The Isle of Raasay has a population of about 160 people. It is 14 miles by 4 at its largest and is accessed by a 20 minute ferry from the Isle of Skye. What group of community minded volunteers have done to turn an overgrown walled garden into a productive community resource which thrives on being part of a local, circular economy is truly inspirational.
The Walled Garden
The Walled Garden is 1.43 acres and set on a south facing slope sheltered by Raasay House on its south end and a high wall around the other three sides of the garden. There are records of a garden being in the area back to the 1500s and being a productive garden when Boswell and Johnson stayed as guests at Raasay House in 1773.
The soil in the garden is believed to be at least a metre of Irish top soil that would have been brought as ballast in ships. Given the lack of soil elsewhere on the island and the harsh weather conditions, the garden was, and still is, an important asset to the island.
Following a series of community consultations, Raasay House Community Company was set up to purchase and manage Raasay House, the walled garden and various other areas of land and forestry for the benefit of the community in 2007. RHCC’s membership is open to all permanent residents on Raasay and the board of Directors are appointed from the membership.
Raasay House was renovated and is leased to a private company who run it as a hotel and outdoor centre. The Walled Garden was under a private lease until the end of 2013 at which point the community decided to get the much neglected garden back into use as a community project rather than leasing it out again or turning in it into allotments.
A group of volunteers, the Walled Garden Action Group, stepped forward to get the garden, which had been locked and neglected for more than twenty years, back into production to provide fresh, local, seasonal produce to the community and visitors to the island, and to open the garden to the public as a beautiful and unique outdoor amenity space. They started work in 2014 to clear the masses of brambles, weeds and accumulation of debris – the garden had not really been worked productively since around the 1950/60s.
Volunteer Katherine Gillies, said, “We made small steps forward and many back as the weeds tried to maintain control. In 2017 we were successful in our application to the Climate Challenge Fund and were awarded £61,000 matched by £10,000 from RHCC. This enabled us to employ a full time gardener and a part time community engagement officer for a year as well as equipment which included three polytunnels, gardening equipment, seeds and plants. That year we were able to start growing and we sold produce from the garden to the local community.
“Since that funding ended in March 2018, RHCC have funded a part time gardener working 20 hours a week who, along with a dedicated team of volunteers, have continued to develop and expand what the garden has to offer.”
There is now one quadrant of the garden with polytunnels, a fruit cage and outdoor growing areas; a second quadrant is an orchard of 37 apple and plum trees all of which are all sponsored by local residents or people with links to Raasay; the third quadrant has more outdoor beds and some volunteer plots which are available to members of the community in return for a few hours a month volunteering in the garden and the fourth quadrant is mainly laid to grass and rose beds – with all the roses being sponsored by local residents.
The walls were cleared of brambles, weeds and fuchsia last winter and now have espaliered apple trees trained on them as they would have been in the original walled garden.
In early 2020, when lockdown seemed imminent, Katherine explained, “We made the decision to increase our production to ensure that we had as much produce available as possible so that people didn’t have to travel off the island to have access to fresh local fruit and vegetables.
“We also decided to stop selling through our local community shop as we had previously done and offered our produce from a ‘Veg Shack’ outside our gates on a donation basis. This reduced the need for contact when collecting produce and also meant that no one was excluded due to their financial circumstances. As a result the number of people using our produce increased hugely and that has continued this year.”
Katherine continued, “We are delighted that the school cook was able to get agreement from the Highland Council for us to supply the school with a weekly veg box for their lunches. As an island community with local venison, pork, mutton, beef and seafood already available as well as growing our own fruit and veg we are in a fantastic position on Raasay to be able to work towards becoming much more self sufficient in our food production.”
Local Food Waste Composting Scheme
The group have worked with the island’s primary school (currently with a role of 4 pupils and one in nursery) and have implemented a local food waste composting scheme. Unavoidable food waste drop off points have been set up at the school gates and in the centre of the village so that fruit and vegetable peelings and waste can be left by residents, the local hotel and visitors. This is collected by volunteers and taken to the school and walled garden compost bins.
Once composted, it is returned to use in the school polytunnel and in the walled garden. The scheme has been running successfully for over five years now and volunteers are interested in looking into whether they can also offer a scheme for cooked food waste using a hot bin composter.
The children of the primary school have recently visited the walled garden to sample the produce and to plant a wildflower patch – full of plants for insects and pollinators.
In the orchard, paths are mown around the trees and the benches leaving areas to grow naturally between them providing more wildflowers and long grass which not only looks amazing but provides a better habitat for the insects and pollinators. The paths and mowed areas create a striking geometric pattern – a nod to the volunteer mower’s profession as an interior architect!
An area in front of the rose beds was also left to grow long as well as the borders each side of the main path. At the end of the summer these areas were cut with a scythe, turned and left to dry into hay before being collected by a local crofter to be fed to some of his livestock cutting down any wastage from the garden.
Whilst the garden is not registered as organic, it tries to be as organic as possible and as well as making their own compost from food and garden waste, the volunteers use local seaweed that collected from the nearby beach and manure from local crofters’ animals.
Wherever possible they reuse and re-purpose materials: the Veg Shack was made using old stairs and other waste wood from elsewhere on the island.
Once lockdown eased and more volunteers were allowed back into the garden, there was an increase in the number of volunteers as the opportunities afforded by the garden to harvest flowers and produce gave people a chance to do something for the community in a safe, beautiful and social environment.
“There is still plenty more to achieve,” Katherine says, “and we are limited only by the financial and labour resources available to us. We continue to explore all opportunities that could help us take the project forward and make our financial situation more sustainable. The garden originally had Victorian glasshouses all the along the north wall and we would like to get some, or all of these, replaced or reinstated and in use as indoor spaces to help increase our income and the facilities we can provide.
“Anyone is welcome to come along and volunteer in the garden regardless of ability. As well as our regular local volunteers, we have holiday home owners who look forward to joining us when they visit. Our harvest days are busy so volunteers help with everything from picking to packing the fruit and vegetables along with cutting flowers and making up bouquets. We hold winter working days when we tackle some of the larger clearing and tidying jobs. All of our garden sessions involve tea and cake or brunch.”
Kate, one of the volunteers said, “I am very proud to be part of creating such a positive thing. I love to sit and see all that we’ve done: growing food and flowers; putting a smile on people’s faces; being inspiring to others; creating a place for health and well-being; promoting good food; laughing and sharing: leading by example and making a tiny difference.”
The garden has been featured on BBC Alba’s program about life on Raasay following their visit on one of the harvest days in the summer.