Haddington | Early days with Scottish Agricultural Industries Ltd

Ian J Fleming

Following graduation, BSc (Agric) in 1937, I was appointed assistant lecturer in agricultural engineering at the Edinburgh & East of Scotland College of Agriculture (EOSCA). My duties covered teaching and demonstrating to students and some research work during the day, together with evening extension work on tractor operation and maintenance with farmers in the college area, which extended from the Borders to Perth and Angus.

I was called up (much to Prof. Shearer’s annoyance) in 1940 and served with R.A.S.C. and R.E.M.E. until I was demobilised in January 1945. After a spell of leave, I returned to the college but, with a wife and family and having had my own command, became restive on a salary of £250 p.a. I was able to secure a job with Scottish Agricultural Industries Ltd (S.A.I.) and started with them in October 1945. My duties were to supervise the building and establishment of an implement and machinery depot in Rosehall, Haddington.

S.A.I was set up about 1928 under the umbrella of I.C.I., which had a 64% holding, to bring together the main agricultural merchants in Scotland and merge their manufacturing and marketing facilities. Most of them dealt in fertilisers and feeding stuffs and in addition handled grain for seed, malting, and feeding. S.A.I. was anxious to add grass seeds to that mix and took over Barclay Ross & Hutchison (BR&H) of Aberdeen, which had big branches in Perth and Forfar and smaller depots in Turriff and Laurencekirk. At the same time, BR&H’s incorporation brought with it a significant presence in the manufacture and sales of farm machinery. In order to provide a more comprehensive cover in Scotland, S.A.I bought William Reid (Forres) Ltd and William Duff Ltd, Annan. Thus the new depot at Rosehall in Haddington established a presence in south east Scotland. What was not fully appreciated was that the Haddington depot was being opened without a significant manufacturer’s dealership! Thus Rosehall opened in 1947 with virtually nothing to sell and a staff of recently demobbed army and naval personnel!

The 1946-7 winter had been particularly severe. It began with a heavy snowstorm on 29 January followed by continuous frost and snow until the end of April. During those three months neither soil nor grass were seen and little outside farm work was possible. That was a serious situation, for livestock still had to be fed at a time when feeding stuffs were still subject to war-time rationing. Farmers were given coupons to enable them to purchase just enough feed for their animals. Protein was always short and the feeding-stuffs co-ordinator in every merchant’s business was involved in a continuous juggling act to satisfy the demands of his salesmen for their farmer customers. No feeding stuffs could be sold without the surrender of an appropriate number of SE and PE coupons.

Though the 1947 crop was sown and planted late, it was a good summer with little rain and crops grew without a halt and yields were good. Alas halfway through harvest, there was a deluge of rain which ran off the dry soil into the watercourses which burst their banks and flooded low lying ground. Haddington was soon under water. All the railway bridges on the east-coast line, between Dunbar and Berwick were washed away and it took nearly a year before the line was re-opened again for normal traffic.

It was not an auspicious start for S.A.I’s new depot at Haddington. With little farm equipment to sell work had to be found for the staff and farm buildings and electrical
installations seemed to offer opportunities. Steel was still rationed and rolled steel joists were almost unobtainable, except to established builders. Light sections were easier to get with the result that our barns were built with latticed trusses and they are still doing good service today!

The other dealers in the Lothians included:

  • James H. Steele, Harrison Road, Edinburgh with a branch in Haddington. Dealerships: Massey Harris, David Brown, Ransome, and everything else which others had not got!
  • Alexanders, Edinburgh. Dealerships: Fordson, Ransome.
  • Gillies & Henderson, Leith Walk, Edinburgh. Dealerships: Massey Harris, International Harvester Co (later shared with James Bowen).
  • James Bowen, Pitt Street, Edinburgh. Dealerships: International Harvester Co.
  • A.M. Russell & Co. Slateford Road and Grassmarket. Dealerships: John Deere, Simar, Howard. Also manufacture of galvanised products, cabbage planter (Wm Ritchie, Dovecot, Haddington), rotary ridger (SIAE), ancillary items and garden and horticultural machinery.
  • Alex Strang, Pipe Street, Portobello, Edinburgh, with a branch near Gilmerton, E. Lothian. Dealership: Allis Chalmers for Scotland.
  • Thomas Sherriff, West Barns, Dunbar. Mostly own manufacture, had a small foundry.
  • George Henderson & Co. Kelso, with branches in Edinburgh, and Haddington. Dealerships: Massey Harris (surrendered for Ferguson), own manufactures and foundry work – plough-metal etc.
  • Wm Elder & Sons, Berwick on Tweed with a branch in Haddington. Dealerships: Massey Harris, Ransome, and foundry-work for own manufactures etc.
  • By 1947 S.A.I. had been encouraged by ICI to install grass driers to their design. It was a very simple arrangement of trays with perforated floors through which hot air was blown to dry the grass in two stages. They were cheap (£1000 delivered and installed) but very labour intensive, nevertheless, over 20 were sold over a period of two years. Sir Alexander Kinloch, Gilmerton House preferred to buy a Templewood grass drier to handle the grass, which he gathered from East Fortune airfield.

At that time Irvine Chalmers Watson of Fenton Barns saw an opportunity to rear and market turkeys and S.A.I. Haddington undertook to make and market de-beakers for that new market.

In 1948 combine harvesters were becoming an increasingly important item of farm equipment. During the war they had been strictly allocated by War Agricultural Executive Committees but, as the ‘Warags’ were phased out, farmers were free to buy combines of their choice – if they could get them! At first they sold their grain off the combine in railway sacks (eight bushels capacity and capable of holding 2.25 cwts of wheat), supplied by the grain merchant at a rental charge of 1d per week. In addition, the merchant made a deduction from the agreed price for every 1% of moisture over 18%. Farmers discovered that they could keep grain in railway sacks for several weeks, in an airy loft if the mouths of the sacks were open and the grain was harvested at under 25% moisture. In that way they saved the expense of moisture deduction and often had an opportunity to negotiate a better deal.

It was soon realised that that policy was too risky to be followed year after year and S.A.I’s first venture into that market was for Alan Steven at Under Bolton where newly harvested grain was emptied into a small hopper from which an elevator discharged the grain into an electrically-driven fanner which removed grass and weed seeds and as a result significantly reduced the moisture content. That was 1947, the year in which two Claas combines were introduced into Scotland, as part of a consignment of eleven into Britain. One was put to work at the Scottish Institute for Agricultural Engineering (S.I.A.E.) at Howden House, Mid Calder. The other had been bought in Germany (for cigarettes) by Brian Cadzow, Glendevon, Winchburgh., whilst he was serving with the R.A. before being demobbed. Brian and I were contemporaries at EOSCA before the war and I was invited to admire his new acquisition. I was impressed and needed a worthwhile dealership, he was keen to have access to a local supply of spares with the result that I sought and obtained the Claas dealership for Scotland. In five years we had placed Claas combines from Dornoch in the north to Dundrennan, Dumfriesshire and Kelso in the south.

After that things moved quickly, S.A.I. sold five Claas ‘Super’ combines for the 1949 harvest and doubled that number each year thereafter. BR&H were negotiating with
J.L. Gandley Ltd for grain drying and storage equipment. S.A.I. Haddington drew up and executed plans for the installation of farm grain drying and storage, first in the Lothians and later in the Borders. Adjacent to Rosehall was Moncrieff the builder and we worked closely together on those farm projects. Initially, we installed breeze block floors which were sufficiently strong to support 10 feet of grain but porous enough to allow the passage of air for drying and conditioning the grain. Later, in Forres, farmers preferred floors of kiln tiles and later wedge wire.

In the mid 1930s, Harry Ferguson had teamed up with David Brown of Meltham, Huddersfield, a manufacturer of precision gears, to make his revolutionary ‘Ferguson’ tractor. With the approach of war, in 1939 Harry Ferguson became apprehensive and entered into discussion with Henry Ford with a view to manufacturing and marketing his tractor in America. Whilst allowing David Brown to continue to use his patents in a ‘David Brown’ tractor, he crossed the Atlantic and collaborated with Ford in the USA. When the war ended, Ferguson fell out with Edsel, Henry Ford’s son, and brought a law suit against him whilst at the same time entering into a relationship with Standard Motor Co. to produce the ‘Ferguson’ tractor in their Banner Lane factory at Coventry which was no longer needed for world war two vehicle production.

Geo. Henderson of Kelso was one of the major dealers who signed up to market the new tractor. He converted a number of lorries to accommodate two Ferguson tractors and a mounted plough. As soon as a salesman obtained an enquiry, Henderson phoned the farmer and made an appointment for a demonstration. The lorry driver, who was a good ploughman, unloaded the demonstration tractor and put it through its paces and invited the farmer’s ploughman to plough a few furrows. The ploughman was usually impressed, and the farmer had little option but to buy the tractor! The new tractor which was on the lorry, was unloaded and the lorry-driver took the farmer’s cheque back to his employer and loaded up with another new tractor. It was just so easy!

The Claas combine was designed to be hauled and pto-driven by a Lanz tractor. As the countryside became flooded with Ferguson tractors which had insufficient power to haul and drive the Claas ‘Super’, an engine had to be mounted to drive the threshing mechanism and a David Brown unit proved to be eminently suitable.

In the 1930s Lord Traprain had studied engineering and at the same time his father (who became the 2nd Earl of Balfour in 1930) inherited Whittingehame estate. Lord Traprain factored and farmed the estate. At that time farm staffs were of the order of twelve plus followers, a prospect which did not appeal to a young engineer. He bought a Clayton combine and two powerful tractors and reduced the staff to about three, who were assisted at busy times by estate workers. He obtained a design for a grain drier which was built in situ by the estate joiner and thus greatly simplified his whole farming operation. The bagging combine used in 1932 was converted to a tanker so as to handle the grain in bulk and was supplemented with a Massey Harris tanker for the 1933 harvest together with a bigger and improved grain drier. Those machines were put to full use during the war and were painted in camouflage colours lest they be spotted and attacked by German aeroplanes! By 1951 the original Massey Harris combine had been replaced and the engine of the Clayton had ‘run’ its big ends. George Malcolm, the estate farms manager asked S.A.I. Haddington to overhaul it. Facilities in Rosehall were able to deal with the bodywork and threshing mechanism but had to out-source the engine overhaul to Gordon Macandrew in Lauriston Gardens, Edinburgh who still had suitable facilities, left over from the war, to grind and line-bore the crankshaft and big ends.
In 1953 the manager of William Reid (Forres) Ltd resigned and I was appointed to replace him, so ending my association with S.A.I. Haddington.