Marsali Taylor visits Da Gairdins at Sand.
Da Gairdins, Sand, is one of Shetland’s best-kept gardening secrets. The plantings were begun by Alan and Ruby Inkster almost 20 years ago, and include woodland, a wild-flower meadow, ponds, native planting and southern hemisphere collections.
It started when Ruby inherited the tenancy of three crofts from her family. Alan bought a fourth one, and they planted a shelter-belt of mixed woodland – you see it as soon as you round the corner into Sand, a broad band of trees either side of a well-kept gravel path. They were keen, however, to preserve the original beauty of the area, a meadow slope down to a salt marsh bordering the sea, while at the same time showing the diversity of plants that can flourish in Shetland’s mild climate.
Through the goodwill of her laird, the late Peter Hicks, Ruby and Alan bought the other crofts, and the whole area is now the property of a registered charity, Da Gairdens Environment Company. The company was founded in 2006, and none of the three directors receive any money from it – all donations and grants go towards the maintenance of the garden.
The total area of Da Gairdins is 60 acres, and the gardens and woodland now extend for seven acres, along with a further five acres of shelter-belt. The first thing I noticed as I got out of the car at the lower garden – Annie’s garden, after the late Annie Johnson, who used to work this croft – was the stillness. There was no sound of traffic, just a starling scolding, lambs bleating and the wind blowing. I came through the gate and around a stand of conifers to the first of many broad clipped-grass paths, meandering between shrubs and around ponds, with frequent wooden benches to sit and enjoy the peace.
The garden was an inspiration. The first pond was a broad footprint of water stippled by bronze leaves and ringed by shrubs: escallonia, daisy-bushes and yuccas, whose huge flowers had blackened to claw-like hands. As soon as I got to the far side of it, I smelt orange blossom: a huge philadelphus in full bloom. Beyond was a border of pampas grass, unspoiled by the wind, the plumes well above my head. Opposite that was a beech hedge which will be a wonderful colour come autumn. There was a little rhododendron walk, then banks of willows, and I was down at the loch, the marsh area, studded yellow with buttercups and iris. A Shetland wren tipped its tail at me from a fence, then flew off into the trees. Beyond the loch, which is actually a sea pool, and a favourite haunt of migrant birds and over-wintering waders, was the beach which gives Sand its name, and the voe.
I went back up to the second pond, more formal, with steps and a wooden walkway around it, and mazed over with long grasses, like a Chinese painting. There was the smell of yellow honeysuckle, and a hum of bees inside the lilac-white hebe. Each shrub was clearly labelled, for the benefit of those who would like to grow it themselves. Beside the pond, a large lawn would let small people run where you can see them.
A wide sweep of grass led down to the last pond (labelled “Beware of the Crocodiles” – it’s the deepest pond, at nearly a metre), which was hazed with white dandelion heads on lime-green stalks. Above it, in Do Modoo, grass stems rippled like the sea, and the clipped path was thick with wild flowers. I came back up through Da Gully, a fence-protected gravel walk between rock-garden border and shrubs: potentillas, rosemary, and another fragrant honeysuckle.
It’s a paradise for picnickers with children old enough to be safe around water (the ponds aren’t fenced in). They can charge off down the paths, hide behind and among the trees, come back for some food then disappear again to be Robin Hood or Peter Pan. You might need a Personal Location Beacon to get them back, though.
I did wonder who did all the work in so large an area, and asked Ruby when she appeared, basket over one arm and secateurs in one hand. “The Community Service boys,” she said immediately. “I can’t speak too highly of them. They’re been such a help, and their supervisors too, they work as hard as the boys, leading by example. We have one at the moment who’s got so involved that he’s now coming under his own steam to get on with projects he’s started – he’s using the willows to weave a summerhouse right now.”
Nor is Ruby content with the beautiful garden she and Alan have created. “The upper area’s being developed now. The community boys have created a path through the woodland up in Granny’s garden, and we’re making that into a rhododendron walk – but that’s very much a work in progress.”
Ruby would also like to give a big thank-you to are those who leave donations in the box at the gate. “The garden’s here for everyone to enjoy, all day, every day, right through the year,” she said. “Knowing that people have enjoyed it enough to want to help it continue gives you inspiration.”