The Lost Gardens of Orkney (12), Hugh Ross, Gardener

The 17th century Skaill House, Sandwick, is an imposing building and its gardens though neat today were once grand, as befits a Laird’s House.

The massive manor of Skaill House

At the start of the 19th century the Laird, William Watt, employed Lochaber man and experienced gardener, Hugh Ross, to lead the team of gardeners at Skaill House.

The gardens had to be not only pleasing to the eye but also productive growing fresh fruit and vegetables for the Laird’s table.

Hugh Ross started work in the gardens in January 1801 and as in all things incurring costs, records were kept of what was grown. For Ross it took the form of a daily diary which also included weather reports and other matters of interest to all gardeners.

It is recorded that the gardens measured 120 feet square and enclosed by massive walls constructed using local stone. The height of the walls were as follows:

  • North side – 10 ft wall
  • East side – 7 ft wall
  • South side – 7 ft wall
  • West side – 5 ft wall

The West side of the garden was additionally sheltered by the House itself.

The paths and borders were edged with flag stones. The paths were 4 feet wide and the borders varied between 9 and 5 feet.

A great many seeds were imported at this time into Orkney and William Watt was known for experimenting with different crops so it is no surprise to see a great variety of fruit and vegetables being grown.

Also working with Hugh Ross as assistants in the gardens off and on were: George More, Thomas Harvey, John Corrigall, John Taylor, James Harvey, John Charles, William Inkster, George Groundwater. William Watt and his son Robert also on occasion took an interest in and helped in the garden.

Much work was done preparing soil and horse dung was used to manure the plots. The weather in early January 1901 included snow showers and Ross had to protect the artichokes with mounds of the dung – two cart loads were used for that .

The gardens included apple trees growing up against the walls for protection.

Even in January the gardens were able to supply the kitchen with artichokes, cabbage, carrots and parsnips. The work was extremely hard. When not working in the garden Ross and the other men had to labour at other tasks. Everything had to be transported by cart and there were huge amounts of horse manure used. All that had to be loaded and unloaded onto the carts.

the sunken garden today at Skaill House mostly grass with some flower bords and low walls. Pansies are growing under protective cloches

In early February, due to a great thaw, the Water Mill had to be protected using more stones. The Mill had been originally built as part of the short boom in linen production in Orkney. Some readers may still remember the Mill but it is now completely gone, a result of coastal erosion.

The gardens had Hot Beds and extra earth and clay was wheeled in to build those up. In early February Ross dug up the old potato plants and burnt them. Other tasks were pruning the apple trees and gooseberry plants.

His diary also tells us some of the trees he planted. On 6th February he planted 7 balsam poplars and 4 willows ‘in the little park’. None of that now exists. That same month he also pruned and gathered cuttings of Bor tree (is this a Bodhr tree – a sacred fig tree?). [A reader has suggested this refers to elder (sambucus nigra)? boor tree rather than bor]

For many days, the first part of the year was taken up with repairing walls and carting the stone required to do so.

Flowers were not forgotten and Ross planted bulbs in the borders and edged them with ‘none-so-pretty’ which you might know as London Pride (Saxifraga umbrosa). A very robust flowering plant which grows really well in Orkney.

Ross was sowing early peas, radish and cabbage in the second week of February. You might think that this was all very early to be doing so but remember the gardens were well protected with stone walls and the planting areas were built up with additional soil and well rotted horse manure.

Planting continued throughout February including herbaceous and perennials, bulbs, carrots, turnip, gooseberries and currant bushes. Ross also collected seed by shaking out cabbages.

In March more trees were planted, some of which were the cuttings taken weeks before : willows, Bor- tree and pruning the cherry trees along the walls.

We have some idea of numbers planted too. On 6th March he planted 100 cabbages and 600 gooseberry and currant cuttings.

This wasn’t only work done by men as women too laboured at farm work. Towards the end of March Ross planted camomile and prepared a great deal of ground for potatoes. The strawberry plants were also planted out during this period.

By the 1st of April a Nursery bed was being prepared. More flowers were planted in the borders as well as 300 cabbages. Also planted were celery, cauliflower, turnip, early potatoes, onions, carrots, radish, lettuce, leeks, peas, parsley, cress and kidney beans. In the Nursery bed he planted cucumber and melon seeds.

Ross often had to travel into Stromness with some of the other men and it was on one such journey that they returned with 27 flower pots. We don’t know the size of these pots or whether or not they were ornamental planters or just ordinary pots. But we do know from his diary that 7 of them were used for strawberry plants.

Gardening tools were important and every gardener took care of them because they had to be made. Ross had to go to the blacksmith for a rake and for repairs to other implements.

The weather in Orkney in April can still be harsh but people were still expected to work outdoors unless it got extremely bad. Despite sleet and cold Ross planted out rhubarb, 400 cabbages and elicampane. More crops were sown throughout April, repeats of what had been sown the months before. This meant that the garden was providing Skaill House with a continuous supply of fresh vegetables. By the end of April, Ross was transplanting the melons.

Trees were grown from cuttings and from seed. As well as those already mentioned, Ross planted seeds of fir and larch trees.

view from Skaill House, not a tree to be seen, just grass and sand dunes towards the Neolithic village of Skara Brae
The tree less view today from Skaill House towards Skara Brae

Work of this nature was physical and non stop. Hugh Ross died on 7th of May 1801 having been the gardener at Skaill House since the 3rd of January that year.

View up the double curved stone staircase to the front of Skaill House

Reference, ‘The Diary of a Gardener at Skaill, Orkney 3 January – 7 May 1801’ by Nancy Hewison, published in Review of Scottish Culture, number 8, 1993..

Fiona Grahame

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