George Gardiner was born in Kincardine-on-Forth, Perthshire, the fifth of six children and son of a minister. He excelled in classics at the University of Edinburgh and became a classics master at the Edinburgh Academy, a post held until 1896.
Subsequently, he became a translator and travelled extensively in Europe. Significantly, Gardiner met Henry Hammond in 1890 when the latter joined the staff of the Academy, the two men becoming close friends and sharing a passion for folk song. Gardiner's travels had inspired a more international interest in the subject and in 1903 he entered into “a systematic study of the folk songs of Europe”. He then learned of the burgeoning interest in folk song in England and immediately joined the Folk-Song Society, finding in its journals the inspiration to collect. This began in the area of Bath in 1904 in collaboration with another (probably Hammond) to whom he would entrust the noting of the tunes. None of these songs, although submitted to the Journal of the Folk-Song Society, were printed in its pages, but two items from a later batch noted in the West Country by Gardiner and Hammond did appear in the 1905 edition.
Lucy Broadwood, then secretary of the Folk-Song Society, suggested to Gardiner that he concentrate his efforts on the county of Hampshire, which was largely unexplored and where composer Balfour Gardiner (no relation) lived and would assist with the noting of tunes. After an initial burst of activity there in 1905, Gardiner returned with two other collaborators, Charles Gamblin and C.F. Guyer, to work in a more concentrated manner.
Gardiner's methods of working have led to some confusion in that he probably visited singers alone, noted their repertoire, and only later asked one of his collaborators to visit and take down the tunes. This resulted in some singers not being found at a later date or simply that the tunes were not then available. His notebooks and finished manuscripts do not therefore match in terms of the numbers of songs noted. Of approximately 1,100 songs noted up to December 1907, Gardiner copied out only 800, but another 600 or so songs remained in his notebooks, which he either felt were not good enough to copy or he simply didn't have the time or energy to work on them.
Gardiner seems to have ceased his collecting activity in 1909 when the Folk-Song Society's Journal (no. 13) was devoted to his work. That year also saw the publication of a third volume of Folk-Songs of England, under the general editorship of Cecil Sharp, 16 of Gardiner's collected songs being included as arranged for piano by Gustav Holst. But it was not until the work of James Reeves and Frank Purslow that his immensely important collection was fully re-appraised and its true worth realised and placed in context with his contemporaries.
Gardiner died on 19 January 1910 after a brief illness and was buried in Warriston Cemetery, Edinburgh. His folk song manuscripts reside at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, and his books with the Mitchell Library, Glasgow.