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4 Sep 2018

Into the heart of Angus’s agricultural past

Written by Ross Hendry, Project Reveal Collections Assistant & MLitt Museum Studies Student, University of Aberdeen
The Angus Folk Museum collection
The Angus Folk Museum collection
My journey from the University of Aberdeen to the heart of Angus’s agricultural past began in late June.

As part of my degree I was fortunate enough to be given the chance to do a one-month placement at the museum storage facility that is currently home to the Angus Folk Museum Collection, and contribute to the National Trust for Scotland’s Project Reveal. My task was to interview two members of the Angus Members’ Centre and record their extensive knowledge of the agricultural collections. This would then be included in the cataloguing process to provide additional information, particularly the ways in which the objects were used.

My first visitor was Ian Bruce, from Kirriemuir, who became a farmer at the age of 18 when he took over the family farm at East Mains of Burnside after his father suffered a stroke. When he was 36 he left to become a livestock inspector in the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. A lifetime spent in the industry has resulted in a staggering knowledge of the collections, with nearly every object eliciting a nod of recognition or a personal reflection. One unassuming object that Ian shed light on was a wicker basket, known as a scull. This versatile object was used to collect fish in coastal regions, while on the farms around Angus they were used to collect potatoes. Ian demonstrated how the basket would be dragged along the ground from behind and through the legs while out in the field. It really highlighted the backbreaking nature of the work: the thought of doing that inside the store for an hour made me feel tired, let alone doing it in an uneven field in baking heat or wet after rainfall.

Tattie scull made of split willow
Tattie scull made of split willow

My second visitor to the store was Charles Alexander, originally from Buckie but now living locally. He surprised me by bringing along his friend Bob Todd, a local man from west of Brechin who had farmed for 26 years. Both came from farming families, and between them their knowledge was equally as impressive as Ian’s. Charles explained in great detail how several of the old machines operated, including a Massey-Harris reaper-binder and an early potato spinner which he described as a ‘tank’. Bob gave me a lesson in how to properly sow seeds by hand, an activity requiring a rhythm not far removed from dancing: ’left foot forward, left hand back; right foot forward, right hand back’. Spades and other hand tools of all sizes, wire- and rope-making machines, and larger machines like cake breakers, in which hard blocks of oilseed and linseed were broken up, were also explained by Charles and Bob.

Potato digger/spinner, made locally by P Carr & Son in Ruthven. After being loosened, the wheel at the back flung the potatoes a few feet out to each side where they would be collected by hand
Potato digger/spinner, made locally by P Carr & Son in Ruthven. After being loosened, the wheel at the back flung the potatoes a few feet out to each side where they would be collected by hand

These objects may not have surprising or unusual stories like some of the items illuminated by my colleagues Ross and Marianne. Instead, these were everyday objects that were crucial to the livelihoods of those who owned them, and were built to survive heavy use. Agriculture still plays a vital role in Angus, with 25% of Scottish soft fruit and 30% of the country’s potatoes being grown in the region, while fields and livestock provide a picturesque view from every road. Although the methods may have changed, in many cases the tools used now are simply updated and modernised versions of what came before. These collections from the Angus Folk Museum are therefore an incredibly valuable link to the region’s past.