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The Merrylee Story

Merrylee Plotholders Association celebrated 100 years of gardening in 2017.  As part of a city wide heritage project, a few members of the Association delved into the archives to research and write the history of Merrylee and chart its development over that time. The Centenary Celebrations booklet reflects changing horticultural trends, the impact and importance of growing during wartime​ and brings us up to date with new developments, a changing membership and why allotments are still relevant inthe 21st century.

Our thanks to Joan Menmuir, David Carver, Ray Cartner and John McGregor for their hard work in producing this unique record of the life and times of Merrylee Plotholders Association.


This link takes you to book print lay out.  in time we'll re format this into a 'long read'     


We hope you enoy it. 

Allotments for the 21st century

Here we hope to offer some insight into the issues associated with managing an allotment site and reflect on the role of allotments in modern life and why, in our view, they continue to be an important feature of our national culture.


But first, how did we get here?

Allotments were originally created in the 19th century to provide land for the working poor allowing them to grow food for their families. 

After World War I the Land Settlement (Scotland) Act gave the Board of Agriculture for Scotland powers to break up farms into smallholdings. The hopes of landless men in the Highlands and Islands were raised by promises both before and after the war, but for financial and other reasons the rate of progress in settling them was much slower than anticipated, and a number of men took illegal possession of farms. Public sympathy for ex-servicemen was so great that more money was poured into land settlement and strenuous efforts made to speed things up. The programme went a long way toward satisfying Highland land hunger and was considered, overall, to have been a success. However, as the failure rate was highest by far amongst the holders settled just after the war, those who came later benefited more than the ex- servicemen for whom the legislation had been intended.   The breaking up of large farms or estates into small holdings has been a worldwide phenomenon throughout history.  In the early twentieth century the scale of state-aided land settlement in Scotland was not particularly large: in Denmark more than 26,000 new holdings were created following legislation in 1899 and 1917, (the year Merrylee Plotholders Association for formed) In Scotland fewer than 6000 were formed. What made the post-war Scottish experience noteworthy was the back- ground of Highland land agitation which preceded it, and the intensity of the demand emanating from every area of the country.

The 1925 Allotments Act then prevented local authorities from selling or converting land established for allotments without ministerial consent. 


The situation today

That requirement remains in place today meaning that councils cannot sell off land used for allotments without the approval of government. And will only be granted in “exceptional circumstances” and where “adequate provision will be made for allotment holders displaced”.    Clearly motivation for applying for an allotment today is quite different to that of a family in the 19th or even early 20th century.  Whereas then fresh fruit and vegetables would have been hard to come by for most people unless they were either very affluent or grew their own, today we have easy access to a wide range of food, and often at a cheap price in supermarkets.  For the majority, allotments are more of a leisure activity or lifestyle choice providing an escape from stressful and sedentary jobs, or a satisfying retirement project.  That said with food prices increasing, and predicted to continue to do so as the UK leaves the European Union, perhaps growing produce will become an effective way of keeping household costs down for more people once again. Either way demand for allotments currently outstrips supply by some margin.  Waiting lists are notoriously long. In Jan 2021, the waiting list at Merrylee stands at 62. Which equates to around an 8 year wait which is pretty standard with the national allotment associations across the UK estimating an additional 90,000 plots would be required to address the demand.


Despite the obvious and ever growing interest, the provision of allotments by local authorities is under threat.  As a consequence of swingeing cuts to council budgets allotments have inevitably slipped some way down the list of priorities.  In many areas there has been a concerted effort to encourage allotment colonies to convert to self managed associations in order to reduce the administrative burden on the local authority.  eg. Merrylee is a self managed association using ground rented from the local authority. In fully council run sites, there are ever diminishing resources for overseeing allotments resulting in delays in getting vacant plots re-allocated, and the burden of ongoing maintenance shifting ever more to the associations. The allotment umbrella organisations and forums do see all allotment groups becoming autonomous in the future.  Some would argue that the requirements on a local authority to continue to provide allotments for use by its residents is no longer relevant, after all the country is very different to what it was in the inter-war years.  Is it really a priority to provide council-owned land for the use of a self-selecting group of people to use at their leisure and for their pleasure?


The benefits of allotments

Unsurprisingly this is not a view we share.  Although their purpose to many has changed, with few being used to grow food out of necessity, It’s a fact that allotments provide many societal benefits which continue to make them relevant and worthy of protection.

  • Health and wellbeing – from the physical activity involved in cultivating and maintaining a plot to the nutritional benefits of having a steady supply of fresh produce, allotments are a great way to keep fit and healthy at any age.  I can also testify to the positive impact gardening can have on mental health.  When we first took on our allotment I was going through a period of struggling with anxiety and nothing settled my mind as well as immersing myself in the plot. It remains a key factor in my maintaining a balanced outlook on life.

  • Social cohesion – allotment colonies bring together people in the local area, from all walks of life, with a shared interest in gardening. They provide an opportunity to meet people who might not cross your path otherwise and are small communities in their own right.  For older plot holders they can be a way of counteracting the sense of isolation that some feel following retirement, and for those who are bit younger an opportunity to engage with people of different generations.  They also provide an opportunity for the increasing numbers of people who cannot afford to buy their own property, or live in housing which has no outdoor space, to engage with gardening.

  • Urban greening – allotments are very often found on pockets of land in urban and suburban areas creating a green ‘lung’ in a developed area.  Green space in otherwise built up locations can have a positive impact on how residents feel about where they live and can contribute to reducing air pollution, flooding and other environmental issues.

  • Wildlife habitat – allotments are a haven in towns and cities, particularly where plot holders adopt an organic approach to growing.  They can provide a rich source of food for pollinators – at my own site we have recently agreed to host a beehive which is sure to be a mutually beneficial arrangement.


Whilst there is a cost to local authorities in providing allotments for local residents I would argue that all of the above benefits provide great value for money.  Using them to promote health, community and environmental benefits could potentially even save money in terms of reducing the need for plot holders to engage with more costly services.   If they were not provided by councils then they almost certainly would not exist at all which would be a great loss to our national culture, and would diminish opportunities for local residents.  Allotments are key local assets and deserve to be protected.


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