Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Russets of the Outer Hebrides

Something I didn't expect to see in a garden in the Outer Hebrides; russets happily growing:


I spent most summers up to age 19 selling "chips" (baskets of 5 or 6 pounds in fruit weight) of these off our farmshop in the Vale of Evesham. So was gobsmacked to see them growing here.

It turns out that Alastair in The Willows had picked up a few young trees in blossom on the mainland and planted them. The russets look right to me; hopefully the trees will make it through their first Hebridean winter.

Apple and other trees aren't unknown here (hint: look at the name of the house). There used to be one in the garden of the church, and (allegedly) a few over Borve way. One newspaper report from the early 20th century mentions an orchard in Harris, and there are various people in the archipelago giving fruit tree cultivation a go.  

So the next step - an orchard. And then ... Berneray cider! :-)


  1. Did some research into Eilean Chaluim Chille on this east side of Lewis which shows that in the past the Western Isles were substantially more productive than today: It is considered likely that the interests of church on Eilean Chaluim Chille spread across onto the Crobeag mainland and beyond. The secluded ruins on the shore near Meall na Eoin may have been a priest’s house and there was a walled garden on Croft No 5 in Cromore known locally as ‘Leis-an Theambuill”, (The Garden of the Temple), although the stones were removed for use elsewhere at the end of the 19th century. The Columban monks knew enough about agricultural and horticulture to be self-sufficient and are thought to have grown vegetables, fruit and crops, possibly making use of an old Norse mill on the stream at Torasdaidh back on the mainland. There would have been an ample supply of fish in the loch, yet the monks introduced grey mullet into Loch nam Bodach, a fresh water loch on the other side of the village – and it can still be found there today. There is evidence that the Macleods, who held Lewis for a few hundreds years prior to 1610, took over Eilean Chaluim Chille when the monks abandoned it and continued to use it as granary, orchard and market garden, shipping produce by sea to the old castle in Stornoway. The island remained a prized possession of many subsequent owners. Today, it is rare to see vegetables, yet alone fruit, being grown anywhere on Lewis or Harris. However there is a renaissance of committed horticulturists prepared to face up to the challenges. The most obvious is the persistent wind, which scorches young plants. There are various ways of providing windbreaks such as traditional stone walling; hedging with quick growing species such as willow and using poly-tunnels. The residents of the old black houses used to build 'planticrues', which were small, walled garden next to their houses, - just the right size for a vegetable patch. Then there is the acidity of the soil, which needs to be neutralized with sand or seaweed, and the wet and boggy growing conditions which call for good drainage to be provided. If you can get all that right, all that remains is dealing with the midges which can severely detract from the pleasure of gardening. The only way to cope is to wear a midge net, long sleeves and to use plenty of insect repellant. Given the problems they had to overcome, the achievements of the St. Columban monks deserve our respect.

  2. It's really amazing what can be grown here. I can't comment on apples, but I personally have grown (with reasonable success) :Fruit:BlueberriesStrawberriesBlack/Red/White CurrantsRaspberriesVeg:PotatoesParsnipsPeasBroad beansBeetrootSproutsCabbageOnions & ShallotsLeeksI don't have a huge garden (my veg plot is two approx 30ft x 6ft strips) and haven't got anything fancy like a polytunnel (although that's definitely on the cards soon). Things that have grown well but are still to young to fruit are a nice fig tree (which has settled into its hebridean home very well this year - hope to get some fruit from it next year) and a plum tree which isn't dead yet ...We're in a fairly sheltered spot in the lochs area of Lewis, so wind isn't as much of a problem for us as it would be elsewhere, although we do have a good amount of willow screening off our plot, which seems to work. We built deep raised beds over the veg plot to help with drainage, and have a no-dig, top-up-with-loads-of-compost regime going, which the plants seem to like.I've visited gardens of other Lewis-based growers who've successfully grown (in polytunnels) everything from peaches to melons, so I can't see apples being particularly challenging.

  3. Ye cannae beat crunching intae a russet. Especially if ye've still got yer ain teeth.