‘Small is the cup of human enjoyment’: On Tea Farming in Scotland
Jayda Novak: Pouring Tea, Meall nan Tarmachan, Highlands, Scotland, 2019 (Unsplash)
by Patrick Romero McCafferty
In 1823 Robert Bruce, a Scottish botanist and colonial administrator in Darjeeling, sent an unidentified camellia to the botanical garden in Calcutta, where it was found to be a strain of tea, the same tea China had been cultivating and exporting to Europe for over a hundred and fifty years. In 1848, another Scot, Robert Fortune, famously smuggled tea plants and production secrets out of Wu Si Shan in China to be grown in India under British rule. Both these events led to China’s monopoly on the global tea market being broken, making Scotland intrinsic to the process of making tea a part of British culture and identity ever since. Tea has been grown in Scotland increasingly over recent years as a movement of tea growers aims to make it ecologically and commercially viable in a challenging climate with a high latitude, low temperatures, surprisingly low rainfall and little sunlight. But is growing the world’s most consumed beverage in Scotland a good idea? How successful is it likely to be and who is likely to benefit from its production?
To answer these questions, it’s worth considering what brought it to prominence here in the first place. Tea’s stake in British culture has to do with royal tastes, the popular Charles II and Catherine of Braganza being early adopters of the fad that was all the rage in Portugal in the 1780s. When it became a British staple not long after, however, it proved a success across all social classes, acquiring a ritualised role in artistocratic society and helping stave off hunger pangs for millions of working class families on a nutritionally-poor diet during the industrial revolution. Its legacy and entrenchedness in British life are, of course, imperial. Once the Chinese monopoly was broken, the East India Company began large-scale production of tea across India. Its consumption supported and accelerated the production of the sugar in British, Dutch and French slave plantations in the Caribbean. As scholar Eugenia Jenkins points out, however, ‘in tea the exotic does not arrive, it already occupies—indeed defines—the home.’ In other words, it became synonymous with British domestic life in an exceptional way, bypassing the exotic associations of silk, for example, or spices like cinnamon.
More recently, and as a penchant for speciality tea has grown, it has become a symbol for wellness, drawing from Japanese Teaism. Writing for a western readership in 1906, Kakuzo Okakura described tea-drinking in the Japan as an ‘adoration of the beautiful amid the sordid facts of everyday life’ — an aestheticism we can still see in tea advertising today. The steaming cup has become a symbol for comfort, balance and individual peace of mind amidst the 21st-century epidemics of ill mental health, unstable housing and austerity.
Okakura goes on: ‘How small after all is the cup of human enjoyment, how soon overflowed with tears, how easily drained to the dregs of our quenchless search for infinity’?
Roméo A.: Wabichakai Tea Ceremony, Kyoto, Japan, 2019 (Unsplash)
With the peace and ‘groundedness’ associated with it, the carbon footprint and colonial legacy that accompany this cup of tranquillity are easily overlooked.
In part, tea’s success is due to an agricultural approach geared towards a global market on an unprecedented scale. Camellia sinensis, from which all tea is derived (white, green, oolong and black) is a perennial crop. In good growing conditions it yields biannual harvests. It requires continuous pruning and plucking, however it need only be sown once and centenarian plants are not uncommon. Caffeine being a naturally-occurring pesticide, it can also be grown organically with little difficulty. This said, its harvest and processing are more mechanised and labour intensive than one might expect. In the case of black tea, leaves are dried using large ovens and undergo numerous sortings by machine and hand before packaging and transportation. Plucking is widely done by hand, owing to the fragility of the plants themselves. Harvests are typically sold at auction in their country of origin to brands like Lipton or Tetley before they are shipped abroad.
On the face of it then, a home-grown tea industry offers the obvious advantage of cutting back on this sort of thing, breaking with with an exploitative history and side-stepping the poor working conditions experienced on large scale plantations abroad.
Glen Caladh Tea Farm is a tea plantation on the Cowal Peninsula in Argyll. Tea has been grown successfully there for four years on a deer-fenced hectare adjoining the shore and in a poly-tunnel nursery. In January, when I visited, the tea plants in the fields were dormant and at different stages of development. Those doing well had a thumb thick stem and considerable maintenance foliage. The plants varied in colour, some with broader, lighter leaves, resembling those of a birch, appearing jagged round the edges.
Tea is technically a tree and when grown commercially tends to be kept at about 4ft high, for ease of harvesting. While temperatures and coastal weather make such heights unlikely in Scotland, Scottish tea growers make the case that slow growth rates concentrate nutrition in fewer leaves, giving higher intensity of flavour and a better tea. For now, it also means a smaller yield. This has led growers like Glen Caladh Tea to combine their harvest as part of an association of tea growers. Tea Scotland produced their first blend, The Gathering, in 2021. This was a limited edition run of 15g boxes, £25 each. Another tea growers’ co-op, Tea Gardens of Scotland, produced their blend, Nine Ladies Dancing, also in 2021, fetching £95 for 40g at Fortnum and Mason’s.
Scottish temperatures and low levels of rainfall mean that even with blending they will never be competing for the mass market. As compared to a small plantation average yield in India of 2,128kg/ha, Nigel Melican’s Feasibilty Study for tea production in Scotland found it unlikely that conditions in Scotland could yield anything higher than 1250kg/ha. This might lead one to imagine that Scotland’s tea growers propose to aim their product at the connoisseur. Competition from abroad on this front is also high, with the small, single estate tea being a growing trade in all tea growing countries, prominently Sri Lanka, India and Georgia.
If this is the case, and there will not be a revolution in the way tea is drunk in the UK, how it will impact local Scottish communities beyond the plantations?
Avishkar Darjee: Rohini Tea Garden, Darjeeling, India, 2022 (Unsplash)
Agritourist businesses and farm retail recorded nearly 1,600,000 visitors in 2019 according to the Scottish Agritourism Growth Tracker 2021. This is about as many people, and likely includes some of the same people, who stayed in Airbnb properties in Scotland that year. It could be the case that Scottish tea finds a route to success as an ‘experience’ that works alongside local hospitality and small businesses.
The results from growing tropical species in Scotland might also help develop techniques of growing further unexplored produce locally, serving less an economic purpose than an educational one around food provenance, and alternative, more sustainable forms of agriculture. Some growers are interplanting tea with deciduous trees and with attention to mycorrhizal networks, as part of an agroforestry approach endorsed by the Soil Association. Such a method’s benefits for microbial and mycorrhizal life of soil notwithstanding, to take an agroforestry approach to growing tea in Scotland would be a risky step, given the suboptimal growing conditions. The uncertainty as to whether the plants will grow sufficiently to have meaningful harvest is already significant without the problems it would present for practical steps like irrigation and harvesting. Nigel Melican’s feasibility study flagged that one of the main concerns tea growers themselves expressed was lack of expertise.
It’s obvious that growers would want to pursue less practised methods in this nascent stage if it meant they could be more sustainable, but what underlies the decision, if profit is not of immediate concern? Dan from Traprain Tea, who I met in Edinburgh, shared his reasons with me. He expressed two important influences in his decision to grow tea a) fond childhood memories of a family farm in Northumberland and b) living in Egypt and Japan, where he noticed different cultures and ways of establishing friendships emerging from the same plant. In an exchange I had with the owners of Glen Caladh, the priorities of environmentally-conscious land management and awareness of food provenance were flagged up.
Meanwhile, in an interview with Pekoe Tea in Edinburgh, Susie Walker Munro explained that the decision to grow tea came from the need to diversify at the arable farm she owns in Perthshire and in particular to diversify using a high value crop. Several of the growers associated with Tea Gardens of Scotland occupy estates in Perth, Angus and Fife, where disused walled gardens have provided ideal protection for the plants. Dan at Traprain Tea also rents a walled garden from the owner of a 15th Century estate in East Lothian. He told me that owing to limited access to machinery, walled gardens were waiting for a crop such as tea that could be tended by hand. On the one hand, the disused land has found a use; on the other, the association with estates makes one wonder whether growing tea is not really quite an exclusive venture in some quarters.
A response would be that agriculture is a low revenue, high subsidy sector of the Scottish economy anyway, so why not? We might see Scottish tea following in the surprising footsteps of the English wine industry, which according to Wine GB’s 2021 annual report has seen around a 70% increase in hectarage in the last five years. Tea is being grown commercially in Tregothnan in Cornwall, and at the Peterson Estate in Wales; time will tell if Scottish weather will permit growers here to join in their success and whether it will have any impact on the way it is thought of and drunk.
About the Author
Patrick Romero McCafferty is a poet and editor based in Edinburgh. He is a Roddy Lumsden Memorial Mentee and edits Wet Grain.
Detail from Laurel F: Tea after visiting Edinburgh Castle, 2005 (CC).