Farming comment: Border Union show

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I couldn’t help it. As we walked in from an outlying car park on Saturday morning – getting to Kelso for 10am was a late start compared with the thousands already parked and packed in – to the bicentenary Border Union show, an old line about farming insularity came to mind.

It’s this: two Borders farmers meet by chance under a broiling sun in a Mediterranean country and discuss the weather. One adds: “Surely it’s Kelso show today?” The other wipes his brow, looks at the sky, and says: “They’re having a grand day for it.”

They did on Saturday. Many stops had been pulled to make the 200th anniversary show a stotter and in many ways it was, even if beside the livestock judging rings that thought about the more things change the more they are the same also sprang to mind.

In September 1813, at the first Border Union show, there were awards for Leicester and Cheviot sheep, best boar and best sow – no cattle. At Saturday’s show there were about 20 sheep sections, six for cattle, one for goats – but no pigs. And at a rough count, including Friday, which was mainly equine, about 10,000 horses. All right, there were several hundred horses.

Entry in 1813 cost 6d (2.5p). Saturday’s entry fee was £15, good value for a day’s entertainment, enhanced for many a farmer and family by hospitality at trade stands. Something free from bank, grain merchant or machinery dealer is not to be sniffed at.

That first show was seen by the Border Union Agricultural Society committee, which met for the first time in January 1813, as an important step in improving agriculture in the Borders. Better livestock, new methods of growing crops and improved machinery were among the aims. It was expected that prize-winning rams, for instance, would go on to be used in several flocks to improve production.

The same was not expected of George Robison, who received a medal at that first show as the farm servant who had reared the greatest number of children under one master. Some terminology and relationships have changed for the better in 200 years, although the ­master/servant one in farming persisted for much longer than it should have done – about 150 years longer.

History does not record how many young Robisons were reared, or how Mrs Robison felt about her husband getting the credit, but later award-­winners in the same category had as many as 12 live offspring, a tribute to native Borders healthiness, basic foods, frugality and housekeeping.

Some of the special efforts being made in 2013 included the story of wool, a vital product in the history of Borders farming, plus special food events, crop plots and different growing methods, and the story of the Tweed, its mills and its fishing.

I was helped by two pairs of fresh eyes, from grandchildren Ebba five, and Isla, almost three. With the best will in the world, after reporting dozens of agricultural shows as a journalist it’s difficult to come to even a top one with a special anniversary with a sense of wonder and excitement.

But Ebba and Isla did, and I spent more time than is my wont inspecting rabbits, hamsters and poultry, including spending several minutes beside a small white duck with an unusual quack that had Ebba in stitches. They also liked the sheep shearing, Zwartble sheep – big, black and white, originally from the Netherlands – and goats with long ears.

Disappointingly from my point of view, carefully though I tried to steer them aside, they were fascinated by horses. I hope that’s curable.

They, and we, saw many other things to wonder at, from the ranks of huge machinery to something that wouldn’t have featured two centuries ago: the battle of words about possible Scottish independence. The Yes campaign believes, in the words of Borders farmer Carol Douglas, that “farmers in an independent Scotland would benefit from stronger representation in the Europe Union as a full member state”. The No campaigners, also on the showground in force, didn’t think so.

Although both sides got some attention, the main topic among farmers – and rightly too – was when harvest was likely to start. Early this week was the best bet. But on the drive home at the end of a memorable day we, and no doubt many others, saw the first combines at work in winter barley.

When I first went to the Border Union as a lad, a Tweedside farmer made a point almost every year of having a field of oats cut and stooked near the road to the envy, he hoped, of neighbours and other passing show-goers. By the simple expedient of having two giant combines working in full view on Saturday, his modern equivalent brought harvest in the Borders forward by several days – because nothing ripens grain faster than a neighbour’s combine under way. Farming changes more than human nature.