Kailyards and Plantie Crubs, oh my!

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.

The plantiecrubs are covered in netting to prevent birds from getting in and ruining the seedlings.
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.

5 thoughts on “Kailyards and Plantie Crubs, oh my!”

  1. That looks like a tough way to live. No wonder they were all so short. Not a lot of protein happening there. Or vitamin Cnova

  2. Wasn’t there a 70’s movement that tried to live off the land in that area and had all sorts of double digging, save all your compostables, build a cheap plant protector thing going? I wish I could remember…They were famous while I was at university. Wrote a book about it. Almost have it…maybe later.

  3. I know in northern Scotland, there was a big ‘crofting’ movement. If I remember right, people signed up for a croft that had certain requirements regarding farming. But people have since bent the rules enough to make it not really farming anymore. The reading I did for this blog post led me to a book I just got from the library about women’s work on the Shetland Isles from 1800-2000. Everything from farming to lacemaking…-Joanna

  4. Got it. It was Findhorn. Began in the 60’s, book out in ’75(?) The Magic of Findhorn about the folks that established the place in northern Scotland and how they tried to make it better. Tough times, hard work, meager crops turned into being known worldwide and thriving. One of those sets of ideas that appeals to diverse people in various cultures.

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