Seed & Tree Festival: reflections

Fergus Walker
12th February, 2016

Well, what a day we had last Saturday – and a huge well done to everyone who helped make it happen – especially our partners in organising the event – Helping Britain Blossom. We were amazed at just how many people came – at least 150, including Nicola Sturgeon and her followers calling by. Here are some first reflections on the day.

It seems to me that we are witnessing a quiet cultural revival in Scotland, with food at the heart of the discussion. If such an event had been organised ten years ago, I don’t think there would have been nearly the same numbers. We were amazed at how many people came, especially to the morning’s workshops, which were quite technical and went right in to the depth of the subject of seed saving.

It seemed auspicious that we were gathered in the St Francis Centre – formerly a church of the order of Franciscan Monks – in the Gorbals. We felt that St Francis himself, as the friend the birds and animals, would have looked kindly on the proceedings.

After people had had a chance to introduce each other round the room, I gave a wee opening speech, talking of the seed heroes from different parts of the world – Winona LaDuke from the Ojibwe people in California, talks about how in the First Nations peoples, plants are considered as relatives. I was inspired by an amazing TED talk by her, where she asked: How do we restore our relationship with our ancestors and our relatives – the ones that have roots? Another heroic activist is Vandana Shiva, who said In nature’s economy, the currency is not money, it is life – reminding us that every time we eat, a life has been given up so we may enjoy ours. So there is much to be grateful for in having food in our fields and on our plates. However,  it is important to question how much control we have over either of these things, as control of seed laws tells us.

Neil Munro of the Heritage Seed Library gave an excellent, fact-packed and fascinating intro to the work of HSL, ranging from how it was set up, why, the varieties that have been saved from extinction, seed laws, and more. Currently HSL has Seed Guardians all across Britain who grow out seeds from the collections – but there are only three in Scotland.

We then went on to a mixed session of workshops on seeds. Giving the global picture was Hal Rhoades from the Gaia Foundation, who showed the Seeds of Freedom film, and led a discussion on the importance of farmers being able to save their own seed, and the global food sovereignty picture. Leading a discussion in the different aspects of running a seed collection was Charlotte Dove from the London Freedom Seed Bank, who has recently returned from a trip across Canada and USA visiting all sorts of seed collections. She gave the run-down on what works, based on her experience. There are different sorts of collections that work in different contexts. Seed libraries work like libraries and can even happen in public libraries. They are open-access: anyone can take seeds and have a duty to grow some more to replace them. However this can result in poor quality control. Seed Banks rely on trusted growers to provide a reputable, reliable collection of seeds from which you can withdraw as a member – but there isn’t the same sort of interaction. And gene banks have the problem – although they keep seeds safe - of just being a big fridge! Neil Munro gave an in-depth presentation on how to run your seed collection like clockwork. Then, in another workshop, Maria Scholten of the Scottish Crofting Federation gave an excellent presentation of the so-called ‘heritage’ varieties of seeds kept by the island crofters in the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland over generations – that aren’t commercially available but are in use every year. She was also joined by Alison Muirhead of the Scots Timothy Association – one of the only heritage grass-seed mixes in Scotland. Edinburgh allotmenteer Anna Kretsinger gave lots of practical tips on her seed saving tips of over eight years, and infected others with her enormous enthusiasm. Meanwhile in the main space there was a meeting of fifteen people involved in Orchard Collective Scotland, and the stalls were running throughout.

Just before lunch there was a reporting session with succinct presentations (2 minutes each) expertly given and co-ordinated by the Nourish Food Leadership group (began last summer at a week long gathering of food activists from across Scotland). Nicola Sturgeon spoke to the crowd too, singing the praises of community gardens across Scotland in contributing to a growing food movement. I hope they are the beginning of a much bigger movement of food for the common good in Scotland.

After lunch heralded the beginning of a shift to less politics and more celebration. Clem Sandison (Helping Britain Blossom) gave a great talk on the importance of the cultural revival of old orchard traditions, and how it is community orchards that have been at the forefront in the return of orchards to Scotland. This was followed by an update on orchard happenings across Scotland.

The afternoon was broken up into multiple workshops – grafting demo with Andrew Lear, Q&A with Graham Bell, how to hold a Wassail with Catherine Lloyd, Wassail songs with Jane Lewis, and more! However for me the most exciting bit of the afternoon was the discussion on how to create a Seed Kist for Scotland.

We had about 15 people attending this discussion on how to set up a seed library and seed  network in Scotland. We were excited to hear about plans to set up a heritage seed library in Dumfriesshire, but realised that we need to find out what is happening across Scotland. So now we have a working group with the task of doing an audit of the seed saving work that is happening across Scotland. There was a comment from that meeting that really stuck with me: there was a discussion, as we collected email addresses to form the group, that it was difficult to decide which email address to put down, as it was relevant to people’s current employment, but also very much to them personally. I got the feeling that the motivation to build seed sovereignty goes beyond civic duty and it is something that we feel a calling to do, without feeling the need to justify it or compartmentalise it. Food is life, and a lot of it starts with seeds.

We went on to a great fun bagpipe-led procession to the lovely Rose Garden Orchard, where we drank hot apple juice, John Hancox’s excellent Clydecider made from apples of those trees, and sang many wassailing songs round the fire. This for me is another sign of a cultural renaissance in Scotland: there we were in the Gorbals reinventing an age old tradition from the depths of old England. But though it felt strange and new it is probably as old as the first Britons who ventured here after the ice-age – but reinvented with each generation. Notably there was already an interesting difference: we were holding this wassail much closer to the Festival of Bridget – the old Celtic goddess of renewal and creativity -  than on the traditional 12th night. This is our living food culture in action.

The night ended, as all the best nights do, with a curry and ceilidh combo. Babu Bombay Street Kitchen fed us well, and Annasach did well by dispersing the heavy burden of a day filled with thoughts into an evening of merrily whirling limbs. As a celebration of food for the common good, you can’t get a better dance form than the ceilidh: unlike swing dancing, or tango, or salsa, there is no leader and follower: everyone is equal and for the dance to work well, you must move as one.


A massive thank you to everyone who made this event happen - all the Common Good Food trustees and volunteers, Helping Britain Blossom, Forth Environment Link, all the stallholders, Rose Garden Orchard, St Francis Centre staff, Heineken for funding, many more...

All photos by Craig Buchan. All rights reserved.