Scotsman Obituaries: Hew Hamilton, farmer, entrepreneur and 'man o’pairts'

Matthew (Hew) Hamilton, farmer, entrepreneur and very much a “man o’pairts”. Born: 15 June 1944 in Crosswoodhill. Died: 27 April 2021 in Crosswoodhill, aged 76

Hew Hamilton with his grandson Magnus at Crosswoodhill Farm

Farmers travelling the Lang Whang in West Lothian and suddenly coming across Crosswoodhill might think “that looks a good sheep farm” and not reflect beyond that. But for Hew Hamilton, who was born, lived all his life and on 11 May was buried on the rugged hill he tramped day in, day out, Crosswoodhill and farming meant so much more.

Hew embraced John F Kennedy’s dictum: “Change is the law of life, and those who look only to the past and present are certain to miss the future” and seized opportunities, taking on challenge after challenge with the farm diversifications he created. Some faltered, but others have gone from strength to strength.

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In the early 1980s Hew’s first diversification on Crosswoodhill involved capitalising on the plentiful resource of peat on the farm by setting up Pentland Peat, which was sold as fuel and then further refined for use in barbecues throughout the UK. This was before current climate concerns were raised; a matter of which Hew remained healthily sceptical, triggering many a late night debate with friends and family. Hew’s next foray was into Christmas trees. By then Hew and his cousin Peter McLaren had inherited from their uncle a second farm at Handaxwood near Breich. The trees sold well, but the enterprise became uninsurable when local lads repeatedly found it fun to torch the plantation and watch the fire brigade extinguishing their handiwork.

Undeterred, as ever, Hew saw beyond just channelling his energies into livestock farming and his next venture on Handaxwood land started out as a goal to infill old quarry voids with waste and revert a scarred landscape into productive agricultural grazing land. Together with his cousin and, later, his son Angus this latter diversification project really took off. Initially a low-key venture with one man and a machine, thanks to collective business acumen and vision, Levenseat Resource Management now employs hundreds of people, and are pioneers in the field of Waste Management, often being the first to deploy new technology, leading the way and creating a more sustainable Scotland.

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However, even when making trips down to London, negotiating and securing investment for the gasification power plant, Hew never left his farming roots far behind. With his grounded no-nonsense approach and wry smile, he would often cut through the corporate jargon at business meetings with a practical and down to earth style which gained him the respect of many. Throughout the development of Levenseat, Hew retained his original objective of creating new agricultural land, even if it involved spreading compost down the steep sides of a screening bund; his alternative interpretation of vertical farming.

Throughout these diversions, his first, and abiding love, was farming. After boarding at George Watson’s College in Edinburgh, Hew studied agriculture at Edinburgh University and farm management at Writtle College in Essex. From the beginning, he always looked to promote hill farming and improve agricultural systems, whether this was through improving the land to make it more productive or selective breeding in his Blackface sheep to produce better carcasses. Recognising the truism of “strength through co-operation,” Hew astutely promoted the selling of his lambs through the local Lothian Lamb co-operative and was its chairman in the 1990s.

Supporting the National Farmers Union of Scotland at local level with a spell as chairman of Bathgate & West Calder branch in the early 1980s, he later became a valued member of the Livestock Committee at Union headquarters in Edinburgh. His public service to the farming community also included two decades representing the South of Scotland on the British Wool Marketing Board; the company that sells 95 per cent of all the wool produced in this country.

Many remember Hew not just for his farming activities but also for his generosity in sharing his knowledge and techniques with others. Crosswoodhill’s Visitors’ Book is peppered with signatures from the many visiting local colleges and organisations from as far away as Scandinavia and Georgia. The Minister for Agriculture and entourage from the latter country returned home to Tbilisi impressed with the innovation they had witnessed at Crosswoodhill.

For years Hew and his wife Geraldine, universally known as G, shared their home with live-in students completing their practical year at Crosswoodhill. Thus, Hew helped shape many a farming career.

Another string to his diversification bow came in the nineties with the introduction of holiday cottages on the farm. However, in a shrewd move, Hew recognised G, with her energy and enthusiasm, would manage this part of the business much better than he could.

Hew and G had met en route to a skiing holiday in Austria and they married in 1973. In a move emphasising his commitment to farming, when G was about to give birth to their firstborn Angus in 1975, Hew was busy ploughing. While he was reluctant to stop before the field was finished, when he did complete the task, he was overjoyed at the news he had a son. Daughter Caroline arrived two years later.

Many farmers see holidays as a distraction to getting on with the job. However, expert skier Hew always ensured one of his many friends organised a week away abroad with guaranteed snow on the piste, in convivial company.

On Valentine’s Day 2020, Hew was diagnosed with advanced, non-operable pancreatic cancer. This was a huge blow to an active man in his seventies who still carried bags of feed over his shoulder whilst feeding his livestock. The last 14 months of his life he spent fighting the cancer with chemotherapy while shielding at home, embracing technology to help keep track of every move on the farm and at Levenseat. Killer Sudokos in The Scotsman kept his intellect razor sharp to the end.

Hew took great pleasure in watching Caroline’s son, Magnus, grow beside him during Covid isolation and was there to cheer on his first steps. Just ten days before he died, he was able to be a witness at his daughter's wedding on their lawn, having seen his son married in November 2019. He died at home with all his family around him.

With just 50 mourners allowed at a very moving church funeral service, followed by most then following on foot his trusty Land Rover, which conveyed him up the hill, Hew was laid to rest overlooking the surrounding countryside. As one observer at his funeral wryly remarked, this location was perhaps more about Hew continuing to oversee the farm he loved.

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