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Now that spring is well under way, Iain Thornber writes about the land and shares his photographs of some figures from the farming community of yester year.
1. No one travelling along the A82 between Fort-William and Spean Bridge, can fail to see two unusual white buildings by the road side with ‘Great Glen Cattle Ranch’ painted on them and speculate about their origin.
These concrete shelters owe their existence to Joseph W Hobbs (1891-1963) Scotland’s first and most successful cattle rancher who, two years after the end of the Second World War, boldly went where few farmers in the west Highlands had dared to go before. Here we see some of his cattle being driven across bracken covered slopes to one of these pens at Achindaul. Bracken, often called the curse of the Highlands (to which some wag added factors and foxes) by 1950 was gradually defeated by Mr Hobbs. He began with 35 acres and by 1958 had reclaimed 1,260 acres of bog, rock and bracken; had thousands of yards of drains dug and erected miles of fences. Once the ground was limed from his nearby quarry it was good enough to sustain 600 breeding cows which in a decade produced 2,000 tons of prime beef.
Joe, who also bought the Glen Nevis Distillery always said ‘you need money, it’s the only way. My own little unit cost me £20,000 in machinery and £50,000 to stock up with cattle. But I got out of the red after five years and now I’m making money. ‘Dammit’, said the Highland’s answer to Lord Sugar, ‘I wouldn’t be doing it if I wasn’t!’
To reclaim rocky wasteland and sheep-sick slopes on which to run more cattle, Joe imported the latest agricultural machinery from Canada; he planted thousands of trees for shelter and to replace timber which had been cut down during the two world wars.
He built houses, some at the rate of one a day, for his distillery and estate employees. This was a man in a hurry and he did not spare himself, even to working alongside his team of bonneted Lochaber ‘cowboys’ on horseback rounding up the preferred West of Ireland Connemara cattle on the rugged hillsides in true Western style, although lariats, sombreros and chaps-leggings were discarded!
2. The interior of a lambing shepherd’s bothy. Years ago extra help was often required by estates and farms at lambing time. The Oban Times was a popular place to advertise and men came from all over Scotland. Here, in this unusual photograph, we see a lambing shepherd enjoying a cup of tea with his devoted collie looking for a tit-bit. Beside him is an axe for chopping wood for the fire; his crook for catching the lambs; a lambing bag to put a newly born lamb into if it had lost its mother; a kettle hanging on the end of a chain and a telescope. The single room can hardly be described as well furnished; a wrought iron-bed most likely with a hard horsehair mattress; one wooden chair; one cup; one spoon; a bottle of the once popular Camp Coffee, a concentrated syrup flavoured with coffee and chicory, first produced in 1876 by Paterson & Sons Ltd, in Glasgow. There was no luxuries here but as the occupant was outside tending to his charges and keeping foxes and eagles away 24/7 for six weeks there was little need for much more.
3. Seton Gordon (1886-1979) CBE, world famous naturalist, photographer and author of many books on the Highlands and Islands checks his weather station at Duntulm on Skye at the start of the growing season.
4. John M Rollo (1901-1985) OBE; agriculturalist, full-time deputy chairman of the Highlands and Islands Development Board, entrepreneur and the founder of Oban-based Rollo Industries, was a champion of the crofters.
Here he is seen (hand on the wheel) presenting one of his well-known Croftmaster tractors which he invented, to the North of Scotland Agricultural College in Inverness in the 1950s. For years Mr Rollo considered how best he could help crofting. His first improvement was a tricycle tractor, pedal driven. It could plough one-sixth of a mile per hour. It was slow but much quicker than the old ploughs that were being used at the time. From this evolved a power-driven tractor with a .98hp engine. Two years later along came a four-wheeled one powered with a 3hp engine, named the Croftmaster which could plough an acre of land on two gallons of petrol. A Scottish business man bought 50 of them right away and gave them to the Highland Development Fund to distribute to the crofters on easy payments. Apparently these tractors were offered at cost price, £190 each (no profit), with no deposit and five years to pay. In September 1954 the Croftmaster was put on display at the Scottish Industries Exhibition at Kelvin Hall, Glasgow where foreign buyers and manufacturers were attracted to the stand.
Dr Olivetti (of typewriter fame) was keen to have the Croftmaster in Italy to help the farmers there. Consequently two were sent out as an experiment. They must have been a success as others were also shipped to Chile, New Zealand, Australia, Norway and Persia (now Iran). In 1954 a Rollo tractor with ploughing fittings was bought by a representative of Bechuanaland, who also supplied the names of six chiefs there and in Basutoland who were interested in this machine.