MACHINERY salesman and prizewinning international sprinter maybe are not two things you would expect to go hand in hand. Prizewinning international sprinter and heart transplant survivor, seem like an even less likely pairing!

Borders-man Jim Kerr, however, ticks all those boxes.

Born at Braidwood near Gorebridge on May 9, 1937, Jim has lived a life that would not seem too out of place in a Hollywood film.

The son of farmers who had to give up their farm due to ill-health, they moved into Edinburgh, where he attended school, excelling at football and representing Edinburgh schools, before leaving at 15.

On August 4, 1952 he started with machinery company George Henderson Ltd – now Henderson Grass Machinery Ltd – as ‘the boy’.

“In these days, you were able to get a job quite quickly, if you were keen,” explained Jim, “I think it was advertised in the paper. I think my farming background helped my application, though.”

It was to be the start of a career that lasted his whole working life, until the global Covid-19 pandemic forced him into retirement in March this year.

He started in the firms’ depot at 564 Gorgie Road, in the parts department in the stores, and he quickly settled into his role, before it was interrupted when Jim turned 18 and was called up for his compulsory national service, in the Queens own Cameron Highlanders.

“I was sent to Inverness for training, and before long I was made a Lance Corporal,” Jim told the SF.

“We sailed to Japan from Southampton – which took four and half weeks – and that was really the start of active service. Even though the war in Korea was over, our service was still dangerous and after two or three months we went to Malaya. We were there a week and the Suez Crisis started.

“I lost pals in service. It was a real-life experience. To be honest, I think national service would still be a good thing these days. It was character building and taught you to mature. In 1957, after my two years, they tried to get me to stay and take on the role of Corporal, but I just wanted back to Edinburgh, and back to my job at Hendersons.”

When he returned, Jim started work at the Kingston depot in North Berwick, and it was there, shadowing his colleague George Milton, that his career really took off. He admits that George was a great role model and taught him a lot.

Jim said: “It was with George that I started going round the farms and learning about the sales side of things.

“In those days, we were the main dealers for Ferguson Tractors, and hydraulics were introduced at that time. A petrol Ferguson cost £349 then. The TED petrol parafins came next, and things went from 6V to 12V.

“When the diesel TEF Ferguson came out, that was a game changer, too.”

Jim continued: “By the time I was out on the road on my own, in 1958, it was Massey Fergusons I was selling, after Massey Harris and Ferguson amalgamated. Mid Lothian and Peebleshire were my ‘patch’, and I loved it. It is a great bit of the country.

“I love them all, but I would have to say that Peebles is my favourite Borders town.”

“In 1961, a Massey Ferguson 35, three-cylinder cost £650. A lot of money in those days. It was hard work, but the sixties were a great time. I met some great folk through my work.

“I was really lucky with a lot of my customers, by the time I retired, I was selling to the second or even third generation, on the same farms.”

As time went on, Jim started to spread his wings, and his travels started taking him into Lanarkshire, where he admits he nabbed some great new customers.

“Latterly, it was Alasdair and George Henderson that I was working for, but it was their father that gave me my job. He gave me a list of dos and don’ts, when I was a boy, and they are still very true today.

“Before I retired, I was still showing it to new guys that were starting their sales careers.

“I’m a great believer in dealing with the small stuff, before the big things. When it came to sales, the small items are your bread and butter.

“Trust is very important to me,” he explained. “One of my customers said of me, that I treat an order for a barrow wheel, the same as I would an order for a tractor, and that’s true. It’s all equally important.”

As successful as his career was though, Jim’s life hasn’t been without its trials and tribulations, and in 1987, a period of serious ill health began.

Having always been fit and well – playing football until he was 40 – he found himself in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, being diagnosed with Cardiomyopathy, and being told he was going to need a heart transplant.

Earth shattering news, for anyone.

He said: “I was given a BT bleeper in 1989 and was told it would go off when there was a heart for me. I had my ups and downs, but I tried to carry on, but it was definitely frightening.”

Much to the worry of his employers, Jim was determined to attend the Highland Show that year and it was as he was getting ready to leave the show field on June 20, 1989, that his bleeper went off.

There was a heart available, and he was to get to Newcastle, where he received his transplant.

He was fit enough to surprise his friends and colleagues at Peebles show that summer, and before long he was back out on the road doing what he loved best.

Many people would have taken an experience like that as a reason to slow down and perhaps live a quieter life, but not Jim. In fact, he did the exact opposite, and started a whole new career as an athlete – alongside selling tractors, of course.

“I had heard about the Transplant Games,” he explained, “and I knew Charlie, who coached the Scottish sprinter Alan Wells, so I contacted him and started training.

“In July 1990 – 13 months after my transplant – I ran in the 100m and 200m at the Transplant Games at Crystal Palace in London and took silver medals in both finals. I was beaten by a transplant patient who had been a professional sprinter in a previous life, so I didn’t feel too bad about that!”

This was just the beginning for Jim, and he took part in the European Transplant Games in Paris, later that year, where he won his first gold.

He competed at all the top tracks in the UK, and travelled to Paris, the Netherlands, Helsinki, and Switzerland.

He did very well. So much so that, in 1996 he was put on the shortlist for the World Transplant Games team, due to be held in Australia the following year.

“That became a big goal for me,” he admits, “so I trained hard and in October 1997, I travelled to Australia and competed in the over 50s section, taking the bronze medal in the 100m and the 200m.

“I ran the 100m in 14.46s, so I was very proud of that. These trips became my holidays, and I knew I was always coming back to my job, so it was great.”

Jim’s hard work has been recognised, not only by his employers, but by his customers as well.

When he completed his 60 years of service, Jim received a lovely crystal set from Peebleshire farmers, and he was made an Honorary Vice-President of Peeblishire Agricultural Society, something he admits he considers a great honour.

In 2008, Jim’s services to the industry were recognised in the form of one of our very own Scottish Farmer Supplier Awards. That night at The Highland Show, he took home the Unsung Hero award, before going on to scoop the overall champion of champions award.

Behind the scenes, Jim’s always been well supported by his ex-wife Evelyn and his daughters, Debbie, and Karen, as well as his grandkids, Rebecca, James, Jessica and Matthew.

“I can’t praise my family highly enough,” explained Jim. “They’re amazing to me, always supporting me. My girls did want me to retire at 65, and take things easier, but they soon realised that wasn’t going to happen.

“I couldn’t argue with them when the pandemic struck though, and I was classed as vulnerable because of my transplant. I was furloughed to start with, but it did make me realise that I should probably retire.

“I was meaning to keep going – I wanted to get to 85, and my 70 years service at Hendersons. I have never lay down to anything, but even I knew I didn’t want to push my luck.”

Jim finished: “I worked for 31 years after my heart transplant, and I truly believe that it kept me going. I’ve been so lucky, and I credit it to my work, my family, and the company of my loyal companion, my wee Jack Russel dog, Fergie – who’s named after the tractor, not the football manager!”