The miracle of the ice house

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The entrance to the ice house at Dalkeith Palace

Well, the blizzards continue here at the Scottish Country Garden. The snow that arrived on Tuesday morning is still here, and the high winds tonight are blowing it and some new stuff off the fields across the roads in flowing icing sugar waves.  Overnight and tomorrow, more is due. The Garden continues in its state of suspended animation for another week, when perhaps there will be signs of spring.  So, rather than show you yet more pictures of snowscapes, I thought it might be appropriate to talk about…ice houses! A few weeks ago, the family visited Dalkeith Palace (see Going Gothic). Hidden in the grounds is an ice house.Built in the late 18th Century, it stored ice and kept foods refrigerated for the Palace. It is 15 metres (50 ft) wide and 10m (33 ft) deep and situated on a north facing slope, dug into the hillside, where the sunlight won’t reach it.


The ice house at Eglinton Country Park, Kilwinning, North Ayrshire

The way into the Ice House is via a long passage with 4 doors, an efficient airlock to keep the warm summer air out of the chamber. The ice originally came from frozen ponds on the Estate but by the 1820’s, it was imported from America and collected by cart from Edinburgh’s Leith Docks. Over the winter months, the chamber would be filled with ice, the internal doors would be shut and the food corridors filled with produce. The ice would last for almost the full year before needing refilled. An amazing Victorian invention!

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Filling the ice house at Eglinton

So what’s the relevance to the Scottish Country Garden? We have one in the woods, well hidden but still intact albeit not as large or as well appointed as the Dalkeith Palace one. A relic, nonetheless, of a bygone age before the days of modern refrigeration and when, perhaps, winters were a little colder in this part of the world!

The ice house in our woods is concealed under rhododendrons and yew trees, and set into a hill, so not easily photographed; instead, I found some pictures of a not-dissimilar one at Eglinton Country Park in Ayrshire. The line drawing shows men barrowing the blocks of ice up from the pond, taking it in the doorway and storing it in the domed chamber.

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25 Responses to The miracle of the ice house

  1. What a fascinating bit of history! Have you considered repurposing it and giving it a new function?


  2. I enjoyed visiting the ice house with you! We have a similar structure near our home in Pennsylvania. My garden is in the same state as yours, though I had a few spring flowers in bloom before the snows returned. I feel they will be all the more appreciated for the wait! P. x


  3. Anna B says:

    That is so cool! Ha! I just realised what I put!! Literally cool. No, seriously that’s brilliant having that in your woods. I’ve seen one of these somewhere but just can not think where right now. It might come back to me…


  4. debsgarden says:

    Very interesting! I remember my grandparents talking of ice houses, even here in the Deep South, USA. I hope you get spring weather soon. Spring has arrived here, but the temperature is still too cool for my liking.


  5. This is so interesting. I’ve seen similar ice houses here in the States, often built into streams to help keep everything cold. But what really piqued my interest was that the ice was imported from the US! That just seems so odd and illogical. Do you know why the ice was imported? I hope you have warmer weather coming soon. 🙂


    • Thanks Tammy, very interested to hear about the streams as cooling systems – what a great idea!
      Yes, I too was fascinated to hear about the imported ice. It may be that the winters over here were no longer freezing the ice ponds for long enough to deliver a decent quantity of ice. Meanwhile,shipping cargo between the US and Scotland was on the increase, and I suspect many of the large landowners may have had interests in these shipping companies. But part of it may have been status. These large estate owners liked to compete with each other – growing pineapples for the Christmas table is the favourite example – perhaps there was a certain cachet to bringing one’s ice over from the ‘New World’!


  6. We have snow predicted for tomorrow. Sigh.


  7. Alice says:

    Ah, thanks to the invention of the fridge, we don’t need an ice house any more. Saw one at Grey’s Court in Oxford, a fascinating structure, but sadly no longer needed.


  8. Ingenious! But imagine being the poor fellow trundling ice blocks in winter. I’m glad to be sitting in my warm home complaining about today’s weather, which is rainy and roughly 20 degrees (F) colder than it should be.


    • I know, Marian, they were tough in those days! I suspect the wheelbarrow had iron rims too, not pneumatic tyres, so very hard working pushing it up the hill. Our ice house is built into the side of a steep hill, so not at all easy getting down to the door, particularly when man-handling large blocks of slippery ice! I hope your temperatures rise soon (as do I hope ours will). The seed-packets are calling to me!


  9. I hope you were not among the many who lost electic, we have had very, very cold easterly winds this week, they feel like the coldest this year.

    I love this piece of history and find it interesting, thanks for showing the cross section drawing, I have seen ice houses but never one you could entre, an interesting part of the history of your home and to still have it in the grounds is nice.

    When I was a child in the 40’s and 50’s people would often dig a hole in their garden near the backdoor, they would put one of the large tin biscuit tins you could get from the grocers into the hole, then you put your milk and anything else you wanted to keep cool, there was no ice availible, when the lid was put on the tin a turf was put on top, I guess this was the poormans fridge before fridges became more widely availible in the 60’s.


    • Thanks Frances – very kind of you to think of us. No, delighted to say that the power stayed on, although we usually do suffer from power-cuts. The ‘realfeel’ windchill was -12 degrees this morning, and it really did feel that way. No desire to go out this morning – the ground will be like rock.

      Glad you enjoyed the ice house feature – they’re quirky inventions of the Victorian age, but were very much a feature of the large estates.

      Thank you for sharing your childhood memories of the ‘poor man’s fridge’. How very interesting! I wonder if any of our garden friends have similar stories to tell?

      With the price of electricity, one wonders whether someone will come up with a high-tec version for the modern age!


  10. Helen Johnstone says:

    There is a fab ice house near me at Croome Park with a thatched roof! Keep safe and lets hope this wintery weather goes soon


  11. We must be getting the storms first and then they blow across the Atlantic to you as our weather is about the same…more snow for several days. I love this post as I love history and how cool to have an ice house on the property (no pun intended).


  12. Fascinating! Hunker down and be safe. Mother Nature is bringing another wet snow here on Sunday. That groundhog was WAY wrong this year.


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