I don’t often write about places I haven’t been but this is an exception for a place I’d like to go to. Like most of us I get magazines and newsletters from all sorts of organisations and usually just glance through them, so I wasn’t expecting anything wildly different when I saw the last issue of the Professional Gardener, the journal of the Professional Gardeners Guild. However when I started flicking the pages I noticed an article which made me go online as soon as I’d finished reading, to see what else I could find.
It was about a Penelope Hobhouse garden being baby-sat by a retired member of the PGG for a fortnight last summer. Nothing strange maybe about that, but this garden was on one of the remotest inhabited islands in Britain, home to the ruins of a medieval priory, a bird sanctuary, a protected species of bee and normally just 2 people. I’m very grateful to Derek Hosie for permission to use his article as a starting point for this post about the Island of Oronsay.
And apologies if you were looking for a Valentine’s Day piece. Couldn’t think of anything romantic enough this year, but why not check an earlier post: Romance in the garden…
Oronsay is a small island in the Inner Hebrides, just off the southern coast of Colonsay It’s about 3 miles long and 1340 acres in extent [543 hectares] and only accessible by boat or, for about 90 minutes either side of low tide by a half mile sand causeway… ie not that often!
Despite that degree of isolation archaeological evidence suggest human habitation goes back over 6000 years, probably because of its strategic location for seafarers, although its early history remains pretty vague.
Oronsay gets its first mention when Columba landed in 63AD on his way from Ireland to Iona. He didn’t stay long as he thought he could still see Ireland from the summit of island’s steep hill Ben Oronsay, although in reality he probably couldn’t! For the next thousand or more years the island continues to escape the written record, until in 1275, with the rest of the southern Hebrides, it became part of the Kingdom of Scotland. By the end of the following century it was part of the Lordship of the Isles ruled, under the Scottish crown, by John of Islay, chief of the Clan Donald, and it was probably under his protection that a small Augustinian priory dedicated to Columba, was built on the island.
The Scottish Reformation was slightly later than the English one but the result was the same. Monastic establishments were dissolved. The priory was shut in 1560 and the island then passed into secular hands.
Given its isolation perhaps it’s not surprising that although ruined, the priory is still extremely well preserved. But perhaps more surprisingly it has a very important collection of monumental carved stonework.
There is 15thc High Altar, one of the few surviving in Scotland and a High Cross, 12ft tall which was carved from a single piece of stone. Equally important is a significant collection of carved mediaeval gravestones, worked by a skilled school of local master masons. There are two more Celtic crosses just outside the priory grounds.
Oronsay House was built in 1772 the same year that both Thomas Pennant and Sir Joseph Banks [on his voyage to Iceland ] visited the island.
Newspaper reports in the 19thc reveal that like much of the rest of the Highlands and Islands there was severe depopulation in the early 19thc, with many people from the Hebrides emigrating, but apart from shipwrecks and the occasional letting of Oronsay House and farm there isn’t much else of import to report until 1905 when Oronsay was bought, along with Colonsay, by 85 year old Donald Smith, the first Lord Strathcona and Mountroyal.
A Canadian who made his fortune with the Hudson’s Bay Comapny and Canadian Pacific Railways he was Canadian High Commissioner in London from 1896 until his death in 1914. [He has appeared in an earlier post about training women for gardening in the colonies.]
In the 1920s and 30s his family [who were related to Gerald Loder of Wakehurst Place in Sussex] began creating a large woodland garden as well ornamental grounds around the house, which contained almost every Rhododendron species and hybrid available in the UK, as well as a large collection of Southern hemisphere plants. There is an archive of family photos, including some of the gardens at Colonsay at McGill University in Montreal.
The 4th Lord Strathcona eventually put both islands on the market in 1977 although he ended up just selling Oronsay and using the proceeds to restore Colonsay House which dates from 1722, and starting a programme of improvements to the gardens. Much of the replanting was carried out by Strathcona himself. The gardens which are open to the public, are described in great detail on the Inventory of Gardens and Designed Landscapes in Scotland, the national listing of historic garden, where they are described as “outstanding” and “one of the finest examples of its kind in the UK”.
A few years later, in 1984, Oronsay was put up for sale again. Ike Colburn, an American whose mother was from Edinburgh, saw an advertisement in Country Life in America. He told the Herald in an interview that initially he “thought it was an attractive place, but I didn’t have it in mind to buy an island.” However the sound of the priory ruins caught his attention and he and his wife, Frances, bought it.
What the Country life advert didn’t explain was the extent and significance of the monuments and the ruins. “I couldn’t believe it when I arrived and saw how wonderful they were and what a dreadful condition they were in…. lying on the floor, covered with green moss and slime”
The couple then set to work on a massive restoration project, made all the more difficult because of the island’s isolation and inaccessibility, and the need for specialist tradesmen who had to be bought in from the mainland. I got the impression reading the interview that the authorities were not a great deal of help either: ”We went to Ancient Monuments in Edinburgh. We were told that we have no responsibility for maintaining the monuments. They have no responsibility for maintaining the monuments. But we can’t do anything to it without their permission….And no grants for this work.” The Herald newspaper estimated the Colburns spent more than £1m on building works on the island.
But not content with restoring the priory, the farm and the main house and the cottages the Colburns wanted a garden. In fact there was one there already tucked in between the buildings and the foot of the hill, and it had been there for a long while, perhaps even from the time of the monks. A hundred years earlier the Murray family had rented Oronsay House as a holiday home and, just like the Colbourns had found it dilapidated. In 1887 Frances Murray wrote a memoir for private distribution – Summer in the Hebrides – about their time there and included a few notes on the garden which they found grassed over. “Toil and care, however, which to me in a garden, is ever a labour of love, soon rewarded us in that loamy long-cultivated soil with fine crops of vegetables and brilliant flower beds.” Of course the results of the Murray’s efforts had long disappeared and when the Colbourns arrived the garden was apparently being run as a vegetable business and wasn’t quite what was required.What I haven’t said yet is that Ike Colburn was an architect with a practice mainly in Chicago. Although often labelled a modernist he drew heavily on historical precedents so according to his biographer, his “work seemed to straddle traditions” Never ignoring the setting of his buildings, he”naturally gravitated to garden design… and had a keen appreciation of horticulture”. He was on the board of Chicago’s Botanic Garden and served as president of the Chicago World and Garden Show for 3 years. He knew what he wanted.
The couple commissioned Penelope Hobhouse, according to the Herald, “the international doyen of garden design”, who has family connections with Colonsay, to lay out a new garden. She returned to monastic simplicity.
The description of the garden is based mainly on the article by Derek Hosie, with some additions from a Country Life article about Oronsay dated 10th March 2005.
It’s a difficult site with the sea only a hundred yards away and fierce salt-laden winds a regular feature, so wooden panelling with horizontal slatting went up as a wind break until the privet hedging which is used to divide the garden up was established. But, on the other hand there are some surprising advantages. The island is sunny, with plenty of rainfall, frosts are rare, and the soil is light with a high organic content.
The ultimate design was quite simple and almost sub-tropical in feel. Work on it commenced in 1988. There are a series of seven smaller gardens: a shrub garden, spring garden, mediaeval garden, sheep garden, peony garden, September garden and a Jekyll-Thaxter garden reflecting the work of two great plantswomen, Gertrude Jekyll and Celia Thaxter, author of An Island Garden, who gardened on the Isle of Shoals off the coast of Maine.
The range of plants included is immense: figs, medlars and palms side by side with eucryphia, corokia, pittosporums, watsonia and olearia, as well as those plants one might expect in more northern climes
Derek clearly thought the garden was a great success and said “working in the garden was a pleasure. Choughs would dive and swoop in the currents over the cliffs with their distinctive calls, red beak and legs. Corncrakes…come here to breed having overwintered in the Congo, a round trip of over 15,000 miles. Gulls circle overhead, with swallows and martins feeding on a rich diet of insects… throw in the scent and colour of the flowers and landscape, the waves crashing on the beach and you have a humbling experience. ..
What I found strange initially is that neither Hobhouse herself or anyone else seems to have written about it in anything more than a very cursory way. There are, for example, just 2 lines about Oronsay in Ike Colburn’s biography. Nor are there many photos, and those there are all taken from the “public” slopes of Ben Oronsay. Reading Derek Hosie’s article again though, and from comments he made by email, it’s been quite deliberate. The garden is absolutely private and although visitors can come to the island without hindrance the garden is not open.
Ike Colburn died in 1992 but Mrs Colburn remains a conscientious custodian and although she is still based in Manchester-by-the-Sea in Massachusetts she visits regularly. To ensure the island continues to maintain its unique ecosystem she has leased the whole island to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds who manage it in a traditional way, which is being lost elsewhere in the Hebrides, but supports a mosaic of habitats important for a wide range of flora & fauna.
Because of its importance to both choughs and corncrakes Oronsay has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest [SSSI] and a Special Protection Area under the European Union Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds. The RSPB keep a herd currently of about 50 native Luing suckler cows and also 600 Scottish black-face & Hebridean sheep.
The Scottish Government has designed Colonsay and Oronsay a reserve for the native black honey bees which are all but extinct on the mainland. They are hardy enough to survive the west coast weather and the island’s isolation has protected them from disease and so continue to flourish.
Ike Colburn was asked in the Herald interview if would ever sell Oronsay? His response was emphatic: ”No. We’ve put too much into it, a lot of money and a lot of care. There’s no way we’ll let it go down to what it was. Maybe we’ll give it to the National Trust for Scotland. I’ve talked to people in the trust about it already.”
I’d guess he’d have agreed with Derek Hosie who said about his working holiday there: “I would call it as near paradise as you can get.”
If you want to know more about Oronsay then take a look at:
Jane Smith, Wild Island: A Year in the Hebrides, 2016 – mainly about bird life.
Ike Colburn’s biography is contained in Jay Pridmore’s I.W.Colburn: Emotion in Modern Architecture, Lake Forest College Press, 2015
There are some good local websites to use as starting points for including Visit Colonsay and The Colonsay and Oransay Heritage Trust
Several bloggers have posted about visits to the island with lots more photos, including: https://marccalhoun.blogspot.com/2018/02/scenes-from-oronsay.html and Colonsay Chronicles
And finally Derek’s article is in the January 2020 issue of The Professional Gardener, the journal of the Professional Gardeners Guild . ThePGG is the organisation for professional gardeners employed in private gardens and estates, which aims to promote professional contact, share information and skills, and to provide the horticultural industry with skilled gardeners and garden managers. They also have a programme of social events. If you’re involved in horticulture you should consider joining them