Wednesday, 27 October 2010

The Carloway Agricultural Show, otherwise known as the Cattle Show.

The biggest event in the District of Carloway was the Annual Agricultural Show, held each summer on the first Wednesday in August. Better known locally as the "Cattle Show", it drew large crowds of people from all over the Island of Lewis, and competitors from Shawbost to Garynahine (indeed, "all points West"). It was the longest surviving show on the island (since 1911), known affectionately as "Lewis's Premier Show". By dint of sheer numbers, it could easily have been called "The Sheep Show". The title "Agricultural Show" was possibly to appease those in the Board of Agriculture or the Crofters Commission who were keen to see crofting adopting more modern agricultural methods, but obviously, on a smaller scale, by introducing better breeding programmes in cattle and sheep, mechanising hay making for winter feeding, and reclaming the moorland using fertilisers, sand and surface seeding. Still, it would always be known as the Cattle Show.
The weather was fair when the big day came around, (old memories, fine weather?) and many animals would be transported to Carloway to compete for prizes at the show. Dalmore's "Famous Five", Soho, Rupie and Stowlia from Taigh 'Houdie and Fancy and Filax from Taigh Glass were going along for the first time, as were their city cousins, Jura, Victoria and Guinness. I know - they were domestic animals, but the show committee had decided in their wisdom to include, this time round, competitions for Best Dog in Show, and for Best Cat. Victoria, the blue-cream Persian was entered in the Cat Show under her pedigree name of Victoria Chantelle Lautrec, and , as they say, she was definitely 'up for it'. Jura, the Black Labrador Retriever, was not so keen, but Fancy said that it would be a "hoot", or something "cheery" like that in Gaelic. The main competition animals, cattle, sheep, horses and poultry were either walked down to the showground at Carloway or ferried there by tractor and trailer. Donald John would be in charge of Daisy, Shonnie's beautiful brown Ayrshire milk cow, and Donald, his older brother, would accompany Morag, the young heifer, the finest specimen of Shorthorn you would ever see, this side of Stornoway. She had already been sold to Angus Macdonald, well known auctioneer and butcher from town, for a princely sum. Daisy and Morag and their two "buachaille"(herdsmen) left early to walk to Carloway. Jimmy, the horse, didn't have the necessary "hands" to compete. He wasn't bothered. Everyone in the district took pride in their sheep, and consequently, entries in all sheep categories were high. Shonnie was entering some wedders, lambs and a powerful looking Blackface ram. They would go down by tractor, in some cages improvised for the purpose. Getting them onto the trailer had been difficult, until Guinness the Gall (stranger) suggested that digestive biscuits were regularly employed as bait by the shepherds on the hill farms of the mainland. And it worked. They mounted the trailer and entered the cages, just like sheep, as the saying goes. Shonnie gave Guinness a gentle clap, in way of thanks, and Guinny-Goo was happy to advance farming know how, in this crofting community .
"Balaich Shoudie" went along with Stowlia, Soho and Rupie, their "domestics". Kenny Iceland, the" cat who comes in from the cold"(occasionally) was capable of making up his own mind whether to go to the show. 'An 'houdie would leave him a "Dolittle" note, but it was unlikely that Kenny would come. Like Garbo, he wanted to be alone. The Shoudie Boys made quite a show as they emerged from the "taigh dubh", wearing their special visiting clothes - newish cap, black polished shoes etc. Iain wore his "Chicago" hat, with the brim pulled down over one eye, just like that fellow Dillinger in America. There would be many old friends at the Carloway Show, and Murdo and Iain knew that the "comhradh" (conversation) flowed more easily with a few drams of whisky ; it also made them better judges of the cattle and sheep paraded in the ring, they believed.
The show wasn't just about animals. Experts were at hand to judge knitwear, articles fashioned in wood or metal, woven Harris Tweed, vegetables grown on the croft, scones and cakes baked in the croft house and a variety of other categories. There was an open piping competition with entries from Callanish to Canada and from New Shawbost to New Brunswick. Highland games were in most cases trials of strength as was the final event of the day, the inter village boat race involving perhaps a dozen boats down on Loch Carloway, by the Dunan. In fact, the last event of the day (by rights it was night) was the Cattle Show Dance in the Drill Hall, which started around midnight, when none of the Dalmore crew would be present.
Usually a noted personage was invited to open the show, a person who had advanced his standing during his lifetime, people like lawyers, scholars, journalists and even teachers, of which there was no shortage. Even a peer of the realm deemed such an invitation a great honour. This year, for some reasons, the "Comm-it-tee" had failed to engage a "duine mor", a man of stature to perform the opening ceremony. Why? No one could, or would say ! Fancy however heard from some of the Garenin dogs that a last-minute replacement had been found, an Aberdonian of no particular note, whose instant acceptance amazed some members of the committee, leaving them no time to reconsider their invitation, if that was their wish. Word of this spread quickly among the animals at the show. It would be a little later before the people learned that a Mr. Grant would open the Carloway Agricultural Show. His name was understandably absent from the show programme, a name which otherwise would have meant little to the people of the district, bar a few, to whom it meant something else again. A tall, heavy set man, Grant projected a faux bonhommie, and a barely disguised bombast. He had been involved in a variety of businesses, but never for too long. He would never risk his own money on any business venture, preferring to invest in other people's . There was not a grant nor subsidy which he didn't know about, and for those who asked, he was generous with advice, since this increased his standing, but at no cost to himself. His reputation grew among those who were like-minded. His meanness was a study in pathology, but this was not easily discerned, as it was masked by his largesse, using multiple expense accounts. He would often tell people that he was a millionaire, which he probably was. No matter where, he would regale perfect strangers with stories of his business acumen and his wealth. "I'm a millionaire, you know." This became his mantra. He would shortly open the show.
" Fancy, who told you so much about Mr. Grant ?", asked Filax. " It was one of the Garenin dogs, whose master got useful advice from Grant about a sheep subsidy" replied Fancy.
Mr. Grant's cri de coeur was "I love Carloway", a bit like the sycophants who extol their love of America, yet he was only in Carloway for two weeks a year. He was jocular, in a "hail fellow, well met" sort of way, possessed of a host of jokes, which he had honed over the years. He did not allude directly to his millionaire status, but the crowd were left in no doubt that here was a man of import. Finally, the Show was declared Open. Stowlia was awakened by the ripple of applause around her.
There was much to see at the show, and Iain 'Houdie would be guide and interpreter to the Dalmore animals for the rest of the afternoon, unless Iain was called away on an urgent matter of state, which could be settled, he said, with a small libation. Over at the sheep pens, the judging was taking place. Large men of rosy complexion, tweed jacket and plus-fours, were pulling and prodding the sheep, examining their teeth, and engaging in other technical procedures, unknown to anyone other than the big man in the fore-and-aft- hat, who was probably your head man (no pun intended). Shonnie's sheep lost out to some beautiful specimens from Breasclete and Garenin, but they would not return to Dalmore in the trailer disgraced, by any means. Anyway , there was a whole packet of digestive biscuits to ease the pain. Stowlia, Fancy and Jura were keen to help them on board ! However, in the cattle ring, Shonnie was doubly successful with first prizes(and money) for our lovely Ayrshire cow, Daisy and that superb specimen, Morag the heifer. Some moments to savour !
Horses measured in hands (why - asked Jura ?) and hens and cockerels all came under the scrutiny of an appropriate expert. The large blousey lady handling the poultry was known to all as "Cailleach a' Chearc" ( the Old Hen Lady). Sloppy pronunciation could lead to the lady being called "Coileach a' Chearc" (" coileach" - cockerel) and that would not do.
The Dog and the Cat Shows were not as per Crufts etc., but were only small local "beauty contests", not to be taken too seriously. Jura, the smooth coated Labrador Retriever, pipped Toss Macarthur for top dog, but to be honest, this wasn't Jura's thing at all. Now, the Cat contest was very much Victoria's thing. As a pedigree Persian, with a fabulous blue-cream coat and blazing orange eyes, she was the feline equivalent of Zsa Zsa Gabor. This was a more bitchy, back-biting affair than the Dog Show, and after much scratching and caterwauling, Victoria Chantelle Lautrec was declared the winner. Away at the back of the crowd, the unmistakable head of Kenny Iceland appeared, with the hint of a smile. A few eyes popped as Vicky moved towards the judge to receive the red rosette as first prize. Her studied walk, with her bushy tail prescribing a figure of eight, might be thought of as "sexy", but I'm sure that was not her intention. The male moggies at the front of the cat walk were too excited to care. However, the result did not suit the small cat-coterie from Garynahine. "That c-et is a ringer, Sylvia. I'm sure I saw the bugger at the Tolsta Show". The old bodach from Shawbost could not get his head around the idea of blue cream. "They must be getting a subsidy for that. I wonder if Bodach Grant knows anything about this"
The traditional island games of tossing the sheaf, putting the stone and lifting the weights was dominated by the success in all of them of young Alex Beag from Heather Street- this was a great feat considering the strength of his opponents. Tossing the caber is never a feature of Lewis games, because there are no trees on the island, The inter village tug-of-war resulted in victory for the men of Upper Carloway. The final event of the Show was the boat race down on Loch Carloway, to which the entire show crowd repaired. This was no Henley Regatta, but an event requiring strength and tactics. They were rowing for their village - reputations were at stake. These were large wooden, clinker boats requiring six oars to propel the vessel a measured distance down a sea loch. The oarsmen were Lewis bred and many of them would have had sea-going experience. As the boats surged through the waters, it was easy to transport your mind to a time when the birlinns of the Macdonalds, Lords of the Isles, could be seen coming up Loch Carloway, oars moving as one, and banners stiff in the breeze.
" What a day, what a day", said Iain 'Houdie which Soho, his cat, thought might have been slightly slurred. "And why not", she mused, "air latha a' Chattle Show"

PS. I nearly forgot. The men from Doune won the boat race.