Transporting Esparto Grass

from Granton Harbour

Transporting Esparto Grass  -  1940s/50s

Lorries taking esparto grass from Granton to the paper mills around Edinburgh in the 1940s/50s

©  Reproduced with acknowledgement to Bryan Gourlay, Biggar, Lanarkshire whose father transported esparto grass in the 1940s/50s

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     Lorries taking esparto grass from Granton to the paper mills around Edinburgh in the 1940s/50s ©

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   Lorry carrying esparto grass  -  where is it? ©


Transporting Esparto Grass from Granton Harbour

Thank you to Bryan Gourlay for the comments below about his dad's work in the haulage business around Edinburgh.

Bryan wrote:

"I enjoyed reading George Renton’s recollections, a few months ago, about going on his travels in his dad’s lorry.  I was lucky to have similar unforgettable experiences with my dad from the age of four."

St Leonard's Coal Yard

"My father used to have a coal business, based at St Leonards’ sidings before the war, which came to an abrupt end when the government confiscated his coal lorry for the war effort."

Second-hand Lorries

"After the war, my father went into the haulage business. As lorries were hard to come by in the late 1940s, my dad bought a succession of legendary second-hand vehicles which have long passed into lorry folklore.

To start with, they were mostly 6-tons (old money, not tonnes), a Bedford, a Morris Commercial, a Dodge and a Thorneycroft – now there’s a wonderful name – which was his first diesel.

For a while, my dad even had a left-hand drive, four wheel drive, wartime American GMC. This had an over-extended platform at the back – so much so, that if it was loaded too heavily towards the back, the front wheels would start coming off the ground.

Over the years, he graduated up the scale and was one of the first in Edinburgh to make a move to artics.  For the lorry lovers, his first artic was a Dodge, with a Perkins P21 diesel engine, Eaton two-speed axle and a Scammel trailer and coupling – as seen in the picture."

Lorries taking esparto grass from Granton to the paper mills around Edinburgh ©

Farm Deliveries

"My dad would transport many things – such as building materials for Wimpey, barley from farms to McEwans’ and Younger's breweries, fertilisers to farms from BOCM at Leith, and scaffolding for Scaffolding Great Britain. "

Esparto Grass

"The most memorable, however, was running Esparto grass from the west pier at Granton up to the paper mills in Balerno and Currie (mostly Galloways I think), and Cowan’s paper mill at Auchendinny, near Glencorse. The Auchendinny building is still there, on the left, just after the narrow bridge (with traffic lights) at the foot of the brae in the village, heading south west for Howgate.

When an Esparto grass boat was in at Granton, my dad would be first in the queue every morning – about 5.30 am for an 8.00 am start. That way, he would get three loads in a day rather than two. The Esparto grass came from Egypt and North Africa, and was used by the paper mills to make high-quality book paper – which Edinburgh was renowned for."

Loading the Grass

"The lorries would draw up alongside the ship and the bales of grass would be lifted out of the hold by crane and swung over the lorry – where two or three dockers and my dad would heave the heavy bales across the lorry by sinking evil-looking dockers’ hooks (a bit like Captain Hook’s) deep into the grass, stacking them three high across and along the length of the platform. No fork lift trucks, pallets or tail-lifts in these days - just brute strength.

I remember my dad coming home with a couple of elastoplasts on his hand one day. A docker had accidentally put a docker’s hook right through his hand – so he put a couple of plasters on, and got on with things. Nowadays, this would probably have involved paramedics, or at least a visit to A&E, an in-depth health and safety investigation – and a protracted period off work – followed by an industrial injuries claim. Say no more.

Esparto grass also posed other dangers. It contained a variety of nasty creepie-crawlies all the way from North Africa with sharp teeth. And, if you were cut by the grass, you generally finished up with a poisoned finger or hand.

Roping the Grass

"Once the lorry was loaded, the load had to be roped down securely, particularly as the route to Balerno or Auchendinny was right through the centre of Edinburgh dodging people, cars buses and trams.

Ropes were wound up in a particular fashion so, when they were thrown up and over the load, they uncoiled as they went over, before falling on the other side. They were tied to hooks that ran along the length of the lorry just under the edge of the platform.

There was a particular type of looped knot used so the ropes could be pulled tight before being tied off on the hooks. This was the driver’s job.

Many times I’ve seen my dad swinging on the ropes like a monkey, to pull them down tight with his full body-weight – all too often taking the skin off his hands when the ropes were wet. Esparto grass was heavy stuff - the lorry is well down on its springs in the picture.


"Weather had little effect on loading or off-loading the lorry.

All-weather clothing hadn’t been invented in the 40s and 50s. My dad had a donkey jacket for waiting in the cab in the freezing cold mornings, which he took off when he started working as it was too restrictive, relying on a couple of jumpers to keep him warm. When it rained, he just carried on regardless with the job often resembling a drowned rat, as did everyone else"


"Driving a lorry was also a bit different 50 years ago, unlike the hotels on wheels and all the mod-cons that drivers have to make the job much easier today.

There was no power-steering, no synchromesh, maybe vacuum brakes, often no heaters, certainly no air conditioning, other than opening the windscreen, no screen washers etc.

Gear changing was a hard-won skill. It involved double de-clutching and changing gear with the stick, and often changing the axle ratio at the same time (with a separate control cable) - which not every driver could master. Carried out well, this made a huge difference. 

It was a long climb, and many gear-changes to keep the momentum going, all the way from sea level at Granton to Balerno and Auchendinny - the latter involving the small matter of Liberton Brae - the lorry going so slowly, it was sometimes overtaken by a tram.

Steering at slow speeds, or manoeuvering into tight spaces, involved more brute strength to turn the steering wheel. And, some of the spaces lorries had to be driven or reversed into at the paper mills were very tight, as these factories were originally designed for a horse and cart."

More Journeys

"Once the lorry was off loaded at the paper mill, it was hot foot back to Granton for the next load. Keeping best friends with Granton’s dockers, and the off-loaders at the paper mill, made a big difference to the turn round time – and my dad getting in three loads per day."


Lorries taking esparto grass from Granton to the paper mills around Edinburgh ©

"The picture of my dad’s 1950s’ Dodge could have been taken at one of the paper mills, where the lorries were queuing to be off loaded, although the rail tracks suggest it might be Granton's west pier.

Walter Lyle Hume e-mailed to say:

"The photograph of the artic-lorry was not Granton Harbour, more in keeping with the Paper Mill at Inverkeithing."

Walter Lyle Hume, Isle of Wight, England:  July 22, 2006

Looking at the lorry after many years, I notice there is a slot for a starting handle - although I'm not sure what type of super-human effort it would have taken to turn the engine with this - more brute strength I suppose . . ."

Bryan Gourlay, Biggar, Lanarkshire, Scotland: July 21, 2006




Rachel Edmans

Thank you to Rachel Edmans who wrote:

Esparto Grass to Kinleith Mill?

Lorries taking esparto grass from Granton to the paper mills around Edinburgh ©

"I think the lorry in this photograph may have been travelling to Kinleith Mill, Currie, as they processed Esparto Grass, according to this page from the book:

'Scotland in Modern Times' .'"

Rachel Edmans:  October 11, 2014


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