From his series Records of a bygone age by Ian Cooper and republished here with the kind permission of The Stronsay Limpet.
A few weeks ago Arna and I visited the Royal Highland Show at Ingliston. Nothing remarkable in that, you might think, but this was something that had been on my bucket list for nigh on 50 years! This show was always held during the last week of June and, while we were farming, we were always busy cutting silage at that time of year so couldn’t attend.
With no show being held in 2020 or 2021, we had wondered if 2022 could be ‘the year’ and for once everything seemed to fall neatly in place for us! Ex-Agricultural Training Board Instructor and long-time friend Bob Laird and his wife May, who stay in Stirling, invited the two of us and friends Geordie and Maggie from Westray to come and stay with them for a few days. This was the last year they would be in Stirling before moving back north and they were keen for us to visit them and take in the ‘Highland’ before they moved. Well, we jumped at the chance and were wined, dined and toured around in style, including two fantastic days at Ingliston taking in the wonders of the show. And wonders they were! With this being the 200th anniversary of the show, the organisers pulled out all the stops to put on a magnificent show, including great weather – sunny but not too hot.
We spent some time touring the machinery stands, inspecting the livestock on show and watching them being judged, and visiting the myriad of tents promoting and selling just about everything imaginable. Some fantastic handicrafts were on show and there were also a number of competitions going on around us, including climbing an 80’ wooden pole in something like 15 seconds!
One of the competitions that stood out for me was the sheep shearing event where competitors tested their skills not only against the other competitors but also against the large and sometimes uncooperative sheep they were shearing. Included in this for the first time was a category for female shearers and those young lasses proved themselves every bit as capable of handling and shearing the sheep as their male counterparts.
The other ‘stand out’ competition for me was the Farriers’ competition for shoeing heavy horses. In this, the farrier started off with a flat bar of iron and had to have a shoe forged, shaped and fitted to the horse within an hour. This was fascinating to watch and we were within touching distance of those magnificent Clydesdales as they stood quietly munching away at some hay while all this was going on around them.
We sat in the Grandstand a few hours later to watch the Grand Parade of horses go round the ring, more than a hundred in all, from the magnificent Clydesdales down to a few miniature Shetland ponies, and a more impressive sight would be difficult to imagine.
It was these last two mentioned events that set me thinking about the role of the horse in farming and its relatively sudden demise. By way of introduction, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve never been what could be called a ‘horsey’ person! The day of the heavy horse was in the not too distant past when I started farming and ponies never held the attraction for me that they did for some but it was impossible to see those magnificent animals, all in their ‘Sunday best’ for the show, without having a twinge of nostalgia.
Although never being a horseman, nearly all my farming friends and relatives who were that bit older than me would speak of their days of farming with horse and how they felt about their loss. Some of the older men never fully accepted the new age of the tractor and had little interest in mastering the technology, preferring to concentrate their talents on the stock and crop husbandry on their farms. Others accepted it as a change that had to come, a new skill they had to learn and a leap which had to be accepted as ‘progress’. Yet others took to it like ducks to water and would service, strip down and reassemble tractor engines and gearboxes with as little thought as a previous generation had fed and groomed their horses.
My dad, who would have spent a great part of his farming life as a horseman, never really talked much about working with horses but I do think he would have fallen into the first category and been happier with a pair of Clydesdales than a Ferguson! I only found out after he passed away that he had a medal for ploughing and was a ‘champion’ horseman in his day.
He did speak a little, however, of how, when he was a young lad, horsemen on some of the farms were expected to be in the stable at 5 a.m. to feed, groom and muck out the horses to ensure that the horses were ready to start work at 6 a.m sharp. They were then yoked into the plough, cart or whatever implement was going to be in use that day. Their ‘yoke’ was from then until 11 a.m., although there was a break mid-morning to give the horses a short rest and the horseman a chance for a cup of tea and possibly some buttered bannocks or porridge. This was known for obvious reasons as their ‘half yoke’, coming midway between yoking time and ‘lowsin time’ (when the horses were loosed (‘lowsed’) from their yoke). There was a 2 hour break then, not for the benefit of the horseman but to give the horses a rest and something to eat. Then, come 1 p.m., the horses were yoked again and worked away, with another short half yoke break, until lowsin time at 6 p.m. when the horses were returned to the stable. This was the end of the day for the horses but not for the horsemen, who returned to the stable before they went to bed to ‘supper’ the horses.
Some farmers today can still be heard to speak of ‘yoking time’, ‘lowsin time’ and stopping for their ‘half yoke’ although, in horse terms, the events referred to would have come to an end long before they were born!
Horses were always well cared for, in some instances treated better than the farm workers themselves, and a career as a horseman was always regarded as a fairly prestigious job, second only to the grieve in farming hierarchy. On larger farms where a number of horsemen were employed, they were rated as ‘1st horseman’, ‘2nd horseman’ etc and the title of 1st horseman was regarded as a real feather in the cap.
The farmer who spoke most to me about the days of the working horse was without doubt the late Jim Work of Holland Farm who was a horseman through and through and had many stories to tell of them, most with fondness but never, I thought, through rose tinted glasses.
He spoke of ploughing day after day in what was often poor weather and, with oilskins not what they are today, of dampness slowly seeping through to the bone, and skin on legs and arms rubbed raw, sometimes to the point of bleeding. But even then, he recounted, there was still something very satisfying, after you had loosed the plough at the end of the day and were heading back to the stable with your pair of horse, to look down the rigs to view the results of your day’s work.
Another of Jim’s tales, related in full in issue 171 of the Stronsay Limpet, tells of the decline of the heavy horse at Holland and his successful attempt to prove that a team of horses could cut a crop of oats with a binder every bit as fast as a tractor and binder could.
Long after his retirement from farming and still with an active interest in the heavy horse, Jim told of watching a modern-day demonstration of horse ploughing on TV one day. As the pair of horses came down the field toward the camera, he spotted that some of the harness had been wrongly fitted! Although it was something quite minor and it would have been more than fifty years since Jim would last have yoked a horse, he had noticed it immediately and expressed his disbelief that anyone could make such an elementary mistake!