There are few better respected stockmen in the world of pedigree sheep breeding than Bill Ramsay, who has certainly stamped his mark in the Blackface breeding circuit and show ring over the years.


I grew up on the family dairy farm Whitefield, near Glenluce, where the focus was very much on our herd of Ramsay Ayrshires.

I enjoyed working with the dairy cows and the black and white Ayrshires were ideal for the long growing season in Wigtownshire, and in many ways were before their time.

Such was the demand at the time for these milky wee cows, it was not unusual for between 20 and 30 young bulls and bull calves to be sold every year to dairy herds across the South-west.

When the family moved to nearby Gillespie in 1951 – my brother John stayed on to farm Whitefield – black and white Ayrshires became the backbone of the business there too.

I’m fortunate to be able to look back at a huge range of farming changes and this maybe makes it sound like I’m 150 years old, but I even recall drilling and sowing turnips with Clydesdale horses which were still being used for some of the lighter work when I left school.

I didn’t get into Blackface sheep until a few years after we moved to Gillespie when we purchased the neighbouring hill farm Barhaskine. Like most of Galloway, Barhaskine was hard hill ground and what wasn’t bracken, rock or heather was peat flow and I’ve often thought this was the kind of ground that made the Newton Stewart type of Blackface.

We stocked Barharskine with ewes and ewe lambs from the likes of Garchew, Glen, Gatehouse and Barclye. I remember the Garchew ewes in particular as being tremendous good breeding and doing ewes.

In time, this type of sheep helped Barhaskine to a fair bit of success in the show and sale ring, selling to £13,000 in the late 1970s, a record price for a lamb at that time.

When we moved to Milnmark, we took with us a small number of good ewes that helped form the foundation of the Milnmark flock. I like to think the type we’re breeding today, good haired, well balanced sheep, go all the way back to those original ewes.

What got you into showing livestock?

My first experience in the show ring was showing a couple of Ayrshire cows at Stranraer Show.

While my father was a tremendous stockman and liked to show Clydesdales, he wasn’t that keen on showing our black and white cows in what was a big section of pedigree Ayrshires.

Our two cows were the only black and white cows in the showfield and for all we got a ticket, they were completely different to the rest in the class that day and for type would have looked more at home being shown nowadays against modern Ayrshires.

As far as Blackfaces go, it was through the encouragement of good friend and shepherd at Barhaskine at that time, Johnnie Cuthbertson, that I first ventured into the ring to show them.

The most notable success in those earlier years was winning the Craig Cup for the champion of champions at Wigtown Show with Turk’s Delight, a tup we shared with Gass.

Qualities you like about the breeds that you work with?

I’ve always liked the dual purpose qualities of Blackfaces and there's nothing better than seeing a good haired, clean boned ewe suckling a pair of big twin lambs.

She is easy kept out on the hill and if you take her in-bye and put her to a Blufaced Leicester she will leave just about as much profit as any suckler cow.

Despite what is sometimes said, the Blackface breed has never been better, when a hill ewe can produce pure bred wedder lambs that can be sold off grass at 45 to 50kg at the turn of the year, there’s not that much that can better them.

Best animal you've ever shown?

It’s hard to pick a favourite. Among the males, our home bred tup Prince Philip – which won the section at the Highland in 2003 and was second in the inter-breed – was a big stylish tup, as was the £7500 Clanary that we shared with Gosland, which went all the way in the 2011 Highland inter-breed.

Among the females, Shania – the ewe we showed at our first Highland – was a great ewe and won a lot of shows, as did the ewe the grandchildren christened Eilidh. She was first shown in 2012 and we were still showing her in 2016 – she's still going strong yet.

Another favourite was Cara, our 2019 Highland champion. If I had to pick just one, though, it would probably be Belle, the gimmer that was reserve to Cara that year. Belle, which is by the £55,000 Happrew ‘Sir John’ tup, went on to win Dumfries and Abington shows later that summer.

It is always said there is no such thing as a perfect beast but, in my opinion, this one wasn’t far away.

Best animal ever seen?

The £37,000 Glen tup ‘007’ was a great tup, particularly so at the time he won the 2002 Highland.

I remember him teaming up with our ewe Shania to win the inter-breed pairs. He was a great build of a tup and should have won the individual inter-breed the day before as well.

Abiding memory?

Probably winning the sheep inter-breed for the first time at the Highland in 2006 with a £5500 Glenmanna tup.

It was the kind of day you dream about when you start showing. Like a lot of other farms, showing has always been a family affair at Milnmark and seeing the delight on all the team’s faces was probably the most memorable part of that day – that and seeing my wife, Mae, who rarely drinks, drinking Champagne from a bottle at the side of the ring.

Biggest disappointment?

There have been plenty, but like everyone else you just have to forget about them and move on.

Influential person?

My father, Wilson Ramsay, as I said before was a great stockman and dedicated to his work and his farm.

Best stockman ever?

That’s a very tricky question and even sticking to the Blackface breed, there are a lot of great candidates, many sadly not around anymore.

Men like Jim Kay, Graham McClymont, Charlie Mitchell, Geordie Porter and Hugh Finlay were all involved with record breaking tups in their day and are just some of the great names from my era and my part of Scotland.

Adding in some more record breakers, the likes of Ian Hunter, Willie Dunlop and Pandy Watson who I think have all broke the Blackie record on more than one occasions – it’s quite a line up.

Setting the record books aside, I’ve always thought livestock farming is built on hard work throughout the year and that stockmanship has more to do with what happens outside the ring than what happens in it.

While everyone will have their own heroes from their own part of country, two of mine were Andy Seaton and Johnnie Cuthbertson, tremendous hard working men, dedicated to their stock.

Reflecting on so many great names from both past and the present I’ll have to say this ‘class’ is so able, that for me there isn’t a right answer, so I think this is one judging job I’ll maybe just turn down.

Best and worse advice?

My father would sometimes say “It’s a gie silly begger you can’t learn something new from”. While you’ll never get anywhere breeding and turning out livestock without being strong willed, it does you no harm to listen to other folk’s ideas – usually before you go and do what you were going to do anyway.

Biggest showing achievement?

We’ve been fortunate over the years to have had a great run at the Highland and have managed to win six championships and 11 reserves since we started showing in 2000. On three occasions we have even managed to pick up champion and reserve in the same year.

We’ve been lucky enough to have won the Highland inter-breed champion twice – 2006 and 2011. – and we have also been involved with the winning inter-breed pair champion a couple of times as well, in 2003 with the Gosland team showing 007 and then again in 2008 with Robert Marshall showing a £2400 Milnmark tup.

That year, 2008, probably sticks most in my mind as we were champion in the section with a gimmer by a £12,000 Dalchirla and reserve with a ewe by the Emperor.

To go on to be involved in winning the inter-breed pair with two Milnmark-bred sheep out in the ring was the icing on the cake. All three of those sheep went back to the home bred sheep Emperor who was a tremendous breeding stock tup.


Mae and I like nothing better than getting away for a few days usually up north and usually to a show or dog trial. Lorne Show has been a favourite over the years and getting to the Black Isle is like a trip abroad for us.

We once went on a bus trip to Orkney but never again. They kept hauling us round these old ruins and archaeological sites when I’d rather have got out and looked at some of the good black suckler cows on the farms round about.

I also like breaking the odd young collie but it’s usually down to the dog whether you’d call it a hobby or not.

Spending time with our five grandchildren who are all keen on livestock has been one of my greatest interests over the years. I usually always had at least one of them in tow when they were wee, even at lambing time and it’s been a pleasure to pass on what knowledge I could over that time.

Future of the show circuit?

I don’t worry for the future of the shows once the coronavirus restrictions have ended, when the time’s right there are lots of enthusiastic young people up and down the country who I am sure will get their shows up and running again.

The restrictions that everyone has had to endure highlighted just how lucky we are to work in such a great industry and looking forward, there’s no better way for farming people to come together than at shows.