IT was on January 22, 1813, that a group of landowners from the Borders and north Northumberland gathered together at the Cross Keys Hotel in Kelso to discuss an ambitious plan.
The result was the setting up of one of Scotland’s most important agricultural organisations, the Border Union Agricultural Society.
And this year will see a special programme of events and activities to mark the society’s bicentenary – launched with a special luncheon this week, which was attended by 500 guests including bicentenary year patron, HRH The Countess of Wessex (see opposite page).
This week also marked the publication of a special commemorative book, compiled to mark the anniversary.
The book charts the history of the society and was compiled by former Kelso High School rector, Charlie Robertson, and the late Brian Wain.
Entitled ‘At a Meeting Held in Kelso’, the book costs £20 and maps the history of the society and through it, the changes in Borders agriculture over the past two centuries.
It was after Mr Wain had agreed to take on the production of the book that the size of the task became apparent.
“When he realised the size of the task, Brian asked if I would help,” said Mr Robertson. “He was involved for the first six to eight months and then sadly had to stop because of illness.
There is sadness that Mr Wain did not live to see the book’s publication, but Mr Robertson believes the collaboration has proved highly successful.
“I’m delighted with the book, I think it looks wonderful –although obviously I’m biased!” he told us.
And Mr Robertson said the bicentenary justifies the production of such an extensive work, given the influence and importance of the society down through the generations.
“The Border Union has been significant, not just to the Borders but also in a national context.
“The book is naturally the story of the Border Union, but it is also the story of agriculture and history in the Borders over those centuries,” explained Mr Robertson, who presented a copy of the book to the Countess of Wessex at Tuesday’s luncheon.
The book tells how, at the time of the society’s founding, Britain had been at war for nearly two decades and it was vital that British agriculture was a productive as possible.
A survey of Borders agriculture in around 1800 revealed the main crops to be oats, wheat, hay and turnip – the new wonder-crop that had been introduced to the region in 1725.
There was little barley, flax or potatoes. Tobacco had also been grown successfully, but the government’s insistance that the crop was sold to them at a specific, low price effectively ended this.
Local man James Small’s invention of a revolutionary new plough, was used on many farms, but most threshing was still done by hand.
Shorthorn cattle was the predominant breed and oxen were still used to pull ploughs and occasionally carts.
There were 260,000 sheep, predominantly Cheviot, producing 32,500 stones of wool.
Landlords across the country recognised the need for improvements in agriculture. They already knew that selective breeding and better feeding could improve livestock and that arable crops and grasslands could be improved. The question was, how?
In the Borders and north Northumberland, landowners and farmers started to answer that question with the formation of their new society and with the fifth Duke of Roxburghe as president.
The society’s stated aim was “for giving premiums for the best stock of different kinds, for discoveries in agriculture, with in regard to tillage, or the management of grass lands, and for new and improved implements of husbandry.”