th century.

The walled garden with its tea house has a doocot thought to date from 1738. The Lost Gardens of Orkney, 9, Doocots. Its walls were heightened by Middlemore in 1900.

On 6th of July 1909 Mrs Middlemore returned to Melsetter House with her husband. She had been absent for over 3 years due to health reasons. The Estate had many tenants and others who were very much indebted to the laird. On her return a bonfire was lit on Whin Hill and the gates of the driveway were festooned with garlands. Flags were being flown and bunting draped on boats in the bay. The S.S. Hoy Head arrived at 9pm and the couple were ferried ashore by the crew of the Longhope Lifeboat to the skirl of bagpipes.

‘At the gate on the drive the carriage was unyoked and drawn up the avenue by the lifeboat crew at a swinging pace.’

Orkney Herald and Advertiser 14th July 1909

Accounts like that above is a reminder about how powerful a landowner still was in Orkney in the early years of the 20th century, before World War 1.

The gardens feature gates and other ornamental iron work which are from its Arts & Crafts period. Other features include a sundial in the flower garden.

The gardens are divided up into sections. The shrub garden has a hawthorn hedge. Other shrubs include fuchsia, oleria and laburnum.

There is a formal garden designed to be viewed from the drawing room. Photographs from WW2 when it was used by Naval Authorities show rectangular flower beds. The Rose garden is situated in a square enclosure and there is a Kitchen garden. Some old fruit trees remain.

There are splendid views of the whole garden from a Summerhouse. Access to the summerhouse is by a steep flight of steps on the outer wall.

There is Parkland to the east of the house which once had large trees but they are long gone.

By the 1880s the woodland was established and in 1906 additional planting took place.

Click on this link to find out more about Melsetter House.

Also in this series:

Fiona Grahame

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