Meet the suff-veg-ettes

Rooting around: Deborah Reid is researching the history of the School of Gardening and is appealing for information. Picture: Jayne Wright
Rooting around: Deborah Reid is researching the history of the School of Gardening and is appealing for information. Picture: Jayne Wright
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IT was a green-fingered profession deemed too strenuous for the delicate ladies of the day.

But now the little-known history of women gardeners – and the pioneering Capital school that trained them – is being unearthed for an academic paper.

Phd student Deborah Reid is researching the story behind the Edinburgh School of Gardening for Women – a trailblazing institute founded in Inveresk before moving to Kaimes Road, Corstorphine, in 1903.

Sowing the seeds of change: Students were taught the skills and knowledge of gardeners, challenging perceptions that women were unable to do such work

Sowing the seeds of change: Students were taught the skills and knowledge of gardeners, challenging perceptions that women were unable to do such work

The school helped sow the seeds of women’s involvement in an occupation that was – until then – exclusively male and ensured horticulture in Scotland finally gained a feminine touch.

It was the brainchild of Annie Morison and Lina Barker, who made history by being among the first women employed as “practitioner” gardeners at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in 1897.

Women’s advocate Lady Aberdeen, who officially opened the school, praised its founders for empowering female workers despite the detractors who believed they “could not dig any more than they could hit nails on the head”.

Among its graduates in 1912 was Madge Elder, later known for her writings on the Scottish Borders, who took up gardening positions at the Priory in Melrose and on the Duke of Buccleuch’s estate at Bowhill.

The school was consigned to the history books in 1929 following the death of co-founder Lina Barker, but now Ms Reid is hoping to resurrect its legacy in a thesis. She is calling for personal stories, memories and pictures of Edinburgh School of Gardening for Women.

She said: “The school was the first taste for women of a professional life, certainly as far as horticulture is concerned. This is the only example of a gardening school for women I have found in Scotland.

“It was definitely pioneering for Scotland, there were woman gardeners at Kew Gardens, but this was certainly the first time women were employed in this industry in Scotland.”

She added: “I would like to know quite how important that school was and that’s where the readers come in because I’m trying to track down the women who attended the school. I am relying on people to have a look to see what they’ve hidden in their attics so it’s not lost.”

Felicity McKenzie, senior horticulturalist at the Botanics, said the story of the school resonated with her.

“I’ve been in horticulture for more than 20 years but when I started with the council in 1983 it was all male-dominated and I was the only girl out of a huge workforce.

“It was highly unusual to be a woman gardener. Now at the Botanics, it doesn’t really matter what sex you are as long as the person can do a good day’s work.”

david.mccann@edinburghnews.com