We owe forgotten heroes debt for transforming farming life

The James Small Smiddy at Blackadder Mount Farm, Allanton.
The James Small Smiddy at Blackadder Mount Farm, Allanton.

I grew up during the war in a cottage on Blackadder Mount Farm in Allanton, Berwickshire.

It is the same farm where, in the 1770s, an agricultural engineer called James Small developed the modern cast iron plough.

Examples of a James Small plough. These ploughs could be pulled by a pair of Clydesdale horses guided by a single ploughman. From a private collection, Chirnside.

Examples of a James Small plough. These ploughs could be pulled by a pair of Clydesdale horses guided by a single ploughman. From a private collection, Chirnside.

With sponsorship from Lord Kames, the work Small did on the farm was published in 1773 in the book, Treatise on the Plough.

James Small is a forgotten hero of Scotland.

Prior to his invention, ploughing was done with a flat wooden ploughshare and the plough required 10 to 12 oxen to pull it. They, in turn, needed 10 to 12 people to look after them. Ploughing was not an efficient operation.

So James Small developed the modern cast iron plough in the smiddy at Blackadder Mount Farm.

His design is still evident in the plough share on a modern reversible plough.

It was so efficient that it could be pulled by a pair of Clydesdale or shire horses guided by a single ploughman.

However, James did not patent his invention and sadly died a pauper.

Andrew Meikle in nearby East Linton developed the threshing machine.

Prior to his invention, grain was spread on a barn floor, beaten with a flail then tossed into the wind in winnowing – another very labour intensive process.

Andrew Meikle’s work is also still evident in the modern combine harvester.

These two men transformed the world.

Labour was freed from the land and migrated to the cities where the workers powered the industrial revolution.

The cast iron plough and the threshing machine allowed the American prairies to develop as the bread basket of the world; the pioneering work of James Small and Andrew Meikle made farming on this scale efficient.

Large farms still required large work forces, however, ploughing with two Clydesdale horses pulling a James Small plough proved to be much more efficient than using a flat wooden ploughshare pulled by oxen.

Villages in Berwickshire developed an infield and outfield system in the early 18th century.

The infield was divided into many plots or rigs. These were long plots, about six feet wide. Use of any given rig was rotated around the villagers. The infield rigs were cultivated and used for grain and vegetable cultivation.

The outfield was held in common and was rougher pasture ground.

In the early 1700s, the powers-that-be decided it wasn’t the most efficient system and started a process of enclosure, whereby large fields were divided by hedges or dykes.

The welfare of the local population was not the concern of the aristocrats. There were substantial migrations from the Merse to the more marginal areas in the foothills of the Lammermoors – a process that happened throughout Scotland and England.

This was the era of The Lowland Clearances.

As a by-product of the Scottish Age of Enlightenment, farm lands in Berwickshire, Northumberland and the Lothians were developed differently from the rest of Scotland and Europe.

On the east coast of Scotland, enlightened landlords gave 20 or 30 year leases to qualified farmers.

With the previous five year lease, a tenant farmer had no incentive to improve the land since he would see no material benefit.

But with a 20 or 30 year lease, well-off, educated farmers could invest in the productivity of their fields.

Lime was introduced to balance the acidity of the soils. Turnips were introduced as a winter fodder crop for sheep.

Farmers built substantial stone farm houses and employed 20 to 60 workers to do the farm work.

These labourers were on annual contracts and there were hiring fairs in the local towns where workers and farmers negotiated terms.

Most of the payment was in kind – a bag of oats, a bag of peas, a cartload of coal, the right to keep a pig and to have a small vegetable garden behind their unit in the long rows of farm cottages.

The landscape of Chirnside and surrounding areas is littered with examples of this industrial approach to the land.

You can pick out the large farm houses and the long rows of farm cottages. You will not see this elsewhere in Scotland where the farm remained a family operation.

This efficient agriculture added to the migration from the land and The Lowland Clearances. It could be argued that one form of drudgery on the land was replaced by another – in a city factory. However, in retrospect, this was a period of human progress.

We owe James Small and Andrew Meikle the debt of remembering their contributions; they are Scotland’s forgotten heroes.