21 November 1997

CENTURY &MORE

A NEW entry in the Guinness Book of Records confirms a Scottish farmer as the oldest man in Britain.

At the age of 108 David Henderson is still beavering away. He has planning permission for 18 houses on one of his farms and he is none too pleased with his accountants advice that he shouldnt build them because of the tax his heirs would have to pay. "Im not to be here, apparently," he says indignantly, "but I take the opposite view".

That sort of optimism has always been justified in the past.

When he was only 104 Mr Henderson bought a fleet of four new tractors which are now about ready for changing.

When he was 105 he bought one of the finest farms in Scotland – the 89ha (220-acre) Redmyre in the rich red soil of Kincardineshire. On that day he ordered his grass seed for four years.

When he was 107 David Henderson "lost" some ground to the council and rolled the money over into another 24ha (60 acres).

Now, at 108 Mr Henderson has over a thousand acres, all in crop, and last year, his best in more than 90 years of business, he paid £40,000 in tax. "I would buy a lot more land if I could get it at the same price. Theres no investment like it."

&#42 Saw Victoria

This man, who saw a neighbour off to the Boer War 101 years ago, saw Queen Victoria pass on her way to Balmoral and was in the Home Guard in the First World War, has seen great change.

He can remember his grandfather cutting 0.8ha (2 acres) of oats in a day with the scythe. It took three women to gather and bind the sheaves behind him. After that there was still the stooking, leading the crop home, building stacks and threshing to be done. This year Davids combine harvested 20ha (50 acres) a day and the crops were barley and wheat.

In 1921 David Henderson bought one of the first tractors in the county, an International, for £351 with a barrel of oil thrown in. This year he bought a John Deere for £46,000 and the discount would have bought the old International several times.

David left school in 1901 when he was 13 years old and started on his fathers farm. He had plenty of work but no wages "So I had to do something."

The something was snaring and trapping rabbits which were sold for 6d a piece, and keeping bees. "Honey is a grand crop for you can feed the bees on your neighbours flowers." When he was only 15 David Henderson was able to supply a keen buyer with half a ton of honey.

&#42 Bought in 1921

In 1921 David bought the 162ha (400-acre) Conveth Mains at Laurencekirk. Hes not saying what it cost but he did tell me that neighbouring farms were making £12 to £20 an acre some 15 years later.

When the Depression of the 30s began David Henderson had a staff of 14 at Conveth Mains and his strategy for survival was masterful. He gave up most of the cropping and concentrated on "dog and stock" farming with one man. In the 1930s his average profit was £600.

For the first 50 years his main enterprise was cattle. Fifteen hundred a year, mostly blacks bought in Orkney, were fattened and sold at auction. He always tried to buy the best and had a high reputation in the markets – Hays at Perth, Laurencekirk and Forfar.

"I was forced to give them up though, a few years back," he said.

"In what way, forced?"

"They were no(sic) leaving any money."

That meant Mr Henderson had to leave unfulfilled his ambition to top all three markets in the same week. He managed Perth and Forfar together, but not Laurencekirk.

Now hes all arable except for a bit of rough grazing he lets a neighbour use for nothing.

It is many years since David Henderson set aside his working boots but at 108 he still runs the show. He tours the farm once a week with his nephew, Douglas Cargill (the first vice-chairman of Food From Britain). He still makes all the major decisions like the cropping policy, and signs all the cheques.

The secret of Davids longevity? He has two stories he thinks relevant:

In 1939 he bought some stock from the Orkney island of Sanday. As its name suggests Sanday is sandy and the cattle just would not fatten. Davids vet prescribed minerals and the cattle fattened in no time. David thought that he himself might also be short of minerals as Glenisla where he was born is another sandy place. He started to take cattle minerals.

But David believes he got the great secret from an uncle who went to Jamaica. The uncle and his pals had huge evening meals as they couldnt eat during the heat of the day. Theyre all dead now and David thinks he knows why. They all went to bed on a full stomach.

To this day David Henderson has high tea at five and no more than a cup of tea or a social dram thereafter.

Charlie Allan

When he was 104 David Henderson took delivery of a new fleet of tractors.