Stenton | Economy

Industry | Agriculture | Field sports


One of the new industries of the area was launched in 1993, when Findlay’s Natural Mineral Water was started at Pitcox, utilising the spring that rises from the base of the Lammermuir Hills, known locally as Pressmennan Well. Tests had shown that the spring had exceptionally pure water. This is the same water that has been used for years by the houses at both Pitcox and Biel estate; a new pipeline was installed to carry water three miles to a purpose-built bottling plant. Initially, the company employed six people. In 2001 Barr’s (most famous for making Irn Bru) purchased the remaining 60% shareholding in the company, and now ten full- and six part-time staff are employed there.


Post-war, Meiklerigg was still using horses, as was Pressmennan; their two Clydesdales, Dick and Dobbin, were stabled in Stenton village at the horse mill. This period was also the tail end of using traction engines and mills.

The parish has nine farms. The largest two are the hill farms of Deuchrie and Millknowe. Sheep farming is the main enterprise on these units.

I worked under Hammie Hall the head shepherd at Deuchrie. The two of us stayed in Lucknow bothy. It’s a ruin now. The two of us bothied there. Cooking our own meals and looking after ourselves. …. You had to sit up all night at the lambing time and you took night about. My very first lambing was at the fit o’ Deuchrie Hill. We stayed at the house and … we sat up all night… You were up two days and a night. Then you got to bed for a night. Hail, sleet or snow it didn’t matter what the weather was like.

Adam Bathgate, on shepherding c1937

The main changes I have seen … are the numbers of sheep that’s on the farms and on the hills… They fly round them on motorbikes now and they don’t know one sheep from another. We had to know the sheep individually…. Now the ewes and the lambs have numbers on them. We were never allowed to do anything like that. We had time then, to go round the field. But now they have so many they don’t have the time to get to know them. They are not shepherding like we used to do. … with these motorbikes. One man will be doing two or three shepherd’s work.

Adam Bathgate, on present versus past shepherding practises

The original farmhouse and steading of Millknowe are now under the Whiteadder reservoir (see Whittingehame parish). The remaining seven farms in the parish are intensively farmed incorporating today’s modern methods and equipment. Beesknowe, which is part of the Biel estate and Pitcox, to the east of the parish, are mainly arable units specialising in cereal crops.

Bielgrange, Ruchlaw West Mains, Pressmennan, Little Spott and Meiklerigg are traditional mixed farms. Cereals grown are mainly wheat and barley. Small acreages of peas, beans and oil seed rape have been cultivated on some units over the period. Set-aside has also featured in crop rotations since its introduction in the late 1980s. One or two of these farms rent out small acreages for potatoes and turnips. Livestock are either herds of beef, suckler cows or bought-in cattle for fattening. Flocks of sheep also feature in one or two units. From 1940, the parish’s only dairy was at Pressmennan owned by Mr Archibald Weir. The dairy continued until Mr Weir retired in 1962.

… in 1951. I came to work as a shepherd for Mr Weir at Pressmennan. … In the wintertime I looked after the young dairy stock. But I did mostly shepherding. … in the 1950s there were two tractor men and two horsemen … plus a cattleman and the grieve….

I went to Meiklerig to the Stewarts in 1971. That’s when I started showing sheep. From now on I only worked as a shepherd. We got on well enough together the Stewarts and I. But we did have our moments!

Sheep breeding was important to the farm because you got better prices … if they were nice and well looked after.

Adam Bathgate, shepherd at Pressmennan 1951-71; at Meiklerig 1971 on.

Bielgrange, 1940s-90s

Throughout the forties… all available land was used to grow food. … Our potato acreage was increased to 60 – we grew second early ware potatoes, all dug by hand and sold straight off the field. At harvest time … 100 workers on the farm. The ‘tattie squad’ came from County Mayo and were housed in our own bothies.

… compulsory cropping requirements were eased and the farm went back to carrying more sheep – [the] half bred flock was gradually extended to some 22 score. In 1950 the opportunity arose to purchase Bielgrange as sitting tenant of Biel estate. The farm’s first tanker combine was bought. A pit and dresser were installed in the old threshing barn and an in-bin drying system followed. In the 1960s prices were still guaranteed, but by means of deficiency payments. Mechanisation continued – bulk loading facilities for grain arrived and a continuous flow drier. Life became more difficult.

The farm moved out of sheep and the potato crop was discontinued. … Also cattle numbers were increased by about 50%, the cereal acreage was increased and field beans were introduced. Our work force dropped from 15 to 5 between 1948-68. Entry to the EEC coincided with the rise in the price of cereals and protein. The consequent rise in food prices at home was blamed on Britain’s membership of EEC. In response to the rise in the price of protein, beans were fed to cattle and the turnip crop was increased to reduce dependence on cereals. Cattle were fed from self-feeding hoppers. The emphasis in farming at that time was on efficient production.

Elliot Jeffrey

In the 1970s yields of grain were increased as superior varieties were developed by plant breeders… New fungicides allowed control of some diseases. Continuous cereal growing became quite feasible. Better varieties, better chemicals, more detailed and specialised management meant that Bielgrange wheat yield rose from 2 tons/acre in 1970 to 4 tons/acre crop in 1984.

Combination of high inflation and good returns made it tempting to buy machinery. In 1977 there was further expansion in cattle numbers. In the eighties, beans were dropped, since it was more profitable to sell them to the EEC. Granstock was given to cattle as a replacement for a couple of years and then the cattle were given straw treated with ammonia. Public complaints in the late 1980s changed farm practice. The public disliked the food mountains and conservationists demanded changes in farming. The farmer concentrated on reducing costs. In 1991 it was decided to buy spring calving cows to start a spring calving suckler herd instead of buying cattle to feed over the winter. Eight more cows and eight heifers were purchased and no more were bought.

In the McSharry reform of 1992 the necessary support was to be paid direct to the farmer. Set-aside was introduced whereby a farmer would only receive an area payment for supported crops if he agreed not to sow a proportion of his farm. All this caused an increase in paperwork. Our commodity prices rose as the value of the pound sterling fell in 1992. A batch drier for the grain handling facilities was bought and in 1993 Weatherly, a small hill farm near Spott, was purchased. This meant taking over a flock of sheep. The sheep helped to weather the storm in 1996 when it was suggested that BSE in cattle was linked to a new variation of the human disease CJD.

Public concern about food scares and the environment have led to an assurance scheme, annual inspection and an additional audit from Marks and Spencer, as Bielgrange is a ‘select farm’.

More time is spent in the office to keep up with the requirements of the subsidy schemes and farm assurance schemes. The business has become simpler in order to control costs and reduce management time. Continuous cereals – winter wheat and spring barley – are grown to spread the workload. The farm concentrates on a cattle enterprise that uses Aberdeen Angus sires to produce beef for a premium market and there are now no sheep.

Angus Jeffrey

Field sports

The keeper that I took over from was called Alistair Leitch and he stayed on and guided me for a year. That guidance couldn’t be replaced. He came from a long line of gamekeepers. He taught me so much in that year that it was unbelievable…

A gamekeeper’s job is to look after game and make sure that there is surplus game to shoot. First you have to control, legally, certain types of vermin. In the 1970s you could kill a lot more vermin than we can now. It’s quite strict now. When I first started birds of prey were just coming back after DDT and they were just starting to recover. The main enemies of game birds are: carrion crows, foxes, stoats and rats. …Syndicate shooting has been on the go for years now. It’s more common now because everybody shares in the costs. It means that a lot more working guys can take part in shoots. They all put cash and effort into it. They pay for the shooting rights on a farmer’s land. It doesn’t do professional gamekeepers any good, as these guys can’t afford to employ gamekeepers….

In the 1950s there were many more gamekeepers with smaller beats. Economics play a large part in gamekeeping, and by 2000, jobs are hard to find. A gamekeeper polices the estate for poachers, who used guns with silencers. The main birds shot were pheasant and grey partridge. Biel estate use to have five or six full time keepers, and one part time keeper; it is all scaled-down now.

Lawrence Docker