Scotland has long been famed for the quality of its stock and the stockmen and women who produce it.

In this new series, we take a close look at what it takes to be a successful show stockperson these days – with some obvious hark backs to former glory.

With few shows on the horizon this year, we will be finding out just what makes the best showmen tick.

Breeding your own commercial cattle to a showing standard is not something everyone can do, but attaining champions and top prices over the years is exactly what Hugh Dunlop, of Holehouse Farm, Cumnock, in Ayrshire, has done.

After leaving the family farm to gain experience, he originally went to work with Rushmore pedigree Charolais, in Kent, before moving across to Cardona to work for Robbie Galloway and his pedigree Aberdeen-Angus herd alongside Dave Smith.

He then made the decision to go back home full time in 1996, and now has assistance from son, Stewart, who is a full-time joiner.

Why are commercials your chosen show stock?

“Our family business was originally a dairy farm and as a hobby when I got into Young Farmers I started commercials on the side, so it has always been a bit of fun. Getting experience elsewhere and in different breeds made me realise my heart was in the commercials.”

What got you involved in showing to start with?

“Apart from dad encouraging me to get involved, it properly snowballed with the Ayrshire calf rally, this is something I took part in for years and was always great to see your transformation over the wintering period.

If I wanted to take it a step further, I knew at this point that I had to up my game to try and get anywhere and that came with hard work and dedication.”

When was your first Royal Highland Show?

“My first Royal Highland showing commercials for myself was 1990, but I had previously exhibited with Charolais cattle when I was working with the Rushmore herd.

“In 1990, it was my Ayr rally calf champion that went on to take the blue and white sash among the commercials at the Highland. Cappuccino was a Simmental cross Galloway which cost me £560 – so that just puts into perspective the changed prices over the years.

“Back in the day, it was so much easier to get involved in the showing circuit.

“The next year we went one step further going on to take supreme champion with Cappuccino’s full brother, Calypso – another Ayrshire calf rally entry which was over wintered.

“We have now been commercial champion three times – in 1991, 2015 and 2019. We did take a few years out of showing when the kids were young as there just wasn’t the time to do so, but now they are all involved it is a great industry to be part of.

“It is a proud moment to see my children – Jacalyn and Stewart – getting involved in the industry and taking a keen interest in it. It was Jacalyn’s Ayrshire calf rally entry that took champion in 2015 and Stewart’s calf in 2019, so it really is an achievement seeing them put the work in to produce the champions – it must run in the family!”

How do you find the next potential winner?

“When breeding your own, you are always looking for the next show star within your calves.

“It is great that my son, Stewart, has caught the showing bug – and he gets the job of halter breaking the cattle. Stewart runs his own joinery business, but is on the farm after his work every night to muck, bed and clean the cattle out.

“Once they are put into their pens for the final three months, we have many agreements and disagreements when picking show ones – he is as fussy as me.”

What is the best animal that you have ever shown?

“Without a doubt it would have to be Dancing Queen. Her only outing was Smithfield in 2004 but that did not disappoint as she was supreme champion and broke the record price, after selling for a whopping £16,000, and still holds that until today which was then headed home with Michael and Melanie Alford, for breeding. She was a home-bred heifer by a Charolais sire and out of a Charolais cross cow.

“Dancing Queen was a favourite from day one, as soon as she was born, we knew there was something special about her.”

But what was the best animal that you have ever seen?

“The real game changer for me in the commercial industry was The Bandit, from Ewan MacPherson, of Oban. This bullock was one of the first modern types to come through and really changed the future of primestock showing.

“Among the pedigree Charolais in my times, I remember one that really stood out for me – Kilkenny Celia – she won all the Royal shows in her time and was pretty much unbeatable in the pedigree world.”

What’s changed over the years?

“There has been many styles and shapes over the years. There is no set-in stone type of what is a perfect show beast. It all comes down to what the judge is looking for.

“At the moment, it is the bigger hindquarters that is in favour, whereas 50 years ago it was bonnie heads, top lines, good legs and loads of hair - that were in fashion.

“A correct, showy ginger Charolais heifer was always my favourite to show. The show lights seems to complement that colour and set them out from the rest.

“I think, especially when you have your own beef cows, you are always running to stand still. It is my choice to keep the cows and calves I breed, so I cannot complain about the ones that don’t make it.

“One thing I do notice is the locomotion and leg structure is getting poorer in commercial cattle. Too many people are blinded by the hindquarters and don’t put enough emphasis on legs, which is a must for a good show beast in my opinion.”

Abiding memories?

“Winning Smithfield in 2004 with Dancing Queen and selling for the record price at the last show in London will always be my high.

“Also that same year, John McLeish (Tubba) got called to customs at Prestwick Airport on the way down for an unknown substance in his luggage, it clicked to me what it would be, but Tubba was a nervous wreck! Anybody who knows Tubba would know how flustered he gets and we laughed at him trying to explain to them it was mowdy hillocks.”

Biggest disappointment?

“There has been many over the years, but to add a bit of humour – the cancellation of the Royal Highland this year, when we had the championship in the bag, is pretty devastating. Much the same for all exhibitors …”

Most influential people?

“My parents – William and Ellen. They have always inspired me and gave me the confidence. Dad always encouraged me and never said ‘what are you doing that for?’.

“He has let me make my own mistakes – of which there have been many over my career. Every day is a school day and I am never too old to learn.

“Ian Anderson helped me a lot in the earlier years with the finer details of showing commercial cattle and has been a great help and encourager over the years.”

Favourite show over the years and why?

“Smithfield at Earls Court, in London – everything from the build-up, loading your beasts at Edinburgh or Perth, the unloading in the middle of London, to the legendary kist room. Everybody loved the week in London and were genuinely thrilled for the overall supreme champion, no matter who it was.

“The Smithfield blues the following week were a different story though!”

Stockman hero?

“Dave Smith. He always brought out champions and top priced bulls in his day and knew exactly what he was talking about.

“I worked with him for two years and it was the simple things that he adapted that made a huge difference in changing the cattle around. This helped me now breed my own.”

The best kist party?

“All kist parties are good, but one that sticks out to me, was at the Royal Highland in 2015, when we were lucky enough to win the commercial section. I am sure everyone that was there would agree, Alistair Vance and Richard Oxley helped organise it and it went down as one of the ‘best ever’!”

Interests outwith farming?

“Everything I do is connected to farming in some sort. Showing is really my hobby as it consumes a lot of my time, but it is something I love and would never give up.”

What’s the future of the show circuit?

“Hopefully, the shows will continue, as they are a good shop window for potential buyers and a release away from everyday farming.

“There are a lot of good, able young farmers coming through from all of the young farmers’ club wintering competitions. However, there are a lot of moneyed people going into commercials which makes it harder for young people to buy calves to compete. I hope they don’t get put off by not getting a chance.

“One thing that annoys me is exhibitors complaining about entry money for shows when they have spent £4000, £5000, or £6000 on calves – shows don’t run on fresh air, it is important to support them.

“Commercial showing is a hobby, there’s only one winner and if you can’t take a beating you shouldn’t do it, because there are more downs than ups, but it is worth it for the life changing moments!”


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