On the A91, which concludes at St Andrews, and just a few miles east of Stirling, sits Dollar Academy, one of Scotland's finest private schools. Catering for over 1300 pupils, many of them from the surrounding area, the seventy-acre site nestles at the foot of the Ochil Hills. It was here that Lee Williams met Robert Meldrum, the school's long-serving Head Groundsman.
"I went to the jobcentre one day, and they said there is a temporary job up at Dollar Academy as one of the groundsmen is off sick. So, I came in on a six-month contract and, twenty-seven years later, I'm still here. I have been the Head Groundsman for the last eighteen years."
Robert Meldrum had a varied career before getting into the sports turf industry. After leaving school, he wanted to be a chef and did his City & Guilds levels one and two in catering. Once qualified, he worked in several hotels until the economy went down in the late eighties and he found himself looking for a job.
"It was hard to find jobs, so I ended up jumping on a train and going down to London, working as a security guard at Canary Wharf when it was being built. After two years I got a bit homesick. I came back up to Scotland but the economy was still weak. At the time, the only real opportunities were training schemes which topped up your dole money. So I ended up working on the canals with British Waterways (now Scottish Canals) doing all the ditching on the Forth and Clyde."
Dollar Academy was founded in 1818 by John McNabb. It is an independent co-educational day and boarding school. The open campus site is in the centre of the town of Dollar in the county of Clackmannanshire and is home to around 1300 children aged five to eighteen.
Amongst an impressive list of famous alumni can be found Sir James Dewar - inventor of the vacuum flask and John Barclay - former Scotland Rugby captain.
Outside the main school building, designed by Edinburgh architect William Henry Playfair, fifty-six-years-old Robert explains that his role has seen a slight change of direction since the pupils have come back from Covid-19 closure.
"The school has had to put up marquees on the lawns just in front of the main building to give more space, so the pupils can adhere to social distancing rules," explains Robert. Whilst he is well aware that these changes are necessary, it has meant a change to his usual annual routine for the maintenance of the grounds.
Robert has a healthy yearly budget with a purchasing limit of one thousand pound. Anything over that must be approved by the Bursar as it may have to come out of the capital expenditure. Other than that, he is responsible for the day to day running of the grounds department.
"Over the years, myself and the Bursar have worked closely together, so we have an understanding. If I must spend twenty thousand pounds on renovation works, I do not have to go and see him about that because we do that on year on year basis. If I wanted to go and buy something like a new ride-on mower, then I must agree that with him, but other than that we just get on with it as he knows we do the job."
"We both have the same opinion that, when visitors are coming up the main drive, that is the first impression of the school they have. If they see the playing surfaces and lawns looking their best, it gives them a good feeling about the rest of the school. First impressions are what count to prospective parents looking to invest their money into the school; money that comes back to us. To me, that this is the most important thing at the school."
The whole site covers a substantial forty hectares of land. Robert and his team of three are responsible for the maintenance of the main field, which is on the left as you come up the driveway. In the centre of the field is the main cricket square with eight tracks. In the far corner there are three grass nets and four artificial practice areas. In the summer, this area will have a 400m running track, 110m hurdle box, shotput, discus and javelin marked in. In winter, there are three rugby union pitches for the first, second and third teams.
Adjacent to the main field is a smaller field with a three-lane cricket square with, in the corner, a two-bay artificial net area. In summer, it will have a 200m running track marked in. In winter, this area is used for junior rugby with two small pitches but no posts as they do not require them.
In front of the school is a small junior cricket square and, if required, they will put a small running track in there. At the bottom of the village is the capacity for two full-size rugby or football pitches, but it has been used less and less over the past few years.
At the back of the prep school is a junior football pitch as well as a small astroturf area for hockey and, at the side of that, are nine artificial tennis courts which, in winter, convert into a full-size hockey pitch.
Robert describes the soil profile of the main field as being very 'glacky'. "Off the pitch on a day like this, it holds water, and it is really sticky. For the last twenty years we must have spent about a hundred thousand pounds, if not more, trying to resolve it. When the main drains first went in, it cost around forty-five thousand pounds. Since then, we have applied five hundred tonnes of Davila sand from a local quarry which is free draining - every year for the last fourteen years. Additionally, gravel and sand banding work has been carried out in the low points and worst areas. All the money has been spent on improving the playing surface on the main field, nothing on the other areas."
I asked Robert if, with the changing weather patterns and the winters becoming much wetter, there's a need to carry out more drainage work in the future? "Not really, except for the areas behind the cricket squares and at the edge of the field where I would like to do some work. With the drains now on the main field, all I have to do is verti-draining with a bit of heave to loosen up the soil. On a day like today, as soon as the rain stops, you would be able to play on there."
This question then led us on to the need for an irrigation system. "We have an irrigation system that comes from the sky; we do not need one really. If there is a good drought in the summer, we do have taps next to the cricket square to attach hoses and sprinklers. We also have access to a large water bowser we can borrow from the local golf course if there is any need."
Robert is hoping to invest in some new covers for the squares as the ones he has have become unserviceable. "I'm hoping to get some proper new covers I have spoken to the Bursar about the issue. We are currently trying to get funding through Cricket Scotland as they use this facility in the summer."
Robert talks me through the seasonal maintenance of the main showpiece field. "In summer, we will cut with the John Deere 3235C at a height of 23mm. In winter, for the rugby, the height of cut is going to be higher this year. Our rugby coach wanted it quite short last year, so we were cutting at 30mm and there was quite a lot of damage done. As you know, rugby players like to work off a line. They come out of the pavilion, go into a line, and that is where they stop and start practising and running back and forward, causing a lot of wear in one area. The new length will be reviewed nearer the time."
"I will get a contractor into verti-drain a few times a year, normally before I apply my sand and then we will brush it into the holes. We don't carry out any scarification on the main field, just the cricket square."
The pitches are marked out once a week using a Bowcom Trike, and when the pitches need the lines straightening back up, or it is an important game, they will go out with a Beamrider. "For the running track, we have fixed points in the field, so we get Martin Kohler in from Fleet Linemarkers to come in with their MAQA linemarking machine. This saves us a lot of time as it can be very time-consuming marking in a 400m track from scratch."
Robert does not rely on a fertiliser programme as it can be challenging to apply chemicals and fertilisers whilst the pupils are around. "It is a matter of getting some granular or liquid fertiliser down when they are off on summer holidays, Easter and autumn break. We have recently purchased a mixing tank and a ten-metre tractor-mounted boom sprayer. I have had to take two of the booms off because it is far too big for the site with all the trees, so it is now down to six metres. With everything that is happening with the pandemic, I have not had the chance to get out and spray. I have been out just once this year with a selective weedkiller. I do need to get out and get some fertiliser on there soon but, at the minute, it is not looking too bad."
The school purchase all the machinery for the grounds department outright, using local dealers where possible. "Depending on how much things cost we may look at buying second-hand, but generally we purchase everything new. Our machinery does not tend to get much wear and tear here so we can have our machines for quite a few years before they need replacing. We have a good local mechanic, Bryan Fay, who services and fixes any of our machinery that is out of warranty."
Robert believes there is always room to improve the machinery he has available to him, with new products being made available each year. But he feels, at this moment in time, they are well equipped for the way they work and knows if he really needs something to improve the playing surfaces the school will support him where possible.
There are no major projects in the pipeline for Robert and his team as pretty much everything is in place. "We have a small project I would like to do this winter. The matting in the cricket nets is getting old and needs replacing, and the drainage work I mentioned earlier. I cannot think of anything else we would be looking to do."
The school considers the local flora and fauna to be important and has spent quite a bit of money on developing wildflower areas. "We began by sowing wildflower seed in unused areas around the fields and started to get some great comments. So, we have gradually sown areas around the prep school, next to the car park, behind the dining hall and even in the village itself."
"We do a lot of tree planting, and we have a tree management company that comes in and keeps an eye on the place for us. We have a lot of interesting old trees around that were planted when the school was first opened. Last year, we planted some eucalyptus trees to replace a giant redwood which unfortunately had to come down five years ago. There is quite a diversity of trees around here, and it is just a nice environment to work in."
What's in the shed?
Allett G24 Mower
Gianni Ferrari Turbo 4 Mower x 2
Groundsman Turf Aerator
Hako Road Sweeper
Honda Multi-Tool Strimmer
Honda Walk-Behind Mower x 3
John Deere 3235 Fairway Mower
John Deere Gator HPX 815E (2)
Logic Tank Sprayer
New Holland T3020 Tractor with Loader
New Holland T4020 Tractor with Loader
Saxon Triple Mower
Sisis Autorotorake plus various attachments
Stiga Park 520p Ride-On Mower
Stihl Posthole Borer
Stothern Pitt Cricket Roller
Vale Drop Spreader
Vale Salt Spreader
Vale Tractor Mounted Sprayer
Walk Behind Fertiliser Spreader x 2
Backpack Blowers x 3
Backpack Sprayers x 3
Bowcom Trikes x 2
Classen Turf Cutter
Echo Hedgecutter x 3
Fleetline Beamrider Marker
Fleetline Combi Marker
Gem Mixing Tank