Ferreting down the turnip drills with Mr Macdonald of Aberlour’s Ferret turnip lifter

In the 1890s the Scottish agricultural implement and machine makers, especially those in the areas where large acreages of neeps were grown, looked at how they could try to remove the drudgery from this work. Some were well-known makers of implements; others were local blacksmiths. They had the challenge of making an implement that could loosen the neeps from the drills in which they grew, tail them, and also top them. And neeps didn’t grow evenly in the drill. Nor did they grow to the same size.

On 13 November 1895 the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland held a trial of turnip lifters at the Crichton Royal Institution, Dumfries. Seven machines were entered for this important trial. All were entered by Scottish makers: William Duncan, smith, Deskford, Cullen, John Fairweather, Chapelton, Brechin, Moir & Dargie, Foundry, Brechin, Thomas Hunter & Sons, Implement Works, Maybole, John MacDonald, smith, Aberlour, Macdonald Brothers, Portsoy, and John Wallace & Sons, Graham Square, Glasgow. Most were known locally within their area: William Duncan and John MacDonald were local smiths.

The trial was undertaken under unfavourable conditions, the weather being poor. The attendance of farmers and other interested parties was thin. But it was a good trial. All the machines “worked satisfactorily”, with the topping ‘in nearly every case was well done …. the tailing was also fairly well done, but none of the machines made as clean work as hand-tailing”. The turnips were “left standing in rows as they were grown”.

The first prize of £10 went to the turnip lifter made by Macdonald Brothers of Portsoy. It could also be used for scarifying turnips. The second prize of £5 was awarded to a machine from John MacDonald. It was called the “Ferret turnip lifter”: it was drawn by one horse, and moved on slides without wheels.

There were other trials of this and other turnip lifters. These were widely recorded in the local and national newspaper press. The north-east Scotland press included a number of articles about Mr Macdonald’s turnip lifter. The following provide further information on the lifter and its work:

“A new turnip lifter (Northern Scot and Moray and Nairn express, 14 December 1889)

Mr John Macdonald, blacksmith, Aberlour, has just completed an invention of his own for turnip lifting, which he has patented. The new machine was put to practical test in presence of a number of farmers, farm managers, and others on the farm of Fosterseat on Saturday. The trial took place on a field of swedes to the entire satisfaction of all present, who unanimously pronounced it to be quite as well done by the hand, the topping being superior to that done by the hand in many cases. Mr Macdonald is to be congratulated on bringing to such proficiency a machine so much needed by the farmer. The machine is the essence of simplicity, and when once properly adjusted (ample provision being made for that purpose) to suit the crop to be lifted, it is very easily guided. The topping arrangement is the secret of the success of the machine. It has a motion peculiarly its own, and independent of the movement of the other parts of the machines. It is so well balanced and sensitive that the turnip guides it to proper place to take off its head. The rooting knife is easily adjusted to take the roots close to the turnip or otherwise.”

“North British Agriculturist, 5 February 1890

The “Ferret” turnip lifter-A trial of the turnip lifter invented and patented by Mr John McDonald, blacksmith, Aberlour, took place on Thursday, on a field of swedes on the farm of Tofthills, Clatt, tenanted by Mr Bisset. Part of the turnips were furred up, and others were not. The turnips were furred up got a scuffle down before the lifter was tried on them. The work done by the lifter in both cases was very satisfactory, and called forth the approval of a number of farmers and others who were present. All were agreed that this machine were likely to prove a valuable addition to the implements of the farm. The lifter, it may be mentioned, has already been tried on several Speyside farms, and has always given the greatest satisfaction.”

The “Ferret” turnip lifter became well known. The renowned Glasgow implement makers and agents P. & R. Fleming of Graham Square acted as agents for the “Ferret” in the south of Scotland into the turn of the twentieth century, also extensively advertising it in the Scottish agricultural press. For a local smith like MacDonald this was a great achievement and a great boon to his business.

The photos were taken at the Highland Folk Museum and the Grampian Farming Museum.