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Ayrshire Stallion Leaders

by Jim Mair

When farming in Scotland experienced radical changes after the Second World War, one of the many rural scenes to disappear was the sight of a solitary man, walking the country roads from April to late autumn, accompanied by a large, impressive horse. This would be a Clydesdale, a noble animal well-known for its endurance and dignity. It might be up to 17 hands high and in the walking season it caught the onlooker's eye with its flowing mane, docked tail, white feathered feet and, usually, a white blaze on its face. The man who accompanied the horse would be a stallion leader, chosen from the more skilful grooms of a pedigree Clydesdale stud. He toured an assigned district with the stallion to serve the mares in far-flung farms, and so to maintain the breed, which would carry out all the heavy draught work in the course of the farming year. Though dressed like most of the farm workers of the time, he was as impressive as his horse in his self-assurance, purposeful air and resolute step.

After the war, when the tractor and lorry replaced the heavy horse, many thousand draught horses were slaughtered and left the scene as if overnight. In 1947, one hundred thousand were put down and a similar number the following year. [i] The figure eventually ran in to millions as the transfer to motor transport increased. The Clydesdale had been a daily presence on the roads and a wonder to every watchful child. They had graced the landscape for generations. Farmers, farm workers, delivery men and roundsmen had sustained with them an affair of mutual devotion throughout their working lives.

I had interviewed a number of surviving grooms in Ayrshire in the 1980s. Three of them - Ben Boyce, Bob McClymont and John Fleming, all then living in retirement - were happy to draw upon memories of lives of achievement and much pleasure.

Ben Boyce was employed by J & R Smith, of Nether Newton, Newmilns, as a stallion leader from 1936 until 1946. He travelled two seasons in County Durham, to Chester-le-Street and Seaham Harbour, and 'liked it fine.' In 1944 he remembered 1,780 horses going through Lanark market in four days. The grooms attending took their refreshments in 'The Silver Bell', where stories and experiences were shared. In the train to the great Scotstoun Show, Ben Boyce recalled a minister coming into the compartment and saying, 'I suppose you gentlemen are in the horse business; you'll not be able always to tell the truth.' One of them called Davie Riddell replied, 'It widnae be sae bad if lees could dae it.' The care of stallions and their presentation to the mares was a highly skilled job, not always apparent to ministers and other laymen.

Service charges varied between breeders. When Ben travelled to Mull in 1940 he journeyed light with a coat and oilskins, and a notebook. Food and laundry would normally be supplied at the farms. Fees were between 2 and 3, with better horses perhaps up to 5. When asked about grooms with a horse companion, he recalled only one, an old fellow in County Durham with his own old stallion called Jolly Boy. He travelled with a pony and Ben Boyce found it strange watching them approach, the groom on his pony with the stallion alongside. He put it down to him being too old to walk the great distances.

Bob McClymont was a stallion leader with the breeder George Alston of Loudounhill, from 1936 until his last walking season in the Crieff district in 1949. A groom's fee was 2s 6d (12p), rising to 5s (25p) after the Second World War. Sometimes an unofficial fee could be earned on the quiet. An old groom told him when he started, 'Ye're nae dampt use if ye cannae get a new suit o claes and a pair o buits oot o it.' Mr McClymont believed his job was like a disease: you became attached to the horses and foals and knew them all their lives. Grooms had a pride in their work; when you first came out leading a stallion 'ye stuck your kist oot. Ye were a man.'

Dressing and grooming was part of the stallion leader's duties. Raffia plaits were attached to the horse's mane until after the shows and inspection by the farmers. Purely decorative, they might help to give the right signals to a group who could be a delegation from an agricultural association, looking for a horse for the travelling season. Bob McClymont enjoyed the life, and in the walking season he was always welcome in the Ayrshire dairy farms. The folk were interested in horses and farm workers are in the kitchen with the family. In the north-east of Scotland it was rougher in the bothy life. Not everyone was keen, though, on horsey talk. Some grooms found employment in winter at the threshing mill, working from McQuaters depot in Maybole. An old frequenter of the Kings Arms, where the McQuater men met, was spied one night in another pub. When challenged, he said he was fed up with the chat in his usual howff:'If ye don't gae hame wi yer een fu o cauff [chaff] ye gae hame in foal.'

The scale of the work can be judged when between Turnberry and Girvan a stallion would serve 85 mares. This was only one estimate given by the breeder George Alston of Loudounhill. Other stallions might be working in the same area. With the horses you had to be in control, but without being cruel. One groom, for example, spoiled a very good horse named Cornfallow by overworking it. Bob McClymont got it back after a season and had no end of bother with it, as it had established dominion over the groom. Horses sense your feelings if you are scared or tentative, he said. An unlikely candidate for stallion leader was a wee fellow called 'The Gas', a terrible blether, who came through from West Lothian to lead a stallion there. On seeing the diminutive figure with the huge stallion disappearing up the road to Darvel station, George Alston turned to Bob, and said, 'What dae ye think will happen?' The Gas was full of confidence, but never came back for a repeat season. The grooms also had their sad times. One leader went off to Galloway and his stallion died. Another was sent, and it died too. Still another was dispatched, but the groom came home with a halter. There was grass sickness in Galloway at that time.

The third informant of the great days of the Clydesdales was John Fleming, head groom at the renowned stud of James Kilpatrick of Craigie Mains. Kilpatrick had won the premier stallion prize, the Cawdor Cup, three times at the annual show at Scotstoun. The big event of the year was the stallion contest on the first Wednesday and Thursday in March. The trains went right into the showground. The grooms left Craigie on Tuesday to walk to Kilmarnock station with the horses. At Craigie Mains there were thirty to forty stallions with four or five mares for breeding and about three work-horses.

Fleming's own concern over the work was apparent. The stallions in earlier days were docked. It made them tidier and allowed better action; but the docking was very cruel and he said he never liked it. A big knife was used and the rump cauterised with a hot iron to stop the bleeding. Later, a vet's certificate was obligatory until it was finally legally condemned. Afterwards only the hair was cut.

Craigie Mains had horses travelling all over Scotland, as far afield as Orkney, as well as into England. Two travelling stallions went to Durham, and it was possible to collect a pound fee on the side. The official fee in the late 1920s and the 1930s was an average of 2 to 3, and the same again if it was in foal. The best horse at home was between 5 and 10. Mares also travelled to Craigie Mains, paying a standard fee of 15 and another 15 if in foal. Sometimes a mare was sold away and farmers cheated, claiming they were not in foal.

The stallions had a working life of up to twenty years. The grooms travelled light with a razor in their pockets, and few other personal items. The stallion had a belt and the groom strapped his coat on top for bad weather, and possibly his leggings also. On each side would hang the horses' boots. These boots, made of leather, were in the shape of a foot, and with a buckle and strap. The boots were worn when the stallions were with the mares to avoid injuries. Horses travelled out from farm to farm in different areas. Those for Ayrshire, three in all, left Craigie Mains on Monday morning. One was the Kilmarnock horse; it would reach Barassie on Monday night, Springside on Tuesday night, Moscow on Wednesday, Carnell on Thursday and outside Ayr on Friday. It came home on Saturday or Sunday.

John Fleming's favourite stallion was Craigie Commodore. He served twelve mares one Monday and when John returned for foal money he had to collect for fourteen foals. He judged that a good stallion should have a bright eye, nice head, long neck, short back, big broad quarters, hough well up in the leg, short above, a deep belly and heart, and long silky hair. The fore legs should be well in below with big solid feet to carry them. Stallions were well-couthered during the season. They might get a bottle of stout with two eggs mixed in it at night, over and above their usual meals: quite often eggs would go a-missing on the farms.

It was a good life, better paid than other farm workmen, but the pitfall for the grooms on the road was their fondness of drink. They pulled up at pubs, and they drank at the shows. This brought about rivalry among them, and arguments began over stallions. One old Aberdonian that John Fleming knew who travelled in South Ayrshire used to get fu' every Saturday on his way back. He would be found lying at the side of the road with his horse grazing nearby. His boss put him in the car, but John had to bring the horse home. The old fellow, refuting the myth about Aberdonians, always gave him a sixpence the next day.

John Fleming's father was head groom at Craigie before him. When John started at eighteen there were five grooms. When the stud at Craigie Mains closed in 1961 he was the only groom remaining. The dispersal sale after the death of Mr Allan Kilpatrick was held at Ayr Auction Mart in October. Six horses were sold. Craigie Gallant Hero went for 2,600 guineas; another, Craigie Merrymen, followed what was then the trend and was earmarked for Canada. Already the best of the breed were being bought for studs in that country, though also in the USA, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and even Russia; one has sold latterly to Japan for 20,000. By the 1980s the best stock had been acquired by breeders abroad, and an American-bred colt, Zeus, became the supreme male champion, winning the Cawdor Cup at Scotstoun. It was at this period that controversy developed among members of the Clydesdale Horse Society. It was suggested that selective introduction of the English Shire Horse should be used to improve the home-bred Clydesdale. Up until then every horse had been bred 'according to the [stud] book', rather than the blood-typing being advocated to ensure a clean pedigree.

The great days were long gone since James Kilpatrick of Craigie Mains and William Dunlop of Dunure Mains, world class breeders, had their celebrated litigation over the ownership of the stallion Baron of Buchlyvie. The case went to the Court of Session, and finally to the House of Lords, which found in favour of Kilpatrick. The horse was sold at Ayr Mart, in 1911, for 6,500, which is possibly half a million pounds in today's money.

When John Fleming left Craigie Mains he believed the day of the Clydesdale stud was over. He found employment as a grain-store foreman, with steady hours and he was at home every weekend. His wife was happier with the new regime, but he himself thought that it could not be compared with his work with the horses and he was to have no more pleasure, as he said, in the birth of the wee foals.

Jim Mair

[i] See the chapter, 'The massacre of 1947' in Keith Chivers, The Shire Horse, 1976.


Walking Season, 1939. Cornfallow was offered to the Vale of Garnock Horse Breeding Society from George Alston's stud at Loudounhill.

Season 1950, presenting Loudoun Security to the Kirriemuir District Agricultural Society showing its pedigree, terms and stations on the itinerary. Latterly stallions travelled by horse box to agreed collection points.

Catalogue of the final sale of the Clydesdale stud of the Kilpatricks of Craigie Mains. Craigie Merryman went to Canada for 450 guinease. The best in the sale, Craigie Gallant Hero, sold at 2600 guineas.

Craigie True Form owned by James Kilpatrick of Craigie Mains won the Cawdor Cup for the best male at the stallion show in 1948.

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