Obituary: Eck Ross, farmer

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Born: 5 July, 1927, in Blairydrine, Kincardineshire. Died: 7 April, 2013, in Blairydrine, Kincardineshire, aged 85

Eck Ross was the Kincardineshire farmer who was the last-but-one surviving witness of an ­ancient Scottish fire festival.

The long-extinct custom involved a bonfire lit on Cairnshee high on Deeside at sunset on St John’s Eve (23 June). Eck recalled that the women and boys held hands and formed a slow dancing circle round the blaze. Afterwards, there was tea and cake for the women, lemonade for the youngsters, and whisky for the men. The boys received 1/6d each, a legacy dating back to 1788 and originated by Alexander Hogg, of Blairydrine.

Eck’s guiding mentor was his grandfather, Alexander Ross, after whom Eck was named. Grandfather Alexander had taken on Mains of Blairydrine in 1912, and from the time he was toddler, Eck grew up with the sole ambition that one day he himself would take on the 99 acres. And he did.

Then down the years came another ambition – he wanted to be around to mark a century of Rosses in Blairydrine. And again he did. And he marked that centenary last year with the happy coincidence of his 85th birthday.

In both living to a great age, and being blessed with an encyclopaedic memory, Eck unconsciously became the sage of his part of the parish of Durris. He was the last native born in those hills, and he carried the lore of the area – the people, the names of farms, crofts and cottar hooses and local genealogies.

His deep knowledge proved invaluable when Dr Adam Watson, scientist and place name specialist, researched his recent book Place Names of Much of North East Scotland. Aided by Eck, Dr Watson produced not only place names (Blairydrine – little field of thorns) but field names men like Eck employed on a daily basis: Caffies Park, Knappy Park, and The Waggle. He also reintroduced into everyday parlance hitherto lost place names like Rhincairdich and The Plumpie.

Alexander Ross was born, lived and died in Mains of Blairydrine, and wished to be in no other place, following no other calling. This ambition saw Eck a bailie (cowherd) by the age of 12, and when he left school at 14, it was for the man’s job of taking on Blairydrine.

When the blizzards of 1947 cut off Blairydrine for weeks, the 20-year-old Eck struggled on the six-mile return journey to ­Crathes station to meet the Deeside train from Aberdeen, replenishing food supplies with a pillowcase filled with bread.

Eck’s knowledge was of a past that is now a foreign land. He grew up in a tractorless world where horses were sole provider of transport and labour. As a youngster, he tilled parks in the manner of his ancestors, with two Clydesdales and a single-share plough back and forth across a park, tramping 12 miles daily. It was hard going six days a week, and Eck once echoed the words of Buchan writer David Toulmin: “I wadna be a loon again”.

His first tractor was a Fordson Major. Such is progress, that in latter years, driving his massive four-wheel-drive New Holland, he would muse aloud how he ever managed to work land in older days on a two-wheel-drive vehicle.

At the heart of Eck’s life lay two guiding stars – his land and his family. He loved them both, and each meant everything to him. His late wife Violet was a Crathes girl whose parents moved to staff jobs at Balmoral, and as young Girl Guide, Vi would play rounders with the little princesses Elizabeth and Margaret.

With Vi and daughters Hilda, Carol and Muriel, Eck worked with neighbours who helped each other at haymaking and harvest. As with tractor replacing horse, the coming of Eck’s first combine in 1967 changed forever the face of farming, ending the cutting and stooking and drying and threshing.

Eck didn’t just care for his land; he was the steward of it – the earth, the crops, the hens, the sheep, the cattle. Thus the lands of Blairydrine endure.

At his funeral, more than 600 mourners packed Durris Kirk, and among the eulogies was this poem:

“There’s tatties ti lift, aye, an neeps ti be pou’d;

Kye ti be milkit, an parks ti be plou’d.

So there’s plinty ti dee richt up ti the neck,

Fir Blairydrine’s only een man – and that’s Eck.”

Alexander Ross is survived by his three daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.