From the mid-1700s, big changes were the order of the day in the Scottish countryside as the agricultural revolution took hold.
Across the lowlands land was drained and closed off to form fields, and substantial commercial farms were established in place of the old subsistence land holdings and runrig system.
New crops were introduced, including potatoes in 1739 – which are later described as “greatly improving the diet of the peasantry” – grasses and clovers were sown for the first time and turnips and cabbages were grown on a field scale under the new crop rotation system.
The demand for these new crops, particularly in East Lothian, which was one of the first districts to feel the efforts of the ‘improvers’ – as the pioneers of the revolution were called – was such that the supply of seed was paramount.
In the 1770s, William Dods, a smallholder at Letham, near Haddington, perfected the art of collecting seeds from his cabbage crops and successfully saving them for planting the following year. Seeing this success, neighbors were quick to persuade Dods to sell them cabbage seeds for their own needs and gradually his reputation as a reliable source grew.
In 1782 Dods decided to make his seed supply a business and William Dods and Son – later to become Dods of Haddington – was established. Naturally, trade records from the early days are thin and contemporary history tends to focus on much larger subjects such as the childhood of the newly formed United States and, closer to home, the creative production of a certain Robert Burns.
Dods’ business continued into the early 19th century and gradually began to focus on grass seeds. In 1829 Patrick Shirreff, then a farmer from Mungoswells, North Berwick – where now, nearly 200 years later, Dods of Haddington still grows seed wheat – described the cultivation of “the seeds of some natural herbs, for William and Thomas Dods, nursery and seed growers”. , so they can compete for a bounty offered by the Highland Society of Scotland.
However, William Dods wasn’t all about the weed, and the Caledonian Mercury – a leading newspaper in the days before The Scotsman – reported that William had won awards for rutabaga (turnip) seeds in 1842 and onions in 1850.
William Dods is also recorded as winning a medal from the Royal Highland Society in 1848 at a time when the Highland Show, as it then stood, was only 26 years old. However, it was not for seed or crops, but rather for a Cambridge pressure roller – which reportedly “seemed to have become a favorite in England”, but was presumably considered new and innovative enough to win a medal when introduced by Dods in Scotland.
William Dods and Son, or his family, are listed as prominent members of RHASS throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th century.
From the mid-1830s William Dods – the second of his name to run the business – operated from unusual premises in the center of Haddington. Blairs Castle was reported, even at this time, as a “very old house” which may have been fortified at some time, hence the nomenclature.
Legend at the time suggested that the building’s huge vaulted cellars were connected by an underground passage, more than a mile long, to Lennoxlove House. Whether this is true or not, the cellars and rooms of the building provided ample storage of seeds and other goods and the ground floor – although even this has been described as being raised above the level of the street and accessible by “a large number of steps” served as a seed store.
Later, in the 19th century, the main business of Dods was conducted from the grand mansion at 42 Court Street, now the site of the Haddington branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland.
At the start of the 20th century, volatility in world markets played a huge role in the fortunes of everyone involved in Scottish agriculture. Dramatic price increases during the First World War were followed by a fall in the 1920s and 1930s.
At this time Robert Dods jnr was at the helm of the business and faced a tumultuous time as many of his farmer customers were forced out of business due to collapsing markets. It is estimated that perhaps 40% of Scottish farmland changed hands at the time, with many large estates being forced to sell farms and sharecroppers leaving the land.
In East Lothian, government legislation at the time led to the dismantling of some large farms and the formation of small holdings for former servicemen.
Demand and prices for agricultural products rose again with the advent of World War II and the ensuing victory digging campaigns. In 1945, William Dods and Son was only 163 years old!
Two partners had kept the business going during the war, and the company had worked extremely hard to meet the demand for seed from its farmer customers who wanted to feed the nation.
At this time the business was based at 26, 28 and 30 Court Street, Haddington, with warehouses on three floors to the rear of the premises. Grass seed was the company’s main offering and it was sold throughout Scotland from the main office, markets and through agents.
Dods of Haddington, along with other seed merchants operating at the time, was instrumental in helping agriculture meet prevailing government targets and intensify production in all sectors.
New varieties of grass and other crops, capable of greatly increased growth and yields, were developed and soon found a fertile home in Scottish fields. Grass seed mixes intended for the production of heavy silage crops, rather than hay, were seen as a key ingredient in the drive to increase milk production in particular.
This period of mechanization, upscaling and intensification of Scottish agriculture may have been good for business, but it took its toll on premises in Dods town center which were literally packed. In 1970 a new shed was built behind the Court Street premises and seed was also stored in a few rented premises elsewhere.
Just two years later, even the newly constructed storage shed had become too small, and Dods’ partners made the decision to leave town.
In 1972 a site at Ugston Farm was acquired and a large new seed house was built. However, the Dods offices did not move to Backburn – as the new site was named – until the mid-1970s, when the Court Street premises were sold to Newcastle Law Stores, to create the first supermarket in Haddington, taken up later. by WM Low of Dundee, then as a Haddington branch of Tesco from 1994.
The move to Backburn, just west of Haddington, enabled modernization. A dedicated seed testing laboratory was built and the warehouse benefited from increasing mechanization with the introduction of palletized handling via forklifts.
A milestone, the bicentenary of Dods of Haddington, was celebrated in 1982 with a party for 500 guests. This decade also saw the first computer system installed (1983), more grain storage silos (1985), and an expanded grain cleaning line (1986).
During the mid to late 1980s, agriculture came under increasing public scrutiny as the results of government incentives and increased industry efficiency led to oversupply and surpluses. many products. Compulsory set-aside was introduced and food production was curbed.
Despite this, Dods of Haddington continued to work to meet the needs of its loyal and long-established clientele. Modernization of the Backburn premises continued in the 1990s and it should be noted that 1998 saw the installation of an automatic palletizing machine. At that time, all seed was still supplied by Dods and then handled to the farms in 50 kg bags!
Around the turn of the millennium, it was noted that Dods, while operating with a similar workforce to what they had at the end of World War II, had effectively increased revenue and commercial output 10-fold over the course of of the next 55 years.
Turning the clock back to today, 2022 marks 240 years in business for Dods of Haddington – a milestone few other companies can claim. Under its Dodseed brand, the company continues to supply high quality seed cereals, grass seeds and forage crops to customers across Scotland and the North of England.
It also now specializes in cover crop mixes – a whole plant organic went live in 2016 to mix the most innovative cover crop mixes, including a microbial inoculator, putting Dods at the forefront of regenerative agriculture in Scotland.
“Mighty oaks, little acorns grow”, as the saying goes. In the case of Dods of Haddington, from tiny cabbage seeds, one of Scotland’s oldest continuous trading businesses has grown!