In her fascinating new book, Catherine Rice shows how vitally significant their gardens were to the living standards and social standing of the workers who tended them. As revealed here, her research included going deep under cover to outfox estate agents, and noting the poignancy of these gardens and their cottages as they disappear over time.
This book was inspired by three of my loves: gardening, working-class history and the landscape of eastern Scotland. After researching the history of a lost 19th century village of hand loom weavers and agricultural labourers near Montrose in Angus I found I wanted to continue with obscure and under-researched bits of local history, searching out tiny crumbs of information in archives and clambering about the countryside.
The tiny crumbs took a long time to reveal themselves but I was soon hooked. After many years of very pleasant labour, and the faithful support of Boydell and Brewer, Cottage Gardens and Gardeners in the East of Scotland 1750-1914 came about.
I’m an enthusiastic though not very expert gardener but neither a garden historian nor a botanist so I was always going to place the focus of the book on the gardeners. It was the position of workers in rural society and the significance to them – and to their employers, the farmers, the coal and mill owners – of their gardens that was the real revelation. Their gardens were implicated, in a way completely different to the gardens of the upper and middle classes, in their standard of living, their daily meals and their relationship with their employers and their “betters”.
Plenty of old cottages remain in villages and on farms, mostly with their gardens intact, although changed beyond recognition. Who today would care to preserve or reconstruct on their own property the worn-out soil, the handful of crops (potatoes, kale, onions, leeks), the minimal border of flowers, the cinder paths, the pigsty and hen coop, not to mention the dung-heap, which characterised the typical Scottish cottage garden? After viewing several cottages for sale (with an (over) elaborate story for the estate agents) I learned more about the different ways you can modernise an old cottage than about their gardens. Many cottage rows have been knocked through to make a single dwelling and the gardens merged, so even the outline and size of the original gardens have gone. But if you search hard enough you can find cottages with gardens that once won prizes or meant much to their occupiers 200 years ago. And you can meet many people intrigued by your research and eager to tell their own stories.
The evidence I eventually unearthed was largely from documents, very often government and semi-official reports, such as the inestimable Old and New Statistical Accounts of Scotland (1790s and 1830s) and the Royal Commission on Labour of the 1890s, the latter recording the voices of the workers themselves. Travellers’ accounts, magazine and newspaper articles shine spotlights on some villages and districts but so much of the lives of poor cottagers was ignored, unless it fed the Victorian appetite for raising their moral tone. Nevertheless, a handful of workers’ writings illuminate some remarkable individuals, whose gardens meant much more than an outside larder. Flower shows too reveal the passion of poor gardeners for raising beautiful blooms as well as enormous veg.
My book scrapes the surface: there will be many rich deposits of cottage garden history for local researchers to delve into – get digging!
This guest post was written by Catherine Rice, who has been researching aspects of working-class history in Scotland since retiring as an English language lecturer in Dundee.