Symbolism of the Free Gardeners of Scotland

The intriguing, and now all but defunct, Free Gardeners of Scotland enjoyed a brief but fruitful association with Bartholomew during the 1880’s. The material that was produced for them is beautiful, complex and to me, utterly fascinating. I do of course realise that at the mention of such societies some of the images that leap to mind include beardy men, dodgy initiations and weird rituals involving chickens. But the Free Gardeners were not that sort of society. They weren’t altogether that secret, they allowed women members and whilst they did borrow some Masonic symbolism, they seem at heart to have been more concerned with growing pineapples than anything else.

The image above is a Diploma in Master of Gardenery, printed by Bartholomew on 25 December, 1884. This is one of the most spectacular Free Gardener items in the Printing Record and is replete with almost the whole pantheon of Free Gardener symbolism.

The Masonic influence can clearly be seen in the use of the All Seeing Eye and the sun and the moon. However, it is clear that the majority of the references in this Diploma have come from Christianity and most specifically the idea of the Garden of Eden, possibly the ultimate garden in the opinion of members. For example, the SNA in interlinking triangles are said to be the initials of Solomon, Noah and Adam, regarded as the three Grand Master Gardeners. PGEH, in a series of circles, is similarly believed to represent the four rivers referred to in Genesis as running through the Garden of Eden, Pison, Gihon, Euphrates and the Hiddekel.

Vivid depictions of the Garden of Eden go on to show some of the perceived splendour which could have been enjoyed there, including elephants, giraffes, beavers and peacocks.

Albeit directly borrowed from the Freemasons, I quite admire the act of imbuing what could be seen as simple or mundane items with a sense of their greater importance. At least one lodge, the Athole Lodge, agreed and came up with the symbol shown below.

The Free Gardeners were not a secret society, they were a friendly society, created to promote and regulate the profession and to afford assistance to members when times were hard. It is important to remember that societies such as this were set up long before the state introduced the interventions and benefits which today provide similar support. Life for widows, or the unemployed, could be exceedingly hard were it not for the security and protection that was afforded via membership of societies such as these.

There is a wealth of information regarding the Free Gardeners available on some excellent websites. HistoryShelf is most notable amongst them for a very detailed and interesting account of the society and its development.