Prestonkirk | Economy

Industry | Agriculture


The only industrial activity in the parish has been the production of aggregates, which has been a matter of occasional controversy in the life of the parish in the past 50 years. A plea to stop quarrying at Traprain Law was made by the Earl of Haddington in 1951 and he anticipated that there would be nothing left in another 50 years. In 1972/73, this quarry produced 72,985 tonnes of roadstone per year. Most of the roadstone was used by the county council at that time and transported in their fleet of 17 Albion tipper lorries.

Following the closure at of the Traprain Law quarry in 1975, in 1980 Lothian Regional Council opened up a roadstone quarry on the land at Markle Mains. Although the cost of opening the quarry from a greenfield site was in excess of £3million, it only operated for the short period of five years until 1985. No stone was extracted from then until 1995, when an independent company reopened the quarry and now produce great volumes of roadstone, distributed all round the Lothians. Because of the quarry method used, the now substantial quarry at Markle is discreetly hidden.


This continues to be the dominant economic activity in Prestonkirk. Although the names of the farms in the parish may be the same, their make up is substantially different to those same farms in 1945. Over the years there has been a gradual change in the way these farming businesses have been conducted.

In 1945, all the farms in the parish were mixed farms, which had a large range of enterprises. They had enjoyed the agricultural boom created by the second world war, and grew arable cash crops such as wheat, barley and oats, potatoes and sugar beet. Also grown were crops to feed the livestock, hay, turnips, mangolds and, since the early 1950s, silage as a cattle feed. Livestock usually included fattening cattle, bought in as suckled calves at St Boswells, or as stores from the autumn All Hallow Fair in Edinburgh, and Linton Fair in East Linton; they were then fed throughout the winter in cattle courts. Dairy farming was not extensive in the parish, with dairies in the period only at Sunnyside, Cairndinnis and Overhailes. Most farms had a breeding sheep flock, usually half-bred ewes, or bought in lambs for winter fattening from hill areas. Pigs were kept as small units with a few sows and fatteners on some farms. Most farms had hens; probably a hundred or so free range, usually to give a small income specifically for the farmer’s wife.

Over the years this diverse structure of enterprises changed gradually to a more arable biased system of cropping, many farms having no livestock whatever, following the nationwide trend of specialisation. The closure of the sugar beet factory at Cupar in the early 1970s gave rise to the introduction of various break-crops such as peas, either for freezing or to be harvested ripe for animal feed, and oilseed rape grown for the oil content of the seed, to be used either as cooking oil or for industrial purposes. Potato and vegetable production continues in the parish having now become very specialised, needing large expensive equipment to plant, harvest and process the crops. Livestock now is more intensive, with fattening cattle units at Traprain and Phantassie and a large pig unit of approximately 300 sows at Preston Mains. No dairying now takes place in the parish and land at both the Orchard and Kingsburgh market gardens has been developed as housing.

The size and structure of the farming units have changed too. The farms of Markle and Waughton have been bought mainly by neighbouring farmers within the parish, increasing the average size of the farms in the parish from 300-400 acres to perhaps 500-600 acres, almost all being owner-occupied. The farmhouses on these farms, which have been rationalised, have been sold to private individuals; farm steadings at Markle, Crauchie, Waughton and Kippielaw were sold to builders or developers, who have converted them into housing, forming substantial communities in their own right.

The labour force on the land has reduced dramatically over the years since the days just after the second world war, when most of the farms in the parish would likely have a staff of ten men to do the work – ploughmen, tractor drivers, orramen, cattlemen, pigmen, shepherds and in some cases even gardeners. Many seasonal or casual workers were also employed. In 2000, farms are either worked by family members alone, or by a labour force of only one, two or three skilled employees, who need to understand the intricacies of specialised farm machinery or who are required to have statutory certificates to drive forklifts or to apply agrochemicals or fertilisers to the crops.

Machinery, especially with the use of hydraulics, has in effect replaced the need for manual work, farm equipment having undergone development which means that 500 acres can now be sprayed in a day or 60 or 70 acres of grain harvested per day by just one man driving a combine harvester. It is now not unusual to have 150 or even 200 horsepower tractors, and the use of forklifts, one or two on most farms, has reduced the need to manhandle sacks of grain or fertiliser, most commodities now being handled in bulk, a far cry indeed from when workhorses were still on farms, a large tractor was 30 hp and when all produce was bagged for sale, at the start of our period.

Farm buildings on the farms in the parish have undergone a revolution and have either been converted to modern use or have been bulldozed and rebuilt as portal frame structures, enabling the greater production from the farms to be stored in both watertight and vermin- proof conditions, as specified by ever increasing regulations and need to have quality assurance.

Over the years, profitability in farming has had its ups and downs. In the earlier years of our period, profitability was steady, giving opportunity for investment in buildings and drainage. In the 1970s and 1980s, many steadings were improved and drainage done, as a result of this profitability and also the encouragement given by government in the form of a grant-aided Farm & Horticultural Development Scheme.

With the entry into the European Community giving a wider market for produce and stability in pricing, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) of the EU set a base price on many commodities, by means of an Intervention Policy, where surplus produce was bought, thereby giving a base to the market. Farming in the parish benefited greatly from this until recently when changes to the CAP and the strength of the pound have meant a sharp decline in commodity prices since the mid 1990s.

Yields over our period have gone through an amazing change. In 1945 a crop of barley, which yielded 1.5 tonnes/acre, was thought to be reasonable, wheat at 2 tonnes/acre was a very good crop, potatoes at 8 tonnes/acre commendable – whereas on most farms in the parish in 2000, good crops of barley yield 4 tonnes/acre, some fields of wheat yield in excess of 5 tonnes/acre and crops of irrigated potatoes at 30 tonnes/acres are not unusual. All the researches by government, commercial firms and not least by farmers themselves, into varieties, crop husbandry, artificial fertilisers and agrochemicals have ‘born fruit’ in these high yields of today.

Diversification has been a buzz-word, especially in the 1990s, with farmers trying other enterprises to boost a falling income. Horsey-culture, the letting of redundant farm buildings for light industrial purposes and the contracting of specialist services to other farmers are some of the diverse methods of generating extra income within the parish.

What of the future? Farming in the parish may soon change again considerably; governmental commitment to ‘plough’ more money into the countryside rather than into farming, the public cry for organically produced food, the need to have traceability in the raw materials, be it livestock or crops, from which our food is processed, the desire to use more environmentally friendly methods in the production of this food, may all combine to see the biggest revolution yet.

Old auction mart, East Linton, 1967

Old auction mart, East Linton, 1967

Tom Middlemass shares his farming experiences of 55 years at Markle Mains

Markle Mains in 1945 and up until the mid 1960s was a mixed farm, just like all the others in the parish. There were all forms of livestock; sheep, cattle, pigs, hens, and workhorses.Crops grown were wheat, barley, oats, potatoes, hay, turnips, mangels and sugar beet. Over the years, there have been many changes, from being this mixed farm, to one today which has no livestock and only grows three crops, winter wheat, winter barley and winter oilseed rape.

Pigs were first to go, that enterprise being dropped in the early 1960s; no sheep were on the farm after 1974 and the last cattle were sold in 1981. The gradual change in cropping firstly was due to the cessation of keeping livestock, there being no need any longer to grow hay, turnips, mangels and silage. Potatoes had only been grown in a small way, perhaps 20 acres each year, but as the need for specialised and dedicated equipment for potatoes became necessary the small acreage dictated that this would no longer be a viable option. As the grassland was ploughed up to grow grain, a system of rotational combinable crops evolved firstly using both vining and dry peas, a break crop in the late 1970s and early 1980s, then changing to using oilseed rape as the break crop.

Output from the crops rose steadily over these years, as various enterprises were dropped in favour of cereals. In 1962 when much of the income was from the sale of livestock, 130 acres of cereals produced about 250 tonnes of grain. In 1999, 500 acres produced 1750 tonnes of grain and oilseed.

In 1945, nine regular workers were employed, a grieve, four ploughmen (two with horses and two with tractors), a shepherd, a cattleman, a pig man and an orraman. There was a definite pecking order in the labour force, from the farmer down; he was usually referred to as Mr or ‘the Boss’. He told the grieve what work was to be done and in turn the grieve delegated the particular duties to the rest of the workers at yokin’ time in the stable. The farmer, having seen that the work was being done, could perhaps then be seen at Haddington or East Linton fatstock market on a Monday, Gorgie fatstock market on a Tuesday, the Edinburgh store sales or corn market on a Wednesday, perhaps St Boswells Mart on a Thursday and of course Haddington Corn Exchange and the bank on a Friday!

Over the years the working hours of the farm worker have reduced from over 50 hours over a 6-day week to what they are today – 39hrs in a 5-day week. Wages have risen too, the statutory wages being from about £6-£7 per week with a cottage in the late 1940s, rising to around £50/week by the late 1970s. By the turn of the century around £200/week is the statutory rate for an agricultural worker – but usually much more depending on his skills.

Originally there had been ten ‘but and ben’ cottages built at Markle Mains. Between the wars they were converted into seven when indoor lavatories were installed. Unfortunately the new indoor lavatories were accessed from the kitchens and because of this were condemned by the council in the late 1960s. Subsequently they were further renovated in the 1970s, making four larger houses, which are now all let to persons other than farm workers and play a large part in the general income of the farm.

There have been considerable changes to the field structure over the years of our period. The Markle Mains Big Wood, having been cut down between the wars, was cleared of trees and drained in the 1950s and 1960s and is now grade two arable land. The many drystane dykes which had been built using locally quarried stone at the time of the enclosures 200 years previously, were loaded and carted and put back into the quarries they had come out of all these years ago. Perhaps the catalyst to making this decision was the statement in the early 1970s by the old Irish drystane dyker who intimated that he was not coming back ‘because the stones were all three-corned’! The farm was increased in size by 115 acres in 1983 when the field known as Markle High Park was bought and added to the existing acreage.

Farm buildings have changed too in our period. They were virtually unchanged from the design of 1830 until 1968 when a portal frame hay shed was built in the stackyard and a large shed built within the courtyard which had held various cattle courts and pens. The outside appearance was not changed however, the barns, stables and byres being converted to grain storage.

All harvesting prior to 1949 was cut with binders and threshed from the stacks in the stackyard, which were built on 20 round wrought iron stack stathels. Some stacks were also built at the edges of the fields in which they were harvested and threshed in situ by travellingmill. The ‘inbuild mill’ that had been installed in the big barn in the steading by Bridges of North Berwick in 1856, was also still being used.

The 1950s saw many changes; the last horse went away in 1958, the wartime lease-lend Case and John Deere tractors gave way to 20 hp ‘wee Fergies’ and Fordson. International Harvester tractors rated at 80hp were used in the 1970s and 1980s; 100hp John Deere tractors were used in the 1990s and the Case tractors of today are 150-200hp. The output of combine harvesters, which were changed every eight or ten years, doubled every time a new model was purchased, the 1949 Massy Harris 726 model managing perhaps 20 tonnes per day, the most recent Case Axial Flow achieving anything up to 200 tonnes in a day.

The changes of metrication in the farm business have not been easy for those familiar with the old measures of acres, pounds, stones and hundredweights, bushels, quarters, gallons and pints. Younger brains however have grasped the changes and instead of talking yields as quarters per acre, talk of tonnes per hectare!

There have been unforgettable years regarding the weather. In 1947, the last of the leading in was only completed on Christmas Eve and this had to be fed to the cattle as the sheaves had sprouted and were growing green. In 1968, hay cut at Highland Show time was not baled until six weeks later on Kelso Show day! In 1985, 14 inches of rain fell in July, August and September and harvest dragged on for weeks. In the autumn and winter of 2000, it was so wet that over 40 acres of the autumn sown cereals failed to emerge. Memorable also were the good harvests of 1959, 1975, 1976, 1984, 1989, 1990, 1996 and 2000, often coinciding with dry summer months, when the predominately heavy land at Markle Mains did not suffer greatly and gave good yields.

For a period of ten years from 1987, a small sideline of growing trees developed, firstly from the need to grow hedging and forestry plants for home use and later for sale to the general public. This small enterprise was wound down in 1997 because the ‘returns were not commensurate with the considerable effort put in’, but the landscape round the farm steading benefited greatly in that the areas which were planted with a great variety of trees and shrubs have added greatly to the shelter, amenity and value of the property.

Technology has galloped forward over the years too – electricity was only put into the farm, farmhouse and cottages in 1949 and subsequently rewired in the early 1980s. The first tractor with an electric starter appeared in 1948. Electronics and hydraulics are now commonplace on tractors and combines, as is the inevitable computer in the farm office, now used to create cash flows and budgets, as well as keeping records of chemicals and fertilisers applied to the crops – a statutory requirement in the business of guaranteeing quality assured produce for the public to eat.

The main agricultural activity that has almost disappeared within the parish is market gardening. Until the early 1960s, Smeaton nursery walled garden was mainly devoted to production of leek and cauliflower seedling plants grown on for sale at markets elsewhere in Britain, which with seasonal fruit such as plums, were distributed by rail transport from the goods train siding at Station Road. It has since diversified into the present garden centre and nursery but continues with flower production for local outlets. Other market gardens at Orchardfield, Kingsburgh and French Gardens at Houston Mill were still in business as active industries for a further decade, growing flowers, tomatoes and vegetables for the city markets, including London, but these activities along with the goods train are now historical memories.