Tale of the centuries from the archives

Judging leicesters in 1911
Judging leicesters in 1911

FOR 200 years, the Border Union Agricultural Society has been at the forefront of developments in local agriculture and now a new book, marking the organisation’s bicentenary, guarantees this history will be preserved for future generations.

Adopting the opening words of the society’s very first meeting in 1813, ‘At a Meeting held at Kelso’, the 392-page book was a labour of love for its two co-authors.

At the behest of the Border Union, the project was started by Brian Wain, a retired local vet, who first took up his pen in 2010.

Mr Wain, who died last year, had been plodding along solo for a year covering the society’s first century of existence by the time the help arrived in the shape of retired Kelso High School rector Charlie Robertson.

Charlie explained how this involvement came about. “I retired in February, 2011, from the high school and it was in the April of that year that I got a phone call from Ron [society secretary Ron Wilson], asking if I’d help because Brian had realised there was going to be so much in the book, he was going to struggle to get it finished on time,” he said.

Mr Wain and Charlie started working together from about April, 2011, until the former took ill in the summer of that year.

“It took me about a year, virtually working full time, to get the remainder finished and I only just got it away to the printers at the beginning of November so it could be ready for the day of the bicentenary lunch in February,” said Charlie.

“I did occasionally think ‘what have I got myself involved in’. I think Brian, in the beginning, didn’t realise how big a task it was and I didn’t really realise that either - or how much of a story there was to tell.”

“So it was quite a big job, but I really enjoyed doing it. I think it tells a great story and I am sure Brian would be pleased with the end result.”

The extensive historical records of the Border Union - a complete set exists - were painstakingly trawled for information and facts.

The Border Union minute books for the 200 years are still all available - the older ones are at the Heritage Hub in Hawick and kept safe and stored in the correct conditions, while the material from 1950 onwards is at Kelso.

Mr Wain and then Charlie based themselves for their mammoth literary project at the Border Union’s offices at Springwood Park in Kelso.

“The primary sources were all there and then there is a collection of show programmes, ram sales catalogues - some of these are held by the Border Union, and some, which go back to 1909, were Jimmy Jeffrey’s, and he lent them to me so that I could check some stuff,” explained Charlie.

“Also in the Heritage Hub were old copies of the Kelso Chronicle and The Southern Reporter and they have, throughout the 200 years, reported shows, ram sales and the events of the society quite thoroughly.

“I also went to the Scottish Farmer, but was fortunate because there was so much in the Kelso Chronicle and Southern Reporter.”

“It became not so much as what to put in, but what to leave out and I wouldn’t guarantee I’ve got this all correct. You couldn’t write a paragraph on every single ram sales and on every single show.

“However, equally you couldn’t just write a wee chapter on the ram sales because every one is a wee bit different, everyone has got something interesting and so what I tried to do was look at ram sales over a decade and write about them that way.”

By the time Charlie had finished the originally envisaged 100,000 words had mushroomed into nearer 160,000.

“It was Joan Wilson [wife of Ron] that I asked for help and said ‘read this and tell me what I need to take out because I’m now stuck’ - I was so close to it I couldn’t see the wood for the trees.

“But she read it and said don’t take anything out because this is a record of the 200 years and it is all relevant, all interesting and all worth having.

“So we went for it and it’s a bigger book as a result.”

Charlie says a lot of things came out during the research, but several things stood out in particular: “There is this vision of the Borders as a very conservative ‘aye been’ place and there are bits in here that would support that.

“But every so often both the Border Union and local farmers showed real entrepreneurship and a real desire to innovate, experiment and to move forward.

“The most recent example of that was the building of the exhibition hall at Springwood Park - that required vision, courage and no little determination.

“In the same way Border farmers were very quick to get into, and stimulated by, the improving methods of the early 1800s.

“Then they introduced new machinery, like tractors when they came along.

They developed their own breeds, sheep like Border Leicesters and Cheviots, that were suitable for this area.

“The book also contains a chapter called ‘Going Continental’, when Borders farmers said the days maybe of just having our native breeds were no longer enough and there are better breeds, so they brought in things like Charolais and Limousin cattle, Texel sheep, and so on.

“And when I was looking at this, I was kind of gobsmacked, to discover the Texel is now the biggest and most important single breed at the ram sales, even though the first Texel was only sold at the ram sales in the 1970s.

“And you’ll find in the book individuals in the Borders who were nationally significant figures in agriculture. You just need to look at people like the Elliots at Hindhope and their Cheviots; Lord Polwarth at Mertoun; the Templetons at Sandyknowe and later at Charterhouse - in fact the Templetons won four championships - sheep, cattle and two for Clydesdales - at the Royal Highland Show in 1926.

“They were just great stockmen in all areas and that was happening in the Borders. And something I didn’t know was how, at the very beginning of the society - and again I think this was quite innovative - they held a show for sheep, horses, cattle and bulls, and the first prize was 30 guineas.

“Now, in 1813, that was a lot of money, but the deal was that if you won first prize, you had to make your stallion or your bull available.

“The whole idea was to give a big prize to get good quality breeding stock in and then you spread it around the society. And that sort of thing continues on, this visionary approach.

“So you can’t say this is an ‘aye been’ society or ultra conservative because they have moved forward.

“I do think the history of the Border Union is nationally significant, if for nothing else other than the ram sales, which were the first sales held in the world, starting in 1838 and, for a long time, the biggest one day ram sales in the world and still selling over 5,000 animals today.

“The story of the society is something which contributes to the history of Scottish agriculture and I hope the book makes a contribution in that area.

“It does try, at very end, to look forward to where the society is going in next 100 years.

“Because the role of the society has changed in one way over the last 200 years.

“When formed its purpose was to encourage and educate farmers to improve.

“But I don’t think that’s the role of society now; it’s much more about educating the public about what is happening in agriculture and in Borders agriculture in particular.”

Asked if he thought the society’s founding fathers would recognise the organisation as it is today, Charlie felt confident they would still have much in common.

“If you are talking about change in agriculture, you don’t have to go back over 200 years to see huge change, you just need to look back over the years since the Second World War, what with so much mechanisation.

“But what the founders of the society would still recognise is the commitment to quality and the commitment to improvement.

“When you come to the Border Union show on the last Friday and Saturday of every July, you will still find, always find, what I had feared might have died out.

“You will still find young people hanging over pens and looking at sheep and cattle, looking at tractors, and totally hooked.

“You will still find people who are utterly passionate about their craft and skill, whether that be shepherds, cattlemen or ploughmen - they are still there, that spark is still there and that is the thing not changed over the 200 years.”

l ‘At a Meeting’ held at Kelso is available, priced £20, from the Border Union Agricultural Society, Springwood Park, Kelso.