On a beautiful November afternoon, The Voice went along to the allotments at the Arran Community Land Initiative in Whiting Bay to spend a couple of hours in the company of some of the plot holders – Helen, Jim, Debbie and Woodie the dog. The 18 plots at the Community Land in Whiting Bay were set up in 2016. The 12 full size allotments, (with three split into half plots to make up the 18), are tended by gardeners with a passion and commitment that is inspiring. In the warmth of the poly tunnel shed, innovatively designed and built by Jim (to adhere to the four feet shed height restrictions), we drank tea, mused over how to deter roaming deer that are partial to brassicas, chatted about the joys of growing your own food and contemplated life up here on the land at ACLI.
Amongst other current topics of island conversation, we talked about the attraction of working an allotment, and what kind of experience you need to begin. Jim says that apart from several years working as a gardener at Brodick Castle in his twenties, he doesn’t have a huge amount of growing experience. He says, “There is no one here with lots of experience, there is the odd one, but we’re all learning and starting out”. Growing vegetables is largely a question of trial and error, experimenting with techniques and testing things out. But Jim explains this is partly what makes it such a special and exciting place. If you get the passion for growing, you spend time researching for tips, which you can then share with fellow gardeners. There is a feeling that they are all in it and learning together. Jim points out, “I love the challenge, and thinking ‘how do I improve this’, what can I do to work this out.”
Debbie explained the attraction of taking on an allotment for her was in part down to the fact she was fed up buying food in so much plastic from the supermarket. She also really enjoys cooking and wanted to try growing her own food so that she could use it in her recipes. This year has been her first at ACLI and already she has managed to become nearly self-sufficient in vegetables. Since May she has only had to buy two bags of carrots to supplement her own. Debbie explains, “The first year on any allotment is about finding your feet, and every year will be different, and I was keen to try growing things that may not always be in the local shops either, like celeriac.”
Becoming self-sufficient is one of the big benefits of growing, as is the amazing taste of organic home-grown veg. Debbie said, “It is putting the seed in, watching it grow, nurturing it, and then the taste”. Helen agrees, “Your own vegetables just taste gorgeous. Even if they look funny, and wouldn’t be in the supermarket because of it, it doesn’t matter because it all gets cooked and the taste is great”. Helen says she also likes it for the health reasons too. “The work itself, and being outside so much all through the year, but also the amount of vegetables that you eat, it makes you healthy”. Jim exclaimed, “I’ve never had so many veg meals in my life! And it makes you eat in season.”
We talked about why there are not more allotments in Arran. Allotments have a long history in the UK, particularly in urban areas, but on Arran there has also been a strong tradition of horticulture, especially during and after the Second World War. Farmers like Donald ‘Tatty’ McKelvie known for his cultivation of numerous potato breeds in the fields above Lamlash, continue to be part of the island’s public imagination. The small number of allotments in Arran will in part be because many people wanting to grow vegetables will do so in their own gardens.
Individual cultivation, however, for Helen, Debbie and Jim misses the really important social aspect of allotment life, which is such a large and rewarding part of the experience. They know that when they come up to the ACLI they will be able to talk to someone about their endeavours. They can share their successes, ‘failures’, and puzzles. Helen explains “You are constantly chatting to the other allotment holders”, and Debbie says, “And you know you can ask them anything and they are a willing source of information. Sometimes it is so friendly and social that you can’t get anything done!” She continues, “It is great to have people around but sometimes when you come up here and no one is here, you think great, I can get on! Get on with some digging for an hour or two.”
As well as ideas and tips for growing, seeds, seedlings and produce are also shared. So if someone has a glut on their plot it is shared out, and swapped for some different produce from another.
Debbie, Jim and Helen are really keen to see more allotments around the island. Helen says, “I would like to see some in every village, and I want to spread just how fantastic it is here. It’s a wonderful place, whatever the weather. You do a bit of digging, enjoy the view, and the social aspect is wonderful too.”
Debbie says “It is a commitment, and you either get the bug or you don’t”. But she added, “I am addicted now, and wake up thinking ‘I’m not going up today, I’m not going up to the allotments’, and then I do! It’s a brilliant way to connect with nature, working on the land, your head can focus, and it does so much for mental health”. For Debbie, having an allotment has changed her life.
Work doesn’t stop in the winter at the allotments. While the major summer tasks of watering and weeding come to a temporary end, there is still a lot to be doing, including getting the beds ready for next season, and also harvesting produce. Not only are there vegetables still growing outside on the plots, but with an allotment at ACLI you also get some space in the large poly tunnels on the land, so that you continue growing lettuces, carrots and broccoli all year round.
If you are interested in taking on an allotment, please get in touch with Helen Ross.
They are full at the moment but you could be put on the waiting list and if there is enough interest, expanding the plots is something that could be discussed with ACLI.
If you would like to have a go at growing to see whether having an allotment might be something for you, there are regular volunteer days at the ACLI where you can work on the community beds and take home a bag of organically grown veg. And if you want to just go up for a visit, you will find a friendly face around, a lovely hub to have a cup of tea in, and amazing paths to go walking on.