South Powrie and Bell’s Reaper: the first-ever field to be mechanically harvested - blog by Ewan Pate

South Powrie is a farm where, for some reason or another, various innovative machines have been tried out.

I recall my grandfather coming home from a trip to Canada in a great state of excitement because he had seen a baler that made big round bales rather than the  small oblong ones which were the norm at the time.

My father said: “Jump into the car and I will show you one working here!” It was harvest 1972 or 1973 and we had the use on demonstration of one of the first American imports which we subsequently bought. 

Nowadays round balers, albeit of much advanced design, are the standard machine for baling hay, straw and silage and there will be thousands at work in Scotland every summer.

There was however a much more significant trial at South Powrie almost 150 years earlier.

The Reverend Patrick Bell, later to become the Minister of Carmyllie Parish in Angus, was born at Mid Leoch, Auchterhouse in 1799. While still a divinity student at St Andrews he began to design a reaping machine for corn.

The old methods of cutting grain by scythe were no longer adequate for feeding an industrialised world and he could see that mechanisation would be needed if crops were to be grown in sufficient quantity.

Legend has it that his “eureka  moment” came when he realised that the cutting action of hedging shears could be replicated to cut standing grain. Working in secrecy at Leoch he fashioned a reciprocating cutter bar which fed the stalks on to a canvas belt.

This delivered the grain into a neat windrow at the side of the machine ready for hand binding into sheaves.

To avoid trampling the crop it had to be pushed in front of a pair or horses rather than pulled behind them. It must have taken very steady horses not to be spooked by the strange machinery whirring just in front of their noses!

By 1828 he had sufficient confidence in his machine to commission a carpenter at Tealing to make the first full size prototype.  This very machine was tested out at a public demonstration at South Powrie on Sept 10th, 1828. 

I would love to know how well the reaper worked, how many people were there to see it and what they thought of it. I don’t know which field it was tried in but which ever it was it would, rather amazingly, be the first field in the world to have been mechanically harvested.

Rev Bell regarded his invention as being for the public good and he declined to patent it or really profit from it. Several more models appear to have been made including reputedly four which were sent to America.

Within a few years the  mid–west  engineer  Cyrus McCormick had designed his own reaper which could be pulled by horses using an offset drawbar and he went on to make thousands followed by the next development which was the self-binder.

That led in mid-20thCentury  to the combine harvester, but look hard enough at the components, especially the cutter bar and the reel, and even the most modern machine can be traced back to the work of a philanthropic Angus Minister.

Patrick Bell, who remained an enthusiastic inventor, took the charge at Carmyllie in about 1843 and stayed there until his death in 1869. His time there is commemorated by a stained glass window showing his reaper.

The  original machine went on to work for many years at his brother’s farm in the Carse of Gowrie and is now in the Science Museum in Kensington.

It was made of wood but in terms of its contribution to agriculture it turned out to be worth its weight in gold.