Robert Sloan

Scotland has lost one of it’s best known and talented dairy farmers in Robert Sloan, Townhead and Darnlaw. He was 90 years young.

Never afraid of hard work, Robert not only milked cows by hand and by robots but in the early years also relied upon horses to plough the land. He turned wet moss land into some of the best grazing ground and latterly supervised the use of some of the first self propelled silage harvesters.

Such was his enthusiasm, drive and ability to farm and breed top quality cattle that he could turn a derelict un-drained unit into a viable dairy enterprise. He also oversaw the construction of no fewer than 27 farm buildings.

Robert was one of four boys born to Bryce and Agnes Sloan. John, the oldest went to live at Little Creoch and was sheep and machinery inclined. Robert stayed at Townhead with his interest in dairy cattle. Number three son, Bryce went in an amphibious land rover to an arable farm at Elliothead Perth while the youngest, Willie moved to Rye Muir at Lochmaben in the early 1960s.

The four sons were all given the opportunity to farm in their own right and it was Robert’s ambition to do the same for his family – and he did.

He left school at 14 in his words ‘to milk cows’. Townhead had a herd of 50 Ayrshire cows and was one of the oldest in the world being established in 1779, turning pedigree in 1910, with milk recorded commencing in 1919.

Robert joined the Young Farmers and loved the camaraderie, stockjudging and cattle dressing competitions to name but a few. He was proud to win the National Cattle Dressing competition at the Scottish Dairy Show in the Kelvin Hall, Glasgow, and to be one of the first chairmen of Mauchline’s YFC.

He married Anna Cochrane in 1954 and in doing so had a father in law who was an Ayrshire cattle enthusiast – encouraging him with the loan of Cochranes stock bulls, Cochranes Select and Bequest amongst others.

As an aspiring young Ayrshire breeder, he became firm friends with Jock McIlwrath from Balig – one of the top breeders of the time who took him under his wing and talked cows to on a daily basis.

Robert and Anna loved having breeders visit Townhead and their Ayrshire cows which in those days were in byers. Townhead was on a slope with the smallest cows at the top of the byre and the big ones at the bottom. All cows were cleaned every day and all tails washed every second day.

A tidy writer, Robert used to sharpen chalks and write the milk records of each cow on the boards above and he would always have his cows full, clean and well bedded for when visitors came.

He bought Darnlaw in 1967 and set about draining and improving it. Possibly more importantly he, along with Bruce Mckerrow from Croftfoot, bought Pant Memoir, an old brown bull from John Buchanan at Brighouse and used him heavily on Balig Golden Star daughters.

A lot of work was done at Darnlaw, with a new dairy established in 1971 with 23 heifers by Memoir calving heralding the start of many exciting years.

Those young cows won the national progeny competition in 1972 and the next four consecutive years after, winning the Ayrshire herds competition seven out of 10 years.

The first week of November was always Robert’s favourite week of the year as it was known as Ayrshire week. That was the week when breeders from all over the world would converge on Ayr to purchase stock bulls and heifers and Robert loved the excitement, anticipation, competition, banter and atmosphere that preceded the event.

In 1972 when daughters of Memoir hit the headlines, some 106 interested parties visited Townhead before the sale. Robert had the champion bull and produced the top average selling eight bulls for 1400gns.

He also achieved a breed record of 3200gns that year – the highest at Ayrshire sale week for 24 years – selling to the Lawrie family from Tillyrie Kinross.

Such was the demand for those Townhead Ayrshire bulls that they grossed more than the cost of Darnlaw.

Five years later in 1977, when the World Ayrshire Conference was held in the UK, Robert sold the top priced bull at 4800gns to Harveys of Waxham Hall.

Robert was also involved in the purchase of world record priced Ayrshire bull, Humeston All Gold, which made 10,000gns in 1976, in a three-way partnership to include Andrew Dunlop and Andrew Watson.

At the same time, a new greenfield dairy was built at Townhead with the Ayrshires all fed in a self-feed silage unit.

Robert loved his cattle, the Ayrshire breed and the people he met within the breed but he also gave a lot back, judging at all the major national shows to include The Royal Highland Show, Great Yorkshire, Ballymena and Ayr.

He also selected the top winners in inter-breed competitions at the Highland, Ayr and Ballymena and loved to travel to meet up with fellow breeders throughout the length and breadth of the country and further afield. One of best excursions was society trip to view Ayrshire herds in Canada.

Honoured to be president of the Ayrshire society in 1983, he visited clubs all over the UK and Ireland. He also was one of the first directors of Cattle Services, the AI branch of the Ayrshire Cattle Society.

The same year, Robert bought Little Heateth and it was at this stage that he noted in his diary that things were changing and in his words: “the market for Ayrshire bulls will soon be gone, everyone will soon be using AI and the demand for bulls will get less”.

Always forward thinking, Robert wrote in his diary in 1985 – the wet year – that a farm should be bought in the east as the weather in Ayrshire was becoming increasingly wet and difficult and in 1987 Ramornie Mill in Fife was bought and incorporated into the business.

There were still Ayrshire cows at Townhead in 1993 but they were dispersed later that year in the new Ayr Market to a top of 3400gns to average £2000 per head – a price that would be hard to beat 25 years later.

So drew a close to his working life with the Ayrshire cow. One which he relished and got great satisfaction from, making many lifelong friendships.

Robert never retired – he stopped milking cows and took on the full time job of keeping the business, the family and the grand-children right.

It may be just a coincidence or maybe not that he passed away on November 8 – Ayrshire sale day, his favourite day of the year. He would also have been 91 today (Saturday, December, 21).

Robert is survived by his wife of 65 years Anna; three sons Bryce, Robin, and Gordon; grand-children Arlene, Robert, Craig, Kerr, and Murray, and great grand-children, Grace, Innes and Will.