While not a ‘Dinger’ by birth, having been born in Upsettlington in the Parish of Ladykirk about 1740, James Small carried out his great pioneering work on the development of the modern plough which was to revolutionize farming practice so completely at Blackadder Mount, Allanton only a few miles from Duns.
As Small was growing up and serving an apprenticeship as a “county carpenter and joiner" at Hutton agricultural practice had advanced little since the Middle Ages. The old runrig system prevailed and ploughing was still done using the old Scotch wooden plough pulled by a team of oxen or horses, usually four, but sometimes eight in number. These teams were lead by a goadsman. The plough was operated by a ploughman usually with assistance to keep the plough in the ground followed up by a further group of workers, often women or children, who broke up the larger sods of earth not broken down by the plough using large sticks known as ‘prattles’ This practice was well known by Robert Burns who in his verse ‘To a Mouse’ laments to the eponymous creature that he would be loathe to run and chase it “with murderin’ prattle”.
Small’s plough The old Scotch wooden plough
As a ploughwright and man of ambition in 1758 Small took himself off to Doncaster where he found employment as an ’operative mechanic’ and where he came in contact with a type of plough known as a “Rotherham” which although not the first iron plough was the first to have had any
real commercial success. This was also perhaps the first factory-produced plough. When he returned to Berwickshire in 1764 he came in contact with Mr. John Renton of Lamberton who was himself engaged in promoting agricultural development. Renton obviously recognised the potential in Small and set him up in business at Blackadder Mount, not only providing him with credit but a workforce of twenty carpenters, six to eight blacksmiths and other labourers.
Small, first applied mathematical calculations and science to the mouldboard shape and experimented with varying curvatures and patterns, eventually producing a universal cast iron shape that would turn the soil more effectively with less draft, wear and strain on the ploughman. It also turned over a much greater furrow, slice burying and mulching the weeds. Perhaps the crucial factor in Small’s plough was the complete abandonment of wood, the plough being cast in iron at the recently opened Carron Ironworks near Falkirk.
The consequence was not only a much more efficient plough but one which allowed the process to be carried on by one man and a pair of horse, freeing up labour for other tasks. Over the years this 'Scots Plough' as it was know, was the beginning of the plough we all know today. His work was more or less immediately recognised by Lord Kames, a local landlord, who wrote in 1776; “I boldly recommend the plough introduced into Scotland about twelve years ago by James Small in Blackadder Mount which is now in great request and with great reason as it avoids all the defects of the Scotch plough’. Nevertheless a number of local landowners still invoked the “Aye been” attitude
which has in many ways put such a break on progress in the Borders over the years and possibly still does.
One landowner in particular Mr. Lumsdaine of Blanerne encountered much opposition to the introduction of the new plough and had Small demonstrate it to his workers. This Small was able to do very successfully, due possibly not so much to his skill as an inventor and mechanic, but probably more to his skill as a ploughman.
In 1784 Small published a treatise entitled “Treatise on Ploughs and Wheel Carriages” which was effectively an instruction manual on how to construct a plough. This he dedicated to his patron Mr. Alexander Renton of Lamberton " as a testimony or respect and gratitude" and it is recorded that one came into the possession of Robert Burns.
In 1785 an open competition was held in a field near Dalkeith where various types of plough were pitted against each other when Small’s was very much the clear winner. In 1791 in the first Statistical Account the minister at Cranstoun wrote "Two horse ploughs are universally employed and the plough held in highest estimation is made by J Small at Rosebank (to where Small had moved from Blackadder Mount) which is deservedly considered the greatest improvement agriculture has received for many years.However Small failed to patent his invention, perhaps intentionally, preferring rather that it should be as universally and as cheaply available as possible to all. Also he did loose money on the publication of his Treatise and lacked business acumen with the consequence that he ran into considerable financial problems, at one point even finding himself for a short time in a debtors’ prison.