Speed the plough: a commentary on ploughing matches and ploughmen in 1880

The Glasgow herald, published an article in its pages on 12 February 1880 which commented on the history of ploughs, ploughing matches and ploughmen. While it is instructive, it is also a pointed commentary on the ploughmen class (including Robert Burns as a ploughman) and the importance of ploughing matches in securing their reputation. It is quoted at length for its insights:

“Speed the plough

Though agriculture has changed very much during the past few years and rapid strides of advancement have been made in tillage, the old hard hand labour system of the frugal days of our forefathers are still respected, and at farmers’ club dinners there is no better honoured sentiments in the toast-list than “The pirn and the mill”, though the rocking wheel has long since lost its place at the ingleside, “Speed the Plough” is a sentiment which yet retains its place with all its freshness, as, notwithstanding the advent of heavy steam cultivators, the old single furrow “swinger” yet holds priority in turning the lea land. Much improvement has certainly been made upon this implement, and it is questionable if there is to be found in use in Scotland any of the old-fashioned wooden Scotch ploughs which were general at the commencement of the present century. In 1793 the Rev Alex. Campbell, of Kilcalmonell, Argyllshire, brought out a new plough, which was considered by the Highland and Agricultural society as superior to the implement then in use, and they awarded him a premium of twenty guineas. To James Small, ploughwright in Leith Walk, Edinburgh, is, however, due the most of the early improvements, and it is recorded in the Highland Society’s books that on the death of that gentleman a handsome subscription was voted by the directors towards a fund in aid of his sons to allow them to carry on the business. Various modifications on the plough followed the ploughing matches established by the Highland and Agricultural Society about the commencement of the century, and which caused as great a rivalry amongst the ploughwrights and blacksmiths of the country in trying to produce superior implements as amongst the ploughmen in trying to turn a straight furrow. For a long time, however, Small’s ploughs were the favourites with the farmers, and in time they gradually wore out the old-fashioned article.

At the ploughing match of the Glasgow Agricultural Society, which takes place to-morrow, all the improvements which have been made in the implement since the days of Small will be observable, there being already forward not only ploughs from all parts of England, Scotland, and Ireland, but also several from Canada. The competition will be as keen as it is interesting, and may of the people of Glasgow could not spend a day better than on the trial field at Buckley farm, in Cadder parish. As with the starting of ploughing matches commences the history of most of our numerous district and parish agricultural societies, some little information as to their origin and the manner in which they were conducted must be interesting at this season of the year, when nothing is talked about in the bothy but of “breaks” and “finishes”, and as to who was “best over the crown”. The earliest matches of the Highland and Agricultural Society took place in Kintyre, possibly because the Rev Mr Campbell had exercised an interest in that branch of tillage. Subsequently matches were held in the Galloways and Dumfries, where prizes were given for ploughs drawn by horses, and also for ploughs drawn by oxen, the ancient steer still occupying a stall at the farm as a work animal. Such contests being then considered novel, there were very large turn-outs of spectators, the country ladies and gentlemen witnessing the progress of the matches from their carriages-as they now would the jumping competitions of the horses in the hunter classes at our cattle shows. This enthusiasm for ploughing contests, now evidenced only by the purely agricultural classes, remained common down to a very recent period, the introduction of superior and more interesting machinery for agricultural purposes, the trials of reapers and mowers, and the general attractiveness of the stock and implement sections of the cattle show-yard in a large way destroying any charms ploughing matches possessed as bucolic gatherings. In the history of the Renfrewshire Agricultural Society there is recorded a very interesting account of a match which was held on the New Shot Isle, near Renfew, and which well marks the enthusiasm of the people. A snowstorm had set in, and the snow covered the ground three inches deep, but notwithstanding it was resolved to proceed with the contest. “In an instant all was activity”, says the chronicler. “The ground allotted for the competition was the New Shot Isle, which lies at some distance below the Garnieland steading, and the access to which is by a raised causeway some hundred yards in length, and for breadth sufficient for passage of a cart. This at low water stands dry, but at full or even half tide is covered to a greater or less depth by the Clyde. At the time to which we refer there was still water enough on the causeway to reach the cart-wheel naves. Crossed it must nevertheless instanter, and a scene of picturesque beauty and interest was forthwith displayed, such as has never before fallen, and probably never will again fall, to the lot of our readers to witness. Save the Clyde, the whole landscape lay white with snow. The river was reached by a descending path containing several turns which soon exhibited a line of nearly 60 carts, containing each a plough with one horse in the harness and another following or mounted by an eager competitor, starting to turn his mettle to a different account. The consequent array was one of about 120 horses mixed with carts in the procession. Onlookers, who by this time added largely to the muster, eagerly availed themselves of the carts as the only means of ferrying across to the Isla, and all was bustle in the securing of places as the cavalcade reached the river. One familiar with the ford led the way, but the eagerness of the horses and the confusion caused by the instability of their footing upon the roughly-laid causeway made them speedily regard the admonitions of the leaders, and intense interest was given to the scene by the plunges and escapes of the different parties in the partially losing and regaining of the line of causeway, any entire deviation from which might probably have been attended with serious results in consequence of the depth of water on either side and the almost inevitable over-turn of the carts.

Though the match was commenced it had to be stopped, the judges finding that good ploughing was impracticable, but it took place three days afterwards, when notwithstanding a severe storm which prevailed, 39 competitors came forward.

It has been frequently suggested of late that ploughing matches should be allowed to lapse, in the ground that they are doing little or no good to agriculture. This is a mistake, and possibly arises from the fact that many farmers grudge letting good ploughmen away for a day with a pair of horses to work on another man’s land, while there is plenty of good lea to be turned over at home. The argument is a selfish one, and one which, if acted upon, is certain in the long run to provide injurious to the farmer, not so much as regards a deterioration in the ploughing, but rather as regards a falling off in the enthusiasm of the ploughmen for farm labour.

It has to be kept in mind that the ploughman of 50 years ago is the parent of the modern farmer, and that when ploughing matches were first instituted farmers were largely the competitors. On many farms in Renfrewshire and Ayrshire the tenants and their sons yet “plough their pair;” but the ploughman as a rule is a hired servant. Burns was a fair specimen of the class; but though generally spoken of as the Ploughman Bard, it is not difficult to judge from his life and writings that he was a failure as a frugal farmer, and though he used to say he would give way to no man at ploughing, sowing, or mowing, he could not have been successful at either-his heart not being in his business. Let him ply the “flingin’ tree” as hard as he liked. It was not the corn he was thrashing, but the “Holy Willies” of the day; while the favouring breeze which came in at one barn door, bringing in happy memories and loving ideas, was blowing out the oats with the chaff at the other. Even when “rattling the corn oot ower the furs”, with the sowing sheet over his shoulder, he was sweeping with his right hand his glorious thoughts of freedom and liberty abroad, and there is no doubt that when the green braird came up under the favouring influence of the April showers, the patches here and the thin bits there proved a tell-tale to the absent mind and the irregular hand, working under the impulses of a strong heart.

The modern farmer, it may be observed, though his life looks a very slow one to a city man, has yet some relieving moments. He has his “Catch the Ten”, at cards, followed by the indispensable tumbler of toddy; he has curling, and if on the moor edge certain to have a day’s coursing. The ploughman, however, has few enjoyments. As soon as he is fit to leave his early sport of “swinging’ on a yet” he is sent to school only to have his educational progress disturbed by withdrawals to earn sixpence a day at seasonable times “to herd craws”, “gather stanes”, or “cut thistles, ragweeds” and such like. From “thinning turnips” and “bunching” behind the reaper he gets promoted to the management of the odd horse, generally the gig pony, and in course of time he gets a pair to plough. He is now a man-he dances at penny reels at feering fairs, pays his whack at a pay wedding, is great at “hay stacks”, and somebody of importance at “kirns”. His anxiety is, however, to become a prize ploughman, and when the season comes round he will be found wandering along the backs of the march dykes on Sundays, to see what sort of work Jock Wilson, of the Knowe, is making, and whether he has anything to fear from him. He will travel 10 miles through the mirk and rain to have his plough irons laid by some blacksmith, in order that he may be able to make a genuine job. At last the day of the ploughing match arrives. The previous night he has passed half in the “smiddy” – where are assembled a rough, earnest crowd of men like himself, all taking of the contest-the other half in the stable “cleaning his graith”. The morning opens cold and bitter, and the glare from the stable lamp reveals flakes of snow floating in the atmosphere. By six o’clock he has got his plough into the cart, and, with his second horse led behind, he is off for the Manse Glebe, minding not but rather rejoicing in the cuff from the old “bauchle” which Jean the dairymaid throws at him for lurch from the byre door, and rather relishing the hard knock from an old brush which comes rattling from the hand of the guidwife. By eight o’clock he has set his poles and made his break, and the battle is soon raging. The air is piercing cold, but there he is, stripped to his nethermost garment the sweat running down his open chest as, holding as if for dear life, he abjures the furrow mare Jess to “Wo, lass, wo; cannie, lass; wo”, in long-drawn-out tones, and to which the faithful animal lifts and bends, and places her feet careful, not to break the turned-up land, knowing that the honour of her master really depends on every movement. At twelve he has his dinner-half-a-loaf, with a “whang” of cheese and a pint bottle of sweet “yill” have been lying at the end of the land for each. He swallows his bite nervously, for his eyes are wandering away back down the fresh-turned furrows to detect irregularities. The rough meal over, he is at it again, and as the three judges cross behind him on the returning “bout” he is nervous, and strains his ear to catch their work of approval. Alongside he sees a local “blether” trying to gather a crowd, and so to catch the eye of the three judges by praising unmeasured terms the lot of a rival, with remarks of “Oh, but is it no bonnie? Would it no be a real peetie to spoil that by harrowin’,” &c. Then comes the finish, which requires the most steady holding and delicate handling. He has, however, measured his ground well, and the finishing stroke to a piece of excellent work gets him the prize. Well done, Jock! Now can you kick your heel and point your toe on any barn floor, and cry “Reel” midst the best men in the country; and Jennie, cleverist of dairymaids, that can “milk your nine kye mornin’ and nicht without a thocht,” set your head back and come “skeigh and scrievin’” down the centre of the country dance, for is not your lad the cleverest in the country. The romance soon ends: “a pay weddin’,” bare-legged urchins “swingin’on a yet”, the gig powney to work! And the dance commences again “de capo from No. 1”. The prizes are presented on the ground-a pocket-knife from the ironmonger, a set of plough hames from the saddler, a pound of tobacco from the grocer, a pair of rabbits from the gamekeeper makes nice little gifts in kind. A local wag gives a prize to the man who “gangs oftenest to see the lasses at nicht”, and, notwithstanding the presence of the minister, there are some sturdy claimants. The pound of tea for the man with the biggest family elicits a cry for “Auld Peter” who secured the honour with his tenth bairn seven years ago, and now with his sixteenth in it’s mother’s lap defies all competition.

Such is the simple life of the ploughman. Let not, therefore, the farmer think of giving up ploughing matches; rather let him encourage emulation of such kind. The reaping machine and the traction engine and thrashing mill will develop a taste in him for mechanics, and tend to lead him to think of something better, and he will enter the sheds at Kilmarnock and Cowlairs, and clean engines till he has qualified himself for a stokership. But even when driving the iron horse over Beattock summit, or with many a sweep and whirl through the windings of the Nith, he will think of his old days as he rushes onward; and all the rules of railroads, all the laws of the land, will not keep him from glancing off the line to the moonlit lea field where he held the plough.”