The garden on Orkney where heritage blooms

THE grounds surrounding a unique Orkney home reflect the area’s fascinating history and make the most of its stunning landscape

Odin garden. Picture: Ray Cox (
Odin garden. Picture: Ray Cox (

THE sun sinking between the hills of Hoy is an awesome sight during the winter solstice in this part of Orkney. The ancient Standing Stones of Stenness and Ring of Brodgar would have been central to Neolithic midwinter celebrations. But the way the land, water and light interacted in prehistoric times is something today’s visitors to Odin can still experience.

The house is named after the Odin Stone, which stood in a nearby field. Young lovers would make a pilgrimage to clasp hands through its hole and take the Oath of Odin, until a tenant farmer could stand the visitors no more and destroyed the stone in 1814. In 1936 an inspired master mariner who wanted to see water from every room built his retirement home, using wood from the liner RMS Mauretania. Some of those original fittings are still present in the house, a much-loved home owned by Orcardian Olive Taylor, available for self-catering when not being used by her family.

“Odin is a very special place and I have been very fortunate in that Dr Tom Smith, a family friend, shares this love of Odin,” says Olive. “Over the years we had often discussed how we could enhance the surrounding grounds.”

Odin garden. Picture: Ray Cox (

The garden has evolved over the past ten years with six separate phases and has given Odin a relationship with its surroundings that both reflects their prehistoric importance and offers a modern contribution to them.

Tom, a physicist and garden landscaper, provided pivotal inspiration resulting in this unique construction. He has made a number of gardens, including a medieval one in Yorkshire, landscaping at Cawdor Castle, Moray, and the Gordon Highlanders’ Garden in Aberdeen.

He and Olive collaborated with two master craftsmen: the walls and pillars were inspirationally created by Kevin Shaw, who has a croft on the far side of the loch. The bespoke green oak chairs and tables were made by Stephen Clouston, who lives in Stromness. They worked to a design set out by Tom.

The view around the house allows visitors to appreciate the old and new stonework. Low wall sections enhance the height of the Standing Stones, which dominate the view from the entrance. To the south-west, the Neolithic Watch Stone and 19th century Brodgar road bridge have been joined by a couple of impressive square pillars.

Odin garden. Picture: Ray Cox (

On the horizon, beyond the loch of Stenness, sit the two hill masses on Hoy. To the west, the view of Harray opens up with the shoreline receding towards the Ness of Brodgar. Making the most of the views to the water, the walls along the edge of the terrace have been kept to the minimum height.

A corner of the terrace reaches towards the loch in the far distance, with a spit of land extending from the garden into the loch. With a flavour of Viking heritage, the terrace corner has been made into a ship’s prow and foredeck. Green oak furniture and a cast iron plaque from the 19th century Thomas Telford Kirkwall pier are also in this area. The plaque had been on the front of Odin since the house was built.

Along the terrace and north-east of the house the references become agricultural, with fields and farm buildings. “This combination of water and bare rectangular fields provides an important component of the unique Orkney experience of light and sky,” adds Tom. “A simple barbed wire fence separates the garden from the field in which a flock of sheep often graze. This simplicity is a statement of the relationship between the garden and its surroundings.”

The use of stone takes on a metaphoric quality elsewhere in the garden, with a group of cuboids arranged to look like a flock of sheep. They were blasted in the nearby quarry at Finstown and make a bigger reference to the work of the artist and poet Ian Hamilton Finlay. Finlay’s garden at Little Sparta at the end of the Pentland hills near Biggar is influential for his use of sculpture and text set in concrete. He briefly lived on Rousay, one of the Orkney Islands, during the winter of 1955-56, working as a shepherd; this location became a source of inspiration for the symbolic landscapes depicted in much of his later work. Finlay went back to Rousay not long before he died and installed a sculpture there.

Odin garden. Picture: Ray Cox (

Following his style, the Odin sheep are each engraved with one word. Together they constitute a “concrete” poem, expressing the feelings that underlay this garden. They were placed during one extremely cold December by a lorry, a digger, two men, Tom and Olive.

Pockets of seating have been created. A ruined shelter by the loch is influenced by the recently unearthed Neolithic remains at the nearby Ness of Brodgar. This is a romantic location to watch the last rays of the dying sun, says Olive, “nesting terns permitting”.

Elsewhere a table was made from a large flagstone Olive found on top of a lorry load of stones that were being used to build a wall. “As soon as I saw it I thought we could use it to make a table,” she says.

The other buildings at Odin incorporate materials such as a cast iron triptych along the wall of the rod room, while a freestone panel built onto the summer house wall is laid with coloured glass sections and echoes the landscape.

Odin garden. Picture: Ray Cox (

Poetry and art strongly influence the design: a limestone block on the nearby lawn carries an inscription suggested by a work of the Orcadian poet Edwin Muir, and a Pictish eagle is sunk into the ground in the centre of the lawn between the stone sheep and the house. 

This is effectively the centre of Odin’s garden and it is from here that the landscape can be most fully seen. Says Olive: “Starting from the rectangular walls of the rod room one sees the Stones of Stenness, then the complex shape of the house, the ship’s prow, the Watch Stone, the Brodgar Bridge, the foreshore of the Ness of Brodgar, the distant reaches of the loch, the agriculture pattern on the far shore of Harray and the nearby ‘flock’.

“Odin is at the centre of this unique Orkney landscape, which led Neolithic people to develop this area. The recent changes at Odin have all been directed to enhancing this experience.”

To find out more on Odin visit

Odin. Carved stoOdin garden. Picture: Ray Cox (