Where we are, What we do
An Gàrradh Mòr – The Big Garden – is the historic high-walled kitchen garden at Cille Bhrìghde [West Kilbride] on the island of South Uist, in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. It is the only historical high-walled garden in the Outer Hebrides remaining intact and used for its original purpose – as a kitchen garden supplying the needs of the family living there. Just a few paces from the beach, the garden looks out over the Sound of Barra and the many islands scattered across an ever-changing canvas of sea and sky. This is where we live and work.
Here at the walled garden, and our croft on the nearby island of Eriskay, we grow a wide variety of vegetables, herbs and soft fruit, and also keep chickens, geese and sheep. Together, these provide most of the food we eat – and a small surplus besides.
A variety of Big Garden jams, jellies, chutneys and pickles can be found in the Hebridean Woolshed’s garden shop, which is open March to September. Occasionally we may have fresh eggs and garden produce available for sale : availability will be shown on a chalkboard in the garden shop. (If there’s no chalkboard, then there’s nothing currently available.) See opening hours ⇒
The garden and the croft are what we came to Uist for: to work the land and grow and make things for our own needs and for a small surplus to help pay the bills. The simple life? Maybe – to those who haven’t done it! Lots of equipment and supplies, buildings to store them in, devising strategies that work around the Hebridean weather, rules and regulations as soon as you start selling anything …
Nonetheless, we have a varied and exceptionally healthy diet, plenty of exercise, meaningful and satisfying work – mostly outdoors during the summer months … Certainly, there isn’t a single day of the year when the majority of the food on our plates isn’t from the garden, and the very best the season has to offer: whether that be mouth-watering tomatoes or strawberries, fresh-picked rocket or lettuce, tasty parsnip or artichoke, irresistible jams with gooseberry or rhubarb, or a glass or two of blackberry wine.
We’re often asked by visitors to the islands calling in at the Big Garden, Where’s the best place to eat in Uist? Our answer is consistent, brief and to the point: Here!
Please respect the fact that the walled garden is our private home, from which we sell some of the things we grow and make. If you’d like to look round the garden, please ask at our house when paying for your purchases from the Big Garden or from our Hebridean Woolshed (which is also in the walled garden)
The half-acre walled garden is worked according to organic principles. We see a three-fold justification in this: environment, health, and quality. From our experience, our organically-grown potatoes, cabbages or whatever, fresh from the garden, are far tastier and more nutritious than anything that can be bought in a supermarket or retailer, anywhere, at any price. And how can working only with natural materials entirely of this place be anything other than good for the health of ourselves and the environment?
Crops are inter-planted and rotated so that the soil does not become exhausted, and to resist pests and diseases. In late winter the rhubarb beds and soft fruit bushes are mulched with a heavy blanket of seaweed. In early spring the soil is fed with a compost of seaweed from the shore outside, garden and kitchen waste and soiled straw animal bedding. We sow more than we need, so that if a few seedlings are lost to pests, disease or extreme weather, we have replacements. When propagating fruit bushes or trees and shrubs for shelter and ornament, we have to allow for a high proportion of losses to the harsh weather. Thus we often end up with more than we can use, and so there may at times be shrubs and plants for sale at the garden ‘shop’.
As well as growing fruit, vegetables and herbs, we also keep a small flock of pure-bred Buff Orpington chickens – for both meat and for eggs. The eggs
Our croft – on the nearby island of Eriskay – is a long narrow strip of land, totalling 6.75 hectares (about 17 acres), running from the rocky north shore of the island for about half a mile to the rocky buttresses of Beinn Sgiathan, Eriskay’s highest point. From the shore (with its plentiful supply of seaweed for fertlizing the ground) and the ‘new’ road is the most productive part of the croft, with better quality grazing, the hen houses and croft store. Here too is the eco croft house we built 2008-2009 (which we let out as a self-catering holiday cottage, Carrick – The Blue House).
We keep white Embden geese, which are left pretty much to their own devices, ranging freely over the lower croft and along the shore. In spring they provide a limited supply of huge and very tasty eggs ; and in autumn the freezer is re-stocked with goose.
Above the ‘new’ road (built in the 1950s) and up to the hill fence the croft heather, grasses and low-growing herbs, and – especially in spring and early summer – wild flowers, orchids, and amongst these many ground-nesting birds. In Eriskay, crofts have not been fenced other than a few small fields close to some of the croft houses. The cost is high, and the benefits uncertain. In 2012 we enclosed between the new and old roads – and then in 2013 we completed a third field, from the old or high road (an rathaìd àrd) to half way to the hill fence. Although very expensive – and absolutely exhausting work, investment in these fences is the key to making our croft productive and economically relevant in today’s world. Work on the uppermost field – High Field – was virtually complete by 2018, but by then a much older length of fence on the east side of Home Park (the field down by the shore) was falling down, and we started work on replacing it : we also started work on erecting fence around the croft store and yard, and many other minor changes and improvements. Lesson learned : fencing is not a one-off investment!
The three new fields between the ‘new’ road and the hill fence – together amounting to three-quarters of the total area, will enclose our flock of pedigree Hebridean sheep which we now keep solely for their black wool. Being native to the islands and very hardy, they are ideally suited to the extreme conditions here – which are not so much cold as stormy.
The slower maturing of this ancient breed, combined with the completely natural grazing, gives incomparable flavour and texture to the meat, whilst the lack of need for routine treatment with medicines, makes it naturally organic and healthy. Alas, we stopped production of lambs in 2018, the sale of meat in 2019, and we savoured the very last of he remaining frozen hogget lamb in summer 2020 – full of flavour, tender, and profoundly satisfying to the very last mouthful.
An History Writ in Soil & Stone
The big wall – an gàrradh mòr – that encloses this garden dates from around 1740 when Alexander MacDonald I of Boisdale had a fashionable new house built here at Kilbride – Cille Bhrìghde. But the walls reveal that they were raised and the garden enlarged from an important house named as Boisdale on a map of 1654. So it’s likely there’s been a kitchen garden here for at least 350 years, and quite likely much longer.
MacDonald was very much a man of his time – the aftermath of the 1715 Jacobite rebellion, the Scottish Enlightenment – a man of education and science, the Protestant belief that man’s destiny was a matter solely between himself and God, a man looking forward to a future of his own shaping, not – like the Jacobites – harking back to some fabled golden past.
MacDonald is thought to have obtained in 1740 a formal lease for his domain of Boisdale – the first lease in the Outer Hebrides, enabling him to obtain a mortgage for building the new house and walled garden and the economic development of his estates. So, when in 1745 Prince Charles Edward Stuart arrived in Scotland – just across the water in Eriskay and urged MacDonald to take up arms with him, MacDonald had much to lose, and famously told the Prince to take himself back home to France!
Even the garden soil has a story to tell. Just inches thick outside on the machair, here inside the garden there’s up to three feet of fertile soil. There’s an old tradition that this soil came from France : it’s more likely that it’s the result of centuries of adding seaweed and manure; but there may yet be truth in the old story. The MacDonalds exported cattle direct to France, and ships would return with light luxury goods, thus requiring ballast. What better than so-called ‘night soil’ – ie human waste from 18thC towns and cities – to enrich this walled garden! History records that, in 1742, here in this garden, Alexander MacDonald planted the first potatoes ever to be grown in the Outer Hebrides – and so these walls are a listed building.
Tradition records that Saint Bride (or Birgid or Bridget) sailed to Uist from Ireland in about 508 AD, first stepping ashore here with an oyster-catcher perched symbolically on each wrist. A Celtic Christian chapel was founded here shortly after and dedicated to her – hence Cille Bhrìghde, or Kilbride; but the only known remains are Celtic stone burial cysts buried on the knoll by the old house.
By 1840 all the Clanranald MacDonalds had sold their Uist estates to the infamous Gordon of Cluny who let Boisdale house and its extensive lands as a sheep farm. In 1908 the farm was officially sequestrated for the creation of the new crofting township of West Kilbride; except for this garden, which remained with the estate until 1974 when the house you see now was built and a new south entrance made.
By 2002, after more than a century of neglect, the garden was little more than a rough lawn of coarse grass, with dense thickets of over-grown shrubs in the corners. Two years of back-breaking work – clearing, digging, composting and cultivating – brought the garden back into life ; but the greenhouse and four polytunnels and most of the plants were swept away by the hurricane of 11th January 2005. Almost all you see now – including complete gutting and re-building of the house, excluding the walls themselves, has been achieved since that night.
Built using only shell sand (for making lime mortar) and rock from the shore, the wall is a lasting testament to the vision, skill and sheer hard work of its builders. But after more than a hundred years of neglect, restoring the wall now, using only historical materials and methods, is a daunting prospect – and half a lifetime’s work!
Paradise – from an old Persian word meaning A walled garden