The rise and fall of Scottish Tomatoes
Jim Craig of the Briarneuk Nursery discusses the uncertain future of native tomato growers
Unless there is a drastic change in its fortunes, the once mighty Clyde Valley tomato industry will soon pass into legend. Where once there were hundreds of Scots tomato growers, only a handful remain. Gordon Davidson speaks to one.
Unlikely as it might sound, with our supermarkets brimming with the pick of the Mediterranean, Scotland was once a tomato-growing force to be reckoned with. Until the mid-1960s, Scotland grew enough tomatoes to satisfy domestic demand, have some left over to send to markets in the south and occasionally go marauding on the continental export market. The Scots tomato industry was a product of the enthusiasm for technology that gripped the country at the start of the 20th century. The Clyde Valley had historically been the centre of Scottish apple growing, but that trade failed in the face of competition from overseas.
Bullishly, Scots growers sought higher value fruits to grow instead. Undeterred by such minor issues as climate, they constructed glasshouses, with state-of-the-art hot water heating systems, and stocked them with soon to be cherished varieties such as Ailsa Craig and moneymaker.
These hi-tech ventures were hugely successful and by the 1950s, the Clyde Valley had become synonymous with tomato production. ‘There were hundreds of growers here once, and acres and acres under glass, a sea of glass it was,’ says Jim Craig of Briarneuk Nursery, by Carluke, one of only four growers still commercially active in central Scotland.
So what happened? ‘The problem was, the bulk of the greenhouses were built before the 1930s and were wooden-framed,’ he says. ‘By the 1960s, those houses were at the end of their useful lives and were ready to fall down – in fact, I remember quite a few that did.
‘Everyone needed to re-invest if the industry was to keep its scale, but the Common Market was starting to take away the import tariffs that had protected us from Mediterranean competition. Many growers just decided to get out.’
Thereafter, competing with sun-grown Spanish tomatoes for supermarket shelfspace was a battle the more costly Scottish tomatoes were never going to win, however fresh they might be by comparison.
At the turn of this century, a coalition of Scots growers, including Craig, mounted a last assault on the multiple retailers, investing considerable cash in a ‘Scotland’s Tomatoes’ brand. In the face of supermarket indifference, the initiative failed.
Nowadays, the remnants of the Scottish industry have forsaken the classic round red tomato in favour of specialist varieties – particularly plum tomatoes and yellow tomatoes. ‘We’re a niche business now, and hanging on, but I don’t see any youngsters wanting to take up the reins once this generation retires,’ says Craig. ‘We will be the last of the line, unless something major happens to change the marketplace.
‘At the farmers’ markets, people are always delighted to get Scottish-grown stuff. But in the supermarkets, people always buy with an eye on the price. The fact is, heating those greenhouses is always going to put us at a cost disadvantage.
‘Now if something was to happen to road transport, more attention to food miles perhaps, it could change things. Or if southern Europe was to have more water shortages … But that’s looking decades ahead. If there’s ever going to be a Scottish tomato revival, I doubt I’ll be here to see it.’
● J&M Craig attends farmers’ markets in Edinburgh, the Lothians and Fife