This year’s Forestry Expo Scotland was a ground-breaking event, but it wouldn’t have been possible without the first Forestry Harvesting Demo, held in 2011, which proved competing manufacturers could come together to display their machines working alongside each other for the benefit of customers. That show’s architect was Jim Christie, former plant engineer for the Forestry Commission. Now retired, Jim recently found the time to sit down with Forestry Journal for a chat about his long, varied and fascinating career.

JIM Christie always knew he wanted to work with machines, but his route to becoming plant engineer for the Forestry Commission – a job with an annual budget for purchasing and repairs of over £20 m – was hardly a straightforward one. As a young lad entering the job market for the first time, he recalled telling an employment officer he was interested in “heavy machinery”, so they sent him to a Singer sewing machine shop.

The following years saw him take a circuitous route through a variety of employments, from agricultural apprentice with Caledonian Tractors and Equipment to delivery driver for McCormick Spices, before arriving at the National Institute of Agriculture.

One of his most memorable jobs in this period was working in a clay mine, where arguments were settled with a no-holds-barred bare-knuckle fight in five-minute rounds on a space near the pit-head.

Forestry Journal: Jim became an expert in the design and manufacture of Leyland tractors at British Leyland. (Photo by Evelyn Simak.)Jim became an expert in the design and manufacture of Leyland tractors at British Leyland. (Photo by Evelyn Simak.)

“It was bloody ruthless, but it was the rules,” said Jim. “The people I was working with were animals. They had their own standards, but they weren’t human ones. It wasn’t easy, but there wasn’t anything else available at the time. I got out of there as quickly as I could.”

Did he learn anything from the experience? “Yes. Steer clear of mines.”

Joining the National Institute of Agricultural Engineering, then part of the Agricultural Research Council’s operation, he assisted on the development, testing and modification of machinery, working mainly on soil cultivation equipment and off-road vehicles.

Forestry Journal: Sir Alec Issigonis, who Jim worked with at British Leyland.Sir Alec Issigonis, who Jim worked with at British Leyland.

“Of course, I was just a laddie, the bottom of the food chain, but it was still interesting,” he said. “The people I was working with were clever, sometimes too clever. There was an incident where they built a potato harvester using X-rays that could differentiate between clods of earth, stones and potatoes. The people clever enough to invent it built it in the workshop, but when they drove it out to do field testing, they whacked the top half off on the lintel of the door, because it was too low.

“This was the mentality of a lot of these guys. They had fancy degrees and they were dead enthusiastic, but they wouldn’t even think about something as simple as the height of the door.”

Forestry Journal: An operational skyline rigged for everyday work in the 1970s.An operational skyline rigged for everyday work in the 1970s.

It was here he began to develop an interest in hydraulics and hydrostatics, serving him well when, in the late 1960s, the Ministry of Technology appointed Jim as an assistant experimental officer in the Special Projects Division at the National Engineering Laboratory in East Kilbride. The special project of that time was steam power and one of the leading engineers of that era, Sir Alec Issigonis, designer of the Mini, headed up a project to develop steam-powered 4x4 hydrostatic transmission.

“Issigonis was a most peculiar guy,” Jim said. “I enjoyed working with him, because he would ask you to do some daft things. He was, for a while, fascinated by hydrostatic transmissions. One of the things he gave me to play with was an old motorbike engine. He’d adapted the cylinder head so it could run on compressed air. He was also fascinated with reducing friction in sleeve valves. All these things were explored and they didn’t all come to a conclusion, but they were all shelved and that meant when someone else came along they wouldn’t have as far to go to solve the problem.”

One of his memorable experiences was stamping on the toes of the Minister of Technology, Tony Benn MP, then still known as Sir Anthony Wedgewood Benn. For reasons of PR, the Minister had been charged with driving a building site dump truck and Jim was placed in the passenger seat as the ministerial minder.

“It was operated by a pivoting pedal,” Jim said. “Press one way for forward, the other for reverse. You could go faster or slower depending on how much stroke you gave the pump. He got mixed up, which was fairly easy to do, and ended up charging towards a loading bank at a fair speed. I couldn’t get him to move his foot off the pedal because he was panicking. The only thing I could do was stamp on his foot to reverse it. He was grateful, though.”

Forestry Journal: The Forestry Commission’s first forwarders were bought second hand from Sweden, like this Kockums.The Forestry Commission’s first forwarders were bought second hand from Sweden, like this Kockums.

In the 1970s, Jim moved to British Leyland, where, as senior development engineer in tractor design, he was responsible for the development of the first mass-produced synchromesh tractor range with a ‘Q’ (quiet) cab. Prior to these developments, an average-sized tractor such as the Leyland 384 would have cost the same as an average family saloon. After the introduction of the Q cab and synchro gearbox, the relative cost of the tractor rose by 50 per cent.

At the same time, British Leyland was a company in a state of flux, which over the years evolved into chaos.

“Leyland had this problem,” Jim said. “They had all these companies struggling to make money and decided to combine them, but they had to find employment for all these managers, some of whom had never seen tractors before. Their other problem was that, at that time, all the shale mines in the Broxburn area were closing down. The place was awash with redundant miners in need of jobs, so the government, in all its wisdom, put the Leyland factory, which was going to employ all these people, up at Bathgate. These guys didn’t have engineering backgrounds and had all sorts of shortcomings.”

Mismanagement of an unskilled workforce caused a number of issues further down the line, which Jim had to sort out.

He explained: “There was a problem with the tractors, reported by the service people, that they were seizing up, apparently due to the oil levels. We went down the assembly line to see if we could pinpoint what was happening and came to the guys fitting the dipsticks. They would have two engines coming past of different sizes, with different sizes of dipsticks – a long and a short. These guys had the rule drummed into them that they were never, ever to stop the assembly line, they had to keep it going. That meant when they ran out of short dipsticks, they’d put in long ones and vice-versa. So this is what was causing the problem. Which proves it wasn’t such a good idea to put these labourers into that job.”

Forestry Journal: The Forestry Commission’s current fleet of machines has come a long way from the ’70s and ’80s.The Forestry Commission’s current fleet of machines has come a long way from the ’70s and ’80s.

There was still plenty of evidence of creative problem solving, at that time. “Leyland was quite successful in selling its tractors to the tropical countries, but there were complaints from drivers that the gearbox was overheating and burning their legs,” Jim said.

“Leyland decided we had to get the oil temperature down and we tried everything – cheap. They failed miserably, so what they did was issue all the drivers with welly boots, so their legs were protected, and the natives were absolutely delighted.”

At the same time, Jim foresaw a dim future for the tractor industry as most of the Western world was, by then, converted from horse power to mechanised hp and the developing world lacked the money to give the market the input it needed. The future was uncertain and, in 1976, Jim decided to apply for a job at the Forestry Commission as workshop manager at Chapelhall.

Forestry Journal: Clark Engineering, Ponsse, Tigercat, Komatsu and John Deere all came on board for the demo, which laid the foundations for what would one day become Forestry Expo.Clark Engineering, Ponsse, Tigercat, Komatsu and John Deere all came on board for the demo, which laid the foundations for what would one day become Forestry Expo.

He recalled: “During the interview, the guy looked at my CV, saw I’d been an engineer and everything else, but wanted to know why I thought I could be a good manager of people. I said after seven years of working for British Leyland, I’d seen so much bad management, I already knew how to be a good manager just by doing the opposite. He seemed to like that.”

In this role he had responsibility for everything in the FC with wheels and an engine.

“At one time, someone valued the FC fleet at around £60m and it was the biggest UK fleet, apart from the Army,” he said. “It had all the forestry machines, all the nursery machines, ground prep machines, all the harvesting equipment and road transport, so it was very interesting.”

One of Jim’s first innovations was to switch from Ford to Leyland tractors to exploit his detailed understanding of their design and workings. This knowledge was put to good use in his modification of Chapelhall’s most famous product – the Skyline winch, which he fitted to a Leyland tractor.

Jim’s career saw a milestone at Chapelhall, as the 150th Skyline was produced during his time there. HQ was developing a hydrostatic skidder and the Chapelhall team was charged with the manufacture of the prototypes.

Forestry Journal: The first Joint Forestry Harvesting Machine Demo was held over two days in 2011 at the Forest of Ae.The first Joint Forestry Harvesting Machine Demo was held over two days in 2011 at the Forest of Ae.

At this time, the cost of spares was rising as machinery manufacturers faced the downturn in trade which Jim had foreseen. A major part of the workshop’s remit had included overhauling of machinery after around four years’ use, but this practice became prohibitively expensive.

In the 1980s, FC policy changed and machines were sold rather than overhauled, and new equipment bought. However, the first forwarders and harvesters bought second hand from Sweden were often found to be in disappointing condition.

Promoted to plant engineer in 1987, Jim soon found himself fully immersed in the rapidly expanding forest machine market as harvesters began to join the forwarders, which were revolutionising timber harvesting and extraction. The market was still in its infancy and the early Scandinavian equipment was found wanting under steep UK forestry conditions, often wet and soft but without the benefit of near-Arctic deep freezes. The introduction of harvesters to the UK saw similar problems.

“A lot of the Scandinavian machines caused us problems, because the crop is entirely different,” said Jim. “The harvesting head didn’t work, because when the tree’s growing in Sweden, it spends at least six months of the year with the branches drooping down because of the weight of snow. They take that up as a permanent position, whereas the trees in this country don’t have the permanent snowfall and their branches slope up the way. That’s the sort of thing we were confronted with when we started buying machines from other countries.”

Throughout the 1990s, Jim spent much of his time dealing with bureaucratic concerns, preparing documentation and ensuring compliance with legislation. Purchasing new machines also required a good deal of creativity in navigating the FC’s bureaucracy.

He explained: “Foresters would come to me saying they needed a new machine. I would go through the budget and all that, then go out to the forester and ask what he wanted and, more importantly, what the driver wanted. You have to talk to the driver, because, if you buy a machine he doesn’t like, it’ll never work. That’s simple psychology.

Forestry Journal: Jim, now retired, pictured at a Woodland Trust event last year.Jim, now retired, pictured at a Woodland Trust event last year.

“I quite frequently fell out with the FC’s buying department, because they were the people spending the money and they had to have the last say. So what I would do is get the reps in, decide what we were going to buy and agree a price. Then I’d call in the purchasing guy and the rep would go through the performance of negotiating with him, eventually throwing in a free bucket or a set of band tracks to make it look as if the boy from purchasing had beaten him down. It’s really silly, but that was the way it worked. Everyone wants to win.”

After his time with the Forestry Commission came to an end, Jim continued to be involved in the purchase of machines, providing advice to contractors and organisations as a freelance forest machines consultant.

Through his many dealings with foresters, contractors and manufacturers, arranging demos and negotiating deals, Jim became convinced there had to be a better way for all involved. He reasoned that if agents were able to demonstrate their machines for a realistic period of time on a large timber production site alongside competitive models from other manufactures – allowing potential customers to compare not only the individual machines, but also the various features, components and attachments – then they would all end up with better deals.

“The problem was, especially back in those days, the manufacturers were very, very competitive with each other, especially at salesman level,” said Jim. “Only once you got to the next layer of management and put the ideas of a shared event to them, you started to get a response.”

One of the people with whom he shared the idea was Douglas Clark of Clark Engineering, who was very supportive and became a key ally in bringing representatives from John Deere, Komatsu, Ponsse and Tigercat around the table.

Among the chief concerns were health and safety and the fear of being put at a competitive disadvantage at the harvesting site. A consensus formed that a show could be possible if a suitable ‘mutually satisfactory’ person could be persuaded to take responsibility for its organisation. As someone well-liked, trusted and impartial, it fell to Jim to take on the responsibility.

“So, I put together the first Joint Forestry Harvesting Demo at the Forest of Ae in 2011; and it was a struggle, but relatively successful and seen as a good idea,” he said.

His efforts proved a combined harvesting show could be delivered and could be successful, laying the foundations for what would eventually, eight years later, become the first Forestry Expo.

Now retired, Jim spends a lot of his time working with the Woodland Trust, planting trees and helping to maintain paths. However, he dipped his toe back into the world of forest machinery in August when he made the trip to Little Clyde, South Lanarkshire, for Forestry Expo Scotland 2019.

His verdict? “It was everything I ever dreamed of.”