Romance at the Carloway Show

Last year’s Carloway Show was a washout.  This year’s was bathed in sunshine, and that, added to the prospect of meeting people you hadn’t seen for years, plus the delights of burgers and candy-floss, was enough to attract some 2,000 visitors to what is now the best window on crofting in the Western Isles.

Which means that it is a snapshot of change.  An agricultural show is not a museum, and there are now no prizes for the best butter or the best crowdie, or even for the best cows.  Milch kine were conspicuous only by their absence, and those who bemoan their passing should remember that crofters kept cows not for the fun of it but because they had to.  Besides, even a modestly productive cow yields far more milk than any one family needs for domestic consumption; and dairy farming on a grander scale is a mug’s game.  You would need very special genes to be willing to rise at half-past three in the morning and then sell the milk to Tesco’s for less than the cost of feeding.

Mind you, cows could sometimes be the occasion for the utterance of profound wisdom, as when an old preacher rebuked a young one for an inordinately long sermon.  “How,” he asked, “would you like to be a cow waiting to be milked?”

But if there were no milch kine there were some other fascinating cattle: Highland cattle, for the most part, and this itself a symbol of change.  None of these grazed the machairs of Ness in my childhood.  We saw them only in pictures.  Now they’re making a welcome comeback, partly because they’re cherished as an exotic breed, and partly because they make excellent mothers for cross-bred calves (which no doubt explains why the wise crofters of Uist have invested so heavily in them).

I chose the outstanding beauty among those on show and went to chat her up, only to discover that she couldn’t see me through the hair that covered both her eyes.   This was no use.  I wanted to talk eye-ball to eye-ball.  I tried, with the utmost tenderness, to push the hair aside, but to no avail: no sign of an eye.  This, clearly, was an unusual female, meticulous in grooming her hair, but quite indifferent to “doing” her beguiling eyes.  But then, I suppose mascara wouldn’t do much for a Highland cow.

Heart a little heavy, I left her and made my way to the assorted cattle in the other stalls.  It was then I realised that there were no labels.  I can still tell a cow from a sheep, but I very much want to be able to tell cow from cow and sheep from sheep.  Here I was flummoxed: I couldn’t tell the Suffolk sheep from the Texels (isn’t that pathetic?) and had to take advice from a BBC man from Point (the ultimate in double-edged mortification).  That’s why I needed the labels, and I needed them even more for the cows.  In fact, what I was looking at weren’t cows at all.  They were boy-cattle, or at least they had been, but not the sort my grandfather would have recognised.  They were Charolais and Holstein and Simental: more meat per square inch, but if I didn’t know which was which, how could I place an order?  Labels, please.

I gave the hens a miss, having never had much of a rapport with the creatures.  It’s not only the beaks, and the fear of being hen-pecked, but this curious feeling that if I pick them up and hold them they’ll break.  I did remember once again, however, the wise crofters of South Uist, who have their own special Free Range Eggs co-operative, which supplies the birds (certified), offers supervision and advice, and spearheads the marketing.  Other wise communities would copy.

But the pigs were not to be missed.  Not that I would have wanted to pick them up either, especially the mammy-pig, an enormous sow nursing nine piglets (approximately).  They were without a doubt the most photographed item at the Show.  Yet they also symbolised the more sombre side of animal husbandry.  Livestock are not pets: the adorable little piggies were bred for slaughter.  In the meantime, however, they and their kind would make a splendid job of turning over the acres of fallow ground that now scar so many crofting areas.

I made my way to the horticultural section via the horses.  Again, change.  Once every croft in Carloway had one.  Now there were but three, two of them young Clydesdales, though it’s a puzzle what these splendid animals do, now that there’s neither cart nor plough to pull.  Did they blush at being saddled-up to give wee rides to children?

In the horticultural hall the first thing that struck you was that there was much less produce on show than in previous years.  But something else was obvious, too: there was no level playing-field.  Some of the exhibits were clearly from polytunnels, others from the open field; and while some had been grown for food, many others had been grown for exhibition by master-exhibitors: hence the straight, 14-inch long carrots and the massive be-ribboned onions.  Any crofter who sets out emulate these in his vegetable plot faces the risk of serious depression.

It’s not for me to resolve this tension, but the schoolboy who was “Commended” clearly had little chance against the experts of the polytunnel.  Yet it would be retrograde for the Show’s organisers to discourage the growing of vegetables under cover.  In summer the Western Isles enjoy more hours of daylight than almost any other part of the United Kingdom, and we have to capitalise on this, especially in an age when fresh, locally-sourced produce is at a premium.  Open-air markets, with few overheads, offer convenient outlets; and as a bonus they’re excellent meeting-points.  Milk, we will always need to import, but it’s hard to see why we shouldn’t be self-sufficient in potatoes and courgettes (of which one-a-year will be quite enough for me).

In the meantime, I hope all is well with my long-haired, eye-less Highland beauty.

This article first appeared in the West Highland Free Press on Friday 17 August, 2013.