Stenton | Bielgrange from the forties to the nineties

Elliot and Angus Jeffrey

This essay was written a number of years ago by the late Elliot Jeffrey; it was given for use in the project by his wife Maeve, and brought up to date by their son, Angus.

I came home from college in the middle of the great snow-storm of 1947 – in those distant days, ones’ diploma was acquired after five terms and one month. I had to walk from East Linton, because the road was blocked yet again. The next six weeks were spent in wellington boots, helping with the lambing. There were ewes and lambs in every available corner of the steading, and the first job for the horses in the morning was to make paths in the lambing field so that the ewes could walk. Our tractor went daily to East Linton to pick up food supplies and mail for the village of Stenton. The Beesknowe crawler took them on from here, and brought back the milk from Pressmennan. The staff spent this time either feeding stock or trying to keep roads reasonably open. Any surplus energy was expended in moonlight sledging – the so-called ‘spring’ of 1947 must linger still in many memories.

I had grown up on the farm to which my father came from Ruchlaw Mains in November 1935. Farming in the depressed decade of the thirties was of the ‘dog and stick’ variety – low cost, low output. The outbreak of war in 1939 brought dramatic change, and throughout the forties the emphasis was on increased production. All available land was used to grow food. Public parks were ploughed, domestic gardeners were urged to ‘Dig for Victory’. Representatives from farmers, college staff and the Department of Agriculture formed ‘Executive Committees’ in every county, and they largely determined the cropping programme. Our potato acreage was increased to 60 – we grew second early ware, all dug by hand and sold straight off the field. At harvest time there could be as many as 100 workers on the farm. There would be a double ‘tattie squad’, three sets leading in with horses and two sets leading in with tractors. I can remember that in 1945 we had 365 stacks of grain – barley and oats on 12ft stales, and wheat on 14ft stales. The ‘tattie squad’ came from County Mayo, and were housed in our own bothies at Grangemuir. The other harvest workers were many and various. There was a gun battery in Biel Deer Park, trained on Belhaven Bay – and the Sherwood Foresters who manned it came to help. Local council workers and railwaymen were encouraged to take their holidays at harvest time, and factory workers from as far afield as Scottish Aviation in Prestwick stayed at Biel House and lent a hand on the farm. Then came the prisoners of war – Czechs, Austrians, Germans who lived in Amisfield camp and arrived daily in an army lorry. In the beginning they were accompanied by armed guards, who often left their rifles beside the hedge and joined in the work. Our last foreign helpers were ‘displaced persons’ from the Ukraine.

After the war compulsory cropping requirements were eased and the farm went back to carrying more sheep. In the thirties there had been two flocks – one of Cheviot, the other of Half Bred ewes – and two shepherds. During the war both flocks were severely reduced as the land was ploughed. Afterwards the Cheviot flock, whose main purpose had been to provide ewe lambs for the Half Bred flock, was gradually discontinued by the simple expedient of not buying replacements and the Half Bred flock was gradually expanded to some 22 score. Potato production continued with the help of the Irish ‘tattie squad’, but the greatest change to come was in the handling of the cereal crop.

Like many others, we had hired bagging combines from time to time, and after a long day in the potato field, it was hard work to go into the grain field at night and manhandle the bags. 1950 was a momentous year: the opportunity arose to purchase Bielgrange as sitting tenant of Biel estate; we bought our first tanker combine; and I was given my first car, a 1935 Morris 8, as a 21st birthday present. The following years saw many adaptations of the steading buildings to suit our changing needs. A pit and dresser were installed in the old threshing barn, and an in- bin drying system followed in the same building. Mechanisation both encouraged and reflected a dwindling labour force. The political climate was still in favour of maximising production. World population was growing, and Lord Boyd Orr and others constantly urged us to fill the hungry mouths.

In the sixties the goal posts were moved. Prices were still guaranteed, but by means of deficiency payments, and standard quantities were introduced with the agreement of the English, though not the Scottish, N.F.U. We continued to make improvements in the shape of bulk loading facilities for grain and the addition of a continuous flow drier, but we found ourselves running even harder just to stand still. The years 1966, 1967, and 1968 were particularly difficult harvests. We asked our college advisors for help and a gross margin exercise was carried out. It resulted in a reduction of the enterprises on what was still a largely traditional mixed farm. Our flock of breeding ewes was already diminishing as our shepherd neared retirement, and we decided to move out of sheep altogether. The potato crop was also discontinued, and the bothies converted to dwelling houses. We had always fed cattle, some in awkward courts, and earlier had extended and modernised half the cattle accommodation. The awkward courts had become grain stores. After our reorganisation, cattle numbers were gradually increased by about 50%, the cereal acreage was increased, and following a college trial, we started in a modest way to introduce field beans to our cropping programme. In the twenty years between 1948-68 our regular staff had dropped from 15 to 5.

In the early seventies it was perhaps unfortunate that Britain’s long delayed entry to the E.E.C. was closely followed by an explosion in world commodity prices. The Russian harvest failed, and their clever purchase of U.S.A. grain cleared the stockpile which had been hanging over the market. The Peruvian anchovy fishing industry – an important source of world protein – was destroyed due to the movement of the Humboldt Current. The price of cereals and protein rose dramatically, and the consequent rise in the price of food at home was all blamed on membership of the E.E.C. The later formation of O.P.E.C., which led to the huge rise in the price of oil, added another twist to the inflationary spiral. In response to the rise in the price of protein, we started to feed beans to the cattle, and it was thought prudent to increase the quantity of turnips fed, in order to reduce dependence on cereals. Much time and effort was given to improving the efficiency of the cattle feeding enterprise, and we started self-feeding turnips in hoppers. Self sufficiency was the name of the game.

For my most of my farming life the emphasis was on expansion of efficient production. The early seventies were turbulent years, but I was looking forward optimistically to my son’s return from university, with all his youthful energy, and fresh approach. I will leave him to write the next chapter.


I started studying for a degree in agriculture in 1973, and continued to work at home during the holidays, as I had done while at school. I was particularly aware of increasing yields of grain. Superior varieties were being developed by plant breeders, thanks to the stimulus given by the Plant Breeders Rights Act. New fungicides were produced which allowed us to control some of the diseases that had limited yield. Glyphosate gave us grass weed control in cereal crops, and consequently continuous cereal growing became quite feasible. Better varieties, better chemicals, more detailed and specialised management meant that on Bielgrange, wheat yields rose from about 2 tons/acre in 1970, through the 3 tonne/acre barriers in the mid 1970s to our first 4 tonne/acre crop in 1984. Since then yields seemed to have reached a plateau, but the doubling of output in the short space of 12-15 years still seems incredible.

The seventies also brought good years for Scottish potato growers with high prices received in 1975 and 1976. I can remember doing a forward budget exercise for my tutor in May 1976,and tentatively putting forward a compromise price of £120/tonne for potatoes, only to be told that it was unrealistic – the previous year’s high prices could not be repeated. My price was unrealistic – the price for the 1976 crop soared towards £300/tonne.

The combination of high inflation and good returns made it very tempting to buy machinery. Price increases were announced every 3 months, and a tractor costing £3717 in June 1975, cost £4664 by June 1976. 100% capital allowances for new machinery were an added inducement, and the F.H.D.S. scheme gave a 10% grant for new machinery in the earlier years.

The acquisition of a fork lift and a big baler had already reduced the amount of labour required for the cattle enterprise, and my return home in 1977 provided the muscle for further expansion in cattle numbers. We built a new shed with a lean-to on one side to provide some shelter for 160 wintering cattle to be kept largely outside in an open court. These extra cattle were to be fed on straw. As the eighties progressed, further changes were made to the cattle feeding system. Beans were dropped from the ration, since it was more profitable to sell them into the E.E.C. protein scheme. Granstock (a urea supplement) was tried as a replacement for a couple of years, and then we started treating straw with ammonia, which worked better. Since the cattle ate considerably more straw, we now needed to bale almost all the cereal acreage which was perhaps as well, since the public were growing increasingly vociferous in their complaints about straw-burning. The utilisation of straw was so successful that hay was dropped from the ration, and combining peas took its place in the rotation.

Increased output had inevitably created huge surpluses of just about every commodity in the E.E.C. Public awareness of the ‘mountains’ led to increasing complaints about their cost, and to the questioning of the need for increased output from agriculture. Some conservationists demanded changes to farming practices, and incomers to the rural areas proved less tolerant than the older inhabitants. The euphoria of the seventies and the early eighties slowly faded, and to cap it all, the harvest of 1985 was atrocious. We adopted a holding attitude. Significant improvement in prices and yields seemed unrealistic, so we concentrated on reducing costs wherever possible.

Our first computer helped monitor the business and was raising questions about the profitability of buying cattle to feed over the winter. So in 1991 I bought 22 spring calving cows to start a spring calving suckler herd. The following year 8 cows and 8 heifers were added and that was the last year that we bought in cattle.

The pressure to change the Common Agricultural Policy that was evident in the late eighties, and caused much uncertainty, finally resulted in the MacSharry reforms of 1992. It aimed to reduce the surpluses and to change the system of subsidy support. No longer were prices to be kept high by import tariffs instead the necessary support was to be paid direct to the farmer. The most visible aspect of this change in policy was the introduction of set-aside whereby a farmer would only receive an area payment for supported crops if he agreed not to sow a proportion of his farm. The hidden aspect of the change was the huge increase in paperwork. Every field map had to be updated, the area cropped had to be recalculated so that the area of ditches or farm tracks was excluded and finally the crops and their area were stated so that the required amount of land could be set-aside. On the livestock side milk quota had been introduced in the mid eighties in an attempt to limit the amount of milk produced. This principle was now extended to breeding ewes and beef cows. Subsidy was to be paid on the number of quota units held rather than the actual stock on the farm although it was possible to trade quota. Once again the goal posts had moved.

The initial fear of the new reforms was gradually replaced by optimism. The subsidy payment was large enough to justify the hassle of all the form filling and the value of the pound sterling suddenly fell in September 1992, which had the effect of raising our commodity prices. We responded by adding a batch drier to the grain handling facilities, which had been last updated in the seventies. And a year later we bought Weatherly, a small hill farm near Spott. This allowed us to increase the suckler cow numbers but also meant taking over a flock of sheep.

The addition of sheep proved to be fortuitous since the beef trade collapsed in 1996 when it was suggested that B.S.E. in cattle, a disease that was identified in the mid 1980s, was linked to a new variation of the human disease C.J.D. It became no longer possible to sell cattle over thirty months old for consumption as beef. Calves had to be registered when born and were issued with a passport, which had to accompany them when they left the farm so that their age could be checked. Eventually the Department of Agriculture set up a central data base and the older animals were registered as well.

Public concern about food scares and the environment led to the setting up of various farm assurance schemes. Some supermarkets had already started to lay down rules for their suppliers so this was an attempt to get common standards that would be accepted by all. We joined the assurance scheme for cattle first and then the one for cereals. We now have a joint assessment with one annual inspection. We are also a ‘select farm’ for Marks and Spencers who have their own additional audit.

By the end of the nineties the pound has risen in value and reduced the competitiveness of our crops which now trade in a world market at world market prices. High technical efficiency is no longer enough for the business to prosper. The requirements of the subsidy schemes and the farm assurance schemes mean that much time is spent in the office. Consequently the business has become simpler in order to control costs and reduce management time. We now grow continuous cereals – winter wheat and spring barley to spread the workload. We have once again gone out of sheep to concentrate on a cattle enterprise that uses Aberdeen Angus sires to produce beef for a premium market.