Gardens: Vibrant Shetland space rises to challenge

CREATING a garden on a steep bank on Shetland was hard going, but Sarah Kay can now reap the rewards

The view over to the villages of Scalloway and East Voe. Picture: Ray Cox (

THAT gardening is Sarah Kay’s passion is obvious from the moment you arrive at Highlands, the house she shares with her partner Laurence Williamson and their two-year-old son, also named Laurence. Only a passionate plantsperson would attempt to create a garden on the impossibly steep, rain-sodden bank rising up above the house.

Sarah hired a digger to help level the land on the slope below the house, to create a garden that now consists of a raised pond and an enclosed vegetable patch backed with generous herbaceous beds threaded with paths.

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Even more astonishing is that Sarah tends this garden alone. This includes laying out the wide sweep of stone-edged paths that lead from the shared access with the neighbours down the hill and past the beds, importing mulch and compost and planting.

The view over the pergola to village of Scalloway. Picture: Ray Cox (

The view was an inspiration. The house overlooks Scalloway, the former Shetland capital, the fish farm that has sprung up around Scalloway Castle and a marina packed with yachts. The west-facing site is vulnerable to the winds that batter the island and are the main challenge faced by all Shetland gardeners. Here some protection is afforded by a belt of trees to the west, while to the east, a hedge of New Zealand native Oleria Macrodonta.

Sarah’s experience was drawn from the first garden she made around the cottage on her native Isle of Whalsay. “There I made all kinds of mistakes, so now I can start afresh here.”

Work started in the back garden in 2009, the year she won Shetland’s Prize for the best young garden, and this is where Sarah leads me on arrival. A rectangular lawn extends from the house into the backdrop of a steep cliff consisting of thin patches of soil and exposed rock face. This lawn was prepared and levelled by the same digger driver, who excavated back into the side of the hill as far as he could before hitting rock. Once she had decided on the size of the lawn, Sarah installed a pink and purple pergola. Linked to a similar structure in the lower garden, these pergolas add a contemporary note.

The challenge was choosing plants that would cover the exposed face. The lower areas suffer from the water that continually runs down the slope and here Sarah has established vibrant beauties such as purple Primula denticulate, swathes of red Persicaria, white Libertia and apricot coloured Potentilla. Willow, native to Shetland, also clings tenaciously to the rock face and promises to establish soon.

Honeysuckle is encouraged to climb up the slope along with ground cover such as Cotoneaster. When these creeping plants refused to obey orders and fell forward towards the sun, Sarah responded with characteristic creativity. Having read about pallets used on steep slopes she located some of her own, painted them purple, planted them with an assortment of trailing strawberries, geraniums and purple cabbage, and hauled them into position using a system of ropes and pulleys. To tend them, she climbs up the bank holding on as best she can while trying to establish her footing on the slippery, weed-proof membrane used as a weed suppressant.

The tour continues via the greenhouse, essential in Shetland, where Sarah propagates and pots on. Here in a set of windproof wooden beds she raises and sells excess plants. “I price them modestly to encourage people to get going.”

Look closely at the steps down to the garden and you notice all kinds of treasures tucked into corners: rosettes of green, maroon-edged Sempervirens and drifts of purple campanula. Lower down the wood-edged path leads past themed beds of pink and purple geranium, white and maroon astilbe, hostas and a fiery combination of yellow, orange and red Geum. Deep orange Kniphophia adds a tropical look, as does self-seeding scarlet Potentilla ‘Melton Fire’.

Here Sarah is building a row of linked wooden arches “to create a tunnel effect” and to allow supports for climbers. The pond, presided over by a mermaid statue, attracts wildlife. Also built by Sarah, and lined with drystone walls, the pond boasts an additional plastic liner and, on the lower level, is backed by turf rising up above a bank of orange Crocosmia. This, along with other established clumps, is currently being thinned to allow the introduction of new plants.

This brings you to the vegetable garden, where little Laurence plays happily while his mother plants, thins and harvests beetroot and salads. Soft fruit, strawberries and raspberries grow in a little patch at the end of the enclosed bed.

Alder, another Shetland native and “a good shelter plant”, alternates between dark purple buddleia, pink and white Spirea, hydrangea along the lower path. Here, as around the pond, patches of brown soil have been scattered with recycled glass chips which glitter in the sun.

From here you can see the marina where Laurence, who is passionate about sailing, keeps his boat. “On good days there is always a discussion as to who goes sailing and who stays at home to look after little Laurence,” she laughs. Fortunately her mother-in-law lives next door and, with her willing help, Sarah and Laurence are able to pursue their passions.

• Highlands, East Voe, Scalloway is open daily under Scotland’s Gardens (; accommodation is available in the Easterhoull chalets ([email protected]). Antoinette Galbraith and Ray Cox flew to Shetland with Logan Air (