Obituary: Hamish Shiach, farm machinery pioneer

Hamish Shiach, Farmer who was a major figure in promoting improved agricultural machinery. Picture: Contributed
Hamish Shiach, Farmer who was a major figure in promoting improved agricultural machinery. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 26 September, 1925, in Dufftown. Died: 13 October, 2015, in Rothienorman, aged 90.

The second half of the 20th century brought great changes in Scottish agriculture with many of them being driven by improved farm machinery. Heading up the engineering department at the North of Scotland College of Agriculture, Hamish Shiach was a major figure in promoting this advance.

He developed advisory work from its basic wartime function of machinery instruction for operators into an inter-disciplinary approach with agricultural mechanisation experts working in co-operation with scientists in other disciplines.

The son of a bank manager, Hamish initially wanted to be a farmer but lack of funds precluded this option at the outset of his career.

He took another route into the industry by graduating in both agriculture and engineering at Aberdeen University. Thereafter he joined the teaching staff on a part-time basis in 1952 as the university’s first lecturer in agricultural engineering.

Within a year, he gained the opportunity to buy a small farm at Millbrex, then, in 1958, a bigger unit at Rothienorman where he milked cows and kept beef cattle. From that time on, he twin-tracked his career between farming and lecturing.

Following a revamp of the engineering division of the North of Scotland College in 1969, he was appointed head of the division on a full-time basis and chaired the engineering and farm buildings group within the Aberdeen School of Agriculture.

The appointment was an inspired one. Hamish believed passionately in the role of the college to serve farmers and the industry, and to have a college staffed by experts with mud on their boots, who were involved in research and could pass on their expertise and new knowledge to students.

Through teaching degree, higher diploma and diploma level courses in the one organisation, youngsters with a wide range of abilities rubbed shoulders with each other and developed relationships and contacts that would last their lifetimes.

A measure of his success and influence is that his initial team of four was expanded to more than 20 during his 19 years at the helm in order to cover the division’s extensive teaching, advisory and research remit.

A member of his team reckoned Hamish provided the overview, the strategic direction and the vision while his staff provided the technology. Under his management, the department and group rapidly gained national and international standing and it became a showpiece for the benefits of the Scottish system whereby teaching, practical advisory work and farm-based research were all linked together.

This gently spoken man who was held in high regard across a wide spectrum of people was also responsible for raising the status of agricultural and forestry engineering, through working closely with colleagues in other disciplines. He helped develop links with the other two colleges in Scotland – East and West; now all part of Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC).

He continued to lecture at Aberdeen University and, in his quest for co-operation between other bodies, established links with the Rowett Research Institute, the then Department of Agriculture in Scotland and the advisory services in both England and Northern Ireland.

He enthusiastically embraced the arrival of machinery rings into Scotland in the 1970s as he saw them as helping the farming industry to become more efficient.

In 1982/3 his work saw him become national president of the Institute of Agricultural Engineers, an organisation he saw as a mechanism for spreading expertise in agricultural engineering UK-wide.

He and his wife, Doreen, a former primary education adviser with the old Grampian Regional Council, were both Francophiles and they and their family spent their summer holidays in a gite in the country they loved.

His liking for French wine extended to bringing back a year’s supply on his journey home from holiday; a task managed by building a small car trailer complete with bulk tank. There was no subterfuge or smuggling in this project as Hamish always paid the due duty.

Even at the age of 86, and despite ill-health, he insisted on driving to France to pick up his wine – and celebrate his 60th wedding anniversary.

Wishing his students to appreciate their French neighbours, Hamish, along with college staff member Andy Phillips, instigated very successful, and reciprocated, student summer visits to Clermont Ferrand, in the Central Massive of France.

These, together with his student visits to Scottish farms, provided what he saw as a major broadening of his students’ education.

With all his commitment to running his college department, the day-to-day management of his farming enterprise was left in the hands of his grieve.

However, Hamish greatly enjoyed his direct involvement in farming, which he felt was beneficial to his job. In a position normally reserved for full-time farmers, he served as a branch chairman of the National Farmers Union of Scotland.

He was also an assessor for the Scottish Association of Young Farmers Club proficiency tests programme where young farmers and farm workers were taught the practical skills involved in farming.

A major change in government policy in 1986 declared that the Scottish Agricultural Colleges had to charge for their advisory, or in today’s terminology, consultancy services. They also had to compete for research funding and the three College campuses at Ayr, Edinburgh and Aberdeen had to merge.

Hamish and other senior staff were retired off early and it was only after his departure that the true value of his legacy was realised. This was his in-service training over all the time he was in charge. It gave the remaining staff valuable expertise they could sell. That legacy continues to the present day.

Following his retirement in 1988, he was a key member of the Aberdeen University Agricultural Graduates Association, serving as treasurer for 15 years and made honorary president in 2012. Until 2012, he also ran the “Grazers”, an informal organisation for retired employees of the college.

He is survived by his widow, Doreen, two sons, Donald and Alasdair, two daughters, Caroline and Morag, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.