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In the heart of the Forest of Ae in Dumfriesshire lies a well-kept secret; an outdoor collection of forestry ploughs. These ploughs represent the development of tree planting technology.

In Britain, the use of ploughs in farming dates back to prehistoric times. In forestry, it is a far more recent development.

Using ploughs in forests

During the 18th and 19th centuries, afforestation (essentially, planting trees) became more common.

At first, people used specially-designed spades and hard physical work to dig holes and plant trees. During the 19th century, however, estate owners began to experiment in using farm ploughs in forestry. This cut down the work, reduced labour costs and improved planting conditions.

In 1919, after World War I, the Forestry Commission was set up to re-establish and expand forests in Britain. This led to the invention of specialised forestry plough, and the Commission was integral to developing new and improved ploughs for the huge task of planting Scotland's new forests.

The development of the RLR plough

In the early 1940s the Forestry Commission used an adapted farming plough produced by Andrew Begg of Tarbolton in Ayrshire. However, it did not plough deep enough to discourage weeds from growing. The additional costs of employing people to weed the area by hand, prior to planting, made the plough uneconomical.

In response, the Forestry Commission designed its own forestry plough called the RLR, named after their Chairman, Roy Lister Robinson.  This plough continued to be used in Scotland until 1962.

James Cuthbertson & William Clark

Many of the ploughs at Ae were developed by two forward-thinking engineers.

James Cuthbertson

James Cuthbertson of Biggar was a key player in the development of forestry ploughs in Scotland. As a child, he was introduced to the experimental work on forestry ploughs undertaken by Sir Charles Ross at Balnagowan Estate.

In the 1940s, his engineering firm in Biggar turned out a series of experimental ploughs for the Research and Development team at the Forestry Commission.

By the 1950s, his firm had an international reputation for specialist ploughs, ranging from paddy field ploughs for the rice fields of South East Asia, to those tackling Canadian swamps, and even underwater sea-bed ploughs for cable tracks.

However, by the 1960s, Cuthbertson was less involved with forestry ploughs, and a new engineering star appeared on the horizon: William Clark.

William Clark

William Clark is an important character in the development of forestry ploughs.

Clark established the engineering company Clark of Parkgate in Dumfriesshire in 1925. Initially a blacksmith, he expanded into agricultural engineering soon afterwards.

It is unsurprising, given it was located in a major forestry area, that the firm became involved with the Forestry Commission. Clark's early work includes developing a plough for use on dry heathland, and repairing and modifying earlier ploughs made by James Cuthbertson.

In the 1960s, Clark and his son Murray worked closely with Forestry Commission forestry experts, such as Jimmy Paterson, to create a number of specialised ploughs. These became standards, used across the United Kingdom and beyond.

Clark's ploughs

Of the many examples of Clark's work that you can find at Ae, the Humpy is the most famous. Its name comes from its distinctive trademark A-frame structure.

Meanwhile, the Rotary Mould Board Plough, designed by Murray Clark, looks like it came from a science fiction film.

In the 1960s, a Finnish Company introduced the Lokomo Ditch plough, threatening Clark's domination of the plough market. This massive plough, which you can see at Ae, looked like it would create some tough competition for the Clarks. However, these fears proved unfounded, as the plough was not suited to Scottish conditions.

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