The production of Scottish apples has declined to almost non-existence, with 70% of apples we eat in the UK imported, a market estimated to be worth around £230m. Local varieties such as the Lass O’Gowrie, Galloway Pippin, Scotch Bridget and the Bloody Ploughman have been replaced by imports on supermarket shelves.
Yet apple growing has deep roots in Scottish history, with orchards grown on a big scale in abbeys and monasteries in the 12th century, through large-scale growing on estates in the 17th century, right up until the 19th century when the Scottish landscape still housed thousands of trees.
Now a Soil Association Scotland-led Rural Innovation Support Service (RISS) group is trying to bring commercial apple growing back to Scotland.
Bringing commercial apple growing back to Scotland
“The intention for the group is to grow Scottish apples for Scottish consumption, like we saw back in the 1930s and 40s before the demise of the sector,” says Amanda Brown of the Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society (SAOS), who is facilitating the group.
“We want to get Scottish apples to Scottish people. As well as being good for the industry, wouldn’t it be great to get kids eating nutrient-rich apples grown locally?”
“I want the group to be there to encourage others to grow apples on a commercial scale again in Scotland,” says group member and grower Catherine Drummond-Herdman of Megginch Castle Orchard in the Carse of Gowrie, who initially came up with the idea for the group.
“I would love to see a return of apple growing on a commercial scale in Scotland. Local, nutrient-dense food, grown sustainably in a self-sufficient manner, this will also be a means by which famers can diversify and create more income streams."
“I was born and brought up at Megginch, the orchard, with the pear and apple blossoms hanging on the ancient trees like ships in full sail, and it was always one of my favourite places.
"Fifteen years ago, it was heavily overgrazed with only 91 old trees left. I could feel the spirits of the trees asking me to do something, so I determined to replant it! We had a small SRDP grant in 2008 to fence out the deer and rabbits and started planting with all and any old local varieties we could lay our hands on.
“We now somehow seem to have ended up with over 1,400 fruit trees, including two National Collections, one for Scottish Cider Apples and one for Scottish Heritage apples and pears!”
Having been enchanted by her ancient orchard, Catherine, with the support of the RISS group, is on a mission to encourage others to grow apples commercially in Scotland again.
More research and collaboration is needed to help growers in Scotland, and the group hope to identify who is currently growing in Scotland and at what scale, and to bring them together to develop the industry in Scotland.
The need for research in Scotland
“Research on apple growing currently comes from the south,” Catherine tells us, “but apple varieties are so site-specific that if someone plants a new orchard with the wrong variety it will simply fail.
“Collaboration, not competition, and the sharing of ideas and information about different varieties is going to help everybody. The economies of scale work much better in a group than on your own."
“As well as Scotland becoming self-sufficient in growing all our eating apples, I would like to see a Grown-in-Scotland Mark, so that customers can be confident they’re eating apples which have genuinely been grown in Scotland. It’s also important for the group to share knowledge of growing and marketing skills to raise awareness of Scottish-grown apples.”
Group member Roger Howison, who is growing apples and arable crops together in a silvoarable system on Parkhill Farm in Fife, says: “Farmers need to be in touch with each other – if I’ve had an idea maybe others might have had it too. In the group I can share knowledge, hear about how other farmers are doing things. It’s exciting, it feels like together we have the drive to develop a market for Scottish apples.
“Now more than ever, with the coronavirus, I do think people will be more interested in knowing where their food came from and how it was grown. It’s becoming clear that we must create and support accessible, sustainable routes to market for the food we grow in Scotland. Scottish crops for Scottish people."
Are you a grower who wants to get involved?
Growers interested in getting involved in the group should email the group facilitator, Amanda Brown.
Have an idea for a RISS group?
Join us online on May 20, 9.30 - 11.30am, to hear about how the farmer-led Rural Innovation Support Service (RISS) can help you get together with the right people and develop business ideas in response to Covid-19 and climate change.
The Apples Group facilitator, Amanda Brown, will be in conversation with farmer and group member Roger Howison as part of the workshop