Macdonald Engineers, Portsoy

Who would have thought that the banks of now tranquil Loch Soy were once a hotbed of innovative technology and engineering. Thanks to the ingenious and inventive Macdonald family, in the early years of the twentieth century Portsoy was at the cutting edge of unique developments for both the fishing and farming industries, leading to world wide renown.

Born in the parish of Fordyce and originally trained as blacksmiths, brothers Alexander and James Macdonald established their Portsoy workshop in 1878. At that time the town, like many others in this area, was busily engaged in the herring fishing industry while the surrounding countryside was fully occupied in agriculture. Portsoy therefore was an ideal centre to provide services for both.

From small beginnings, the company went from strength to strength with ‘Messrs. Macdonald Brothers, Engineers, and Agricultural Implement Makers’ moving to various sites around the town. Latterly they set up their works by Loch Soy and at one point employed more than thirty men and apprentices.

While supplying agricultural equipment to nearby farms, their innovations were soon noticed elsewhere and Macdonalds’ Foundry expanded to export machinery around the world. Their important inventions included the ‘Portsoy turnip lifter’, ‘back delivery reapers’, ‘patent serpentine harrows’,‘steel hay rakes’, and of course their ‘Ideal Manure Distributor’! Thousands of implements were marketed world wide, often winning prestigious prizes at agricultural exhibitions as far away as Canada and Australia.

It was for their contribution to the improvement of fishing vessels, however, that the family were rightly famous. After tragic loss of life during a horrendous Moray Firth storm in 1848, at the recommendation of the Crown Commission, boats had become larger, stronger and safer. From this developed the mighty sailing Zulus, Scaffies and Fifies many of which were owned and crewed by local families and which followed the herring shoals all around the British coast.

By becoming larger, up to eighty feet in length in some cases with enormous masts and sets of canvass to match, much effort was required to hoist huge sails and haul increasingly efficient nets. Formerly these manoeuvres depended on the physical strength of the crew, but now mechanical assistance was required. Steam capstans of various types were already being employed.

As sailing vessels these fine boats were entirely dependent on favourable winds taking them to fishing grounds and speeding them back to market with their catches. Breezes blowing in the wrong direction or worse, not blowing at all, could be disastrous. Power of some kind was evidently needed.

Commissioned by Portsoy Skipper George Wood for his vessel the Nannie Raffan, in 1902 the Macdonald brothers designed and patented what was hailed as, ‘a boon to fishermen’, an effective means of propulsion. The Portsoy Reporter of the time describes it as follows:

The invention is simple, and the propelling gear is driven by the ordinary engine used for the boat’s capstan. A box-like construction on deck, with a shaft passing into it, is the only outward appearance that the boat is possessed of anything beyond the ordinary appliances. From the deck to the bottom or lower part of the boat is a tube or well through which the propeller shaft passes. This shaft, with the propeller attached, may be shipped or unshipped in the course of a few seconds.

As the patent included designs for both single and double propellors, the Macdonald Brothers invention could be adapted for use in even the largest vessels. This was an enormous advance in the design of fishing-boats, greatly improving their efficiency and working conditions for the crew.

One can only imagine the excitement as Nannie Raffan now powered by both sail and propeller took to sea and the effective steam capstan was demonstrated. Reports say that she ‘proceeded to Stornaway’, where the gear was, ‘tested with advantage, and underwent the close scrutiny and inspection of a large number of fishermen, who were favourably impressed with the utility of the invention’.

From there, the boat went on to Shetland where this additional means of propulsion was much admired. It was estimated that speeds of three and a half knots were achieved although Skipper George Wood was confident that up to five knots per hour was possible.

Word of this successful improvement to fishing boats quickly spread. Amongst others, the Cynosure, a large vessel from Portgordon and Agnes Wood also belonging to George Wood were improved and the fame of Portsoy’s engineering inventors assured.

In 1916 after a lifetime’s work creating a centre of engineering excellence in Portsoy as well as actively supporting education and Parish Council matters, Alexander Macdonald sadly passed away having been pre-deceased by his brother James in 1913. The business continued to be run by his son Alexander Valentine Macdonald until the works closed in 1968 and he himself died in 1970.

The passing of the Macdonalds saw the end of an era when Portsoy stood at the forefront of national, indeed, worldwide innovation. Who can tell how many lives were improved by their work? It is important therefore that their memory is celebrated and not forgotten.