top of page

John Cameron's Forestry Business.

Before WWI John Cameron had been a joiner and carpenter, however after the war he was more ambitious. He was shrewd enough to realise that the war had cost vast sums of money, and that the bills would start to fall due.  Britain was not quite bankrupt, but was not far off it, to rescue its economy and manage its obligations, would require serious economic expansion.

To achieve the sort of economic growth that was needed there would have to be careful economic management, but every bit as important there would have to be guaranteed, reliable supplies of the basics that industry runs on.  At that time the world was powered by coal, not oil as it is now, so there would have to be growth of the mining industry. Once it has power, the next big need for 20th Century industry would be huge amounts of steel. Reliable good quality steel, the sort made by the domestic Iron & Steel producers, great growth would be needed here too.

As he crossed the country on his way home from the war, John was struck by the endless coal trains heading for the industrial cities and going in the opposite direction, trains loaded with huge quantities of timber pit-props. There were also great quantities of what looked like faggots of brushwood. These it turned out were  birch twigs and small trees, what had previously been the waste product of timber felling.  At the time these were used in steelmaking, added to the molten iron this birch-wood burned off some impurities and acted as a source of carbon for the conversion of iron to good quality higher grade  steel. It seems that whilst other wood could be used, birch was the best.

So there would be a great need for pit-props and birch-wood. What was his home at Chapelton surrounded by?  Mile after mile of coniferous forrest with scrubby birch as the native growth in any areas of valley bottom or lower slopes not grazed or cultivated. John Cameron knew an opportunity when he saw one, and as he travelled home he made his plans.

Seeing a business opportunity, John set-about organising the cutting of the extensive birch woods that grew all over the land that was not suitable for actual ploughing. Later he leased the timber rights to some forests owned by the Seaficld Estate, in his local area.


After presumably securing some finance, John set up a small sawmill on some spare ground at Chapelton. As a local boy he managed to get a few small contracts to supply timber and many local landlords were very happy for him to clear away some of the birch scrub from land about to be brought into cultivation used for building or just to tidy it up after years of neglect during the war. These first few contracts would have got him going, then by re-investing as much of the profit as possible into buying the "timber rights" on forrest not yet quite ready for felling he secured his future supply of timber. He prospered and the business grew.

Whilst there would doubtless have been a setback, he was probably insulated from the worst of the 1930's depression, there was still a need for coal and steel whatever else in the economy  went "tits up" at that time.

By  the  late  1930's  it  was  plain  that  another  war  against Germany  was becoming unavoidable. Needless to say in the desperation to reduce government spending after the 1929 crash, Britain's armed forces had been cut to the bone. With the prospect of another war, there was a desperate rush to re-arm. This required steel, huge quantities of high grade steel. This still required lots of birch and huge amounts of coal, and getting coal needed pit props, by the million. So there were huge profits to be made, even at the doubtlessly low price that the government was prepared to pay.    


It has to be said that John Cameron's biggest business opportunity ever was the Second World War. His own son George volunteered and joined the Merchant Navy the minute the war broke out It gave George the ticket out of the small village and family business that he so desperatey wanted. Somehow he survived the war. As an engineer in the engine rooms he miraculously survived several torpedoings and sinkings.


Whilst John was simply continuing his entirely legitimate (and essential) business, he was making money, whilst other people were getting killed. This can not have been a comfortable position. His wife was Swiss, whilst nobody had any arguments with Switzerland, to the average Scottish Peasant, Swiss may have seemed too close to German for comfort. It would not have taken much to have started ugly rumours and dark mutterings. ' His wife is Swiss, thats next to German, how sympathetic to Germany is he ? and with him profiteering out of the war." Of course that would have been total rubbish but it would not have taken many people nursing pet grudges or resentment  '  to have made life uncomfortable for the family.    '


So far as I know that never happened. John Cameron made a lot of money out of the war, but presumably he had the tact an common sense to keep a low profile, and keep his money to himself. Whilst his business was doing well, he would have carried on as normal and try to avoid making the good business too obvious. As well as this, the fact that his own son Gerge was in as much peril as anyone elses son would have been a help.

Pre-war John really tried to groom his son George to take over the business. This was the last thing that George wanted to do, being heartily sick of being a Country Hick! Initially he was saved by the war. The day it was declared he volunteered to join the Merchant Navy and got his ticket out. Of course there was never actually any need for him to go anywhere near the war, forestry being a reserved occupation.  George could not get there fast enough.

Post-war in 1948 George his wife Edith and baby daughter Yvonne were on a boat to South Africa, emigrating to a new life as far away from Chapelton and the timber business as possible. An urgent telegram reached him, His father had died, he needed to get the first boat back and take over or his Mother and two Sisters would probably lose the business.

And there he stayed until he retired 40 years later.

The sawmill at Chapelton.

With the railway virtually next door in Boat of Garten, he could easily transport the birch wood, initially cut from the family's own land, directly to the steel works. 

This was an excellent business to get into, his predictions were right, there was a huge demand for timber, which he was in the perfect position to supply. From this grew a substantial and very profitable business. The sawmill at Chapelton was enlarged on more than one occasion so as to increase its capacity, but eventually the business outgrew the site and had to move. That however was not until the 1960's/ 70's.

bottom of page