The Lost Gardens of Orkney, 13, Gardening Tools

Gardening tools over the centuries have largely remained unchanged except now many have motorised versions. As we saw in the previous article, gardening was not a gentle past time but extremely hard physical work – especially for those employed by the Lairds for their grand gardens. (The Lost Gardens of Orkney (12), Hugh Ross, Gardener)

Orkney Herald and Advertiser January 10th 1923

Gardening implements could be expensive, especially the larger ones like stone rollers which would be used to flatten lawns in large gardens. These were usually pulled by men as there was concern that if horses or other animals were used the lawns might be damaged. Casual labour would often be used for this purpose supervised, of course, by the head gardener.

The account from Hugh Ross’s diary from Skaill House records the huge amounts of dung, earth and sand which had to be moved about. Brought into the gardens by cart these would then be shifted into wheelbarrows or hurrlbarrows (two wheels) to where they were needed. A wheelbarrow would cost about 18 shillings by the start of the 19th Century.

The study of national income in 1867 showed that 70% of working or ‘productive’ Scots – young, female and unskilled – had an annual income of less than £30 a year.

SCOTLAND 1840-1940
W W Knox

Income in Orkney was lower than this so for most people a wheelbarrow was an expensive item – even for the laird.

All gardening tools would be kept in good condition and repairs would be made when necessary – you wouldn’t dump a wheelbarrow if it was broken – it would got to the blacksmith and or carpenter to be fixed.

The large houses kept accounts and it is from them that we can find out what gardening tools and their maintenance would cost.

Digging was all done by the use of hand tools. Mattocks are sharp implements which can be used for a variety of digging operations, cutting into turf and hard to work areas. These had to be kept sharp. Spades and shovels came in different shapes with a square shaped shovel particularly good for moving animal dung about. In 1800 one of those could set you back 3 shillings and 6 pence.

The lawnmower is a relatively new device – compared to these other tools. The lawnmower was invented in 1830 by Edward Beard Budding in Gloucestershire England. Before the lawnmower came along scythes would be used to keep grass areas short which could then be rolled with the stone rollers for those sweeping expanses of pathways and lawns in large houses. Scythes were common tools possessed widely and were relatively cheap at just under 3 shillings in the 19th century.

early hand pushed reel driven lawn mower
A reel lawn mower, adapted from an illustration used in an advertisement in a 1888 issue of Garden and Forest. The ad was placed by Chadborn & Coldwell Manufacturing in Newburgh, New York. Garden and Forest, February 29, 1888 issue

Lawnmowers were being advertised for sale in Orkney only a decade or so after their invention, so rapid was the growth in popularity of the machine. Among the articles for sale at the Temperance Hall, Kirkwall on 28th of September 1899 after the death of Orkney Crown Chamberlain, James Barnett, who lived at 26 Victoria Street Kirkwall, were the following: garden roller, lawn mower, garden seats, and garden tools.

Another sale, which took place over the two days of 26th and 27th of July 1892, at ‘The Braes’ Stromness, includes: garden tent, garden seats, lawnmower, garden syringe, ladders, hothouse plants, wire flower stands, 2 cucumber frames, wheelbarrow, and a hot water circulating heating apparatus for a green house to heat with oil or gas.

Shears were quite expensive, and could be double the price of a scythe. In the gardens of large mansions with fine hedging, keeping those clipped and trimmed was all done with hand shears. For taller hedges ladders were needed.

“The owner of a small house may find an object lesson in the public park, or in the grounds of a mansion. There beauty does not lie in expansive planting; but in neat hedges, tidily kept shrubs, well rolled and closely clipped grass, trim edges to the lawn, hoed beds, together with the tools and flower pots being out of sight.” Orkney Herald, 20.12.1922

This is quite different to views which are becoming more popular today with campaigns such as ‘No Mow May’, encouraging people to leave their grass, or at least some of it, long and uncut.

Other garden tools included rakes, Dutch hoes and reels for gardening lines – to name but a few. Sharpening and repairs would often be done by the gardening team in the Laird’s grounds but sometimes these would have to be sent out to be worked on by the local blacksmith.

Previous articles have referred to the growing popularity of gardening for the general public and how seeds could be bought in Orkney shops or through postal services. (The Lost Gardens of Orkney (6) – Seeds) There were several shops selling ready made garden tools. These shops were known as Ironmongers.

Advert in The Orkney Herald and Advertiser June 8th 1932

Fiona Grahame

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