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Ploughing: a Caithness pioneering role

29th October 2013

Bill Mowat writes....

The Scottish Championships, held in Caithness for the first time at Stanstill Farm in Bower last weekend, brought attention to the 'ancient' and modern forms of turning the topsoil for cultivating and raising crops in the countryside.

Its satisfying success was helped by two major non-agricultural private-sector employers in the County's North East; Subsea 7, operators of the Wester oil-pipeline site assisted with transporting the eye-catching heavy-horse teams to the fields, while Pentland Ferries Ltd brought in the big contingent of Orkney competitors on the Pentalina through Gills Harbour.

But outside of farmers and enthusiasts, few Caithnessians may know that mechanised ploughing was introduced to the Northern part of Scotland in Canisbay parish, almost a century-and-a-half ago ... nearly 70 years before farm-tractors first turned furrows in Caithness fields.

The location for the successful venture 1860s was Nissiter in East Mey, where local laird Lord James Sinclair used a stationary steam engine and a wire-rope pulley system to plough-up and reclaim for cultivation over 400 acres of moorland, and so create Philips Mains.

James, the 'Mechanical Earl', named it after his heiress wife Louisa's family name; sadly she died in 1870 in her early 40s.

The 14th Earl of Caithness (1834.1881) was an internationally-known scientist and inventor of the high Victorian era, as the chosen tutor on engineering subjects to the Imperial Monarch's sons, including the future King Edward VII.

After graduating from Edinburgh University, he spent a full year 'getting his hands dirty' with 6:00 am daily starts in a textile machine-tools factory in Manchester, then the world's cotton cloth-milling capital.

Out of this came the 'tape-loom' which enabled a weaver to 'stop one of the shuttles without halting the whole machine', for which he received a 500:00 prize, but of which he said later :'If I'd been a businessman, I would have made a fortune from it'!

In 1860 he modified a small steam locomotive which he drove as a road vehicle all the way from London to Barrogill Castle ... and shortly thereafter put her steam power to use in pumping out the water from his East Mey flagstone quarries.

Those quarries fed his steam-powered stone-cutting mill, which still exists in the 'Gill' at Harrow, Mey, where he built an export facility that he named as Philips Harbour, allegedly as his father-in-law invested in the flagstone company. The flags from East Mey and Brabster quarries did not 'cleave' to provide a slip-free surface (as did those from Castlehill, Spittal etc), so he had to invent a 'chipping machine' to roughen their surface.

Lord Caithness, a Fellow of the Royal Society, won a Gold Medal at Prince Albert's Great Exhibition in London in 1851 ; back in the news this month with Foreign Secretary George Osborne talking to members of a Chinese property group planning to build a new full-size replica Crystal Palace in London; Sinclair had a Barrogill gardens 'greenhouse' built by its creator Joseph Paxton.

The Philips Mains ploughing engine came only a few years after English agriculture engineer John Fowler (1826.1864) had first conceived of this use, initially as for a field-drainage 'mole-plough' that he put to use in wet ground in Ireland, still recovering after the disastrous 1846/8 potato famine.

Philips Mains, soon to be the site of the Gills Bay Scottish Hydro Electric Transmission Ltd's (SHETL) major substation to handle Pentland Firth tidal stream 'sea-power', lies on a slight North slope overlooking the Firth with the Orkney Islands strung along North horizon.

The nearest is Swona, where the Rosie family were the last agriculturalists in Scotland to continue until 1945 with a power method of ploughing that long pre-dated the use of horse-teams on Caithness crofts and farms.

They used oxen, ('ousen' in Orkney dialect) for turning their soil, harrowing & rolling it as well as for carts; as did Caithness crofters until the end of the 19th century as unlike horses, those could be slaughtered and eaten 'without guilt'.

And for many centuries crofter-fishers hand-dug all the 'good ground' in Stroma.

The Earl served for a period as Chairman of the British Fisheries Society, which built and owned Pulteney Harbour, administered from the present Groat offices.

It was a marine-related patent that Sinclair regarded as by far his most important.

His 'Caithness Gravitating Compass' was an innovation adopted for ship-board use by many major Merchant Navy shipping lines, at a time when British vessels truly 'ruled the waves' of world commerce.

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