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Scottish Parliament Speech: Allotments, Community Gardens and Grow-your-own Projects (December 2009)

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See this speech in context on They Work For You.

I congratulate Jim Tolson on raising this important topic in a members' business debate and stealing just about everything that I was going to say in my speech. As an historian, of course, one remembers the Scottish past, and the debate reminds me that one of the great ways in which imperialism advanced in the previous century was through Scottish gardeners going abroad.

No sooner had the redcoats gone back to their ships than there was a Scotsman sticking in a tree or a plant in Ceylon or Singapore. That great tradition emerged in literary terms in such great creations as Mr McGregor, who nearly made Peter Rabbit into a pie, and P G Wodehouse's Angus McAllister, who is the origin of the famous phrase, "It is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine." He was the gardener, of course, to Bertie Wooster.

It seems odd that, at a time when we discuss the scarcity of land, one sees from the train great acres of set-aside land in which the yellow flower of the ragwort, which is actually a toxic flower, is blooming. It seems odd that we have got out of control in that way. To go back to what Voltaire said at the end of "Candide", we have to cultivate our garden again. I suggest that we try at least informal approaches to those great landlords in Scotland who have huge amounts of unused land. Think about the areas of land around railway stations - which are owned by Network Rail - that just have weeds growing on them. Those who travel on the continent will know that, there, such areas are often made up into little Kleingarten or Schrebergarten where people can not just grow plants but sunbathe in the summer - when we have summer. They can also use them for family excursions, barbecues and that sort of thing. That is an important element and we ought to follow it up.

We should also think about what goes into the garden and what comes out of it. What should go into it is the huge amount of compost that many people accumulate. In my part of the Borders, we have colossal green wheelies for compost, which gets carted off to some unknown destination. The emphasis should be on getting people to compost their own stuff locally and, if they cannot use it in their own garden, as a lot of elderly people cannot, we should have the means for them to barter or trade it with people who can use it on their allotments.

My final point is that what comes out of the garden is food that can be preserved. One of the most moving - and in fact almost chilling - experiences that I have had was while I was teaching in Russia in 1997. It was evident, because they told me, that the townspeople of the city of Perm in the Urals had survived because of the food that they grew in the summer in their dachas and in the little allotments outside the town and preserved in pickling jars and the like. We all had our zakuski, or hors d'oeuvre, and that was more or less what they lived on. For some people, gardening is not a pleasure but a necessity. Now that we cannot go abroad, it seems, because the airlines are going bust, we may find ourselves having to cultivate our gardens at home again. Jim Tolson has shown us the way forward. I thank him for that.

Home > Politics > Scottish Parliament Speech: Allotments, Community Gardens and Grow-your-own Projects (December 2009)