It’s hard to get passionate about concrete, but it’s set one Borders farmer on the road to success.
For Jimmy Shanks, who owns and manages Blinkbonny Quarry near Nenthorn, and his 11-strong workforce were celebrating this week after the company secured national accreditation for quality.
“We have demonstrated our commitment to the Borders economy by growing our business when our competitors have pulled out,” he told us, “and the new plant. allied with the BS accreditation, will allow us to exercise tighter quality control.”
So how has Blinkbonny weathered the economic storm when the downturn in the building trade has been blamed for the closures of this region’s two other concrete plants, owned by Tarmac and Aggregate Industries?
“They’ve been shutting plants and paying men off, while we’re taking people on,” Mr Shanks told us. “Our ambition is to remain profitable in a sector where others are dropping like flies.”
Blinkbonny’s survival is down to good old local nouse, it seems.
“I’ve always concentrated on the customers who are always going to be here and keep coming back again,” he said. “The fact we’re small makes us flexible – we do our best to make concrete the way our customers want it.
“I can’t drive anywhere in the Borders without seeing something I’ve had a hand in. It might be a conservatory, crash barriers, a farm shed, a sign post, a wind turbine – there’s no job too small, and now we’ve got accreditation, there’s no job too big.
“The business has grown in a constant progression. I’m quite chuffed with how it’s all gone,” he said.
To show how far Blinkbonny has come, the quarry produced more than 15,000 cubic metres of concrete this year – enough to create a 6ft-wide path 100 miles long, stretching across the Borders from Cockburnspath to West Linton, and back.
He admitted business hasn’t been easy, but Blinkbonny stayed put to ride out the slump in the building trade.
“I live here. I’ve been here all my life,” Mr Shanks explained. “I’m part and parcel of this place, and so are the guys who work here. We concentrate on looking out for the local economy: everyone who works here lives locally.”
Mr Shanks started his working life as a farmer on his family’s farm at Blinkbonny and Queen’s Cairn, but the forces of biology were about to change all that.
“The prime mover was hunger,” he said about his move to the rock business. “In the late ‘90s, BSE hit farming hard. Farming incomes plummeted overnight. Businesses went from profitable to basketcases.”
He needed to find another way to make money and he found it below his boots. The forces of geology would come to his rescue.
“Blinkbonny is rocky,” he observed, “and I saw there was an opening for a quarry in the Borders.”
Still working full-time on the farm, Mr Shanks opened the quarry in August 2000, employing one lad to help him.
“My background is in agriculture and this was my diversification project, which turned into a full-time business.”
He started producing mostly dry stone, but turned to concrete production in September 2002, at first as a ‘mobile batch plant’, taking the aggregate, sand and cement to where it was needed, and mixing the concrete on site.
“It’s been a steep learning curve,” he added. “We were pioneers, one of the first companies in Scotland to ‘mix-as-you-go’. We just had to learn on our feet. The housing boom got us started, and kept us busy.”
Steadily the business grew, at a rate of roughly one new employee every year, and Mr Shanks was able to quit the farm to concentrate on concrete. The big change came last year, when he built a ‘fixed batching plant’, which allowed the company to make ‘ready-mix concrete’. Now Blinkbonny is master of its whole production chain, blasting and crushing its own rock, mining its own sand, mixing its own concrete, and delivering the finished product by lorry.
“The quality control is a lot easier with the batch plant on site,” he said, “and the operational costs are lower.”
Many people call concrete ‘cement’, but this is like calling a cake ‘flour’. Cement is only one ingredient of concrete: a ‘glue’ which reacts with water to bond the other ingredients, sand and aggregate (rock), together. It’s hard to underestimate how much this stone-like substance has changed our world: concrete is used more than any other man-made material on the planet, to build structures, from fenceposts to skyscrapers, bridges and motorways. Around eight billion cubic metres of concrete are made each year – enough to give one cubic metre to every person on Earth, whether they want it or not.
Even the Romans used a primal form of concrete 2,000 years ago to build the Colosseum and the Pantheon in Rome, consisting of small gravel and coarse sand mixed with hot lime and water, and sometimes even animal blood and horse hair. The first modern-day concrete (hydrolic cement) was invented in 1756 by the engineer behind the Coldstream Bridge over the River Tweed.
John Smeaton used his miracle mortar, which set under water, to build the Eddystone lighthouse in Cornwall. Smeaton is honoured by history as the ‘father of civil engineering’.
Close to Coldstream at Blinkbonny, which sits between Kelso and Gordon, the cement-making process starts with a geological seam, running from Earlston to Duns, of basalt: the hard, grey, volcanic rock formed when lava rapidly cools at the Earth’s surface, which is also found at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.
Contractors drill holes in the rock, and then blast it with explosives: ammonium nitrate, a common fertiliser.
“The art of blasting is to get it as small as you can without getting it all over the countryside,” Mr Shanks revealed. “There aren’t two rock deposits that behave the same, so there’s a bit of art to blasting, a bit of feel to it.”
The blasted lumps, now about 2ft square or below, are reduced further by four separate crushers on site, until the rocks are around 20mm in size – the right specification for ready-mix concrete, which is then delivered by Blinkbonny’s fleet of lorries.
This reporter at least now looks on concrete with a new-found respect.