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Border Union Agricultural Society bi- centenary lunch. Countess of Wessex, bi-centenary patron.
Border Union Agricultural Society bi- centenary lunch. Countess of Wessex, bi-centenary patron.

The late, unforgettable, Tom Elliot was mentioned at last week’s Border Union Agricultural Society 200th anniversary celebrations.

Watching a judge take an interminable time to place Cheviot ewe hoggs at Kelso show, Tom’s unmistakable voice was heard grumbling: “If he doesn’t get a move on they’ll be gimmers.”

That is, a year older, a joke that didn’t need explaining to the attendance of almost 500 in a marquee erected inside the society’s permanent hall at Springwood Park, one of a number of developments in the past dozen years or so by a forward-thinking committee and secretary.

Most of those there were directly involved with farming, or associated businesses, or friends and relatives of farmers, or fellow curlers; anyone who didn’t pick up the joke had a neighbour to explain. It was farming joke for a farming occasion.

Apart from being a triumph of organisation by secretary Ron Wilson, the bi-centenary committee and any number of unsung helpers, the lunch was held on a day when the area was in danger of being snowbound.

The unlucky few who didn’t get there had the best of reasons – they had put their animals first and were out on a hill somewhere checking and feeding. The 480 or so who got there made a day of it, the snow no more of an inconvenience than having to produce two identification documents – one with photograph – at the door to comply with security requirements for the visit of the Countess of Wessex, society patron.

As a guest who took that to its logical conclusion said: “It’s the first time I’ve had to use a passport to get to Kelso.”

But, as someone who has never been a fan of the Royal family, nobility or privilege, I had to concede to my wife that the countess was friendly, intelligent and interested – three words seldom heard in the same sentence about some of her relations by marriage.

As well as a cracking meal, organisers of any function – at this time of year I have Burns’ suppers and shepherds’ suppers in mind – could adopt the specification laid down for each of the five speakers, under the impeccable chairmanship of Gareth Baird, at the 200th anniversary dinner: “Maximum 10 minutes.”

No one rambled. Every speaker stuck to their brief, including Michael Moore, Secretary of State for Scotland, who still managed to cover all bases – and, perish the thought – possible votes in proposing the toast to the society and Tom Arnott, Haymount, who replied.

I thought Tom’s speech the best and most heartfelt. He had some good lines, including the auctioneer at Kelso ram sale who continued a high-octane selling performance, oblivious to the fact that the ram he was seeking bids for had dropped dead in the ring and the collective ringside was having hysterics.

But his pride in what the Border Union Agricultural Society has achieved in the past, distant and recent, in which he has played a prominent part, and what its job is now was apparent when he concluded: “You can hear the echoes of the past. We must ensure that those who come have as much to thank us for as we have to thank those who have gone before.”

At one point, looking round, I wondered idly how much Borders land would change hands if the roof fell in on a lunch for several hundred farmers and landowners, including at least two Dukes and John Campbell of Glenrath; a few hundred thousand acres I guess.

But I also wondered what the centenary dinner was like. As a given there would have been no ladies present, there would probably, I surmised, have been more speeches and toasts, and much more hard drinking.

Since then I have read the comprehensive history of the society, At A Meeting Held At Kelso, by Brian Wain and Charlie Robertson, and from that got a good idea of what the centenary dinner was like.

About 100 were there in Kelso town hall on January 22, 1913. The 8th Duke of Roxburghe was in the chair (the 10th is the present society president).

The authors note: “The proceedings which followed were not for the fainthearted, with some 14 toasts and replies, all accompanied by speeches.”

The Scottish Farmer noted: “The chairman set an example of brevity in speeches which was not altogether followed …” Organisers of the bi-centenary lunch obviously took note of that.

Brian Wain, as many will know, was a vet who came to Kelso in 1967 to join the practice of Keith, Rogerson and Baird, becoming a partner and retiring in 2000. A dedicated amateur historian, he took on the Border Union project willingly and had done a great deal of work on it before his 
death after a short illness almost a year ago.

Step forward Charlie Robertson, rector of Kelso High School until retirement in 2011, who worked with Brian and then completed the book in time for last week’s celebration. A great effort.

As well as a history of the society, it is a history of Borders farming, of how those prepared to dedicate time and effort beyond their own farm gate can make a difference.

Most of the present generation prepared to do that were there at last week’s memorable celebration. They had earned it.