Fordyce Maxwell: ‘The first rule of public speaking - never be antagonistic in the wrong setting’

Fordyce Maxwell
Fordyce Maxwell
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IT’S not often I’m part of farming history so when it happens I like to mention it – to wit, speaking on a snowy day at Kelso last week at the 200th anniversary lunch of one of the oldest agricultural societies in Britain.

The Border Union Agricultural Society was formed to stimulate adoption of better farming methods, particularly in livestock breeding. That led not only to the annual Border Union show on the banks of the Tweed, but what was probably the first large-scale ram sale in the world. That one-day sale, now of about 5,000 rams of more than a dozen breeds, is still held every September, still a vital part of the farming calendar in good years and bad. It’s a fixed point in a farming world that changed steadily in the first 150 years of the society, more quickly in the next 30, and has accelerated dramatically in the past 20, as have the society’s activities under the dynamic secretary-ship of Ron Wilson.

The aim of the founders was, as present chairman Tom Arnott – one of many Borders farming families and livestock breeders associated with the society almost from the beginning – put it: “To make things better.”

In the best speech of the afternoon – in an object lesson for function organisers, all five of us including Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Moore, were told “Maximum ten minutes” – Tom also made the most heartfelt observation:

“You can hear the echoes of the past. We must ensure that those to come have as much to thank us for as we have to thank those who have gone before.”

As part of the light entertainment, including Henry Douglas singing and Timmy Douglas’s poetry, I was asked, please, not to trot out hobby horses – such as Royalty, landowners and silly prices for pedigree livestock. As it turned out, the society’s patron the Countess of Wessex was there to dent, if not overturn, my convictions by being friendly, intelligent and knowledgeable.

There was a brace of dukes, but I fought the urge to use the Mike and Bernie Winters story from the Glasgow Empire “OMG, there’s two of them.”

And at least half the audience had pedigree livestock interests so, first rule of speaking, never be antagonistic in the wrong setting. Save it for when you mean it.

So I merely wondered, aloud, how many thousands of acres would change hands if the hall roof fell in and dusted off a few venerable farming jokes. Once the first laugh rolled across the 500 guests and nerves settled, it was a pleasure to be part of a memorable occasion. «

Twitter: @FordyceMaxwell