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Personal profiles of some of the individuals who helped shape our transport heritage

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Angus MacKenzie
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Donald Martin MacPhail, Marybank, Stornoway

After a lifetime in the agricultural machinery trade there’s little you can teach Martin MacPhail, particularly when it comes to tractors.  Roddy J. MacDonald went to talk to Martin about his early working life.
Donald Martin MacPhail was born at 9 Laxdale, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis in January 1930, and is known locally by his middle name ‘Martin’.  He always wanted to be involved with farm machinery, and for as long as he can remember he was mad keen on tractors.  But his first driving experiences, at the age of 14, was not on a tractor but on a van owned by local Stornoway bakery, Hugh Matheson, driven by Donald ‘Geinigh’ Morrison; a Ness man then staying in Laxdale.  Donald would give young Martin the opportunity to drive the van along the main Barvas road that leads to Stornoway.  Another neighbour, ‘Rob an Deucon’ owned a very old Morris car and he would also give Martin ‘shots’ at driving it.  Martin recalls getting punctures nearly every day with this car!  

In 1946 he had his first chance to get close to a tractor when ‘Dan Churl’ was ploughing a croft near Martin’s house with a petrol paraffin Ford Ferguson that belonged to the Board of Agriculture.  At break time Dan said to the eager Martin, “There you go.  Have a turn on the tractor”.  The sight, sounds and smells of the tractor fascinated Martin, and this meeting of boy and machine began a lifetime interest in agricultural and contracting machinery.

A year later, in1947, Martin heard that the Board of Agriculture was looking for a tractor driver and he applied for the job, which he got.  He recalls: “There were two of us going round the country villages with the Ford Ferguson tractor. There were very few tractors in Lewis at that time: when you would go on to a croft, everyone young and old would come to see the tractor ploughing.  The old fellows thought it was wonderful, especially as it could lift the plough at the end of the furrow.”  Together they would plough for eight months of the year.

One day at Achmore, while heading to do some ploughing at Garynahine Lodge, he recalls there were eight men - a crew or ‘sgioba’ - cutting peats.  The crew all stood up at the peat bank as the tractor and trailer with the plough in the back drove past.  It was so rare at that time to see a tractor pulling a trailer after it.  On arrival at Garynahine Lodge, large chains were fitted on to the tractor tyres to offer more grip, as the ground was very hard and covered with thick rushes.  Martin recalls that, even with the chains fitted, the tractor still sometimes skidded on the soft ground.  Then they would move on to the villages of Callanish, Breasclete, Tolsta Chaolais, all the way up the West Side of Lewis to the township of Barvas.

Martin and his co-worker carried out very little work in Barvas because local man Angus ‘Millichan’ Morrison of Galson Motors, Barvas, had bought the first Ferguson TE 20 that came to Lewis.  Martin remembers ploughing in Tolsta Chaolais one winter, in the days before anti-freeze, when each night he had to drain the water out of the radiator into a bucket, then refill the radiator the following morning.  One morning an old man that was staying on the croft where Martin was working came to him with a pail of water and spoke in Gaelic:  “Seo a bhalaich. Bi cinnteach nach eil am pathadh air.” (“Here you are son. Make sure it isn’t thirsty.”)

The clerks to the local village grazing from each village would get in touch with the Board of Agriculture to request ploughing in his area.  The charge at that time was 25 shillings an acre.  But as most of the Lewis crofts were made up of lazy beds (Gaelic: ‘feannagan’) you could plough five or six of them and still only have half an acre.  But if the tractor went on to the croft the charge was seven shillings and six pence.  Martin laughs and says, “Some people got three quarters of an acre ploughed for seven shillings.”  

The Board of Agriculture also owned a Fordson Major, which according to Martin was a big slow tractor.  He went on: “On the road it would only do about 6 or 7 miles per hour.  But I suppose back in those days that was very good.  It would take you five minutes to change gears with it, and if you changed gears too quickly you would hear it miles away!”  Martin continues: “The Fordson Major was used mainly for grass cutting, and had a Ransome mower on the back.  We used to go round all the farms in Stornoway with it, and it was also used for powering a threshing machine as it had a pulley on it to drive the thresher.  We would go all round the Point area threshing corn with the threshing mill.”

By late 1948 tractors started appearing in the various townships one by one, the Ness area in particular.  Also at this time the Board of Agriculture decided to wind up its operations with the tractors, and the three tractors and all the implements were sold at an auction held at Battery Park.  MacNinch (Manor Farm) bought one, Geordie Thompson purchased another and Roddy Matheson of Goathill Farm bought the Ford Ferguson.

In 1949 Martin purchased his first tractor, a Ferguson TE 20 powered by a four-cylinder Z-120 Continental petrol engine.  The tractor had belonged to John MacKenzie, a Butcher from Back. Mr. MacKenzie also sold all his implements, which included a plough, harrows, trailer and a cab for the tractor - all for £275.

The first job that Martin did with his own tractor was for Kenny MacLeod at No 6 Steinish.  He ploughed an acre of his croft for a fee of 14 shillings.  “When I was finished there,” Martin said, “I took the tractor up to the pumps at Mitchell’s garage and bought 14 shillings worth of petrol, which at that time you could buy for 2 shillings and 4 pence a gallon.  I went back to do more ploughing.  “I can’t remember how much I earned on the next job, but it was more than 14 shillings: more petrol meant more work, and I went up and up from there. That petrol tractor did a lot of work for me - it was going day and night.”

In August 1954 Martin bought his first new tractor, a Ferguson TEF 20 diesel, registration number BJS 267.  It was bought through the MacKay’s of Dingwall dealership and came to Lewis on the Mail boat, the Loch Ness.  At that time he was very busy, soon owning a second tractor.  Martin then employed Angus ‘Bimbo’ MacKenzie from Newvalley.  Martin would do the ploughing and Angus did the the harrowing.

He recalls: “The tractors were going night and day. Quite often we would be ploughing up to two or three in the morning, planting the potatoes with the aid of the tractor lights and villagers with torches.  The demand for hired tractors was that great it was the only way you could keep up.”   He rated his ‘little grey Fergie’ a brilliant little tractor, although the engine had to be kept in good order to ensure reliable starting in cold weather.  Many earlier six-volt models ended up being converted to 12-volt electrics for that reason.

His next tractor was a four-cylinder Massey Ferguson 35, which he describes as a ‘beautiful tractor’ - very versatile and comfortable, yet with plenty of power to handle all the ploughing and mowing.  If it had a fault it was that, in common with a lot of other four-cylinder MF 35s, they were never great starters.  Martin held on to the 35 for many years, carrying out all the tractor work between Balallan and Tong, including taking home the peats.  “The tractor was a great thing then,” he says.  “They didn’t have to use the old shoulder-carried creel or use the barrow. The tractor went straight up to the peat bank.”

But things did not always go smoothly, he recalls: “I must hold the world record for getting a tractor bogged down. That’s a funny record.  But people thought it would go anywhere - it would, but it would also go down!  Break the surface on a Lewis moor and boy you’re in trouble!  But back in those days if you bogged everyone came to give you a hand to get it out.  Usually that meant lifting it with planks and putting timbers under the wheels - there was no other tractor around to give you a pull.”  It was while taking home the peats at Laxay in the summer of 1951 that Martin met Joan MacDonald, 19 Laxay, and a year latter they tied the knot on the 26th of March and set up home at 4 Marybank  

A younger Martin ploughing in Marybank near Stornoway

Martin carried on working with tractors throughout the 50s and 60s, but in the mid-1960s, reseeding work was being carried out all over Lewis.  This involved spreading sand over moorland areas (the lime killed off the heather), sometimes as much as 10 tons to an acre.  This meant that large quantities of sand had to be hauled from the sand pits at Barvas, Coll, Ardroil and Eoropie in Ness.  This of course involved the use of a lorry.  So Martin decided to buy one.

His first lorry, a Bedford powered by a Perkins P6 diesel, was originally owned by Mitchell’s and cost him £250.  But this lorry had done it’s work, and Martin soon required another one.  He had heard of a lorry for sale outside Paisley near Glasgow, which was being sold by a scrappy, who he thinks was called Waters.  Martin was accompanied by Duncan MacKay from Ballantrushal.  He also started with tractors in1952, and at this time was also involved in reseeding work and required a lorry. 

Together they flew to Glasgow on Loganair.  On arrival at the scrap merchants Martin asked, “How much for your Bedford tipper?” “Sixty-five pounds,” replied the scrappy.   “Have you got another lorry,” Martin inquired.  “Yes,” he replied, “I’ll have an Albion tipper here tomorrow.”  The following day they went to view the lorries.  On arrival, the scrappy informed them that there were no MOTs or licenses on the vehicles, but as they would find out later on during their journey home, this was not all that was missing from the lorries – brakes being the most important of these!

As promised, the scrappy delivered the lorries across the Clyde to Cardross, and at midnight they set off with nothing but a pair of trade plates and a vice grip between them.  They headed for Fort William. Duncan was leading the way, and Martin followed closely but soon noticed that the lead vehicle was being driven at a fearful speed along the bendy road. 

Martin kept his foot to the floor, but he still could not catch the speeding Duncan.  Eventually, Martin emerged from a bend in the road to find Duncan parked in a lay-by.  Approaching Duncan, he said: “Here boy.  You seem to be in an awful hurry.”  Duncan, maintaining a calm exterior, replied nonchantly, "Hurry.  I’m in no hurry. I’ve no brakes!” 

To make matters worse it was Christmas Day and the roads were covered with ice.  When they reached Fort William, Martin took over as lead vehicle as they headed towards Kyle of Lochalsh.  Approaching Kintail, Martin heard and felt something bang at the back of the lorry.  At first he thought the gearbox had gone.  But as he was still rolling he drove on for about a mile or so before checking his mirror to find that Duncan was no longer behind him.  He knew there must be something wrong and he went back to find Duncan armed with a stone, trying to bash out part of the cab.  It transpired that it had been Duncan’s lorry that had ran into the back of Martin’s vehicle.  The cab had bent, and when Duncan depressed the clutch, the pedal would not come out again.

Martin recalls: “Here we were at 4 o’clock in the morning; no clutch and no brakes and all the tools we had was a vice grip. Somehow we made it to the ferry at Kyle, then on to Uig, Tarbert and finally the Ardhasaig Brae (Harris), which was really icy and slippery.”

They made it up Ardhasaig and on to the Clisham - this was the last time Martin saw Duncan’s lorry on their homeward journey as it went out of sight at BowglassOn reaching home Martin phoned Duncan’s wife to tell her that Duncan would be home shortly.  “What!” she said, “Duncan’s sitting at the table.”  Martin laughs, “From Cardross to Ballantrushal with no brakes. That’s not bad going.”

There was plenty of work for lorries back in those days: puffers were bringing coal, bricks, road salt and cement into Stornoway harbour.  He also got a lot of work from the local authority’s roads department. Martin hauled the sand that was used for reseeding work from Ardroil in Uig.  He had a loading shovel on the grey Fergie and used the Massey 35 to pull a spreader.  Later on, in the 80s, the IDP (Integrated Development Programme) started, with crofters being given generous grants for fencing and reseeding work.  The joke at the time was that IDP stood for “I Don’t Pay”.

At this time he bought a four-wheel drive IMT tractor and spreader and later a Massey Ferguson 290 with a land-drive spreader.  I asked Martin what was the biggest difference between his first Ford Ferguson and his high spec Massey 290.  “The power,” he replied.  “On a cold winter’s day the Ford Ferguson would be banging and spluttering away, and the smell of paraffin would almost choke you,” he laughs, adding, “You could smell the tractor before you would see it!”

To complement his lorry hire work with the local authority, Martin bought his first digger in 1967.  A Massey Ferguson 65 that came from Christies, an Aberdeen based firm that was laying cables in the town at the time.    One of the first jobs that the digger was used on was a site clearance for a new house for Mrs Mary Evans, 93 Balallan, Lochs.  The charge was £5.  The digger was also used for a site clearance for Margaret MacKay’s new house at Dalbeg.  The digger also worked on various drainage jobs before it was eventually sold in1972 to John Murdo Smith, 1 Lionel, Ness.  Martin then purchased a new Massey Ferguson 40 digger, which he worked until 1979 when it was traded in for a new Massey Ferguson 50B digger, which he still owns.

Martin volunteered, “I’ve been ploughing with horses, tractors and oxen when I was out in Africa.” I had to ask how he came to be ploughing with oxen.

He explained, “My daughter, Marion, is married to a Minister, David Fraser, and they are in a place called Umtata in South Africa.  One time when we were visiting them I got a chance to plough with oxen.”  He went on, “When I went to this man’s hut, the table was outside the hut and the plough was inside.  He tied four oxen to the plough, and he had four wee boys firing on the oxen with sticks.  The ground was very hard and dry, it was an experience.”

Martin has no word on retiring and still does odd jobs with the digger and tractors.  I would like to thank Martin and his wife Joan for all the kindness and hospitality I was given when I went to interview him on his life with tractors.  We had a great night.

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