Not only is the Borders hosting Scotland’s first ever European Championship in this world sport – but also the Scottish Championship and the Five Nations. What’s more, for once, Scotland has a real chance of winning, and becoming World Champion in Sweden in May 2011. But it isn’t football, or rugby, or even curling. It’s far older than all of those. You could even say, thanks to an 18th century Berwickshire inventor called James Small, this sport’s finally coming home to the Borders.
It’s championship ploughing, of course. And this Saturday and Sunday, on the fields of Jedburgh, hundreds of European and British ploughmen will battle across the furrows in three championship contests: Scottish Conventional, Reversible, Vintage and Horse, European Mounted, Trailing, Reversible and Overall, and the Five Nations Conventional and Reversible.
“Ploughing’s a big sport,” says competitor John Tait, a 60 year old Gullane farmer, and our country’s great hope in the ‘reversible’ class of the European finals. “300 ploughmen across Scotland compete every weekend from October to December after the harvest;” he says, “treble that in England. In Ireland it’s huge: the three-day ploughing matches in the All Ireland Finals attract 80,000 spectators.”
Scotland’s other hopeful sportsmen crossing ploughs with the aces of Ireland, England, Belgium, Austria, Denmark, Germany and Holland this weekend are David Milton of Keith in the ‘Trailing’ class, and Ian Bathgate of Dunbar in the ‘Mounted’ section. 66-year-old Ian won the Trailing in last year’s Scottish Championships, qualifying him for the 2010 European finals – his first: “I’ll be a bit nervous,” he admits, steeling himself to the pressure, “but once I’m up on the tractor I’ll be fine.” So what makes a ploughing champion?
Ploughing is a sport true to its ancient origins: cultivating land in winter to sow seed in spring. World Championship Judge William Dunlop, an Ayrshire farmer for whom ploughing is “in the blood”, describes how the tractor can jump from agriculture to sport: “We score out of 10 the ploughman’s ability to bury trash, weeds and barley stubble; ploughing has to be clean, and soil made available for the grain falling into the furrows.”
Mr Dunlop also judges each ploughman’s 100m by 50m plot on the straightness of the furrows, or ‘furs’, and on the neatness of the ‘ins and outs’ when the plough is lifted. Big points go to an even 12 opening furrows (called ‘feering’), and to a shallow ‘finish’ – the last 8 furrows. Then there’s speed: if the plot’s not ploughed by 2pm, 10 points deducted. If all goes well, the field looks like the finest corduroy.
Scotland’s international ploughing star – the youngest ever world champion - is 21-year-old Andrew Mitchell (Jnr) of Forfar, who this weekend leaves the family farm behind to compete against his father Andrew (Snr). “He’s a real special talent;” explains William Dunlop, “but there’s half a dozen others ready to take his place. We say of the Mitchell boys they don’t talk about girls the week before the match – it’s ploughs.”
If you’re an international star like Mitchell, William explains, ploughing’s an expensive sport to carry your trusty piece of kit: “Last year’s World Championships were in New Zealand, and we had to transport the ploughs out of Scotland in January to arrive in March. Then volcanic dust stranded the boys there for three weeks.”
But it’s not volcanic dust ploughmen fear most: it’s rain and hard frost. “Six to nine inches of rain fell last year in Brechin,” continued William, “so we had to call off the Scottish Championships.
“We’re hoping for a few thousand spectators from far and wide, so we need the weather to be kind,” hopes Scottish Championship chairman Jim Thomson; “It’s a big thing for the Borders, and for the Scottish Championships – it’s as near as Scotland will ever get to hosting the ‘World’.” Nearly 200 ploughmen (and one or two ploughwomen) will compete in the ‘plough-offs’ to win a coveted place at next year’s World, European and Five Nation Championships.
So what drives a ploughing champion? It’s not for the money these men compete, but the glory – ploughing’s still a sport of rosettes and shields. “You’ll no’ win a fortune,” admits Ian Bathgate: “I got £30 and a trophy for winning the Scottish vintage last year. I’ve never come across a ploughman yet who ploughs for the money,” agrees John Tait, “but only for the love of the sport.”
The lack of fortune is perhaps in keeping with the tradition of ploughing, which, like the game of rugby-sevens, is grounded in the Scottish Borders. James Small, a Berwickshire inventor, revolutionised farming in the eighteenth century with his iron swing plough – a design allowing a single farmer to turn and furrow the soil, while also controlling his horses. Alas, James failed to patent it, and died overworked and penniless. Perhaps, with all of us, it’s time James Small shared in Scotland’s ploughing glory.
If you would like to watch the three ploughing championship contests, more details can be found at www.scotplough.co.uk