In the middle of the nineteenth century an East Lothian agricultural worker could still expect that his wage included ‘a cow’s grass and winter keep’, so providing a plentiful source of milk and dairy products for his family. Even the farmers might only have a single cow. The situation in the burghs was different. A very few families were able to keep a cow and graze it on a nearby paddock, but most folk relied on the output of small dairies. Their herds were small – a dozen animals was viable – and the output could not be kept for very long in the absence of refrigeration.
Advances in technology (milking machines and bottling plants) and hygiene (pasteurisation and testing) towards the end of the century meant that larger dairy herds were increasingly profitable even as demand and consumption increased. The co-operative movement was at the forefront of development, with its own farms, herds and processing facilities at, for example, Tranent and Musselburgh. Independent dairies had to scale-up to survive or purchase raw milk from producers to process and retail.
After the First World War motor transport was essential to collect churns of milk from the producers, deliver it to the dairies and then distribute the graded milk to shops and doorstep. The system ran smoothly until well into the 1970s, particularly after the introduction of ubiquitous electric milk floats. From 1934 developments in the industry were supported by the creation a Scottish Milk Marketing Board. As well as supporting the price for producers the Board (and its English and Welsh counterpart) invested in development and memorable advertising campaigns. The Milk Race ran for 35 years from 1958 and ran stages in East Lothian.
The wave of market liberalisation in the 1990s swept away both Boards, although north of the border some functions were retained until the Scottish Board was finally wound up in 2003. The cooperatives established to replace the Boards found that the new system introduced its own pressures where supply chain relationships tended to favour the largest retailers with producer margins being inexorably squeezed. As a result, by 2012 there were only two dairy farms left in East Lothian.
If you would like to add to our accounts of East Lothian Industries please use our simple template and send it to us. Or simply write a piece in Your Stories. If you’d to carry out any of your own research within this topic (or any other), please contact the local history centre at the JGC.