The Lost Gardens of Orkney, 11, The Big Tree

Picture of the sycamore in Kirkwall in the town's Albert street
The Big Tree picture in September 2022

There can be no more iconic symbol of the lost gardens of Orkney than The Big Tree in Albert Street, Kirkwall.

To those visitors of Orkney even bearing the title ‘The Big Tree’ must seem as odd as its location because it’s not very big. But its story is a magnificent one of survival and resilience.


Here in the narrow street you stand,

Built round about on every hand;

Only your topmost boughs can spy

The blue waves breaking on the land…

To you with each returning Spring

The crows their clumsy courtship bring,

And the blithe starlings come and go

Among your boughs on restless wing.

  • By Duncan J. Robertson who passed The Big Tree every day on his way to his office

No one knows when the Big Tree was planted but the sycamore was once in a garden, now long since gone. Until the 1870s the garden was surrounded by a wall which at one end was over 18ft high.

The long house which it stands in front of dates to about 1665 to 1676 and in 1762 Malcolm Laing (who was to become a famous Orcadian historian) was born in it.

Plaque to Malcolm Laing with description which is on the side of the building in Albert Stree
Image credit Bell

Ernest Marwick tells us in ‘An Orkney Anthology’, Ed. John D Robertson, that Malcolm Laing was a keen gardener and suggests that it was he who planted the tree. He continues:

‘among the imports into Orkney in 1803 were listed ’16 bundles of young trees’. Was the Big tree included in one of those bundles.’

Since the removal of the wall, possibly by Thomas Sclater a Kirkwall chemist, when he owned the property and wanted to make more commercial use of the ground, the Big Tree has suffered much damage. There were two tall trees beside it which Sclater had removed. He also added the row of lean-to one storey shops which you can see today.

In The Orkney Herald of March 15th 1911 the following letter appeared in the newspaper:

The Orkney Herald March 15th 1911

By July of that same year questions were still being asked through the local papers about why no decision had yet been made by the Kirkwall Town Council to help preserve The Big Tree.

The question of The Big Tree’s survival was even the subject of debates. In 1948 The Kirkwall Chamber of Commerce’s popular meetings of ‘The Brains Trust’ discussed topics such as ‘Why should a man marry?’ and ‘Has the time now arrived to remove the Big Tree?’.

The Brains Trust gave the opinion that the Big Tree ‘gave great publicity to the town, and should be left where it is; if it should die plant yet another tree’.

When speaking about Kirkwall when being honoured by the town in 1948, the artist Stanley Cursiter said :

” As a child of perhaps three, I remember being allowed to stand on a stool so that I could look out at the street through one of these screens. One looked through a bit of red glass and all the street went rosy, through blue and it gathered all the mystery of night, through yellow and it glowed with something richer than sunshine. That is my earliest memory – Kirkwall and all the colours of the spectrum. It is a memory which may, indeed, have coloured all my life.

For me the Big Tree has always stood somewhere near where the rainbow ends, and if I have spent my life chasing rainbows – well that glass screen started it.

Its ultimate effect that has been for me Kirkwall has always had a dash of colour that other places lacked.

Orkney Herald 13th July 1948

The threat to remove The Big Tree continued well into the latter part of the 20th century. And yet still it stands.

According to Ernest Marwick one of the ways you could tell a stranger to the town was that they would pass on the inside – between the tree and the shops. Kirkwallians, used to skirting the garden wall, passed it on the outside. And so its legendary status grew.

Auld sycamore, brucked by the world’s coorse naevs,

Gizzened by summer suns, an’ stiff wi’rheum

That gnaws baith man an’ tree ye mind the hour

Th’ relentless worms o’ time can never cloom…

By the Kirkwall poet David Horne
Looking up Albert Street at the shops on either side with The Big Tree on the Left
Image credit Bell The Big Tree in May 2021

Fiona Grahame

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3 replies »

  1. On the subject of trees – and Clestrain – I previously told of how we collected some sycamore keys from beneath the big tree at Cottascarth……

    I potted them up and of the 8 potted, 7 have their first leaves. We’re keeping one for the garden, and will give the rest to Andrew (Appleby), possibly to be planted at Clestrain.

    Growing and conserving trees is A GOOD THING.

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