What is the history of the Big Tree?
The Big Tree stands in Albert Street in Kirkwall and was planted by Robert Laing (1722 -1803). The Laings were prominent in the kelp industry and two sons Samuel and Malcolm became successful in politics and travel writing. As the kelp industry faded the Laing sold the property. The Big Tree originally stood with two others in the grounds of a grand house. So in 1870 the house was sold to a chemist who decided to fell two trees. This caused a public outcry, which saved the third. The Council bought the tree for £5 and pledged to look after it. As Kirkwall grew, the Big Tree eventually found itself in a street rather than a garden.
Why is it important?
This 200-year-old sycamore is a well-known and much-loved landmark in Kirkwall, used as a meeting place by generations of Orcadians. As we can see the Big Tree has been the source of inspiration for art and photographs over the past millenia.
What does it mean to folk?
In more recent years, public concern in 1995 once again saved the Big Tree when the Council wanted to remove it. In poor health due to its challenging location, and its hollowed-out trunk supported by a metal rod, the Big Tree nevertheless continues to find a special place in the hearts of Orcadians. This metal rod is the source of some amusement with some folk wondering how long the tree can survive.
David Horne wrote this about the tree:
brucked by the world’s coorse naevs,
Gizzened by summer suns,
an’ stiff wae rheum
That gnaws baith man and tree
ye mind the hour
Th’ relentless worms o time
can never cloom
Visitors have commented:
“The tree is in pretty poor health so it remains to be seen how much longer it will last,but I would hope that even if the tree was removed it would be commemorated in some way”
Local folk have said:
“It’s been here aal me life – it is just pairt o’ the history o the toon”
“I think that the tree is an iconic feature in the middle of Albert Street”
Gavin Barr – Director of Development and Infrastructure Services at Orkney Islands Council gave this reassurance:
“ The big Tree is an important Kirkwall landmark and we want to keep it in good condition and in place for as long as it remains safe to do so”
How did it receive nationwide recognition in the last few years?
Tree of the Year Award
The Big Tree was nominated by Kirkwall and St Ola Community Council and Andrew Richards for Scotland’s Tree of the Year 2017. It was short-listed and, after an online public vote, it won this prestigious award. I remember when the Clerk – Hazel Flett – mentioned to me that she had received a letter from the Woodland Trust with regard to entering a competition for the Tree of the Year in Scotland. After a brief discussion around the table I said to Hazel “just fill it in anyway- you never know we might win”
Nothing was heard for several months and then Hazel was contacted by the Trust inviting someone from the Community Council to come down to Edinburgh for the ceremony.
Dr Tom Rendall, Chair of Kirkwall and St Ola Community Council, travelled to Edinburgh in December 2017 where he accepted the award at an event at the Scottish Parliament.
The Woodland Trust along with the Postcode Lottery also awarded £ 1000 to be spent in the upkeep of the Big Tree through practical and educational activities.
Dr Tom Rendall tells the story, "It was a great honour to go down to Edinburgh to receive the award so I had to fly down during the day in order to attend the ceremony in the evening. It was a windy morning as I set off by bus to the airport for my return journey. I had made arrangements, with the help of Liam McArthur (pictured above) to take the award in the cabin with me – where it occupied the seat next to me. To my surprise – when the pilot welcomed us all on board he said “….and a special welcome to Dr Tom Rendall in row 4 who has been down in Edinburgh collecting an award for the tree of year”. A mixture of delight and profound embarrassment was felt as the other passengers applauded. It was a bumpy flight but I managed to get the award safely back to Orkney."
The Kirkwall and St Ola Community Council had to return the original award to the Woodland Trust after one year but a smaller replica award was sent up to the Community Council. This replica is now in the 20th Century Gallery of Orkney Museum at Broad Street in Kirkwall.
Some images of the Big Tree taken over the last 140 years - these show how its appearance has changed over the decades.
The Future of the Big Tree
So, after 200 years, the Big Tree is still standing in Albert Street but how long will it be there? Will the trunk become too unstable and how important is it to save the tree anyway? Those are questions that may be asked by some of the folk who live in Kirkwall and, indeed, throughout Orkney. Visitors are often bemused and amused by the support metal rod that holds up the tree.
The Big Tree is still an important part of the heritage of Kirkwall and reminds us of the past history of the town centre. It has become almost a symbol of longevity and would be missed if it was removed from Albert Street. It should be preserved for as long as it is safe for it to be there . When it is gone then seedlings have been propagated and there are small offshoots of the Big Tree in different locations throughout Orkney.