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31 Mar 2020

From times of adversity

Written by Chris Wardle, Gardens and Designed Landscapes Manager – Aberdeen and Angus
A close-up of the head of a clematis feather, showing long feathery pale pink petals and a darker pink and yellow centre.
Clematis head
Adversity for gardeners is not a new concept – an old saying reminds us that ‘every flower must grow through dirt’.

In this uncertain time for all of us, there’ll be many people who’ll turn to the outdoor environment to find inspiration. The joy and beauty of being outside is something that those of us who work the land and inhabit it have long known. 

Whilst on lockdown, I’ve taken my exercise (as instructed) and the overwhelming sense that’s been enhanced has been sound. I’ve noticed that with the decreased numbers of planes and cars I’ve been able to hear the wind, birds and the general sounds of the outdoor environment, whether it’s the rustle of some leaves or the sounds of footsteps ... even my neighbours chatting over the fences, something that hasn’t really happened for generations. Even the sound of my own breathing has brought a feeling that, given a chance, the planet has a space to breathe.

In Scotland we’ve seen various periods of history where adversity has been our bedfellow, and I’m convinced that this is one of the reasons that the countryside and gardening are such a big part of the national psyche. An example of these troubled times and their immense significance can be seen in the Highland Clearances in Scotland from the mid-1700s until the early 1800s, where land was turned over to landowners for agricultural improvements and the tenants were forcibly evicted. In more modern times, during the world wars, the resulting pressures on our natural resources created an environment where upheaval and change were wholesale and the effects were long-lasting across generations.

A ruined crofthouse with no roof stands in the middle of an otherwise barren, rocky landscape. Jagged mountains can be seen in the background.
A post-Clearances Highland landscape

Many people are aware of Forestry and Land Scotland (formerly the Forestry Commission Scotland) and their work in managing tree production, our landscapes and forests. The Commission was created  in 1919, just after the First World War ended, by Lord Lovat who was acting on the Acland Report of 1916 to provide a strategic timber reserve for the whole country. During the First World War, Britain came very close to defeat – not, as many would imagine, due to a lack of people, food or resources, but due to the fact that we could not mine enough coal to smelt metals into weapons and machines to support the war effort. A lack of trees meant that we could not make pit props to keep the mines safe. Of course, at that time we had plenty of coal but we nearly deforested the country in order to mine safely.

A black and white photograph of a man dressed in a kilt and tweed jacket, holding a walking cane. He has a large moustache. He stands at the bottom of some grand stone steps, resting one foot upon the bottom step.
Simon Joseph Fraser, 14th Lord Lovat (1871–1933)

In this time of a changing climate, pressures on resources and the need to lock up carbon, trees have become a hot topic again. We can all play our part in helping to plant trees and care for our forests and wild places – they’re as important now to everyone as they were after the First World War.

As for myself, I’ve been a gardener for a long time now and anyone who has met me will know that I’m excessively passionate about the art, craft and methods of the activity. We have so much to offer everyone. Many of the Trust gardens have gone through stages in their history where they’ve waxed and waned due to changing fashions or external forces. We can look at times in history when the gardens have been used for other purposes. The image below shows the great garden at Crathes Castle around 1918, where you can clearly see flowers and vegetables being grown together. We’re lucky that we have a lot of archive images and film for Crathes. In a later film from the Second World War we can clearly see evidence of the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign – flowers grow in parts with cabbages and onions/leeks interspersed. Our spaces are adaptable and profuse. 

A black and white postcard of a castle seen from its large garden. Rows of vegetables grow in the foreground. The title Crathes Castle appears beneath the image.
The garden at Crathes Castle, given over to growing vegetables.

These examples  demonstrate the adaptability of gardens/gardeners and our own environment – when we need to, we’ll change to accept the new conditions imposed. Our relentless optimism always wins out. As one gardener said to me recently, ‘there’s always next year!’ The beauty of nature is that it will always win and reclaim what was always there; we’ve just been trying to tame it for hundreds of years. I seem to have the quote from Jurassic Park ringing in my ears: ‘nature always finds a way’.

This can all be summed up nicely (and with less risk from tyrannosaurs) by the great garden aficionado, designer and owner Vita Sackville-West: ‘The most noteworthy thing about gardeners is that they are always optimistic, always enterprising, and never satisfied. They always look forward to doing something better than they have ever done before.’

Go outside (when you’re allowed), smell, listen and breathe deeply ... enjoy the peace.

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