Scotland’s early women gardeners who dug deep in a man’s world

They dug deep to be accepted into the manly world of Victorian horticulture – with Scotland’s first female gardeners even being made to dress up as boys so as not to cause a distraction as they worked amongst the hedgerows and flower beds.

Friday, 29th March 2019, 5:32 pm
Updated Friday, 29th March 2019, 5:33 pm
Mary Elizabeth Burton, who is believed to be the first woman in Scotland to hold the position of head gardener, in the greenhouse at the former Mavisbank hospital at Loanhead. PIC:Courtesy of Midlothian Archives.
Mary Elizabeth Burton, who is believed to be the first woman in Scotland to hold the position of head gardener, in the greenhouse at the former Mavisbank hospital at Loanhead. PIC:Courtesy of Midlothian Archives.

New research by Dr Deborah Reid of Edinburgh University has illuminated the efforts of a number of Scots women who became professional gardeners in the late 19th and early 20th century with their green-fingered work often planting social change.

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Among the pioneers were women such as Norah Geddes, who helped create Scotland’s first urban garden to ease the dirty atmosphere of the Edinburgh Old Town slums and Mary Elizabeth Burton, the country’s first female head gardener.

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A watercolour by Norah Geddes of her Kings Wall Garden in Edinburgh, which dates to 1909. It was one of many derelict urban spaces she overhauled with colour and life. PIC: Strathclyde Universtiy/Roger Mears.

Meanwhile, Annie Morrison and Lina Barker set up the Edinburgh School of Gardening for Women in 1902 to counter the male-only horticultural colleges that were then the norm.

The new school followed Barker’s spell at Edinburgh Botanic Gardens in 1894 where she was not only made to wear a boy’s uniform but referred to as a boy while at work. Another condition of her employment was that her job could end at any time, such was the experimental nature of a woman holding such a post.

Dr Reid, who led a symposium on Edinburgh’s Victorian Women Pioneers at the Patrick Geddes Centre in the capital last night, said: “The Scottish gardening tradition is characterised by high achieving men – botanists, nurserymen, plant hunters and gardeners, whilst women’s involvement in gardening was largely characterised by the weeding women of the working classes and the amateur ‘lady’ gardeners of the upper and middle classes.

Norah Geddes, daughter of town planner and social reformer Patrick, is credited for her work in giving city dwellers - especially children - pleasant places to spend time. PIC: Courtesy of Monica Else

“Women were felt to be a distraction in a gardening team because of their sex and I think that is why they were asked to wear a male uniform – to unsex them so there were no potential issues in the working environment. There was a feeling that women were also not strong enough to work in a garden and that this was very much a man’s world. Men didn’t want women coming in and disrupting it all for them.

But disrupt they did with women ploughing their own furrow in order to realise their ambitions.

Horticultural qualifications only first opened up to women in the late 19th century, first at a college in Kent, with females instead building their own education that would equip them to garden professionally.

Mary Elizabeth Burton, born in Edinburgh in 1865, took evening classes at Heriot-Watt College in botany, chemistry, geology and agriculture. Her big break came when Patrick Geddes, the town planner and social reformer, asked her to lay out the garden at his country residence in Lasswade. From there she was appointed as head gardener at Mavisbank at Loanhead, then a private mental hospital – the first female to hold such a position in Scotland.

Despite these advances, acceptance was hard fought, with women unlikely to be considered for roles on Scotland’s big landed estates, Dr Reid said.

Alternative opportunities were sought and graduates from Edinburgh School of Gardening for Women were placed in a “feminised network” of employers, such as Dr Guthrie’s Industrial School for Girls and Masson Hall at Edinburgh University, which opened in 1897 as a residence for women students .

“This network was developed so students of the gardening school could get placements. I think this was a very clever move and showed a lot of initiative,” Dr Reid said.

Norah Geddes, daughter of Patrick Geddes, took a leading role in her father’s OpenSpaces project, which aimed to revive derelict urban plots with gardens and play areas. In 1909, she opened White Hart Garden below Johnstone Gardens – the first in a series of spaces brought back to life by her designs.

“She was one of the early pioneers of creating green spaces in an urban environment for the benefit for the local community. Norah’s work 110 years ago is still incredibly important today,” Dr Reid said.