The many members of the Scottish farming community, friends, neighbours and rugby enthusiasts who crowded into Melrose kirk for the funeral service of James Sharp, Newbigging Wells, Lauder, underlined the respect and regard in which he was held. Another measure of his stature in the farming industry came with the president of the National Farmers Union of Scotland describing him as having been an “ambassador for all that is good for farming”.
Born and brought up on the family farm of Longcroft, Lauder, James, or Jim as he was more generally known, excelled in a number of fields. He was a first class stocksman. He was an effective, albeit quietly spoken, farming politician and in his early days, especially, he was a top class sportsman.
His father, Willie, had a great reputation for producing top quality Blackface sheep at Longcroft, and Jim was from an early age interested and involved in this aspect of farming. The long-serving farm shepherd, Jimmy Lothian, who was a great influence on the young man, soon recognised Jim’s abilities as a “kenner” of sheep. For those who only see flocks of sheep, a “kenner” is someone who sees the pluses and minuses of individual sheep, a gift and skill given to only a few.
But before he could get home to work on the farm, Jim had to go through his education. His first school was at Cleekim Inn at the bottom of the road leading up to Longcroft. He then went on to St Mary’s in Melrose before heading off to Merchiston in Edinburgh.
It was there that his sporting prowess emerged. While academically he did very well, his reputation was built on the playing fields. He excelled at rugby, captaining the 1st XV before going on to play for Scottish Schoolboys in their annual fixture against the English Schools in 1965/66.
His range of sporting interests and ability extended beyond the rugby pitch. He also excelled at swimming and golf, representing the school in both sports. His interest in swimming was to re-surface later in life when he and his wife went on a number of holidays where they went deep sea diving together.
Unsurprisingly, in his school days he was appointed a senior prefect and, equally unsurprisingly, he was often the prefect youngsters went to if they had a problem; an advisory role that he continued throughout his life whether it was encouraging the next generation in livestock judging or in dealing with farm rentals and valuations.
For someone wanting to farm, the next natural educational step was at Edinburgh School of Agriculture where Jim finished the diploma course as top student with distinction and winning all the individual subject medals.
A degree was very easily within his reach but for Jim it would have meant an extra year before he could return home to farm and that was not an option he considered. His father’s failing health meant Jim was quickly thrust into managing the business and he quickly earned huge respect within the farming industry as a wise head on young shoulders. He had inherited a farm with a reputation for producing top quality cattle and sheep, and he built on that with Longcroft Blackies selling at top prices at all the breed sales. In due course, he also helped his wife develop her Bluefaced Leicester flock at Newbigging Walls.
His return home allowed him to resume his interest in rugby where he played in the back row for Melrose. In total, he played for 11 seasons, in 208 games, although, as his friend Ron Wilson remarked in his eulogy, Jim only finished 206 games as he was sent off twice, once playing against Trinity Accies for an unknown misdemeanour and then against Newcastle Northern at the Greenyards for felling their scrum-half who had been niggling him throughout the game.
During his playing career, he scored 43 tries for Melrose, and after being vice-captain for two years, he was elected captain in 1975-76 and again in 1976-77, the year of the club’s centenary.
His interest in Melrose Rugby club continued for the rest of his life.
One sport in which he did not have a natural ability was ice skating but on one occasion his attempts to keep upright on the ice at Kelso rink were helped by a young lady, Obie Burgon. This unpromising start had a very happy ending as they married in 1969 and moved into Newbigging Walls which had just been bought.
His abilities were soon recognised in farming politics and he moved swiftly up the National Farmers Union of Scotland hierarchy. After chairing the local Branch and Area, in 1984 he was elected as convener of the Livestock Committee, one of the most influential committees of the Union.
He also earned a reputation as a valuer where his advice and judgments were much sought after.
In 1993 Jim became a director of the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society where he held positions on the prestigious Finance and Development & General Purposes committees. But it was as senior steward of sheep shearing that he left his mark.
The Golden Shears competition is sheep shearing’s equivalent of the Olympic Games and Jim was determined to bring the event to Scotland.
He was successful in that endeavour and, in 2003, the top shearers in the world arrived in Edinburgh to compete. The event was a huge success in specially built premises.
With his partner in life, Obie, he had a daughter, Jacqui, and son, Liam. Both offspring pursued professional work away from the farm, Jacqui doing business studies before marrying a farmer and Liam as a vet.
But much to their grandparents’ delight and pride, their children – Jim and Obie’s four granddaughters – all showed in the sheep classes and took part in the Young Handlers competitions at the Border Union Show and Peebles Show last year.