Carrying on the theme of Tayside’s shrinking construction industry from my previous article about the demise of Muirfields, I thought it would be worth recording another sector which has virtually disappeared: construction plant manufacturing.

I grew up a mile from Low’s Foundry in Monifieth, a long-established engineering firm which occupied the block between High Street, Reform Street, South Street and Union Street.  After at least a century of manufacturing textile machinery, James F Low (Engineers) Ltd sought to benefit from the post-War building boom, so their trajectory changed around 1955, and they diversified into “Rob Roy” construction plant.

Photo courtesy of Plant wiki

The small amount of information published about the firm concentrates on their textile heritage.  Monifieth Foundry was established by James Low and Robert Fairweather before 1800, and the firm became internationally known for machinery to prepare and finish coarse textiles such as jute, hemp and flax.  At one time Low’s exported to 30 countries and their foundry spread over 15 acres.  Until the 1950’s they made machinery for the many jute mills in Tayside, and were eventually taken over by a company on the Indian sub-continent where much of their machinery was latterly sold and from which raw jute is imported.

While giant yellow bulldozers and full-slew excavators grab the attention, small plant is often overlooked.  Rob Roy’s range was at the lighter end of the spectrum and included site dumper trucks, forklifts, concrete mixers, concrete pumps and vibrating pokers.  Through the post-War years they developed a range along the lines of what the Winget company produces nowadays, and many of their machines were powered by Lister or Petter 2-cylinder diesel engines.  The “Rob Roy” of its name has little or nothing to do with Clan MacGregor but is part of the undercurrent of Walter Scotticism which lasts in Scotland, even to this day.  I guess its use in this context is intended to suggest the same ruggedness as with Albion Motors’ “Claymore”, “Reiver” and “Clydesdale” lorries.

Speaking to folk who worked in the local construction industry during the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, Rob Roy concrete pumps were prone to break down at the critical moment (“they were buggers of things to choke up”) but otherwise their 4/3 and 5/3 concrete mixers were sturdy and reliable, and their 1/2 yard and 1 yard site dumpers were basic but tough pieces of kit.  As I was growing up, I remember the thumpity-thump of a two-stroke Lister diesel as the Rob Roy dumper trundled around a building site.

However, as with the much larger Vickers conglomerate which I wrote about previously, Rob Roy’s construction plant business proved less profitable than hoped.  While Vickers retreated back to their natural territory, the defence industry, Rob Roy disappeared around 1984 when James F Low went into liquidation.  The site was sold and partly cleared: William Low’s (no relation) built a supermarket on the northern part of the foundry, then a few years later sheltered housing and spec-built villas emerged on the southern side.

With the exception of JCB, which is gradually catching Caterpillar in the battle to become the world’s largest construction plant manufacturer, Britain’s retreat from heavy plant began in the 1980’s and has continued ever since.  Somewhere in the wilds of Lanarkshire are warehouses full of obsolete plant parts bearing names such as Liner, Mortimer, Hymac, Whitlock, Priestman and Massey Ferguson – which are now of value to collectors of classic machinery but little use to the men who use and hire out plant to earn a living.

Priestman were bought over by the owners of Acrow and all their clever design innovations, such as the variable-counterbalance excavator, were lost.  For over 70 years Benford was a leading manufacturer of dumpers, mixers, rollers and compactor plates; they were taken over by Terex in 1999 and the name was dropped.  Ruston Bucyrus became RB Cranes, changed hands, and Langley Holdings eventually closed them down after they succumbed to the 2008 recession.  Barford has similarly disappeared in the past few years.

In Scotland, Hydrocon Cranes of Coatbridge were a major manufacturer of off-road mobile cranes.
As their name suggests, they pioneered hydraulic cranes but their former factory is now part of the industrial museum at Summerlee.  As another example, while I was researching the brick industry for an article a couple of years ago, I discovered that Mitchell Engineering of Cambuslang were once in the major league of brick-making machinery manufacturers, but they went out of that business as the Scottish brickmaking industry shrank.  It continued to shrink, until as it stands today there’s only one active brickworks, and a handful of abandoned sites.

Before you reach for the whisky and raise a toast entitled, “Sympathy for the Construction Industry”, there are some heavy plant success stories in Scotland.  McPhee Brothers of Blantyre build concrete truckmixers and Albion Motors still exists too, in the form of Albion Automotive who build lorry transmissions in South Street, Glasgow.

As for Rob Roy, it’s unlikely that any of their machines have been preserved in museums, but some are still to be found lurking in the overgrown yards of small contractors.  A rusty Rob Roy 1/2 yard dumper lay, unused and unloved, in the flood plain of the Gowrie Burn until recently, when a small developer began building a clutch of houses on the site.  Presumably the dumper went off to the great scrapyard in the sky, perhaps via one of Morris Leslie’s epic autojumble auctions at Errol.

If anyone has any promotional material, brochures, photos or memories of James F Low and Rob Roy, please get in touch.

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