Fiona Dobson & George Barton

In this essay:

East Lothian is renowned as one of the most prosperous and progressive farming counties in the country. It has a rich agricultural heritage and a combination of fertile soils and good management of the farmers who work the land has, justifiably, earned it the title ‘The Garden of Scotland‘.

Oil seed rape, now a distinctive part of the landscape

East Lothian Soils

George Barton, Scottish Agricultural College

The soils are naturally relatively fertile, benefiting from phosphate from ancient volcanic activity and the presence of a limestone ridge at the western end of the county stretching west from Tranent to Humbie. In the Ice Age, when the soil of much of the county was being laid down, the glaciers scraped their way across this limestone ridge on their way to the North Sea, and then deposited a lime rich soil across the lowlands of East Lothian, giving the soil its fertility. The soil texture of much of East Lothian tends to be heavy with high clay content. Indeed, the very name Lothian is thought to be derived from the Gaelic word ‘Lattach’ meaning clay.

East Lothian benefited from the dedication of agricultural improvers over the centuries: pioneers such as Cockburn of Ormiston, and Fletcher of Saltoun in the eighteenth century, George Hope of Fenton Barns in the nineteenth century and many others, introduced new methods and refined ideas for productive farming. From these early pioneering days agriculture in East Lothian continued to evolve, and dramatic changes took place between 1945 and 2000, with numerous technical innovations being introduced and adopted by farmers in an effort to increase productivity and profitability. Farms were expanded and investment was made in modernizing steadings, erecting new buildings and carrying out drainage and fencing work, much of this encouraged by government-aided schemes.

Considerable scientific advances were made over the period in animal health and plant nutrition. Animal husbandry improved greatly with the introduction of penicillin in the late 1940s, and with the development of a range of antibiotics and drugs to control diseases in livestock. The increased application of artificial fertilizers and the use of agrochemicals for the control of disease and weeds in crops increased yields and quality, resulting in it no longer being necessary to keep crops so far apart in rotations.

Entry into the European Economic Community in 1971, and the implementation of its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) provided price stability, by means of a base rate for produce, and a wider market place for trading goods. This lasted until the mid 1990s, when changes to the CAP, and the strength of the pound, created price advantages for imported food, and resulted in a dramatic and damaging drop in farm gate prices for producers of all commodities. Although yields of most crops more than doubled in the period – due to better varieties, better application of plant nutrition and plant protection from diseases, and more efficient machinery – the price which farmers obtained in real terms (ie purchasing power) for their crops fell by a far greater amount. In 2000, the real price of wheat, including subsidies, was only a fifth of that in the 1940s. This enormous decline in product prices was the main factor in the drive for more efficiency on farms, increased mechanization and larger farms in a bid to gain advantages through economies of scale. Throughout the 1990s many farmers diversified into other enterprises in an attempt to generate extra income.