By Peter Small

When the heavy horse turnouts appear in the evening at the Royal Highland Show there is an upsurge of interest from the huge crowds lining the ring. Such is the interest and respect for these magnificent animals, Scotland’s very own draught horse, the Clydesdale.

However, this is the modern show business element of this noble breed.

A special main ring display on the Friday afternoon of the show, will highlight the more mundane work of the Clydesdale horse back in their working days in the fields and forests of rural life home and abroad, and the docksides and streets of countless towns and cities worldwide.

The man who has inspired this celebration is Fife-based Benny Duncan, who has experience of using his Clydesdales to demonstrate how they and the farm implements they are hitched to, went about their daily work.

Taking his vision to the Clydesdale Horse Society, backing was given for this very bold plan, and Benny and the society began the work of planning which aspect of the Clydesdale at work was to be featured.

Fellow enthusiasts and their horses were sought to provide the total horsepower needed for the job in hand. The Royal Highland Show was the place for a project of this scope and size to be undertaken, with such a huge audience to witness the spectacular, and, of course, the supreme event where there would be a heavy Clydesdale presence on-site to take part, along with necessary numbers of experienced handlers.

However, any horse would not do, as bomb proof horses that were broken to harness were needed, in some cases to pull something a bit heavier and noisier than they were used to. That something they were going to be hitched to, were the many farm implements used in Scottish agriculture throughout the farming year.

Not only this, but some of the other uses the breed was put to were forestry, road haulage, military and police work, past and present will, which will be represented. While the present day uses of the breed in the show yard such as harness decoration, ridden classes and private driving are all being covered, the Skinner's Strathorn Stud, in Aberdeenshire, will close the celebration with a musical ride to showcase more abilities of this fine breed.

Gathering all this machinery was another major task taken on by Benny and the society, who identified what was possible to be taken round the hallowed turf of Ingliston’s main ring. With key items of machinery in place, many a night’s preparation has been put into presenting them for the show, with Benny and his wife Isobel being especially busy this spring. Not only will horse implements and other farm machinery from the past be taken round the ring, but other items will be on static display around the society stand close by the arena.

A century ago many of the horseman grieving for the horses requisitioned by the army for shipping to France for hauling guns and supplies, waited in vain for their pair to be repatriated only to be disappointed by the tiny percentage that would eventually return. It was this lack of horses that allowed tractors to gain a foothold in agriculture, and the many hundreds of surplus lorries sold off by the War Department meant a start for many in the road haulage industry, reducing the needed for draught horses even further.

From then on, the horsemen lost their mythical status on the old 'fairm touns'. After the grieve, the horsemen were the top men, descending in importance by the amount of experience under their belts. The secret society that existed among them, held together by the mystical ritual of being given the Horseman’s Word, only enhanced their aura among the farm staff and the young kitchen maids who often had their heads turned by the horseman’s whispers.

The stable was the headquarters of the farm where the grieve issued the orders of the day to the horsemen, who were always up early to feed and groom their charges before going back to the bothy or cottar house to get their own feed.

Then back to the stable and the horses with their food digested, they were harnessed up and taken out to work in the fields all year round. Many a farmer cared more for his horses than his men, and when rain sent the pairs scurrying for the stable, the men were sent back out to carry on working at some other job in the wet.

It was this hardship which cemented the pride in the farm touns and in the work carried out by all who toiled there. A pride that was shown in the skill of the work undertaken such as ploughing, where match wins were greatly sought. Not only pride in the work, but pride in themselves and more importantly pride in their horses. Today this pride still continues as Friday afternoon’s celebration will clearly show.

Man has used all sorts of creatures as a means of draught, even women! Elephants, camels, oxen, dogs and horses have all been used in various parts of the world, but it was the breeding of heavy horses that brought greater efficiency to the task.

The Clydesdale in particular was a key element in the agricultural revolution which Scotland played such an important part of. James Small's swing plough and Patrick Bell’s first successful mechanical reaper could not have happened without the horse.

It was heavier horses that were needed to carry armoured warriors that led to a stock of stronger animals, which were finely bred in more settled times to arrive at the draught breeds we know today. Which in Scotland’s case, is the Clydesdales, although Shires did make an appearance. On the eastern side of the country, clean-legged Suffolk Punches, Percherons and Belgian horses were used for row crop work.

As the name suggests, the breed originated in the Clyde Valley, in Lanarkshire, where the local farmers finely honed the breed by careful selective breeding to produce a draught horse with both style and substance capable of pulling heavy loads for long periods, but doing so in a stylish manner which allowed them to be light of foot in among crops or narrow furrows or drill bottoms.

So, look closely on this Clydesdale Celebration and see the footsteps of history and how our Scottish landscape and farming practices developed with the original horse power. You may even see a very old horseman shed a tear.

Thanks to the generosity of the RHASS, the Clydesdale Horse Society is able to bring attention to the business aspect of heavy horse work. Not only has the RHASS been generous to allow the society to put this spectacle on, they have also provided other resources to make this possible. Other major sponsors are Malcolm Allan House Builders Ltd, the Gerald Fellowes Trust and many other individuals who are proving equipment, horses and help with stewarding.