Judy Wilkinson is an allotments campaigner, activist and Commonspace contributor who lobbies for allotments and growing spaces to be available for everyone in our towns, cities and countryside. She has cultivated her own allotment in Glasgow for over 40 years and is a member of the Scottish Allotment and Gardens Society (SAGS) and the Glasgow Allotments Forum (GAF).  She is an advocate for the multiple benefits that allotments offer to people and to the environment, believing that everyone who wishes should have access to a plot where they can “enjoy seeing their plants grow, listen to the earth and laugh with the birds, bees and butterflies”.  Judy also helped to create the first record of Glasgow’s long standing cultural heritage of growing and gardening, as part of the team that produced the ‘Heritage of Glasgow’s Allotments’ [i]  She argues that allotment sites are an integral part of sustainable places, contributing to the partnership between the citizen and the city in multiple ways.

In this article she responds to SURF’s 2019 annual debate topic: How can places and people use their distinctive assets, creative processes and shared culture to drive authentic community, social and economic regeneration?

Allotment – Contrasting Cultures      

We come in peace, they said, to dig and sow.
We come to work the lands in common.
And to make the waste grounds grow.
This Earth divided, we will make whole.
So it will be a common treasury for all”.
from The World Turned Upside Down,
by Leon Rosselson
(in celebration of the 17th Century Diggers[1])


The SURF 2019 annual debate encouraged me to explore where allotments fitted into our understanding of what counted as culture – and how that culture could be part of the drive towards authentic community, social and economic regeneration.

I would argue that allotments are much more than ‘just’ a space for individuals to grow food.  Allotments in all their many varieties can make a valuable contribution to the issues of our times.  They are part of Scotland’s cultural assets and can be part of the solution to the challenges facing our communities.

Culture has many definitions and images. If it is the ideas, customs and social behaviour of a particular people transmitted through language, material objects, ritual, institutions and art from one generation to the next, then the diggers (allotmenteers) have a thriving culture. They share a basic structure of language and rituals but there is a richness and diversity where every site is different, reflecting the ecology, wildlife, stories and craft of the place and local community. The people’s culture is not something that is ‘done to them” or which they observe but one they are part of, enjoy, and share. Allotment sites are a patchwork of different ways of cultivation and stewardship, contributing to the cultural dynamic of an area. The stories, art, and rituals alter in context and meaning with experiences and environmental change, rooted in the earth and the individual’s relationship with the soil.

We need an awareness across Scotland of our landscape and plants and all that inhabit them. We need a future without food banks and food waste. We need to have an explosion of understanding across Scotland of the amazing land we live in: knowledge and love of wildlife; indigenous plants and local food; the sound of the birds; the history of the trees; the fascinating questions of why spiders weave their webs or the frog croaks or ice crackles.  All of that can be learned and understood through our allotments.

As part of the bigger picture and vision, allotment culture connects to everything that is important.  There are obvious connections with Food Security, and perhaps less obvious connections between allotments and Inclusion, with gardening providing links to growing from across the world. There is also growing evidence of the way that an individual’s relationship with the land can impact on Wellbeing.

We should honour, preserve and celebrate this culture – through Spring and Harvest Festivals, stories, songs and play. We need to ensure land is preserved so new allotments are created and everyone can share the joyousness and have time for slow food, slow living and growing naturally.

Allotments are a microcosm of our wider world encompassing the same contrasts and diversity of our cities and countryside.  Please join me in celebrating the amazingly variegated, yet connected, culture that is manifest in Scotland’s allotments.

Culture and Origins

Different sites have different cultures of growing, depending on the people who make up that particular allotment community.

Springburn allotments in Glasgow have plot-holders from the Afro-Caribbean, Iraqi, Malaysian, Chinese and Polish communities. Each group brings in friends and relations and they then take on another plot. I attended a summer Open Day on the site and the food was amazing with offerings from the cuisines of the different nations made with produce from their plots. A true multi-cultural experience.

In contrast my own site in the West End of Glasgow is almost totally white and reflects the area. We have BBQ’s with sausages (meat and vegetarian) and rolls. Springburn has Chinese melons in strings along the walkways, my site has ordered rows of potatoes, onions, courgettes, corn, peas, beans are often grown. Over the years more and more dwarf fruit trees have been introduced and many plots have a variety of soft fruit. The site was designed in 1974 by someone who had been to Germany and like the German model of allotment gardens, it is well ordered, neat and tidy and provides a totally different experience from Springburn.

What is grown is different even in parts of the same city. Dundee is home to the National Vegetable Society. The roots of the Dundee Flower and Food Festival may go back to a Flower Show in 1825 [2] and the city hosts the Scottish National Chrysanthemum and Dahlia Society Annual Show. Across Dundee there are passionate, expert plot-holders such as Don and Hazel Elder who are international experts in daffodils[3] . Growing for shows is a deep part of Dundee culture, particularly for unemployed men in a matriarchal society where many jobs in the past have been taken by the women. However as  Robert Armour, a Third Force News reporter, explains, the women in Dundee also benefit from their allotments: [4]

‘A women’s project in Dundee holds regular vegetarian feasts on their allotments. The project was created by three women survivors of domestic abuse who had lost their gardens when they fled abusive partners. The allotments soon became a central focus for them rebuilding their lives. They’ve grown potatoes, carrots, swedes, beets and leeks as well as a range of herbs’.

Culture and Food

What is the basic food culture? Potatoes are universally enjoyed. Ask a group of allotmenteers from round the world what their favourite recipe is based on and probably they will reply ‘potatoes’[5].  Scotland grows over 230 different varieties of potato, each one different and many sought after for particular dishes. Potato days where gardeners can buy their seed potatoes are held across Scotland in February and March. In Glasgow 600 people regularly queue for their favourite spuds.

Other favourites are beetroot. Andy Forrester in Westthorn allotments gives away 50 jars of pickled beets each year. People start salivating at the memories of raw rhubarb and sugar from their grandparents plot or garden. At allotment open days, rhubarb is usually the first produce to sell out along with strawberries.

And it’s not just fruit and vegetables that can thrive in allotments. The young people at St Pauls Centre in Blackhill in Glasgow wanted to develop the land round the church into a community growing space and the first thing they acquired were chickens. They were told that hens would never survive more than 2 days in Blackhill, but four years on, they now have 20 hens scratching among the newly planted fruit trees, with their eggs cooked for the community meals along with the produce from the new raised beds created beside the hen coops.  They have kept bees for 3 years with Blackhill’s honey tasting of clover and willow from the nearby Hogganfield Park. Families, community members and the young people work together on the growing projects and they now have their sights on a four-acre space for a market garden very close by.

The wish to keep hens and bees is very strong and several plots on allotment sites have hen coops and bee hives.  I once asked Alastair McIntosh why there were no allotments left in the areas of Glasgow where the Highlanders had settled. He felt that the main diet in the Highlands was fish, mutton and dairy with potatoes, swedes and kale; and suggested that if the ex-crofters had the space to keep a cow or sheep they would feel connected to their crofting culture. I suspect several allotmenteers would like a sheep, goat or a cow but the 250 sq m plot that everyone has the right to does not provide sufficient space. However with a growing number of proposals for city farms these connections may be viable. A holistic vision for the culture of growing and nurturing includes city farms along with orchards, allotments and wild areas.’

Culture and Huts

Many allotmenteers  express their creativity in the way they build structures on their sites.[6] The contrast between sites is illuminating. In Budhill in Glasgow the huts are all from recycled materials, Denis has a double glazed green house, Harry spent only £5 (for new nails) on his palace and the community hut is a refurbished container.

In Inverleith in Edinburgh there are designer huts including a gothic one that is quirky and amusing, reflecting the owner’s personality.

Individual huts at Inverleith Allotments, Edinburgh (Photograph by Rachel Townsend)

A less interesting example, is the Stenhouse site in Edinburgh (which can be seen from the train) revealing the dead hand of the Council who insisted on the uniform size and design of huts. Unfortunately, this ‘gentrification’ is endemic in local authorities because of the perception of allotments as ‘shanty towns’.  I agree that hutting policy should reflect the attitudes of the surrounding local community, there are even sites such as Deans in Edinburgh which have no huts, but where possible individual creativity should be encouraged.

As allotmenteer Robin Bower , says about the huts on his site in Queens Park;

‘We were lucky several years ago to get a supply of old plastic sheets from bus shelters, to build green houses with. Some had graffiti on (who loved who and who didn’t) these went on the roofs of many, so if you fly over the plots you could get an idea of the social morays of Glasgow.

Culture and Design

The design of the site influences the culture of the allotment community and onwards, spreading knowledge and information into the surrounding community.

Slopefield Allotments in Aberdeen [7]  had been allotments since 1980 but suffered from fly-tipping to the point where in 2008,  a small group of plot-holders met with the Council to develop the site.  Early engagement between the surrounding community and those using the site developed quickly with an emphasis on biodiversity.  The plot holders began a collaboration with Airyhall Primary school and the James Hutton Institute and produced a programme of events and activities to help teach the children where their food comes from and increase their environmental awareness. Their partnership resulted in the creation of a new educational and social centre donated by The James Hutton Institute. The site (for 100 plus plots) is open, embedded in the natural surroundings and engages with the natural world.

In contrast Westthorn allotments in Glasgow has plots that are enclosed by high hedges and accessed through locked doors. However amazing things to benefit the wider community have also happened behind those locked doors .As part of the Playbusters initiative in Parkhead Glasgow, volunteer Andy Forrester  organised an intergenerational group where the children sowed, planted and played with a sand pit and a billiard table in the hut[8]. Brian Timms and Jane Sillars have a plot that is a bird friendly wildlife garden with ponds, rotting logs, leaf mould and compost heaps along with a hut and a wood burning stove. Both kinds of sites serve the needs of people in the local communities

Culture and Creating Communities. 

A broad cross section of different nationalities have joined forces to create an ongoing cycle of celebration and sharing at South Western Allotments in Pollock Park Glasgow. At the last count there were two Kurdish families, Chinese, French, Romanian, Chilean, German, Kenyan, Australian and Highlander families sharing space with plots tended by members of Flourish House[9] and a Men’s Shed.

The Allotment Association there organises a raft of get togethers, and fund raisers, including autumn coffee mornings for MacMillan and a spring one for Horatio’s Garden (charity). The Chilean family opens their plot (and their pizza oven) for a celebration on midsummers eve to which all plot -holders are welcome and which ‘dances away until the wee hours.’

The association has even acquired an apple press because there are many apple trees on the site and now plot-holders can press their apples and taste the different juices. They also have a community garden for plot-holders who can no longer garden a plot but want to retain ties, community groups and schools.

Even those other sites which don’t encourage such celebrations and community engagement are inevitably a community of sorts. The plot-holders may ‘keep to themselves’ although, since all share the passion for their plots, the atmosphere is usually friendly and the general conversation about the weather, the produce and inevitably the d*** pigeons and slugs provides a backdrop to the individual engagement with their patch of land.

Community gardens tend to emphasise the community culture and their role in bringing people together [10] whereas allotments may be more likely to cater for the individual needs within the community. However the organisational structure of allotments can be off putting for some who wants a smaller, informal set-up. The Leamy Foundation in West Dunbartonshire[11] has a small Growing Space behind the Blue Triangle  home for homeless people. It is a lovely, quiet place with six raised beds, a greenhouse, seating area, a designated patch for wild flowers and fruit trees round the border. It has expanded to neighbouring gardens and greenspace.

David Lamont, who is now a community worker with Leamy, was advised to volunteer at the site. He suffers from Gulf War Syndrome and describes how, when he first started at the garden, he did not know anything about gardening and was not sure it would help him. He was given the task of plotting plants and thought he would perhaps manage half an hour. Two hours later he realised that:

‘ My mind had been at peace for these two hours. In effect I had peace from my mind racing with negativity for the first time in who knows how long’.

The main driver for the growing space project is to tackle social isolation among a group of people with moderate mental health problems in a society where anxiety and depression is steadily on the increase. David says:

‘When I was very ill I had professional help. However as my condition started to improve there were no options open for me to continue my recovery that I felt I could move forward with.  I think unconsciously I had realised that when I was under the care of the mental health services, being in an informal group of likeminded people had been the driver behind my progression but when I felt better but not recovered there was no way to continue this model of recovery.  When I was introduced to The Leamy that opportunity presented itself, although the project was not targeted at health and wellbeing it was a result of attending the sessions.”

The health and wellbeing sessions in the Growing Space are  targeted to try to improve people’s confidence and self esteem through working as a team and simply just giving people a reason to get out the house.’

For people suffering from PTSD, the environment must be, as it is with Leamy, non- stressful. People can come and go without any pressure. He would not want a plot on an allotment because he would be concerned about the judgement of others, the expectation to reach a certain standard and the fear of failure.

Sometimes plants grow, sometimes they don’t; that is OK but if you can’t be absent for a while without having to explain why the weeds are shooting up then you face regression.” Different spaces for different needs.”

Culture and Organisation

The administration of every allotment is dependent upon the different local authority areas.

In Edinburgh FEDAGA,[12] has representatives from the allotment associations, is funded by and negotiates with the council but, to date, the 1,510 plots spread over 30 Council sites are centrally managed.

GAF[13] is a forum for promoting and supporting allotments in Glasgow, it has looser ties with the Council and all Council sites have a measure of devolved management.

West Dunbartonshire has the Growing West Dumbarton Forum which has no organised structure but is supported by its 46 members from every conceivable growing group (schools, alzheimer’s association, horticultural groups, community organisations, allotments etc), the Leamy Foundation and the Council.

This difference of approach mirrors the individual allotment associations across Scotland. Some have rules to cover every conceivable situation; they may outlaw flags, gnomes, and pets, but then the basic rules have to be adapted as cunning plot users find ways to thwart them. A ban on black plastic has to be changed to ‘no plastics’ when someone covers their plot in blue plastic.  Bold statements like PLOTS SHOULD BE FULLY CULTIVATED can grow arms and legs as debates on ways in which that might be interpreted develop and tick lists for those enforcing the rules grow ever longer. Other associations take a more relaxed and inclusive approach with minimal rules and a reliance on developing shared values, goodwill and trust.

Culture and The Arts

Allotments as artistic inspiration may not generally be recognized but there are a growing number of ‘creative events’ in, around and about Scotland’s allotments.

Among these, the Compass Gallery [14] has hosted two exhibitions of pictures specially commissioned from their artists on the theme of allotments. The first ‘A Patch of their Own’, was a touring exhibition to seven venues in 1997/8 and the second ‘Still Spaces’ was shown in 2013.

The Heritage of Glasgow’s allotments project [15] created booklets and an exhibition containing portraits by Carlo D’Alessandro some of which were shown at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh in 2012.

New Victoria Gardens, close to the Tramway on Glasgow’s southside. has hosted several environmental arts events.

There is a plethora of  films about allotments, mainly on allotment wars but  including a moving one filmed by John McDiarmid about the St Mungo’s cup contestants in 2018[16] and videos about Wellhouse allotments[17].

Emily Chappell[18] has designed quirky t-shirts inspired by her plot and the allotment movement and a lovely book with inspirational sketches ‘ A Hut of One’s Own’ [19]

As part of the WW1 heritage events in Glasgow, Hannah Connelly created a World War I plot in Pollock Park and created an exhibition ‘War and Peas’[20] with stories of how sites developed in response to national emergencies in  with the bonus of a booklet including recipes for ‘feeding people in times of conflict’. (I wouldn’t recommend Potato custard)

Culture of Heritage

There is a growing global awareness of the traditional wisdom and practice of indigenous groups [21] and I suggest there is a need to cultivate and conserve the practices and wisdom of our own allotmenteers as Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) .

I believe that the experiences, skills and resources of those cultivating a plot are a valuable part of what can be called indigenous Scottish culture and contribute to TEK .

TEK ‘is the basis for local-level decision-making in areas of contemporary life, including natural resource management, nutrition, health, education and community and social organization. TEK is holistic, inherently dynamic, and constantly evolving through experimentation and innovation fresh insight, and external stimuli’ [22].

This traditional knowledge is transmitted in many ways. Most is done through repeated practice and often through apprenticeship with elders and specialists. Every plot-holder will tell you it takes time to acquire the skills. Even after forty years I am not a good gardener. New plot-holders find it much easier to settle into established allotment sites because they see how others garden and can follow and talk to a friendly neighbour who gardens in the way that suits them. New sites, because of the lack of tradition, usually run into teething problems which take a number of years to sort out. Oral and artistic traditions are also critical to the bonding of a community and transmission of knowledge with poems, music and art providing important remedies and pathways for environment restoration.

In conclusion, there can be no doubt that culture is embedded in Scotland’s allotments and allotments are embedded in Scotland’s culture.

So let us use allotments by every means we have to change our world. As the Sages of the Talmud say “Three things restore a man’s consciousness:

‘ beautiful sounds, sights and smells’ [23]

Today on my allotment I enjoy the sound of the birds, laughter of children. I see plants growing, flowering and fruiting and smell the blackcurrants, thyme and lavender.

Allotment places and people are inextricably part of Scotland’s culture and heritage and already use their distinctive assets, creative processes and shared culture to drive authentic community, social and economic regeneration.  

May SURF encourage everyone to ‘participate in growing’.

Judy Wilkinson

Allotments Campaigner June 2019

[1] The Diggers were a group of radical English dissenters formed in 1649 who believed in a form of agrarian communism in which common land would be made available to the poor. They were suppressed by the authorities. Their leader Gerrard Winstanley was captured and jailed.
[2] https://dundeecityarchives.wordpress.com/2018/08/23/dundee-flower-show/
[3] http://www.sags.org.uk/docs/NewsLetters/Spring2019.pdf
[4] http://scottishcommunityalliance.org.uk/articles/2753/
[5]  www.emilychappell.com/filter/zine/Tatties-for-Tea
[6] A hut of One’s Own – Emily Chappell http://www.emilychappell.com
[7] https://www.slopefieldallotments.org
[8] https://www.rbge.org.uk/news/big-picnic/
[9] https://www.flourishhouse.org.uk
[10] http://www.growyourownscotland.info
[11] https://theleamyfoundation.com
[12] Federation of Edinburgh District Allotments and Gardens Association https://www.fedaga.org.uk
[13] Glasgow Allotments Forum https://glasgowallotments.org
[14] http://compassgallery.co.uk
[15] http://gah.org.uk
[16] https://youtu.be/2vzvMVoP4uo
[17] https://vimeo.com/216733508
[18] op cit
[19] A Hut of One’s Own’ Emily Chappell published by Heads of Zeus 2017
[20] www.northlight-heritage.co.uk
[21] For example, Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity UNEP Intermediate Technology Publications 1999
[22] op cit P9
[23] op cit P624