The picture above is of a kailyard c.1936, on the island of Foula, a part of the Shetland Isles. The climate in parts of northern Scotland is so harsh that even today gardening is a challenge. One way early crofters dealt with the cold and salt sea air was to build walled gardens. Even so, not much would grow but hardy plants like Shetland cabbage (kale) and more recently, potatoes. These two pictures are of the Ham Doon kailyard (also on Foula) in spring and summer. The word kailyard literally refers to a small plot of land or kitchen-garden where cabbage (i.e. kail) and other vegetables may be grown. The word kail is recorded in Scottish sources from the late fourteenth century onwards and derives from Old Norse kál. Kailyard has been in use since at least the sixteenth century, and is attested in official documents such as the Edinburgh Testaments, e.g. ‘Ane littill hous and cailȝaird’ (1586). Widespread use of such plots of land is noted by John Sinclairin his General Report of the Agricultural State and Political Circumstances of Scotland (1814): ‘Those who work as day-labourers, in the capacity of hedgers, ditchers, dikers, village-shoemakers, tailors, wrights or joiners, and the like, have now almost universally little gardens, called kail-yards, attached to them’. Before potatoes came to Shetland towards the end of the 18th century, people preserved kale in barrels of salt, similar to sauerkraut in Germany. They also fed it to livestock through the winter. Shetland kale/cabbage is the only Brassica that can withstand the winter salt blasting in Shetland. It was fed mainly to lambs (called “settnins”) over their first winter, though outside leaves would be given to the cows in autumn and some hearts would be used domestically. Above is a modern-day kailyard, post harvest, with a few remaining cabbages. Shetland kale grows its heart on a 12-15″ stalk. Plantiecrubs (also plantiecrues) were turf and stone walled enclosures, used for growing cabbages and kail. They were a feature of the Shetland and Orkney landscape, like these examples on the remote island of Foula, in 1902. The walls have a stone foundation, with turf above and further stones laid on top. Additional height is provided by a fence. The space within gradually rose above ground level with the accumulation of manure. Plantiecrubs were used by tenants and could be built anywhere on the common grazings. A few were still being used in the 1960s. In much earlier times, enclosures like these were also found on the Scottish mainland. A very few planticrubs are still in use in 2005. They are used for protecting Shetland Kail seedlings through their first winter. The seeds are sown in late July/August and the seedlings are set out in kailyards the following spring.
Most gardeners in the US today take advantage of relatively modern (and convenient) technology in the form of greenhouses, cold frames, heating mats for seed trays, grow lights, etc. But it’s always a good idea to check out what methods people have used to grow food (and to check out food plants that can survive extreme conditions) in other times and places. You never know when the information might come in handy, or inspire a better way to grow something in your own garden. Many garden manuals mention growing tender plants near a south-facing stone wall. The stones catch heat from the sun during daylight, and radiate it to the plants after dark. Most of us don’t need a plantie crub to ward off winter salt winds, but if you have a lot of rocks handy, it sounds like a low-tech way to gather some free heat for the garden.