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Catherine Rice, Cottage Gardens and Gardeners in the East of Scotland, 1750–1914

Garden and Landscape History series vol. 11, Woodbridge, The Boydell Press, 2021, 312 p.
Aurélien Wasilewski
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Catherine Rice, Cottage Gardens and Gardeners in the East of Scotland, 1750–1914, Garden and Landscape History series vol. 11, Woodbridge, The Boydell Press, 2021, 312 p.

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1Scotland is well-known for its gardeners, landscape designers, botanists, and horticulturists. William Forsyth (1737–1804), Thomas Blaikie (1750–1838), John Claudius Loudon (1783–1843), Robert Marnock (1800–1889) or William Barron (1805–1891) are still household names to garden enthusiasts and historians, but they only represent a small proportion of what has been dubbed “the Scottish phenomenon” in British gardens in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (McEwen, 2013, p. 109). Catherine Rice’s book, however, is not primarily concerned with the great gardens of the wealthy and the powerful (pp. 23–7), nor with national botanical institutions, where armies of professional Scottish gardeners would have been employed throughout the period. Cottage Gardens and Gardeners in the East of Scotland, 1750–1914 rather focusses on the social history of non‑professional working-class gardeners, be they farm servants, labourers, handloom weavers, cotton-mill workers or miners living in the countryside.

2As made clear in the introduction, the study delves into the significance of small plots both from the perspective of the rural workers’ families and from that of their landowners and employers: did the garden, as a source of food, improve the workers’ standards of living? Could they be also a source of pleasure, beauty and pride? How was gardening regarded by other social classes? What was necessary to make a productive garden given the distinctive Scottish climatic, socio-economic and historical context? To answer those questions, and because “there are barely any traces left of the cottage gardens as they were planted and laid out by the rural workers” (p. 10), the social historian had to interrogate written sources: surveys and official reports by government commissioners, books by agriculturalists, clergymen and travellers, as well as articles from agricultural journals and gardening magazines. Interestingly, she also included memoirs, poetry and essays by the rural workers themselves, and worked on visual sources with paintings (Fig. 1) and picture postcards. Overall, Rice’s work can be considered a seminal “attempt at a history of cottage gardens in Scotland” (p. 11) and is thus also meant to identify gaps and spur further research on the gardens of the rural poor—which, as she points out, are too often missing from garden or social historiographies (pp. 4–7).

Figure 1. – Arthur Melville, A Cabbage Garden, 1877.

Figure 1. – Arthur Melville, A Cabbage Garden, 1877.

Oil on canvas, 45.5 x 30.5 cm.

Scottish National Gallery, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons: <​wikipedia/​commons/​a/​ab/​Arthur_Melville_-_A_Cabbage_Garden_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg>.

  • 1 A group of young artists that represented the beginning of modernism in Scotland in the 1880s. They (...)

3Chapter 1 sets out to identify the geographical specificities of the Eastern Lowlands of Scotland and provides an overview of the changes that shaped its rural landscape over the long nineteenth century. Though still colder than England, the area was the most fertile and mildest in Scotland. Contrary to England, Scotland had very few well-developed villages. The rural landscape was rather patterned with “fermtouns”, i.e. collections of cottages for tenant farmers and labourers. Rice identifies two phases of transformation of this “changing landscape”. The first improvement phase, from around 1760 to 1830, was characterised by the adoption of new farming techniques, the enclosure of fields, the building of new infrastructures such as roads and farm buildings, and the appearance of rural mills. Then, from the 1850s to the decades before the First World War, the countryside witnessed the effects of farming becoming highly capitalised, with railways expansion and large mines being built, before the rural depression in the 1880s and the gradual depopulation that followed. Before the first decades of the nineteenth century, travellers’ account of the Scottish countryside stood in sharp contrast with the garden-like depiction of the rural landscape of the south of England. With the planting of shelter-belts, the draining of marshland, the fencing of fields and the Lowland clearances, the image of poverty and backwardness gradually gave way to a more cheerful picture as planned villages and workers’ and labourers’ cottages with attached gardens flourished to retain or attract labour in the face of competition from the new industries, both rural and urban. In the 1850s and 1860s, Scottish agriculture boomed thanks to “high farming” techniques and investment. Rice convincingly links social and economic history with art and visual history. She explains how the representations of the rural poor evolved over the period: from John Constable’s tendency to hide “the rural workforce in the distance”, to the “shift in British middle-class attitudes to the poor” in the 1850s and their representations of rural life carrying “nostalgic, elegiac messages” (pp. 28–9), and finally to the “naturalistic and unsentimental” paintings of Arthur Melville and the Glasgow Boys1 (Fig. 1).

4Chapter 2, “Kailyards and Farm Servants”, discusses the evolution of a specifically Scottish type of garden: the “kale yard”. These utilitarian plots were characterized by a very limited range of exclusively edible crops (kale, cabbage, turnips, leeks and potatoes) and traditional modes of cultivation. Such gardens go back at least to the Middle Ages and were commonplace before “the era of improvement” (p. 31). The historian goes back to the history of “cottars”, wageless day labourers or artisans who were allowed a patch of land in return for their services. They slowly disappeared as a class in the end of the eighteenth century and mostly became full-time waged farm servants. Even though they lost their plot of land in the process, which made them dependent solely on their wage and their “gudeman”, the farmer, they would still be called “cottars”—or cottagers—in the nineteenth century. As profits from farming increased “came greater social distance between master and servant” (p. 35), as exemplified in the distinct food diets that came to distinguish each social class. Rice illustrates such deteriorated relationships with excerpts from bothy ballads, which paint a bleaker picture than the image of patriotic admiration conveyed by paternalistic accounts by the farmers. This distrust between servants and farmers can be accounted for by the “long hire” system of employment whereby “the farmer’s practice of sacking men at the term […] or, on the other side, the servant’s of upping sticks and moving to another farm” (p. 39) became commonplace. Rice’s analysis never forgets the consequences of social and economic phenomena on garden formation and management. Here, she concludes that, due to “insecurity of tenure and the customary movement of farm servants” (p. 7) and in the absence of spare time, farm cottage gardens were kept strictly utilitarian and little to no effort was invested in their cultivation. Most of the time, there was little or no encouragement on the farmers’ part to keep those gardens well cultivated, and proper horticultural knowledge was often lacking. Over the period, as “a growing proportion of the ploughman’s wage was in cash” (p. 56), rather than in kind, farm servants and their families increasingly came to depend on purchases from village shops and grocers’ van.

5As it happens, chapter 3, “Cottagers’ Gardens”, centres on the village and a type of garden that developed in Scotland in the nineteenth century: the gardens of specialised workers. Rice distinguishes three groups of cottagers, who, contrary to the farm-servants of previous periods, generally lived in villages: the farm labourers; rural industrial workers and lighthouse keepers; as well as skilled tradesmen. They had gardens attached to their homes, more free time, a greater security of tenure and middle-class neighbours to emulate at cottage-garden societies’ competitions. She admits that “the whole picture is hard to establish: were the pretty gardens rare gems in a sea of kale?” (p. 69). However, a clever use of press reports and other writings by rural workers allows for a better understanding of the reality of cottage gardening in the first half of the nineteenth century (pp. 70–3). Cottage gardens as we picture them today—with a flower garden at the front and a vegetable garden and pigsties, hen‑houses and beehives at the back—flourished later in the century in “the more prosperous and settled decades of the second half of the nineteenth century” (p. 87). Rice aptly identifies “the circulation of gardening knowledge and opportunities to visit nurseries, parks and gardens and flower shows” as consequential to the expansion of the “railway network, the penny post and cheap newspapers” (p. 87). Readers are eventually taken “Inside the cottage garden” (pp. 88–96), which is one of the most compelling sections of the book. It documents a wide variety of practices, from window to wall gardening, from ornamental pelargoniums, ferns and begonias to medicinal herbs and soft fruit cultivation.

6Chapters 4 and 5 respectively cover the histories of “Potato Grounds” and middens, which were fundamental to gardening. They are logically followed by an interesting chapter on “The Rural Diet” that such gardens provided, composed mainly of potatoes, cabbage, kale and turnip. It investigates the place of vegetables, the organisation and composition of daily meals and their evolution during the period through a variety of sources like recipe books and reports such as the “Hutchison’s survey” published in 1869 (pp. 140–4). While rural Scots consumed milk, oatmeal, tea and vegetables on a daily basis—when their English counterparts consumed less vegetables and more meat—by the 1890s onwards, the “industrial diet”—white bread, black treacle and sugar—spread as a time-saving and cheap alternative to healthier options—albeit not quite as massively as among the urban working classes.

7Chapter 7 looks at the development and increased popularity of “best-kept cottage garden competitions” and cottage garden shows, from their inception in the 1830s to their heydays in the 1880s and at how they were regarded by the different social classes that met during those events. They were organised by cottage garden societies that had been created and led by the rich to promote moral values and the spirit of emulation among the poor. However, later in the century, as they grew in popularity among the working classes and became holiday events that could draw thousands of visitors, “tradesmen and artisans began to take leading roles in the societies, their masters appear[ing] to have taken a step back” (p. 153). This chapter is priceless to the garden historian or Victorian scholar interested in the sociology of gardening and the representations associated to plants and gardens. Rice analyses a wide variety of factors and their evolutions over the period: the media coverage of the shows, the sociology of the competitors, of the society members and of the visitors, the types of exhibits and prizes according to social classes, the sources of funding, among others.

8Gardening competitions and flower shows most certainly had an important impact on cottagers’ knowledge and skills. Chapter 8 is devoted to “The Cottage Gardener’s Education” and the sources available to rural amateurs to learn about gardening, new plants, and sciences. Rice describes a multifaceted picture of personal exchanges and neighbourly or professional interactions at the level of the individual that is more complex than the mere “trickle down” of knowledge and plants from landowners to cottagers. She identifies personal interest, observation and determination as key factors to the development of gardening skills among the rural workers. The latter often had to work as unskilled labourers to build or maintain middle-class and farmers’ mansion gardens and nurseries (for instance moving earth, planting or weeding), especially in times when farm work was lacking. Gardening magazines and gardening manuals played a crucial role, even before 1855, when the Stamp Act was abolished, making them more affordable. She underlines the high literacy rates in Scotland and the circulation of written advice via employers’ libraries, free or cheap subscription libraries “almost in every parish” (p. 191), newspaper reading groups or simply copies “passed on from a better-off neighbour” (p. 191), and finally, in the first decade of the 20th century, belated attempts at introducing gardening in the school curriculum. Rice illustrates how this “love of gardening led to a fascination with the natural world” (p. 202) with the stories of two outstanding working-class botanists, George Don (1764–1814) and John Duncan (1794–1881).

9The sometimes microhistorical perspective of the chapter is supplemented with a conclusive instalment on the “moral climate” (p. 207) in which cottagers had to garden. Chapter 9 is a compelling attempt at delineating the evolution of the meaning of cottage gardens for “those who concerned themselves most with them” (p. 207), i.e. from the perspectives of the Enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century, the horticultural and agricultural writers of the early decades of the 1800s, the moralists and philanthropists of the mid‑Victorian period, to the land reformers of the last decades of the century.

10Complete with a glossary of technical and Scottish terms, a useful index and detailed footnotes, Catherine Rice’s book will be worth a read both for researchers concerned with the history of gardening in Britain, and for those interested in the social and economic evolutions of the Scottish countryside. She breaks new ground in conveying the distinctiveness of Scottish rural landscapes and brilliantly demonstrates that “there is hardly a spot of earth so rugged in which the art of the gardener will not be found” (p. 237; Jolly, 1883, p. 266).

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Jolly William, 1883, The Life of John Duncan: Scotch Weaver and Botanist, London, Kegan Paul, Trench & Co.

McEwen Ron, 2013, “The Northern Lads: The Migration of Scottish Gardeners with Especial Reference to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew”, Sibbaldia, The International Journal of Botanic Garden Horticulture, no. 11, pp. 109–23.

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1 A group of young artists that represented the beginning of modernism in Scotland in the 1880s. They were influenced by the French Naturalist movement and the Barbizon painters and worked en plein air to represent contemporary rural subjects. See exhibition details at <> (last accessed 15 January 2024).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. – Arthur Melville, A Cabbage Garden, 1877.
Légende Oil on canvas, 45.5 x 30.5 cm.
Crédits Scottish National Gallery, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons: <​wikipedia/​commons/​a/​ab/​Arthur_Melville_-_A_Cabbage_Garden_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg>.
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Aurélien Wasilewski, « Catherine Rice, Cottage Gardens and Gardeners in the East of Scotland, 1750–1914 »Études écossaises [En ligne], 23 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2024, consulté le 24 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Aurélien Wasilewski

Université Paris-Panthéon-Assas
Aurélien Wasilewski (Law & Humanities (CERSA, UMR 7106) is Associate Professor at Paris-Panthéon-Assas University, where he teaches English for journalism and for economics. He has taught English for art history, archaeology and museum studies in Paris Nanterre University and the National Heritage Institute, INP, Paris, as well as English for international relations and economics at the INALCO University. He completed a PhD thesis entitled William Robinson (1938–1935): Gardens, Horticultural Journalism and Environmental Heritage in the United Kingdom in November 2022. His research focuses on the history of gardens and the media, the socio-economic foundations of their aesthetics, and the human-nature relationship and environmental ethics they represent.
Aurélien Wasilewski (CERSA, UMR 7106) est maître de conférences à l’Université Paris-Panthéon-Assas où il enseigne l’anglais pour l’information et la communication et pour l’économie. Il a également enseigné l’anglais de l’histoire de l’art, de l’archéologie et de la médiation à Paris Nanterre Université et à l’Institut national du patrimoine (INP), ainsi que l’anglais des relations internationales à l’INALCO. Il est l’auteur d’une thèse intitulée William Robinson (1838‑1935) : jardins, presse horticole et patrimoine environnemental au Royaume‑Uni soutenue en novembre 2022. Ses recherches s’articulent autour de l’histoire des jardins et des médias, des facteurs socio-économiques liés à leur esthétique, ainsi que sur la relation homme-nature et l’éthique environnementale qu’ils représentent.

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