He is concerned I make him out to be a big boasting ‘blaw’... We’re an hour into chatting, at least, before retired Troloss shepherd Billy McMorran admits he sold a Blackface tup, Old Sandy, for £32,000 in 1984. And he never did tell me he made a stick for Prince Charles.
Born at Huntly Cot in the Moorfoot hills, Billy, 76, was a child at Stanhope in the upper Tweed valley where his father was shepherd. He took time off school, aged 15, to do his first lambing at nearby Kingledores when he was paid £20.
“I couldn’t wait to leave school. I was determined to herd. I never had no notion of a lorry or a tractor. I couldn’t get away quick enough with a dog and a stick.”
Sheep made £5 and his boots cost £7 when Billy started at Stanhope. He had a short spell in Ayrshire before returning to the Borders, to Auchencorth, near West Linton to work for Jimmy Stoddart.
“The biggest influence (on me as a herd) was Jimmy Stoddart, he was great man. He didn’t suffer fools gladly, you had to do as you were meant to do, but that’s how you learned, ” said Billy.
He was about 19 when he went to Tweedhopefoot where he remained for 11 years, marrying Marion when he was 26 after they met at a dance.
He remembers when there were 42 shepherds in the upper Tweed valley from Stanhope, near Drumelzier up to Tweedshaws, Tweedsmuir. Now there are just two, one at Fruid and another at Stanhope.
Tup sales were “great occasions”. Gathering, clipping and dipping would see shepherds go from farm to farm up the valley to help each other and he remembers as a child listening to the men at clipping time.
“It was tremendous, you should have heard the stories they had. Now they would rather sit and talk about the football, if there is anybody there. It’s different days, ” said Billy. He moved to Troloss, near Elvanfoot, to work for Michael Scott in 1968 where he remained for 33 years, topping the Lanark sales with ewe lambs and old ewes through the 1980s and 90s, and selling Old Sandy so well.
“We treated the sheep as if they were our own: Michael Scott would talk about Sandy’s sheep (fellow Troloss shepherd Sandy Wilson) and Billy’s sheep. We were lucky, if you liked a tup he would to try to buy it.”
Billy’s heft was 1,500 acres and he covered the ground on a Fell pony, Danny, who he’d first spotted as a foal at Tweedshaws: “I had never ridden a horse before. I thought I would like to do it, (Tweedshaws farmer) Niel Manning’s dad encouraged me, he thought it was great.”
Niel Snr broke in the pony and rode him down to Billy, then still at Tweedhopefoot, who herded on him and kept him until Danny died aged 36. Other Fells followed at Troloss but Danny remained his favourite.
Billy also had the good fortune to be related to renowned sheepdog triallists, the Wilsons of Whitehope, Innerleithen.
“When I started all the young shepherds were allowed one dog. It had to be a tough one because it had to do everything. Through the years you got the keep for two and now they’ve got a pack!”
Three dogs in particular stand out in his memory, Mirk from Jim Wilson’s Black Mirk (“he was one of the best dogs I had”), Kelly and latterly Doug (pictured).
He was about 10 when he made his first stick (which ended up in Australia with its subsequent owner Wat Little), learning the skill from his father.
The Prince Charles one came about after the heir to the throne was at St Boswells mart and admired a crook belonging to a friend of Billy’s and asked where he could get one. Billy’s won cups at Peebles and Abington shows for his beautifully crafted crooks. ‘What makes a good herd?’ I asked:“I think herds are a bit like mechanics. You can get a mechanic that doesn’t do the car much good and another one comes along and it goes right.”
“You’ve got to have a flair for it and really want to do it, ” said Billy.
Asked what he was proud of in his work, he replied: “When you can top the sales with your ewe lambs and sell the dearest tups you are doing something right. I hated being clapped on the back, I was just doing my job, I was trying my best and that’s all you can do. I wasn’t there for the glory.”