Speed the plough: a commentary on ploughing matches and ploughmen in 1880

The Glasgow herald, published an article in its pages on 12 February 1880 which commented on the history of ploughs, ploughing matches and ploughmen. While it is instructive, it is also a pointed commentary on the ploughmen class (including Robert Burns as a ploughman) and the importance of ploughing matches in securing their reputation. It is quoted at length for its insights:

“Speed the plough

Though agriculture has changed very much during the past few years and rapid strides of advancement have been made in tillage, the old hard hand labour system of the frugal days of our forefathers are still respected, and at farmers’ club dinners there is no better honoured sentiments in the toast-list than “The pirn and the mill”, though the rocking wheel has long since lost its place at the ingleside, “Speed the Plough” is a sentiment which yet retains its place with all its freshness, as, notwithstanding the advent of heavy steam cultivators, the old single furrow “swinger” yet holds priority in turning the lea land. Much improvement has certainly been made upon this implement, and it is questionable if there is to be found in use in Scotland any of the old-fashioned wooden Scotch ploughs which were general at the commencement of the present century. In 1793 the Rev Alex. Campbell, of Kilcalmonell, Argyllshire, brought out a new plough, which was considered by the Highland and Agricultural society as superior to the implement then in use, and they awarded him a premium of twenty guineas. To James Small, ploughwright in Leith Walk, Edinburgh, is, however, due the most of the early improvements, and it is recorded in the Highland Society’s books that on the death of that gentleman a handsome subscription was voted by the directors towards a fund in aid of his sons to allow them to carry on the business. Various modifications on the plough followed the ploughing matches established by the Highland and Agricultural Society about the commencement of the century, and which caused as great a rivalry amongst the ploughwrights and blacksmiths of the country in trying to produce superior implements as amongst the ploughmen in trying to turn a straight furrow. For a long time, however, Small’s ploughs were the favourites with the farmers, and in time they gradually wore out the old-fashioned article.

At the ploughing match of the Glasgow Agricultural Society, which takes place to-morrow, all the improvements which have been made in the implement since the days of Small will be observable, there being already forward not only ploughs from all parts of England, Scotland, and Ireland, but also several from Canada. The competition will be as keen as it is interesting, and may of the people of Glasgow could not spend a day better than on the trial field at Buckley farm, in Cadder parish. As with the starting of ploughing matches commences the history of most of our numerous district and parish agricultural societies, some little information as to their origin and the manner in which they were conducted must be interesting at this season of the year, when nothing is talked about in the bothy but of “breaks” and “finishes”, and as to who was “best over the crown”. The earliest matches of the Highland and Agricultural Society took place in Kintyre, possibly because the Rev Mr Campbell had exercised an interest in that branch of tillage. Subsequently matches were held in the Galloways and Dumfries, where prizes were given for ploughs drawn by horses, and also for ploughs drawn by oxen, the ancient steer still occupying a stall at the farm as a work animal. Such contests being then considered novel, there were very large turn-outs of spectators, the country ladies and gentlemen witnessing the progress of the matches from their carriages-as they now would the jumping competitions of the horses in the hunter classes at our cattle shows. This enthusiasm for ploughing contests, now evidenced only by the purely agricultural classes, remained common down to a very recent period, the introduction of superior and more interesting machinery for agricultural purposes, the trials of reapers and mowers, and the general attractiveness of the stock and implement sections of the cattle show-yard in a large way destroying any charms ploughing matches possessed as bucolic gatherings. In the history of the Renfrewshire Agricultural Society there is recorded a very interesting account of a match which was held on the New Shot Isle, near Renfew, and which well marks the enthusiasm of the people. A snowstorm had set in, and the snow covered the ground three inches deep, but notwithstanding it was resolved to proceed with the contest. “In an instant all was activity”, says the chronicler. “The ground allotted for the competition was the New Shot Isle, which lies at some distance below the Garnieland steading, and the access to which is by a raised causeway some hundred yards in length, and for breadth sufficient for passage of a cart. This at low water stands dry, but at full or even half tide is covered to a greater or less depth by the Clyde. At the time to which we refer there was still water enough on the causeway to reach the cart-wheel naves. Crossed it must nevertheless instanter, and a scene of picturesque beauty and interest was forthwith displayed, such as has never before fallen, and probably never will again fall, to the lot of our readers to witness. Save the Clyde, the whole landscape lay white with snow. The river was reached by a descending path containing several turns which soon exhibited a line of nearly 60 carts, containing each a plough with one horse in the harness and another following or mounted by an eager competitor, starting to turn his mettle to a different account. The consequent array was one of about 120 horses mixed with carts in the procession. Onlookers, who by this time added largely to the muster, eagerly availed themselves of the carts as the only means of ferrying across to the Isla, and all was bustle in the securing of places as the cavalcade reached the river. One familiar with the ford led the way, but the eagerness of the horses and the confusion caused by the instability of their footing upon the roughly-laid causeway made them speedily regard the admonitions of the leaders, and intense interest was given to the scene by the plunges and escapes of the different parties in the partially losing and regaining of the line of causeway, any entire deviation from which might probably have been attended with serious results in consequence of the depth of water on either side and the almost inevitable over-turn of the carts.

Though the match was commenced it had to be stopped, the judges finding that good ploughing was impracticable, but it took place three days afterwards, when notwithstanding a severe storm which prevailed, 39 competitors came forward.

It has been frequently suggested of late that ploughing matches should be allowed to lapse, in the ground that they are doing little or no good to agriculture. This is a mistake, and possibly arises from the fact that many farmers grudge letting good ploughmen away for a day with a pair of horses to work on another man’s land, while there is plenty of good lea to be turned over at home. The argument is a selfish one, and one which, if acted upon, is certain in the long run to provide injurious to the farmer, not so much as regards a deterioration in the ploughing, but rather as regards a falling off in the enthusiasm of the ploughmen for farm labour.

It has to be kept in mind that the ploughman of 50 years ago is the parent of the modern farmer, and that when ploughing matches were first instituted farmers were largely the competitors. On many farms in Renfrewshire and Ayrshire the tenants and their sons yet “plough their pair;” but the ploughman as a rule is a hired servant. Burns was a fair specimen of the class; but though generally spoken of as the Ploughman Bard, it is not difficult to judge from his life and writings that he was a failure as a frugal farmer, and though he used to say he would give way to no man at ploughing, sowing, or mowing, he could not have been successful at either-his heart not being in his business. Let him ply the “flingin’ tree” as hard as he liked. It was not the corn he was thrashing, but the “Holy Willies” of the day; while the favouring breeze which came in at one barn door, bringing in happy memories and loving ideas, was blowing out the oats with the chaff at the other. Even when “rattling the corn oot ower the furs”, with the sowing sheet over his shoulder, he was sweeping with his right hand his glorious thoughts of freedom and liberty abroad, and there is no doubt that when the green braird came up under the favouring influence of the April showers, the patches here and the thin bits there proved a tell-tale to the absent mind and the irregular hand, working under the impulses of a strong heart.

The modern farmer, it may be observed, though his life looks a very slow one to a city man, has yet some relieving moments. He has his “Catch the Ten”, at cards, followed by the indispensable tumbler of toddy; he has curling, and if on the moor edge certain to have a day’s coursing. The ploughman, however, has few enjoyments. As soon as he is fit to leave his early sport of “swinging’ on a yet” he is sent to school only to have his educational progress disturbed by withdrawals to earn sixpence a day at seasonable times “to herd craws”, “gather stanes”, or “cut thistles, ragweeds” and such like. From “thinning turnips” and “bunching” behind the reaper he gets promoted to the management of the odd horse, generally the gig pony, and in course of time he gets a pair to plough. He is now a man-he dances at penny reels at feering fairs, pays his whack at a pay wedding, is great at “hay stacks”, and somebody of importance at “kirns”. His anxiety is, however, to become a prize ploughman, and when the season comes round he will be found wandering along the backs of the march dykes on Sundays, to see what sort of work Jock Wilson, of the Knowe, is making, and whether he has anything to fear from him. He will travel 10 miles through the mirk and rain to have his plough irons laid by some blacksmith, in order that he may be able to make a genuine job. At last the day of the ploughing match arrives. The previous night he has passed half in the “smiddy” – where are assembled a rough, earnest crowd of men like himself, all taking of the contest-the other half in the stable “cleaning his graith”. The morning opens cold and bitter, and the glare from the stable lamp reveals flakes of snow floating in the atmosphere. By six o’clock he has got his plough into the cart, and, with his second horse led behind, he is off for the Manse Glebe, minding not but rather rejoicing in the cuff from the old “bauchle” which Jean the dairymaid throws at him for lurch from the byre door, and rather relishing the hard knock from an old brush which comes rattling from the hand of the guidwife. By eight o’clock he has set his poles and made his break, and the battle is soon raging. The air is piercing cold, but there he is, stripped to his nethermost garment the sweat running down his open chest as, holding as if for dear life, he abjures the furrow mare Jess to “Wo, lass, wo; cannie, lass; wo”, in long-drawn-out tones, and to which the faithful animal lifts and bends, and places her feet careful, not to break the turned-up land, knowing that the honour of her master really depends on every movement. At twelve he has his dinner-half-a-loaf, with a “whang” of cheese and a pint bottle of sweet “yill” have been lying at the end of the land for each. He swallows his bite nervously, for his eyes are wandering away back down the fresh-turned furrows to detect irregularities. The rough meal over, he is at it again, and as the three judges cross behind him on the returning “bout” he is nervous, and strains his ear to catch their work of approval. Alongside he sees a local “blether” trying to gather a crowd, and so to catch the eye of the three judges by praising unmeasured terms the lot of a rival, with remarks of “Oh, but is it no bonnie? Would it no be a real peetie to spoil that by harrowin’,” &c. Then comes the finish, which requires the most steady holding and delicate handling. He has, however, measured his ground well, and the finishing stroke to a piece of excellent work gets him the prize. Well done, Jock! Now can you kick your heel and point your toe on any barn floor, and cry “Reel” midst the best men in the country; and Jennie, cleverist of dairymaids, that can “milk your nine kye mornin’ and nicht without a thocht,” set your head back and come “skeigh and scrievin’” down the centre of the country dance, for is not your lad the cleverest in the country. The romance soon ends: “a pay weddin’,” bare-legged urchins “swingin’on a yet”, the gig powney to work! And the dance commences again “de capo from No. 1”. The prizes are presented on the ground-a pocket-knife from the ironmonger, a set of plough hames from the saddler, a pound of tobacco from the grocer, a pair of rabbits from the gamekeeper makes nice little gifts in kind. A local wag gives a prize to the man who “gangs oftenest to see the lasses at nicht”, and, notwithstanding the presence of the minister, there are some sturdy claimants. The pound of tea for the man with the biggest family elicits a cry for “Auld Peter” who secured the honour with his tenth bairn seven years ago, and now with his sixteenth in it’s mother’s lap defies all competition.

Such is the simple life of the ploughman. Let not, therefore, the farmer think of giving up ploughing matches; rather let him encourage emulation of such kind. The reaping machine and the traction engine and thrashing mill will develop a taste in him for mechanics, and tend to lead him to think of something better, and he will enter the sheds at Kilmarnock and Cowlairs, and clean engines till he has qualified himself for a stokership. But even when driving the iron horse over Beattock summit, or with many a sweep and whirl through the windings of the Nith, he will think of his old days as he rushes onward; and all the rules of railroads, all the laws of the land, will not keep him from glancing off the line to the moonlit lea field where he held the plough.”


The value of Fordson tractors in 1923

Fordson tractors had been advertised for purchase in Scotland since June 1918. Although there was an established network of agents, different ones undertook their own advertising and promotional activities. They highlighted the advantages of the tractor, for example in its ease of working and efficiency on the field. For example, on 29 June 1918 John Munro Limited, Oban, noted in an advert: “The Fordson tractor enables you to get over the ground in the shortest possible time. Light in weight, turns in narrow headland, can be used on any land which a horse can work. Starts on petrol, runs on paraffin.” In December that year W. H. Cox of Lanark noted how in the Upper Ward of Lanarkshire they “have proved their usefulness” and that they were “a sound investment”. In March 1919 H. K. Brown at Thornton, Fife, advertised that it was “the most efficient tractor on the market. Get one now to make up for lost time owing to weather conditions. Suitable for all manner of farm work.”

On 10 March 1923 the Aberdeen business of Harper Motor Co., Holburn Junction, wrote a lengthy article on the value of the Fordson tractors. It was published in the Aberdeen press and journal. It lists a wide range of uses:

“Fordson tractors

Their value to farmers and others

The Ferguson Tractor is now a familiar sight in agricultural work. The hard-headed Scottish farmers appreciate its money and time-saving merits. It ploughs. Harrows, grubs, rolls and mows their fields, saws their paling bars and firewood, drives the mill, pumps water and generates electric current where this is installed.

Using the tractor enables the farmer to market much more produce, giving him in hand more coin of the realm, a commodity proverbially scarce in farming communities. He is also independent of the travelling mill, for which he used to have to be ready sometimes days before it turned out. He can thresh as he wants to, having the power available under his own control at any time.

The fact that the Fordson tractor has as many, or more, possibilities in industrial work does not, however, appear to be so well known. This wide field has only been touched so far, and with the view of acquiring actual data the Harper Motor Co., Holburn Junction, who are the agents in Aberdeen for Ford cars and Fordson Tractors, have made a careful survey of the work done by tractors supplied by them purely for industrial purposes.”


Demonstrations of the Ferguson hydraulic tractor in Scotland in 1937

The new Ferguson hydraulic tractor was launched in 1936. In that year reports on it were reported in newspapers in Northern Ireland and southern England. It was not reported in Scottish ones until January of the following year. By March public trials were starting to be held in different parts of the country, though it was not until later in the year that their numbers increased. The public trials included the following ones:

Seaton Farm, Aberdeen, 5 March

Kilbrackmont Craigs, Largoward, Fife, on 30 April

Grange of Lindores, Newburgh, Fife, on 8 May

Bogie Mains, Kirkcaldy, on 27 May

Bodachra, Dyce, on 9 June

Millhill, Longside, on 2 June

Mains of Murie, Errol, in July

Tearie Farm, Brodie, on 18 September

Mainshill Farm, Bargeddie, Ballieston, Glasgow on 17 and 18 November

Home Farm, Kinmundy, Longside in November

Drumore Farm, Campbeltown, on 14 December

They were arranged by a number of Ferguson distributors appointed throughout Scotland. They included:

Menzies Motors Limited, Avenue Garage, Bridge of Allan

Sellar of Huntly

Barclay, Ross and Hutchison, Aberdeen

Geo. Henderson Ltd, Kelso

James H. Steele, “Everything for the Farm”, Harrison Road, Edinburgh

P. S. Nicholson (Forres) Ltd, Forres

John Scarth, Ayre Road, Kirkwall

Strathmore Tractors Ltd, Blairgowrie.

Some of the public demonstrations attracted press coverage. They included one at the Home Farm, Kinmundy, Longside, reported in the Aberdeen press and journal on 4 November. It wrote:

“Tractors impress. Demonstration given at Kinmundy.

Buchan farmers had an opportunity of examining soe of the latest tractor ploughs yesterday when no fewer than six ploughs and a rotary cultivator were demonstrated at the Home Farm, Kinmundy, Longside.

The demonstration was arranged by Messrs Sellar and Messrs Barclay, Ross and Hutchison, but the most of the tractors were supplied by local farmers.

Mr Forbes Gall, of the Home Farm, had placed two large fields at the disposal of the demonstrators, and the large number of farmers who attended saw the various tractors working on both stubble and lea.

Mr Gall had introduced a particularly interesting feature, having a pair of horses working alongside the tractors. The farmers had therefore every chance of judging the merits of the motor power, and their opinions were very favourable to the motor.

A common view expressed to a “Press and Journal” representative was that although the work of the horse plough was perhaps little behind that of the tractors it was very much slower.

The work of all the tractors, and also the rotary cultivator, was greatly admired.

The big saving in time was a feature which aroused the keenest interest and enthusiasm, and as there is no loss in efficiency farmers are becoming more and more in favour of the tractor ploughs.

Leading farmers such as Mr J. S. Grant, Skillymarno; Mr D. J. Fowlie, Millhill, and Mr Forbes Gall spoke of their admiration for the tractors.

“There is no doubt”, said Mr Grant, “that the future of farming lies in the tractor. Time is such a valuable factor nowadays, and there is a scarcity of labour the tractor will become the main thing on the farm.”


Early Fordson farm tractor dealers in Scotland

Fordson tractors started to be advertised in the Scottish press in June 1918. On 12 June 1918 an advert listed the selling representatives in Scotland along with their counties of representation. They were:

Alexander & Co., Edinburgh, for the Lothians (Linlithgow, Edinburgh and Haddingtonshire)

Alexander & Co., Glasgow for Lanarkshire

Croall & Croall, Hawick, for Roxburghshire

Dunlop Motor Co., Ltd, Kilmarnock, for northern half of Ayrshire

Ducat & McRobb, Aberdeen for Aberdeen and Banff shires

Henderson Bros., Stirling for Stirlingshire

John Munro, Ltd, Oban, for Argyllshire

R. Mathieson, Peebles, for Peebleshire

G. H. Mill, Gordon, for Western half of Berwickshire

J. A. Malcolm, Duns, for eastern half of Berwickshire

Macrae & Dick, Inverness, for Nairn and Inverness-shires and the lands of Harris and North and South Uist

E. McGeoch & Co., Paisley, for Renfrewshire

J. McHarrie, Stranraer, for Wigtownshire

Normand & Thomson, Dunfermline, for Kinross-shire and the Western Half of Fifeshire

Alex Paterson, Elgin, for Elginshire

A C. Penman, Dumfries, for Southern half or Ayrshire and Dumfriesshire

Payne & Co., Castle Douglas, for Kirkcudbrightshire

Robertson & Porter, Dingwall, for Ross and Cromartyshire and the Island of Lewis

Simpson & Son, Brechin, for Kincardineshire, and the northern half of Forfarshire

Thos Shaw, Ltd, Dundee, for southern half of Forfarshire and Perthshire

Thurso Engineering Co., Thurso, for Caithness, and Sutherland Shires

J. B. Whyte, Alloa, for Clackmannanshire

E. Watkinson, Dumbarton, for Dumbartonshire

Wholesale distributors for Scotland Alexander & Wilson, Ltd, registered office, 111 Lothian Road, Edinburgh.

Some of these businesses were to be long-associated with the Forson name. One of them was Alexander & Co., Edinburgh. It was one of the early car dealers in Scotland to sell tractors. It first exhibited in the agricultural press, in the North British Agriculturist, on 17 March 1921. An advert from later in that year, in October, advertised the Fordon tractor ex works, Cork. It emphasised its versatility for ploughing, discing, harrowing, cultivating, manure spreading or any operation you desire. It also advertised its tractor trailer waggon: “we can drive the tractor to your farm on the shortest possible notice and demonstrate on your field its wonderful powers. There will be no obligation to purchase”.

The company was one of the dealers to exhibit tractors at the Highland Society of Scotland’s exhibition of farm tractors and tractor implements in 1922. It exhibited the Fordson tractor: “a four wheeled tractor, with unit construction as regards the assembly of engine, transmission of gear box, and rear-axle casing.” The judges reported: “Two Fordson tractors were shown, drawing Oliver ploughs, one single-furrow and one 2 furrows, on stubble, and both with e furrows on lea. This is a good light tractor, weighing only 21 1/2 cwt. It dis its work in a satisfactory manner. It is easily driven and readily turned at the headlands. On account of its comparatively low weight the Committee regard this tractor as well suited for lighter spring tillage operations, and for pulling a binder. At the price £120, this tractor appears to be extraordinarily good value. It has to be noted, however, that the engine is not governed, and, unless fitted with a governor, it is unsuitable for driving stationary machinery such as a threshing-mill.” While the company was an early exhibitor at the tractor demonstration, it did not exhibit regularly at the Highland Show. Indeed, it only exhibited in 1927 at Edinburgh and in 1932 at Inverness.

By 1940 the business had become incorporated as Alexanders of Edinburgh Ltd. In 1949 its agricultural department was located at 64 Fountainbridge; by 1954 its Rosemount Works were at Gardners Crescent. In 1962 its agricultural department had moved to the Hayfield Tractor Works, 536 Gorgie Road, Edinburgh. Gorgie Road was close to the Gorgie Markets and to other agricultural businesses including Ballachs, and George Henderson.


Ploughing matches in 1794

Back in the 1790s the Board of Agriculture and Internal Improvement was starting to encourage agriculturists to arrange ploughing matches so that ploughing skills could be promoted and improved. By that time a small number of agricultural clubs had also recognized the importance of promoting skills in ploughing. These included the Farmer Society of Clackmannan, one of the first associations to arrange ploughing matches. Another early match was held in Kinross-shire, under the auspices of Dr Coventry, the professor of Agriculture at the University of Edinburgh. Enterprising landowners, such as Sir John Clerk of Penicuik also played an important role in stimulating local matches on their estates.

The Scottish newspapers provided a number of accounts of these early ploughing matches. They are worth quoting as they show how the earliest matches were organized and set up, their competitiveness as well as their sociability.

They tended to note certain details: where and when they were held, the name of the tenant and landowner; the number of ploughs and competitors; weather conditions on the day of the march; whether the ploughs were iron or wood; the names of the judges; the names of the winners and the farms on which they were employed or the names of their employers; the extent of the spectators; and social events such as dinners held after the event.

The following are accounts of two matches held in 1794:

“Kinross ploughing match

The Kinross Ploughing Match took place in a field at Easter Ballado, belonging to Mr James Beveridge, on the 19th instant, when 37 ploughs, each drawn by two horses, appeared in competition. Mr Murray of Couland, Mr Beveridge of Wester Tilliochie, and Mr Bogie in Ballingall, who were chosen judges of the work, after examining it, found that

William Henderson, servant to Captain Drummond in Tillery, was entitled to the first prize.

John Hog, servant to Mr John Skelton in Thomanean, to the second.

John Anderson, servant to Mr Michael Henderson of Turfhills to the third.

James Pirnie, servant to Mr Thomas Ireland in Urquhart, to the fourth; -and

James Simpson, servant to Mr James Beveridge of Easter Ballado, to the fifth.

The whole of the work was well executed and gave great satisfaction to a numerous crowd of spectators who were assembled on the occasion.’ (Caledonian mercury, 20 March 1794)

“Ploughing match

On Monday last, there was a great ploughing match at Penicuik House. Thirty-three ploughs started for the premiums, which were give. By Sir John Clerk, Bart. The highest premium was a medal, and a plough made by Thomas Lindsay, at Abbeyhill, with an improved muzzle, by Duncan Clark of Kintyre; and the next, a turnip plough. The judges determined the first in favour of Mr Walter Tain, tenant in Sherswell; and the second, to John Wilson, servant to Mr James Laurie, tenant in Penicuik Mill. But it is only doing justice to the other persons who ploughed, and who had come from different parishes for the purpose to say, that tho’ they did not obtain the premiums, yet the judges declared their approbation of their skill in the art. A very great concourse of people from all parts of the country were assembled; and there is no doubt but much real knowledge in the nature and management of that most useful instrument the plough, must have been acquired by the young ploughmen who attended on that day; and it is ardently to be wished, that other parts of Scotland would oftener adopt these ploughing-matches, which certainly do much good, by creating an emulation and rivalship among that class of people.

When the match was over, Sir John Clerk gave a dinner to several of his friends, and many of the most respectable of the tenants on his estate, and his neighbourhood. About fifty sat down to dinner in Ossian’s Hall, while the ploughmen, competitors for the premiums, and many other respectable people, were hospitably entertained in another apartment.

After dinner, the King and Constitution, the Queen, Prince of Wales and Royal Family, his Grace the Duke of Buccleuch, Lord Lieutenant of the county of Midlothian, with several other loyal and constitutional toasts were drunk; as also God speed the plough, and many other toasts applicable to the occasion, and the meeting parted late in the evening, seemingly much gratified by their entertainment.’ (Caledonian mercury, 13 December 1794)


A well-known Ellon name: Neil Ross, Nor’-East Tractor Works

The name of Neil Ross was known in Elgin from at least 1942 when it appears to be first recorded in the Scottish agricultural press. The business was an engineering business, a motor engineer, as well as tractor and implement dealers and distributors.

In 1947 the business was re-arranging its business to provide a better service to customers. While based in Bridge Street, Ellon, it acquired premises in Greyfriars Street which had formerly been Souter’s Garage. By 1955 it was trading out of Commercial Road Ellon. It was to open other premises. In 1955 it was also recorded at Station Road, Laurencekirk. In 1969 it was at Don Street, Forfar.

The business saw the opening of its premises in Greyfriars Street as an important development in providing a better service to its customers. Let’s see how it announced the opening of these premises in an advert that it placed in the Aberdeen press and journal of 19 November 1947


Of special interest to farmers & contractors throughout Banff, Moray and Nairn

Neil Ross, Nor’-East Tractor and Implement Works, Ellon, takes this opportunity to thank his many customers in the Banff, Moray and Nairn area for their valued support, and begs to announce that, with a view to offering a more convenient and better repairs and spares service, he has now completed alterations and plant installations at the recently acquired premises in Greyfriars Street, Elgin (previously known at Souter’s Garage).

A specially skilled staff of tractor and implement mechanics have been employed which, under the guidance of a conscientious foreman, will give the work entrusted to them their earnest and skilled attention.

All makes of tractors repaired

The accommodation for stocking spares and supplies is extensive and these are now being stored and recorded on the latest card index system.

Workshop van and lorry transport available at shortest notice

Every farmer is connected to this efficient repairs and spares service by Telephone Elgin no. 7314.

Old and new customers alike are cordially invited to utilise this service.

No demand too big-none too small

Our custome is to us the most important person.

Official opening date, 1st December, 1947.

Main agent for the North-East: David Brown, Allis Chalmers, Oliver, John Deere, Caterpillar, Cletrac, Bristol and Anzani tractors. Also agent for most other makes.

Agent for all the best agricultural implements.

Note address-

Nor’-East Tractor Works, 3-9 Greyfriars Street, Elgin

Proprietor” Neil Ross

Branch manager: James M. Robertson”

The photographs were taken at the Deeside rally, August 2017.


The travelling mill in the 1930s

There are a number of accounts that describe the work at the travelling mills in parts of Scotland. They are written from a number of accounts, including reminiscence, or accounts from an economic point of view.

We have found two accounts published in newspapers in 1931 and 1939 which describe the work from different perspectives. While they include some of the same elements, they also include further ones.

Both accounts are quoted at length:

An account from the Forfar herald of 11 September 1931:


Agriculture: topics of the day

The steam thresher

About 100 years ago our farms were being equipped with water-driven mills. In recent years many of these have been replaced, in the power unit, by oil engines. The dams, lades and sluices are being permitted to fall to ruin. If agriculture in this country is to continue, and we all pray that it may, this change may yet be regretted.

On certain of the post-war holdings, created by sub-division of a larger unit, there is no threshing mill of any kind. The travelling, steam-driven mill is used instead once or twice annually.

Apart from the expense, the objection to this is the difficulty of storing securely in the open a large bulk of straw. And the straw cannot be fed in a fresh condition to the cattle.


An evil necessity is nowadays imposed on all farmers to cut down their expenses to the minimum essential, and much of the expense in connection with the travelling mill, in the area which I am familiar, would be difficult to justify. Nearly all of us employ the travelling mill occasionally.

Fourteen hands are usually engaged, of which the mill provides two. Extra hands are borrowed from neighbours in return for similar service to be given when required. This borrowing and lending of labour doubtless explains the procedure which obviously dates from the period when the farmer’s entire household, young and old, male and female, turned out to their own and their neighbours’ thresh.

At an early hour the mill driver and his man set about fixing mill and engine in position. This over, they breakfast in the farm kitchen. By about 7.30am a start is made to thresh. At 9am a halt of 10 to 15 minutes is made for beer and pieces. Work is then resumed until 11 am, when fourteen folk sit down to dinner in the farm kitchen.

No light task this for the farmer’s wife, who gets no extra assistance for this addition to her normal day’s routine labours.

She has not long completed the washing up when she has to prepare to supply tea and pieces for the 3pm break of another ten minutes.

At 5 to 5.30pm the mill stops for the day, and fourteen folk again troop to the kitchen for supper.

It is disagreeable to plead for economy, and still more so to apply it. But will anyone deny that the procedure above described partake more of a picnic than of an endeavour to face hard facts?”

An account from the Dundee evening telegraph of 21 February 1939:

“The farmers’ travelling mill

Last season’s corn is still being threshed

Wet days are holidays for the millmen, whose threshing mills, drawn by heavy traction engines, are a common sight on country roads just now. Corn can only be threshed in dry weather.

Mills are an expensive item of farm equipment, and, as they are only needed for a few days each year, framers prefer to hire a travelling thresher when they want to thresh their corn.

Each mill has its own district where it works throughout the season, which ends in late spring, when the last of the corn from the previous year’s harvest is threshed.

Two men travel with the mill. Sometimes they are working near home and can go each night. Often they are so far from home that they have to live in the caravan which they tow behind the mill.

Generally the mill is moved from farm to farm late in the day. Arriving after dark, the millmen are shown where the mill is to be set for the next day’s threshing. For an hour or so they are busy getting into position and levelled up by driving battens under the wheels with heavy hammers.

Spirit levels are fitted into the mill to show when it is dead level. Unless it is level the mill cannot work properly. When it is in position they stop work for the night, but next morning they have to be at work before anyone else.

The mill has to be uncovered and oiled, steam raised in the engine boiler, and the heavy driving belt slipped over the driving wheels, before the farmhands are ready to start work.

During the day the two men still have much to do. While one feeds the corn into the mill drum, which whirls round 1000 times every minute, the other attends to the machinery.

The grain-cleaning apparatus has to be kept in order, the knotting mechanism which ties the straw into trusses has to be attended to, moving parts oiled, and the engine supplied with coal and water. The men relieve each other at short intervals, while feeding the mill is the harder task, attending to the machinery is a dusty and unpleasant job.

At midday, after a meal in the farmhouse, they hurry back to spend the remainder of the midday break oiling and polishing the engine, in which they take great pride.

Threshing starts again at one and goes on till late afternoon, when they take off the driving belt and cover up the mill before going to tea. After tea, they take to the road once more, bound for the next farm on their list.”

The photographs were taken at the Bon Accord Steam Fair, June 2020.


New threshing mills on farms in 1905

In 1905 a number of the local newspapers in north-east and east Scotland reported the erection of new threshing mills on a number of farms as farmers up dated their machinery or moved from using the travelling threshing mill to their own ones.

The erection of this plant was a significant occasion. It marked the introduction of new technology, a substantial investment into the farm and its activities as well as a change in the management of the processing of the grain crop. Farms generally marked this occasion with a social event in which neighbours and others were invited to partake in food and drink, and a congenial evening of activities. They also got to see the new mill at work. The feeding of the first sheaf into the mill was at some farms seen to be an important event. That task was sometimes given to a special member on the farm; it could be a long-standing farm servant or a past tenant.

Let’s go and read about some of these new mills:

(Banffshire journal, 10 January 1905)


Last week Mr Alex Jamieson, Mains of Skeith, had fitted up at his farm a fine new threshing mill, by Messrs Wright Bros., Boyne Mills. The mill is driven from a 12 feet by 4 feet bucket wheel, which had not to be disturbed from its place where it drove the old mill, and it, with very little inside gearing, making a powerful drive. At the start the mill threshed over 8 qrs per hour, carried the oats up to a high loft, and having a chaff blast, the chaff can be sent to any part of the farm buildings by a spouting. Messrs Wright deserve a great praise for their fine workmanship, seeing it is only about a month since Mr Jamieson gave them instructions to proceed with the work A few friends were present to witness the start, and these congratulated Mr Jamieson on having such a fine machine. A pleasant hour was spent afterwards, when the health of the millwrights was pledged.

(Banffshire reporter, 11 January 1905)


Last week Mr Alexander Jamieson, Mains of Skeith, had fitted up at his farm a fine new threshing mill, by Messrs Wright bros, Boyne Mills. The mill is driven by a 12 feet by 4 feet bucket wheel. At the start the mill threshed over 8 qrs per hour, carried the oats up to a high loft, and having a chaff blast, the chaff can be sent to any part of the farm buildings by a spouting. Messrs Wright deserves great praise for their fine workmanship, seeing it is only about a month since Mr Jamieson gave them instructions to proceed with the work. A few friends were present to witness the start. A pleasant hour was spent afterwards, when the health of the millwrights was pledged.

(Dundee courier, 16 March 1905)

Inaugural function near Auchterarder

A large number of agriculturists from Perthshire were yesterday drawn to the farm of East Kirkton, near Auchterarder, the occasion being the starting of a new threshing mill and other agricultural appliances.

There was a large attendance of agriculturists and others. Those present included Mr Robert Gardiner, Henhill; Mr A. C. Penfold, Bertha; Mr James Simpson, of Friarton Chemical works, Perth; Mr J. F. Smith, Eastfield; Mr John Hunter, of Messrs Hay & Co., Perth; Mr John Sharp, Mid Fordoun; Mr Thom Ferguson, Pictonshill; Mr W. Graham, Auchterarder; Mr Archibald Taylor, Broombarns; Mr Wm Cairns, Dalchruan; Mr A. T. Paterson, Auchterarder House; Mr A. Philp, Mains of Dunchrub; Mr John Taylor, West Park; Mr D. Campbell. Representing the gas Engine Co.; Mr Daniel Douglas, millwright & co; Mr R. Butter Malcolm of Auchterarder Castle; Mr T. E. Young, W.S., Auchterarder; Mr J. G. Scott, Denfield; Mr W. Morris, West Mill; Mr John Sharp, Bailieland; Mr William Gardiner, Low bank; Mr Fenwick, Leadketty; Mr Taylor, Chapelbank; Mr W. Robertson, Nether Fordoun; provost Dougall; Mr Macpherson, Newbigging; Mr Morris, Laigh of Rossie; Mr Christie, North Kinkell; Mr Fraser, Auchterarder; Mr Kemp Smith, of Kemp & Nicholson, Stirling; Mr Calder, Drumtog; Mr Stewart, Mosshead; Mr Wilson, Strathie: Mr Malloch, Auchterarder; Mr Thow, Rossie; Mr W. D. Grahaam, Auchterarder; Mr McIntyre, Wallfauld; Mr J. S. Leslie, Auchterarder; Mr P. Paton, Ruthven Villa; Mr Robertson, ironmonger; Mr Scott, east Fordoun; Mr Edgar, Queen’s Hotel; Mr Drummond, Whitefold; Mr Young, Hilton; &c.

The mill

The mill, which was constructed by Mr Daniel Douglas, millwright and engineer, Auchterarder, is a four feet high-speed finishing machine. It has been fitted with Douglas’ latest improved Hammlar, and there is a straw elevator to take the straw right away from the mill, discharging it on the loft or down below as required. The finished grain is then passed into a cupped elevator and carried right to the roof, and discharged into the vibrating spout or grain elevator. This conveyor discharges the grain into four different places in the granary. For such a purpose the material is necessarily of the very best quality, and the whole work has been most efficiently carried out.

The engine, which is made by the Campbell Gas Engine Company, Limited, Halifax, differs from other engines in that it has no overhanging cylinder, which reduces the vibration to a minimum , and at the same time gives great strength and rigidity to the machine. The oil tank is placed on the top of the cylinder, allowing the oil to run by gravitation to the vibratiser, and this doing away with the pump, which is usually found to be a source of annoyance. The engine is 15bhp, the maximum load being 17 hp. The consumpt of this type of engine is the lowest yet reached, namely, .72 per pint per hp., and it burns oil which can be bought at 4 1/2d per gallon. Off the engine is a connected shaft for driving the bruiser, which is a No. 8 Harris & Macgregor machine, and this shaft can also be utilised for driving any other machinery that may be put down. The old mill shed at the farm has been converted into a fodder preparing department, and by the new arrangements the work of the farm should be greatly accelerated.

The luncheon

The company afterwards drove to the Star Hotel, Auchterarder, where a splendid luncheon was served under the presidency of Mr Peter Mackie, the genial host.

Mr Robert Gardiner, Henhill, proposing the health of Mr Mackie, made a reference to the obligations of proprietors. In his view, machinery of such an expensive nature as they had just seen inaugurated ought to belong to the proprietor. It was a tribute to Mr Mackie that the cream of Perthshire agriculturists should have been present at the inauguration of the new threshing mill, and there was no more kind and straightforward man than Mr Peter Mackie. (applause)

Mr Mackie, in reply, said he felt proud that so many influential gentlemen in the county of Perth and from Stirling and Strathmore had attended that day, and he hoped what they had seen would be the means of similar improvements being adopted elsewhere. (Applause)

(Dundee courier 5 September 1905)

New threshing machinery at Laurencekirk

The other day there was started at the Home Farm of Johnston, Laurencekirk, a fine new threshing mill. The machinery is of the latest and most up-to-date type, consisting of a threshing mill with high-speed drum 3 ½ feet wide, improved double-crank shakers, barley awner, seed extractor, and dressing machinery. The machinery is driven by water power, and at the trial a stack of good strong oats was run through in a short time, dressed up ready for the market. The whole machinery was fitted up by the well-known makers, Messrs J. & D. Craig. Waterside, Plesdo, Laurencekirk.

(Montrose, Arbroath and Brechin review, 27 October 1905)

A gathering of farmers assembled at East Mains of Craichie, Letham, on Tuesday, to witness the start of a new threshing mill and engine. Mr Findlay, the new tenant, has made great alterations on this part of the steading.


Socialising with the implement makers: festive social events

There will have been a few work nights out in recent weeks. A number of the agricultural implement makers held dances and other events for their workers in the run up to Christmas. Two such events were recorded in 1923, arranged by Wright Bros, millwrights, Boyne Mills, and J. & D. Craig, agricultural engineers and millwrights, Letham. Both were large events.

Here is how the local preset reported them:


Ball-The employees of Messrs Wright Bros, millwrights, Boyne Mills, held a ball in the Hay Hall on Friday. Some 70 couples were present, and music was provided by Beattie’s jazz band. Mr A. Smith was M.C. and Mr Wight, jun, Secretary.” (Aberdeen press and journal, 26 December 1923)

“Letham’s undeterred dancers

The employees of Messrs J. & D. Craig, agricultural engineers and millwrights, along with a few friends, held their annual “hop” in the Feuar’s Hall, Letham, last night.

The weather was not propitious, snow falling fast, with every appearance of a storm. Notwithstanding there was a large turnout, over fifty couples taking the floor.

The hall was prettily decorated, and presented a gay appearance. Catering was in the hands of Mrs Malcolm, the hotel, while excellent music was provided by Craig’s String Band, with Miss Stirling as accompanist. Messrs J. R. Smith and D. O. Craig acted most efficiently as M.C.s, and great credit is due to the committee for their excellent arrangements.

Those who accepted invitations were:-

Ladies-Misses A. Anderson, Auchterhouse; M. Barrie, Letham; L. Barrie, Mill of Lour; B. Balfour, Forfar; Mrs D. O. Craig, W. March, Gardyne; Misses C. Craig, Idvies Mill; B. and L. Craig, Dundee; M. Carnegie, Bowriefauld; S. Carnegie, Bowriefauld; N. and M. Cargill, Ramsay Cottage, Letham; L. Dickson, Braehead; the Misses Duncan, Forfar; Misses A. Edward, The square, Letham; A. Fleming, Dundee; the Misses ferrier, Craichie Mill; Misses Gray, Letham; A. Henderson, Dundee; E. Henderson, Curden, Letham; J. Kirkland, Lour; M. laird, Tealing; F. Lowson, Forfar; Mudie, Dundee; Martin, Arbroath; W. Martin, Aberdeen; Mather, The Square; A. Nicoll, Kirkbuddo; Ross, Forfar; M. Roy, Bridgend, Letham; H. Reid, W. Idvies; S. Scott, Forfar; Misses Scott, Ascurry; M. Sturrock, Letham; M. Stirling, Letham; M. Smith and the Misses Smith, Letham; Smart, Balgavies; J. Taylor, Carsegownie; G. Wilson, Blackgates.

Gentlemen-Messrs J. Anderson, Pitkennedy; J. Anderson, Forfar; A. Air, Idvies Mill; W. Barrie, Idvies Mill; R. Bremner, Leysmill; Wm Brown, the Rowans, Letham; S. Buchan, Auchterhouse; D. O. Craig, West March, Gardyne; A. Craig, Idveis Mill; A. Cargill, Ramsay Cottage; R. Craik, Kingston, Forfar; J. Donaldson, Forfar; A. Eaton and C. Edward, The Square; H. Fletcher, Mosside, Lour; F. Fraser, Letham; T. Ferrier, Craichie Mill; J. Graham, Gardyne Street; G. Gold, Kingsmuir; D. Kirkland, Lour; J. Leslie, Kingsmuir; A. Lindsay, The Square; the Messrs Middleton, Bowriefauld; R. Mitchell, Letham; W. J. Milne, Fettercairn; W. McKenzie, Craichie; J. Noble, Idvies; Messrs A. Nicol, Idvies Mill; A. Paterson, East Idvies; J. Prain, Meadowgreen; A. Roy, Bridgend of Idvies; D. Rough, Ashmount; G. Reid, West Idvies; A. Robertson, Idvies Mill; Messrs Strachan, The Square; J. Smith, Letham; W. Scott, Ascurry; C. Scott, Idvies Mill; J. Sturrock, Letham; J. Taylor, Carsegownie Muir; A. Wilkie, Meadowgreen; J. Wishart, Idvies Mill; J. Wilson, Blackgates; J. Webster, Kingsmuir.” (Dundee courier, 22 December 1923)

Did you attend a Christmas social for one of the implement making businesses?


New threshing mills in the east of Scotland in the early 1900s

In the early 1900s a number of the local newspapers, especially in Perthshire and Angus, reported the erection of new threshing mills on a number of farms as farmers up dated their machinery or moved from using the travelling threshing mill to their own ones.

The erection of this plant was a significant occasion. It marked the introduction of new technology, a substantial investment into the farm and its activities as well as a change in the management of the processing of the grain crop. Farms generally marked this occasion with a social event in which neighbours and others were invited to partake in food and drink, and a congenial evening of activities. They also got to see the new mill at work. The feeding of the first sheaf into the mill was at some farms seen to be an important event. That task was sometimes given to a special member on the farm; it could be a long-standing farm servant or a past tenant.

The accounts in the newspapers provide varying amounts of information about the new mills. Sometimes they record the names of the maker of the mill and the mode of power for the mill (water, engine or tractor).

The following are short accounts from newspapers that record the introduction of new threshing mills onto farms in the east of Scotland:

(Buchan observer, 3 December 1901)

Longside-Mr Clark, farmer, Netherton, Invereddie, Longside, has got a new threshing mill erected driven by an oil engine. This is the first engine of the kind in the district, and it will doubtless be watched with interest by the farmers round about.

(Stonehaven journal, 6 February 1902)

St Cyrus

On Monday, at the farm of West Mathers, on the Lauriston estate, Mr William Blair started a new threshing mill constructed by Messrs William Blair started a new threshing mill constructed by Messrs J. & D. Craig, Luthermuir, and also a new oil engine supplied by Mr D. Laing, St Cyrus, local agent for Messrs Allan Brothers, Spring Grove, Aberdeen. Both mill and engine worked with the utmost satisfaction.

(Arbroath herald, 15 January 1903)


Operations in connection with the rebuilding of the farm steading of Gilchorn (tenanted by Mr James Bell), which was destroyed by firs about a year ago, have just been completed by Messrs Christie & Anderson, builders, Arbroath. The buildings, which have been almost entirely re-modelled, are now made up to modern ideas as regards convenience and compactness. A Campbell oil engine has been introduced, and a new threshing mill, made by Messrs G. & J. Fitchett, Gighty Burn. The mill is provided with a straw carrier, and the other machinery consists of a hay cutter, a bruiser, a grist mill, and cake breaker. On the invitation of Mr bell, the new premises were inspected by a large number of agriculturists the other day. After a general look round, the mill was tried, when it proved itself capable of dressing from twelve to fourteen quarters of grain per hour. The other machinery worked well, and the day’s proceedings were voted a success. The company were entertained by Mr and Mrs Bell, at which Mr J. A. Jarron, Arbikie, gave the health of “Gilchorn” who suitably replied, and in closing proposed the health of the millwrights.

(Aberdeen press and journal, 13 November 1903)

Tarland- new threshing mill-Mr Thomson, who entered on a lease on the Home Farm of Melgum, on the Melgum estate, at Whitsunday, invited a number of the principal agriculturists in the district on Tuesday evening to see the start of a new threshing mill which he has just got completed. The mill is driven by water power, and gave great satisfaction, threshing about 10qrs an hour. The whole work in connection with the making and putting up was executed by Mr David Morrison, Milton of Kildrummy. The company was afterwards hospitably entertained by Mr and Mrs Thomson.

(Dundee courier, 23 March 1904)

Mr Rankine of Cunnoquhie, whose interest in his tenants was reflected in a recent reduction of 20 per cent off the rents in consequence of the bad season, has just added to the equipment of the farm of Cantyhall, tenanted by Mr James Sime, by introducing a new threshing mill, built by Messrs Craig, Idvies, Forfarshire. The mill is driven by horse-power, and has given great satisfaction.

(Dundee evening telegraph, 31 December 1904)

On Thursday Mr and Mrs Ritchie, Barnyards, Tannadyce, entertained a large company of friends on the occasion if starting the new threshing mill with an oil engine.

(Dundee courier, 14 November 1904)

New threshing mill and engine for Claypots Farm

Motive power on the farm is year after year becoming more and more advantageous, while in the matter of stationary threshing machines, corn bruisers, and cake crushers these are so made that by a pulley arrangement from the engine no difficulty is experienced in getting any kind of work accomplished. One of those who has had his steading adapted to the modern ideas is Mr William McEwen, Claypots farm. Some time ago an outbreak of fire occurred at the steading, and the damage done having now been made good, Mr McEwen, taking advantage of what had necessarily to be effected, had a new threshing mill and oil engine introduced. These and other aids to farm work were inaugurated on Saturday, when a company of farmers in the district witnessed the starting. The motive power is an Allan oil engine, made by Allan Bros, Aberdeen, forty or fifty of which have been fitted up on various farms by this firm during the past two years. This latest engine is a 14-brake horse power one, fitted with all the latest improvements, including an arrangement which admits of any class of oil being burned without any alteration of the working parts. The engine is fitted with an easy starting arrangement which brings it within the power of one man to set it agoing, it having a blow lamp for quick heating. The heat can be forced if necessary, but ten minutes to a quarter of an hour is all the time needed to get the power. Speed is regulated by the governors, the oil is fed from the base of the engine-a suction feed-in contradistinction to the gravity system.

The threshing mill, which has been put in by Messrs J. & D. Craig, Idvies Mill, has a four-feet high-speed drum with extra long shakers, while there is an oscillating screen to take off the small seeds before they pass through the dressing tackle, The drums were running with Wolfe’s patent lubricators and grease instead of oil. A stack of oats was put through the mill-a good sample-and those who witnessed the working of both engine and mill were satisfied that such appliances will be more largely introduced in the future.

At the close of the trial Mr McEwen entertained all present to tea, after which Mr Jas Miller, Balgillo, proposed “Success to the Mill”, remarking that the machinery they had seen that day was not only satisfactory, but eminently practical.

(Dundee courier, 31 December 1904)

Starting of new threshing mill

Mr and Mrs Ritchie, Barnyards, entertained a large company of friends on the occasion of starting a new threshing mill, with oil engine, which have recently been introduced at their farm. It is more than a year since Mr Ritchie left Wester Oathlaw to enter upon the farm of Barnyards, on the Tannadice estate. Among those present were the Rev Alex Ritchie, Oathlaw; Messrs William Ritchie, Ordie; David Ritchie, Trumperton; Irons, Whitewells; Findlay, Newmill of Craigessie; Tosh, Wellford; Webster, Parkford; J. Stewart, Newton of Inshewan; John McLaren, jun, Balgillo; J. Wilson, Battledykes; J. Hunter, Easter Balgillo; J. Patterson, Oathaw; Gray, Soutra; D. Skae, Cossacks; Coutts, Newton of Inshewan; Robertson, Blairtfeddan; J. Webster, Meadows; and the following ladies:-Mrs Stewart, Inshewan, Miss Tosh, Wellford; and Miss Arnot, Forfar. Messrs Craig, Idvies Mill,a re the builders, and Mr Innes, Forfar, supplied the oil engine.