East Lothian’s Agricultural History
Our lovely permanent exhibition at the John Gray Centre Museum, The Land, The Sea and The People, is explored below. Enjoy exerts from information panels, watch footage from our galleries, explore objects, listen to oral histories and our Talking Museum audio guide.
This page explores East Lothian’s agricultural history. When you are finished why not enjoy our other pages focusing on the sections of the galleries concerned with East Lothian’s maritime past and community, industrial and trading history.
East Lothian’s fertile land proved perfect for rearing livestock and growing crops. Farming influenced the landscape, towns and prosperity of the area. Today it remains central to the lives of many people in East Lothian.
Iron Age people used stone, metal and pottery hand tools and vessels, such as quern stones and sickles, to grow,harvest and prepare cereals, vegetables and fruit. Little changed for hundreds of years and tools such as spades and shovels, are still in use today. The materials used to make these tools gradually changed from wood or stone to iron and later steel. Large numbers of workers were needed to work the land when simple tools like hand sickles were used.As some hand tools were replaced by machines,fewer people were required. Horses and tractors worked together for the first half of the 1900s, but tractors began to dominate by the 1940s. Planting potatoes was done by hand until mechanical potato planters began to appear in the 1930s, but as they were expensive many farms continued hand planting. Sheep shearing in the early 1900s was done by hand using large metal shears. It is now done with electric shears.
Watch footage of this
part of the gallery
Highlights from the objects on display in the land section of the gallery.
Click on the thumbnails below to see larger images and explore the objects. The main gallery label is here. Top tip: open in a new tab to cross reference to the pictures.
Gangs of mainly female workers were hired for the potato harvest. They were recruited in towns and villages and bussed to the fields. The workers filled wire tattie baskets like this one with potatoes that had already been dug up either by hand or machine. The potatoes were tipped into sacks, boxes or wagons to be transported from the field. Wire replaced wicker for potato baskets during the middle of the 20th century, but the form of the basket remained unchanged. Wire baskets were themselves superseded when automated equipment was developed to gather the crop. This basket bears evidence of heavy use. The wire net and supporting strip are distorted, as is the rim. However, the overall shape – two parallel sides with curved ends – is still distinct.
Uglis, sun bonnets like this example were handmade by generations of female farm workers until the 1970s (and perhaps beyond). Uglis were made to a standard design and often in bright fabrics for everyday work. The ribbon ties and nine hooped canes created the distinctive stiffened hood which was an effective sun and rain shield. It could be positioned forward or back as circumstances demanded. A wicker stiffens the neck-band and trailing nape skirt. Many areas of Scotland and certain trades (in particular farming and fishing) once boasted distinctive costume. Uglis were an important part of traditional rural costume.
These churns were used to transport milk between dairy farms and dairies. Each churn was marked with the name of its home farm. Every morning, after being emptied and cleaned, they were returned to the farm for refilling. These two metal milk churns, one of eight and one of four gallon capacity, are otherwise of identical cylindrical shape. The name of the farmer and his farm is written on the side of the churn, ‘J FLEMING PENICUIK’. Both churns are complete with lids and carrying handles. The labour intensive process of filling milk churns was suitable for small milk producers only. In the last quarter of the 20th century, farmers began to produce milk on a semi-industrial scale and large milk tankers superseded the old method of using churns to transport milk
Much of East Lothian’s agricultural produce was exported by ship from places like Cromwell harbour at Dunbar until road and rail networks sped up distribution during the 1900s. Most dairy farms still employed teams of people to milk the cows up to the latter half of the 1900s when machinery started to be used for milking. By the early 1970s many farms were using large machinery like combine harvesters. These could do the work of many people and animals. Market gardens, like Pinkie Mains Farm relied upon seasonal labour from the towns to harvest crops. Gangs were picked up early in the morning and returned home at night. East Lothian’s first farmers probably started to clear forests to grow grain and graze animals over 6,000 years ago. From these humble beginnings potatoes, malt and spirits were the region’s main exports by the 1900s and market gardening was so significant that East Lothian was promoted as the ‘Garden of Scotland’. Farming changed dramatically in the 1700s–1800s during the Agricultural Revolution. East Lothian landowners began to look for ways to improve and exploit the productivity of their land. New machinery and larger fields were just two of the developments that enabled farming to become big business. In the 1900s more intensive farming methods were introduced, with greater use of chemicals, improved crop varieties, more sophisticated machinery, and an associated decline in the number of farm workers. Farming is still changing today to make the most of new opportunities and challenges. Many farmers sell some of their produce through farm shops or farmers’ markets to take advantage of consumer demand for locally grown, often organic produce.
During the 1700s many East Lothian landowners experimented with new farming methods, and publicised these improvements widely. Sir John Cockburn created long leases for tenant farmers, to encourage them to develop their land. Lord Belhaven pioneered larger fields and efficient farm and steading layouts. Inventions such as the threshing machine revolutionised farming still further. East Lothian farms could now produce a greater surplus, which was needed to feed the growing industrial
populations of Scotland. This new prosperity saw other industries grow to process agricultural products. Ormiston became Scotland’s first planned village incorporating industries and crafts such as linen manufacture, blacksmiths, a distillery and candle makers. As these industries developed people began to move into towns, just as the increased use of machinery on farms led to a reduced demand for workers.