The renewed walled garden at Hospitalfield, Arbroath. Monks and medicinals. Artists and gentry. Now community art, a great diversity of plants and a welcoming place to relax.
The Living Field’s experience with medicinal plants led to an invitation to talk about the history and present uses of plants for health and healing at the Beer and Berries Festival to be held at Hospitalfield on 21 August 2021.
The old walled garden there has been re-designed and replanted. It’s had a history from 1260 when Hospitalfield was founded, some time after monks from Kelso Abbey in the Scottish Borders travelled north to establish Arbroath Abbey.
Given all this history and the clear success of the new plantings visible on the Hospitalfield web site , it was timely to see the garden first hand before sharing knowledge of medicinals.
A great diversity of plants
In late July 2021, the walled garden nurtured hundreds of flowering species (and some yet to flower), some native to the region but many from Mediterranean and even sub-tropical climatic regions – a great range of textures and exotic smells, teeming with bees and other insects.
Some of the original medicinals recorded from the 1200s had been planted, but also notable species from later in the garden’s history. Their story is related, with drawings, in a book by Laura Darling  describing the garden’s history, published this year.
Beer and Berries Festival August 2021
The festival of Beer and Berries will be held at Hospitalfield on 21 August 2021. From the web site : “It’s the height of summer and Angus is bursting with fruit and full of grain …
” Beer and Berries is a “regional festival showcase, connecting food and drink producers and suppliers to buyers and customers, set alongside a programme of talks, workshops, events and music.”
Hospitalfield garden is a gem of a place, where art, horticulture and science come together.
Thanks to Laura Mansfield, for the original invitation to contribute to Beer and Berries, Gillian Stirton from the Hutton communications unit for suggesting the Living Field’s input, and Kate Robinson, head gardener, for correspondence on native and introduced medicinal plants in Scotland.
Author / contact: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Raghnaid Sandilands describes a community growing project in Strathnairn and introduces a new venture with ancient cereal grains.
Fearnag Growers is a communal growing project based in a beautiful old walled garden at Farr estate on South Loch Ness. It has been worked by the community since 2016 and treasured by the allotment holders, a life line through the lockdowns.
Over the years we have become a small hub for cultural and communal events, hosting a wide variety of events – a Gaelic plant lore walk at midsummer with expert Roddy MacLean, drawing the garden days with artists Sarah Longely and Maureen Shaw, a hut raising day, a woodworking workshop for children and an alfresco traditional music session, are among some of the community building days we’ve had together.
Some of the photographs on this page show the Fèis Farr ‘Mapa Mòr’ – a huge charcoal map showing some characters from local stories and wildlife too, along with places that are important to the children, the allotments among them.
Ancient and unusual grains – April 2021
In late April a gathering of individuals of all ages came together at Fearnag Growers to communally sow and plant a number of different types of ancient and unusual grains. The sun shone and we had a morning to gladden the heart, working together and planting small patches of emmer, eikorn, naked barley and oats, Bere barley, Shetland Aets, and other heritage varieties of wheat and barley. Col Gordon from Easter Ross, grain expert and enthusiast, gave us direction and spoke with conviction about his passion for grains.
Grains are the staples foods of most of our cultures, but the growing of them today as monocrops or monocultures has become something very far removed from most folk.
Our major grains have very long histories. Barley and wheat began to develop in the Fertile Crescent around 10,000 years ago and are directly tied to the spread and development of Eurasian civilization. Rye and oats came later to our lands.
Easy to transport and store and very adaptable, these grains migrated across the globe, developing alongside peoples and their cultures. There are thought to be tens if not hundreds of thousands of cereal landraces globally. Landraces are now critically threatened.
In recent decades, more of the world has abandoned traditional farming and seeds and adopted more industrial systems and modern seed varieties. When this happens, the genetic diversity built up, in some cases for millenia, can disappear very quickly. Today very few grain varieties are commercially available and all have been bred to work alongside high-input chemical farming.
Whereas in the past, every region in the British Isles would have a few locally adapted varieties and landraces and maybe some local customs and traditions that would accompany them, these have practically all disappeared now. Luckily, some folk had the foresight to see this happening and began to gather as much of the world’s genetic material as they were able to preserve in gene banks.
If it wasn’t for these people we truly would have lost most of these varieties. But as John Letts used to say, a mentor for Col Gordon, rather than in these gene banks “the safest places for these seeds are the farmer’s fields.”
Grains in tradition
Farmers and crop scientists are starting to understand that modern varieties, which are bred for yield above all else, are not suited to low input growing or changing climatic conditions, not to mention flavour and nutrition. But we don’t often consider the damage done by disconnecting our grains from their histories, places, peoples or cultures. Each of these older seed varieties belongs to a distinct culture and place. There are likely all sorts of traditions, stories and myths, rituals, songs and festivals that are associated with a lot of them.
Col spoke to us about the need to stop thinking about grains and farming purely in terms of production and instead rediscover and repair once again the cultural aspects that make old agrarian systems beautiful. To do this may require us to question the limits of, for instance, efficiency and try to find a scale where grains are able to be surrounded by song again. While Rachel Carson’s “the silent spring” has made us question our trajectory of progress from an ecological point of view, Col suggests there may be need for a title “The songless harvest” from a cultural point of view.
Looking at all the things that have been lost in the name of speed, yield and efficiency, Col suggested that these are the kind of questions we need to be asking more.
Reconnecting with our farming culture
At Fearnag Growers we hope to play a small part in passing on some of this seed but also try to reconnect with some of the cultural aspects of grain. In September we hope the build another communal event around the harvesting and preparation of the grain. There may be food and songs too.
Col Gordon – hear more from Col and his own story in his recent Farmarama podcast series ‘Landed – the family farm (episode 1)’ He speaks in episode 2 to Raghnaid Sandilands of Fearnag Growers about her creative ethnology work and Gaelic.
Following contacts made at the Nourish Conference in November 2019, Andrea Roach from Edible Campus at Transition St Andrews organised a visit to the Living Field and the Hutton Institute farm, both at the Dundee site, in January 2020.
We also welcomed two of her colleagues: Helena Simmons who coordinates the Transition St Andrews Eden Campus, and Kaska Hempel who handles climate communications. The visit added to the current thinking on Where next for the Living Field?
Our visitors (Kaska) wrote a blog on the occasion, highlighting our work on Farming for a zero carbon future. Thanks from the Living Field and the Farm for your encouraging comments about our work.
Growing and eating Local Food
Transition University of St Andrews formed in 2009 is a ‘hub for sustainability across the town’. They are broadly based in a range of activities including waste and travel, but the prime reason for the visit was our shared interest in local growing.
The Edible Campus part of Transition runs 14 community gardens across the town. The work of planting, weeding and care of soil is done through daily sessions (in season) with local volunteers, many of whom are students. Produce of the gardens is offered for free, it seems. Volunteers can learn to take a leading role at one or more sites or else just drop in now and then for a bit of weeding. That’s a lot of interaction and activity!
Not far from St Andrews town is PLANT or People Learning About Nature, operating since 2011 as part of Tayport Community Garden. encouraging the community to grow fruit and flowers, reduce carbon emissions and enhance the natural environment. They have a weekly stand at Tayport Harbour selling produce and offer advice on how to grow more or better in the home garden. Support from the Climate Challenge Fund is allowing PLANT to link to other growers’ groups to raise their activity in Carbon Conversations. (All links below.)
A meeting of Edible Campus visitors and some of Hutton’s Agroecology group lasted well over an hour at the Living Field cabin and took in some major current issues. For example ……
The ongoing research on agriculture and food here that’s aiming to test better practices, e.g. for conservation and improvement of soil, through raising soil carbon stores, reducing agronomic inputs, encouraging coexistence of wildlife and production.
The Farm’s efforts to make large-scale improvements in such as water management and wildlife corridors and its connection to the surrounding landscape.
The current low provision of human food directly from agriculture in the northern part of the UK, and people’s reliance on imports; for example, the near-absence of bread-quality cereals and the minor production of pulses (peas and bean) for human consumption.
The potential major role of the small-in-scale enterprise (cooperatives, growers groups, and farm shops) in raising local production, but the need for better recording of their output and contribution.
Measures and metrics for a more holistic appreciation of production – quantifying cultural landscape, place, food and nutrition, the therapeutic value of growing food.
The need to reward agriculture – and especially small to moderate scale enterprises – for operating sustainably and not just for owning land or producing bulk output.
And quite a bit more …
Where next for the Living Field?
There is clearly a rising interest in local growing and nutritious eating. Our experience is that many community growers and home gardeners are pretty good at what they do. They have tuned their practice and plant varieties to the local conditions. Many community projects already have a range of learning and outreach activities.
The Living Field can share with these enterprises and learn from them. The Living Field could perhaps interact most effectively with local growers by advising on matters like soil quality, conservation and use of water and nutrients, the yielding potential of crops (and the yield gap) and estimates of carbon footprint.
Research organisations such as the James Hutton Institute have primarily worked on food and drink production with farms and the farming and food industries as the main beneficiaries. That’s where the funding has been directed. Yet food collectives and community growers, many operating on a very small scale, would in total and if operating more cohesively, have a major role in a sustainable future. Science needs to learn how to interact with these small-scale initiatives.
To date, EU funding has been the most effective route for such collaborations, both here and throughout Europe. But the future’s uncertain.
Kaska Hempel works on climate communications with Transition St Andrews: Kaska’s page. She also works at PLANT at Tayport Community Garden: tayportgarden.org. Their web site shows much activity – growing, learning and useful links to e.g. Carbon Conversations (a psycho-social project).
Helena Simmons is a Community Grower at Transition St Andrews, coordinating the Eden campus: Helena’s page. She also works at the Community Garden at Ninewells Dundee.
Joining the debate from the Hutton were Cathy Hawes, Pete Iannetta and Ali Karley, all from the Agroecology group.