Sandy's Garden ... Of Flax and Sophistry

I’m sorry to say that I missed Scotland’s inaugural Festival of Flax and Linen.

By Sandy Simpson
Monday, 18th October 2021, 10:14 am

It was held between September 3 and September 19 and celebrated design and heritage across the Kingdom of Fife with a main hub in Kirkcaldy and events in Ceres, Falkland, Strathmiglo, Markinch, Auchtertool, Burntisland, Dunfermline, Inverkeithing and Silverburn Park.

The festival’s main exhibition was in the former Stocks Linen Mill in Kirkcaldy, where there was an exhibition of artefacts relevant to flax fibre and linen from Scotland. .

‘The former Stocks Linen Mill in Kirkcaldy’?

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Falkirk Herald gardening guru Sandy Simpson

I remember associating Kirkcaldy with linoleum, a memory reinforced by the last verse of the poem ‘The Boy in the Train’ by Mary Campbell Smith, who lived from 1869 to 1960.

If you’re of my generation you may recall these words: “There's a gey wheen boats at the harbour mou', / And eh! dae ya see the cruisers? / The cinnamon drop I was sookin' the noo / Has tummelt an' stuck tae ma troosers. . . / I'll sune be ringin' ma Gran'ma's bell, / She'll cry, 'Come ben, my laddie', / For I ken mysel' by the queer-like smell / That the next stop's Kirkcaddy!”

How well I recollect ‘the queer-like smell.’ Once smelt, never forgotten!

Within thirty years of Michael Nairn establishing a factory to make ‘linoleum’ in 1877 more than a dozen Kirkcaldy-based manufacturers had made that town the linoleum capital of the world.

To make linoleum, you need wood flour and rosin, flax … from which the essential linseed oil is derived … cork oak, chalk and jute. The natural raw material from which linen is made comes from - flax.

So nearby Dundee knew all about jute, the wood-derived ingredients were available locally and, as I now know, flax used to be grown commercially in Fife for the linen industry.

And, as it happens, I have flax in my garden as I write these words.

“Flax is cultivated as a food and fibre crop in regions of the world with a temperate climate. Textiles made from flax are known in Western countries as linen and are traditionally used for bed sheets, underclothes, and table linen.

The plant species is known only as a cultivated plant, and appears to have been domesticated just once from the wild species Linum bienne. The plants grow quite quickly to reach a height of about 1.25m and produce pure pale blue flowers, some of which I saw recently.

They don’t do well in clay soil or dry, sandy soil, but thrive in the deep loams found in Fife, requiring very little in the way of fertilisers or pesticides.

The linen industry declined as the cotton industry advanced, customers preferring the cheaper products.

And the linoleum industry collapsed as the carpet industry prospered. Still, seeing flax being grown in Fife fields prompted me to find out more about former local industries of which I knew, at best, very little.

And the flax in my garden? This is where the sophistry comes in. I brought a couple of stems back from a recent visit to Fife. They’re lying on top of a box in my garden right now. But I didn’t claim that flax was growing there.