SHOW-DAFT ALL OF HIS LIFE – –
Scottish stock exhibitors have always had close ties
with Smithfield. Ben Coutts, a former vice-president of
the Royal Smithfield Club, takes a historical look at
stock shows north of the border
I PEN these thoughts in September as the show season draws to a close. I judged the crooks and sticks at Dalmally, Argyll, 10 days ago and was about to judge the Highland Cattle at the Westmorland Show this week but my classes were cancelled by the fuel crisis. These, because of their altitude and climates, are two of the last to be held.
I have been show-daft since I was a laddie. In the 20s I rode ponies brought over from Ireland by a schoolfriends father to eventually pull butchers carts in Glasgow. But first they had to be got used to people, traffic (such as it was), noise and being ridden before going to the Big Smoke.
We used to go to every show around Glasgow and every wee "toon" had one as the Clydesdale horse dominated the Scottish agricultural scene and the Glasgow area was the centre of the Clydesdale world.
The great Baron of Buchylivie sold for £9500 in 1911 (£0.5m in todays money) – still a world record price – and many others like Dunmure Footprint had stock that had to be shown before being put on the market. All the wee shows were run by the "aye beens" – Its aye (always) been – done that way – with their flat caps, sticks and invariably a pipe in their mouths. They just accepted the then huge entries of Ayrshire cattle but had no time for the horses.
How things have changed since the War. As chairman of three shows and local director of the Royal Highland Show in the 50s, the "aye beens" take some stopping. They are a hardy lot and like Binnions famous lines – age shall not weary them – they still try to dominate some country shows.
My first experience of having anything to do with show management was as a local director of the Highland Show when it was held at the Bucht Park in Inverness in the 50s. Every time I pass it I marvel how small the show was compared with the Royal Highland at Ingliston today and I smile to myself at the experiences I had in the job that was allocated to me.
I was put in charge of the car parks and although petrol was rationed, farmers got quite a good share of coupons (including some for going to church which I fear was often used for other purposes) and the car park was overflowing. At 5pm an irate gateman reported that he could not move a car because they were stationary, head to tail in every direction in and through Inverness and there was not a policeman in sight.
When I got through to Police HQ, the chief officer, in that lovely West Coast accent that has the scent of the Gaelic combined with peat and whisky, said: "I am sorry, Captain, but my men all come from Skye and they need their tea at five oclock."
Then I was made chairman of the Strathspey Farmers Club Show at Grantown-on-Spey. This was in the heyday of such shows, with suckled calves being bought by professional feeders of beef cattle to be shown at Smithfield.
No less than three were shown at Grantown that went on to be overall champions at Smithfield in the 50s and one was bred by me. One that achieved this is shown in the photo and many more were in the final line-up over a span of 25 years.
I was back there this year as their senior honorary vice-president and in a later article I will say how things have changed. But back then the whole emphasis of the show was centred on the suckled calf class which was watched by crowds two-deep. Changed days indeed.
When I sold my wee farm at the head of the Spey to educate my family, I went to Argyll to manage hill estates and became chairman of the Glenorchy and Innishail Agricultural and Horticultural Society whose show is at Dalmally. The year was 1959 and the farming industry there had not had as many advantages as those in the south and as a result was recovering more slowly.
The show was just getting going under the secretaryship of Michael Noble, the joint owner of Ardkinglas Estate. Michael became the MP for Argyll, then was made the Secretary of State for Scotland. He always said to me being a show secretary was a great training for the top political job in Scotland because you learned how to deal with people who always wanted more money (prize money as far as the show was concerned).
As Michael had been my vice-president when I was president of the Highland Cattle Society in 1954, Oban was their sale centre and Argyll then had many folds of Highland cattle, we decided to make the Highland Cattle section of the show very special.
I am proud to say that the entries in the last few years have been 100 and over, larger sometimes than the Royal Highland Show. It is a good time to start showing Highland Cattle as they are starting to come into their winter coats and the showground has the most wonderful setting.
I was called on quite often to judge at small shows in Argyll and the Islands. They are my fondest memories from 50 years of judging Highland cattle, Highland ponies, Aberdeen Angus, Shorthorns, Blackface sheep, shepherds crooks, dog parades and show queens (quite the most difficult because of the mothers).
I remember judging at Bunessan in Mull where the ring was a circle of sheep netting and there were all sorts of prizes for animals that could be shown more than once. A good old Highland cow with a wicked eye kept coming in the cow class, then the female championship, then the overall, then best owned by a tenant whose rent was £50 and so on.
I knew that as nothing was haltered in those days that she was ready for the off. Sure enough after her fourth appearance in the ring she saw a gap in the onlookers and took off followed by all that class. There was miles and miles of Mull landscape in front of her before she reached the sea.
My steward, completely nonplussed, turned to his assistant Morag and said: "You get them back Morag and Ill give the Captain a refresh." A bottle later, Morag put her head round the door and said the next class was in the ring. I am told that in the Championship I knew which animals I had seen and finished up with the right champion.
One of my proudest moments was judging the Burke Trophy at the Royal Show which I gave to the Longhorn team of cattle. The Queen questioned my decision until I asked Her Majesty what she looked for in judging a horse and she said "movement". So I put the Longhorns away from us and said: "What about that Maam?"
Back at Dalmally, one year when I was judging the overall beef champion, I gave it to an outstanding suckled calf from an exhibitor, unknown except in Argyll, one Ewan MacPherson from Benderloch. "Where do I go now, Ben?" he asked. To which I replied "Smithfield". He said "I have never been out of Argyll." *
After the washed out show in Aberdeen in 1951 where ladies shoes were turned up when the showground was ploughed, the directors wisely put down wooden slats at Kelso (above) in 1952 which were luckily not needed. Right: Highland cattle male champion at Dalmally 1960 being led by David Fellowes for the Cladich Fold. Below: Jangene Erica of Kinermony, champion at the Grantown show many times in the 60s and three times champion at the Royal Highland and the best Aberdeen Angus the author has ever seen.
In 1952 when the Highland show was held at Kelso a special bridge had to be erected to cross the world famous salmon fishing pool known as the junction pool where the Tweed and Teviot rivers meet.