Records of a Bygone Age
By Ian Cooper
Following on from a recent article about Harvest Homes in Stronsay, I’ve been having another look back through the old minute books of the Stronsay Agricultural Society.
As noted in the earlier article, the Society in its present form held its inaugural meeting on 11th June 1920 so we should would actually have been celebrating its Centenary this year but these celebrations have had to be postponed to a future date. Looking back further, Stronsay could justifiably lay claim to a much longer association with Agricultural Societies than this as, in the latter part of the 18th century, with an ever growing national awareness of the importance of agriculture and agricultural science in rural Scotland, an ‘Agricultural Association’ was formed in Stronsay in 1783, a full year before the ‘Highland Society of Scotland’ (the forerunner of the ‘Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland’) was established in Edinburgh in 1784!
This ‘Association’ seems to have been quite short lived and no more is heard until, almost 100 years later, an Agricultural Society was established in Stronsay once again in 1877. This Society’s early activities seems to have been originally restricted to arranging and holding ploughing matches locally although it was affiliated with Scotland’s main agricultural body, the ‘Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland’ whose prestigious RHASS medal for ploughing was competed for and awarded each year. The first ploughing match organised by the Society was in 1877, when 28 competitors showed their ploughing skills in a field at Cleat.
In 1888, the Society branched out to hold their first cattle show as reported in the Orkney Herald of the time:
Stronsay Cattle Show 1888
“The first annual cattle show under the auspices of the Stronsay Agricultural Society was held on Thursday at Samson’s Lane. The weather was most propitious, the day being one of the finest of the season, and the turnout of spectators consequently very large, somewhere about 500 being present. There were nearly two hundred head of stock exhibited, probably the largest, and pronounced by competent judges, to be the finest show of stock ever seen in the county. Messrs O Laughton, Soulisquoy and A Marshall, Berstane, who acted as judges, and whose decision seemed to give very general satisfaction, awarded the prizes as follows:-“
There then followed a long list of almost 90 prize winning animals from the farms of Holland, Rothiesholm (now the Bu), Housebay, Sunnybank, Lodge, Boondatoon, Bay, Whitehall, Huip, Midgarth, Samson’s Lane, Myres and Airy among others, with the champion in the cattle section being ‘a splendid black polled cow’ shown by Wm Stevenson, Holland and the champion in the horse section going to ‘a fine Clydesdale mare’ being shown by DH Learmonth of Housebay.
There were also prizes for sweet butter, salt butter, duck eggs and hen eggs (all these prizes were won by men but I suspect the women may have done the work and the men stolen the glory!) and even a prize for horse shoeing which was won by blacksmith W Slater.
The report then went on to give a few words of encouragement and chastisement that could possibly be seen to be as relevant in our community now as they were 130 years ago!
“The show throughout proved a complete success and it is hoped that it may be the means of awakening the farming community of Stronsay out of its present lethargic state regarding Agricultural Society matters. A society composed of only a few members struggling against adverse circumstances can never be of much real benefit, and if we want a successful and useful society in our midst, we can only have it by lending a hand, not standing outside criticising others who are striving to do their best, not even by becoming members in a half-hearted way, but by laying aside self and banding ourselves together, each one determined to work for the good of the whole community.”
Although written up as Stronsay’s first annual cattle show, it appears that the “present lethargic state regarding Agricultural Society matters” may well have been too much to overcome as no reports can be found of subsequent shows until 1920.
Ploughing matches too seem to have died out soon after, with the last match apparently held in the early 1890s and the Agricultural Society subsequently falling into abeyance.
The Society as it still exists today had its inaugural meeting on 11th June 1920, when Henry Maxwell of Housebay was elected as president and David Pottinger of Whitehall as secretary and treasurer, with Colonel WEL Balfour of Balfour and Trenabie being appointed as Honorary President. It was agreed that the name of the organisation would be the Stronsay Agricultural and Industrial Society and that an agricultural show and industrial show would be held later that year, with the ladies, who were very supportive of holding the industrial show, being asked to arrange this them-selves. Some things never change!
Membership subscriptions were set at 5/- and 3/- per farm, depending on the rental value of the holding. As enthusiasm for the show gathered momentum, wood and rope was purchased to make stock pens, donations of cups for prize-winners were sought and judges found, with arrangements put in place for the ‘steamer’ to call along Stronsay with invited guests and visitors on ‘Show Day’.
This first show went ahead on 21st August that year and, with the show judges, invited guests and a large turnout of visitors making the boat journey out from the Orkney Mainland and a great number of competitors taking part, the show was declared a great success. In addition to the cups for prize-winners, prizes were awarded in the various classes, with 5/- for 1st place, 3/- for 2nd and 2/- for 3rd. This first show was held in a field at Samson’s Lane and use of this field, still known as the ‘Show Park’, was to continue to be granted for any Society events as long as these events took place.
Shows continued successfully for a number of years, with generous offers of cups and prizes coming in thick and fast and, by 1922, the prize money had been raised to 10/- for a 1st place, 5/- for 2nd and 3/- for 3rd place but this was found to be unsustainable and soon dropped to 3/-, 2/- and 1/- for 1st, 2nd and 3rd places respectively. In a rather innovative fund raising drive in 1924, members of the Society agreed to write to a number of ‘worthy individuals’ to inform them that they had been appointed as Honorary Members of the Society and to politely ask for a donation to funds! Sadly, there is no record of how successful this approach was.
Moving into the 1930s, enthusiasm for the show seemed to be waning, particularly among the larger farms, due in great part to many of the farmers and crofters being heavily involved directly or indirectly with the herring fishing and simply not having the time to think about shows and preparing animals for exhibiting. The herring fishing season in Stronsay usually lasted from the end of May until early August, during which time a fleet of up to four hundred drifters would be based in the island, along with all the gutters, packers, coopers and myriad other support staff needed to serve the needs of the herring fishing industry and the wider island community, whose population could swell by up to four thousand souls during this period. This coincided with some of the busiest times on the farm, with large acreages of neeps to be singled and the winter’s supply of hay to be made. Many farmers were involved in carting the herring to the curing stations every morning as the drifters came in with their catch. The fish offal then had to be carted away and these carters were also involved in transporting salt, barrels and provisions as needed, all to keep the fleet at sea and the gutters at work.
Cargo ships carrying salt, empty barrels, loose staves and hoops were common visitors, as were ships carrying off the barrels of salt herring, much of which went to Baltic ports, and these cargos too had to be moved locally by horse and cart.
Employment was also available in the coal hulks coaling the drifters and, with a huge demand for locally produced butter, eggs, milk, meal, chicken and beef, the farming community locally was stretched to near breaking point. By 1936, this seemed to come to a head, with the Society being forced to cancel that year’s show due to lack of entries. Enough support was drummed up to host a show once again in 1937 but, sadly, that was to be the last Agricultural Show to be held in Stronsay.
Many thanks to the Stronsay Limpet for permission to republish this article in The Orkney News
Part 2 of this article will appear in next month’s edition of the ‘Limpet’