Obituary: Sylvester Campbell, farmers’ champion who worked tirelessly on their behalf

Sylvester Campbell, farming leader. Born: 24 May, 1925 in Kinellar, Aberdeenshire. Died: 23 September, 2019 in Kinellar, aged 94.

Sylvester Campbell has died at the age of 94
Sylvester Campbell has died at the age of 94

There is a special table at the annual dinner of NFU Scotland. It is reserved for former presidents and chief executives and it is noted for being a rich source of tales from times past and campaign battles fought on behalf of the union.

One of the regular attendees at this annual get together was Sylvester Campbell, known to his many friends and ­colleagues as Sylvie or Vester, who was president of the union in 1974/75. Aged 94, he was the oldest surviving former president.

Although almost half a ­century has passed since Campbell was president, some of the issues facing the union today are very similar to those he had to tackle. Just as is the case today, there was a crisis in the beef sector brought about as a result of Irish cattle flooding into Scotland.

The circumstances saw the newly elected Labour ­government, with Fred Peart as Agricultural Minister, refuse to implement the EEC system of support for beef after the previous Conservative government had dismantled the long-standing UK system of deficiency payments.

Caught between the two support systems, beef farmers were left with no support to compensate for low prices which had plummeted from £20 per hundredweight down to little more than half that.

To add to the loss-making pain, 1974 was marked by bad weather and many farmers were struggling financially. A protest march by hundreds of farmers down Princes Street in Edinburgh brought no change in the crisis. The farmers then organised another demonstration; this one at Merkland Docks in Glasgow where the cattle were offloaded from Ireland. At the docks, Campbell and the then union chief executive, Harry Munro, soon realised their members were disgruntled by the lack of support from the union for their militant action.

They had, as a precautionary measure, taken with them a case of whisky which might have helped change the mood of the angry protestors. It was not needed as Campbell addressed the gathering and stilled the anger by saying he would take the matter up with the Government.

Munro later admitted that 1974 was the roughest year he had experienced in his 20-plus years as chief executive and, he added, the toughest year any president of the union had experienced. Speaking back then, he added, “Sylvester Campbell received scant thanks for a valuable lot of work he put in to his year of office,”

Campbell in his own quiet non-inflammatory manner confined his comments on his year as president as a “real corker”. Instead, in his own matter of fact way, he quietly took satisfaction in being part of the negotiating team which secured a new support system for beef cattle as a compromise between the EEC and the old deficiency payments system.

After his term of office, Campbell did feel the appreciation from fellow farmers for his efforts when a large company turned up at his testimonial dinner in the Elphinstone Hall at Aberdeen University. No fewer than nine speakers paid tribute to Campbell that night at a ­dinner which went on into the wee sma’ hours.

He was proud of his rather unusual forename with its Latin roots, especially as he was the seventh Sylvester in succession with the family name; the first Sylvester ­hailing from farming stock in Durris in the 18th century.

He followed his father at Cairntradlin Farm, Kinellar, in the 1950s, quickly moving on from the Beef Shorthorn breed for which the farm was renowned to specialise in commercial beef cattle, pigs, arable and, for a time, ­strawberries.

He was active in the young farmers movement as a member of the Inverurie club and a member of the club team which won the national speechmaking competition in 1947 as well as doing well in stock judging competitions.

He “graduated” from young farmers in 1950 at the age of 25 to join the union where he soon made his mark as Inverurie branch chairman followed by Aberdeen and Kincardine area president. His progress throughout was marked by his thorough preparation for meetings and his fair and even handed chairing of them.

He then served on the national council as vice-convener of the cereals committee and the convener of the ­livestock committee for five years from 1969 to 1974 before being elected national ­president in 1974.

Those years on the national council included work on the annual price review which, along with other union ­colleagues, entailed travelling to London on a regular basis for negotiations with the ­Ministry of Agriculture.

His dedicated work on behalf of his fellow farmers and the respect in which he was held by the powers-that-be with whom he negotiated, resulted in the award of OBE in 1986.

After stepping down from the top spot, Campbell then put his energy, experience and knowledge to good use in setting up a quality scheme for Scottish livestock. Along with Jim ­Stobo and Morgan Milne – both also former union presidents – Campbell helped set up a red meat promotional body which after several iterations is now Quality Meat Scotland.

He also served as chairman of the Aberdeen Endowments Trust, which owns 40 tenanted farms covering around 10,000 acres in the north-east. Then in 1986 he was elected a director of Aberdeen and Northern Marts (ANM). His decade of service on this company was one of significant change during which many marts were closed, while the Thainstone Centre was built and a new mart opened at Quoybrae in Caithness.

Among his other appointments, he served as a director and vice-chairman of the strawberry marketing co-op, Harlaw Fruit, and a director of the Royal Northern Agricultural Society. He also found time to be a president of Echt Show and a member of the Scottish board of NFU Mutual.

Throughout his farming career he practised what he preached as a strong believer in the co-operative principle and this shone through in his active involvement with farmers’ co-ops, notably Cairnwell Pigs, Harlaw Fruit and ANM. Most of his cattle, sheep and pigs were marketed over the years through co-ops, including FMC, Buchan Meat Producers, Grampian (now Scottish) Pig Producers and ANM subsidiary, AMMCO (later Scotch Premier Meat).

Away from farming, he was a governor of Robert ­Gordon’s College for three years, session clerk of Kinellar Parish Church and a member of Garioch Probus Club until the time of his death.

Along with several colleagues of similar vintage, Campbell used to meet for lunch at the weekly sale at Thainstone Mart, where they became affectionately known as the ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ although, as they debated all that was going on locally and nationally, they considered themselves to be the House of Commons or sometimes when feeling more elevated the House of Lords.

Mr Campbell’s first wife, Marion, died in 1989, and he is survived by his second wife, Eileen, daughters Pat and Hilda, son Sylvie, nine grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.