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In the heart of the Forest of Ae near Dumfries lies a well-kept secret: a great 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 spades and hard physical work to dig holes and plant trees. During the 19th century though, estate owners began to experiment with farm ploughs in forests. 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 restore and expand forests in Britain. This led to the invention of a specific forestry plough. The Commission was integral to creating new and improved ploughs for the huge task of planting Scotland's new forests.

The development of the RLR plough

In the early 40s the Forestry Commission used an adapted farming plough produced by Andrew Begg of Ayrshire. However, it did not plough deep enough to stop weeds from growing. The costs of employing people to weed the area by hand, prior to planting, made the plough uneconomical.

In order to make fix this issue, the Forestry Commission designed its own plough. The RLR, named after their Chairman, Roy Lister Robinson, was used in Scotland until 1962.

James Cuthbertson & William Clark

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

James Cuthbertson of Biggar was key in the development of forestry ploughs. As a child, he was introduced to the new work on forestry ploughs at nearby Balnagowan Estate.

In the 40s, his engineering firm created a series of prototype ploughs. These were tested by the Research and Development team at the Forestry Commission.

By the 50s, his firm had a global reputation for specialist ploughs. These ranged from paddy field ploughs for the rice fields of South East Asia, to those tackling Canadian swamps. There were even underwater sea-bed ploughs for cable tracks.

However, by the 60s, Cuthbertson had moved on from forestry ploughs. But another Scot was on hand to further develop the plough.

William Clark was a vital character in the development of forestry ploughs.

Clark founded his engineering company in Dumfriesshire in 1925. Starting as a blacksmith, he expanded into farm engineering soon after.

His firm was located in a major forestry area. This helped Clark become involved with the Forestry Commission. Clark's early work included a plough for use on dry heathland, and modifying earlier ploughs made by Cuthbertson.

In the 60s, Clark and his son Murray worked closely with forestry experts to create a number of specialist 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 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 60s, a Finnish company built the Lokomo Ditch plough, threatening Clark's domination of the 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.