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Community / Another fine show day whatever the weather

Crofter James Nicholson, from Breckon in Yell, winning the Supreme Champion cup for a four month old bull calf. Seen here with judge John Brown (left) and his sister Johnina Henderson and father Alex Nicholson.

IT’S showtime! Agricultural showtime that is – with the Voe Show having taken place already, and with more to follow in August – or during ‘hairst’ (harvest) time as it’s also known north of the border, writes Davie Gardner.

Today it’s the turn of the Cunningsburgh show – Shetland’s agricultural equivalent of the Glastonbury Festival and, without meaning to be disrespectful to other such local shows, the one that’s still pretty much seen as the big one!

Back in the day (and, for many, still to this day) it was widely viewed as THE event of the summer and looked forward to with great anticipation, even by the non-crofting fraternity who, ordinarily, didn’t know a tup from a gimmer, a neep from a tattie, a front-loader from a buck-rake or – in more extreme circumstances – a hen from a duck.

My family largely fell into this category but, for them, the Cunningsburgh Show was still a ‘must-visit’ event. Even the novelty of the bus run to Cunningsburgh alone generated the excitement (and no doubt associated parental stresses) of a family holiday – not just a day out – although, I accept, we probably led a pretty sheltered life back then.

It clearly had (well, for my father at any rate) the added attraction of a lively and vibrant social get-together with old and probably not-often-seen friends – along with, no doubt, the chance of a surreptitiously circulated half-bottle or two during the day. Unquestionably, those particular elements were as much, if not more, of an attraction to him as viewing the livestock, agricultural implements and other show related products.

John Brown from Aberdeenshire judging the sheep and cattle section.

I say this as the trip home was usually punctuated by my mother interrogating my father as to how he had managed to get so ‘fu’ at an agricultural show which didn’t have a beer tent, while the trip back invariably included at least three stops along the then windy roads between Cunningsburgh and Lerwick to let various children relieve themselves of previously ingested overdoses of fizzy juice, ice cream and sausage rolls. Ah, happy days and simpler times!

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Back to the show itself though. It has endured and developed over the years since its original inception in 1935 and now takes place annually – wars and pandemics willing of course – on its own show field, complete with sheds and tents, dedicated parking areas and much more.

The Ice cream van was making a roaring trade despite the August gale. All photos: Davie Gardner

It now offers open entry to literally hundreds of competitive classes, exhibition space to over 100 local businesses, charities and organisations and, as such, requires a huge logistical, time consuming and organisational effort by a large number of folk – around 30 on the organising committee alone – for what is, after all, primarily, a one-day event.

The Sandwick fire brigade was there as well.

For many though – organisers and exhibitors alike – it represents the culmination,  indeed the pinnacle, of many months of work, graft, preparation, skill, effort and patience with competitive elements including the likes of livestock, breeding skills, farm machinery displays, home-grown and homemade local produce, arts and crafts, knitting and textiles, baking, live music provision and much more besides. All in all, a day of competitive ‘truth’ for some – and just a great day out for others.

At times though the mere mention of a ‘show’ can be enough to unleash a downpour of biblical proportions. This time around, however, an ‘autumn-in-the-blink-of-an-eye’, squally and unseasonal early gale wreaked some last-minute havoc, damaging one of the show’s main marquees, and thus forcing the committee into a number of frantic, last-gasp alterations to their event plans.

“It’s joost wan of those things – dats joost Shetland for you,” says Kenneth MacKenzie, one of the organising committee. “But we’ve pretty much got it sorted and we’re up and running, so hopefully everybody will still enjoy demselves,” he says in an undaunted tone – before rushing off to deal with other matters.

It’s still blowing a bit of a hoolie, while threatening to add a touch of drizzle to the meteorological mix, as I arrive there. Ironically the on-field music system happens to playing – by coincidence or perhaps design – Neil Young’s Four Strong Winds song at that very moment.

I make my way across to the sheep enclosures where livestock, largely sporting yellowy orange dyed coats, presumably just for the occasion, are being given a somewhat stern, very focused, visual, and clearly expert, going over by visiting judge John Brown from Aberdeenshire, who’s also judging the cattle sections here today.

The Suffolks’, Texels’, Cheviots’ etc somewhat gaudy coats – to my totally untrained eye at least – make them look as if they’ve either had a bad experience with a tube of fake tan or, alternatively, they’ve spent too much time under a faulty sunlamp. Of course, I don’t offer up this admittedly tongue-in-cheek observation to the farming fraternity in fear of, well, ridicule at best or being accused of not taking a serious subject seriously enough.

“Why do breeders and exhibitors do this,” I ask an elderly man who’s avidly watching the proceedings while leaning on a shepherd’s crook, and who, for all the world, looks as if he will know the answer to this particular question?

“The dye tightens up the strands of wool and that displays it better,” says Logan Montgomorie, a sheep farmer from Ayrshire who’s visiting Shetland, and the show itself, with his son Robert – also a farmer – for the first time.

“It’s a good show and Shetland’s a lovely place,” he adds – before they turn their attention back to the sheep and the judging and away from me and my clear lack of knowledge of the subject.

My attention is then caught by a clearly enthusiastic, almost hyperventilating, very young boy who’s pulling his possibly slightly bored mother by the hand, insisting she comes with him to see what he tells her are the “actors.”

Off she heads, interest and curiosity renewed, presumably hoping to see, at best, some Hollywood ‘A’ listers – or at least a couple of TV soap stars – only to be hauled in the direction of the farm machinery to see what, in his still youthful language, turns out to be “tractors.” She tries, in vain, to look interested and not disappointed.

I then spot Alistair Carmichael MP sheltering from the still bone-biting wind in the NFU tent where he’s – along with Beatrice Wishart MSP – nursing a welcome cup of coffee. “I have to admit I’ve been on warmer show-grounds over the years,” he laughs, “but I think it’s good for farmers and crofters, especially at this time of year, to get out, showcase what they do, and remind people of the importance of what they do for the local community and simply spend some time in each other’s company.

“Farming and crofting can be a pretty lonely business at times” he says, “so this is good for their mental health and general wellbeing too of course. So, it’s a day to concentrate on the positives, have a bit of fun, a bit of craic, and we don’t need good weather for that so, all things told, another fine show-day whatever the weather.”

But Shetland being Shetland it does carry on enjoying itself regardless of the weather, and even the ice cream vans are doing a brisk trade, although, like virtually everywhere else throughout the ground, hard weather gear is very much in evidence.

Survival suits and ice cream cones – that’s Shetlanders for you! 

By now though the sun is breaking through and the showground is getting ever busier with folk of all ages – especially families.

Something else that is breaking through is a huge smile on the face of James Nicholson from Breckon, Yell who’s four-month-old bull calf has just picked up the title of ‘Supreme Champion’ in the cattle section of the show – apparently the first beef cow since 2015 to achieve this particular accolade.

Jim gives me a clearly knowledgeable, technical run-down of why the calf has won the trophy, but this is pretty much lost on my ignorance of the subject I’m afraid – however he simply “ticks ALL the boxes” Jim tells me. “It certainly made the trip doon fae Yell worthwhile,” he says with a delighted smile.

For my part it would be great to speak to all the winners on the day, but as there’s apparently 123 trophies to be presented, I decide that’s not going to be remotely feasible.

Instead, I avail myself of a very welcome and cockle-warming sassermaet roll and, as the music system, much to my clearly misguided amusement, blares out the Seekers singing I Know I’ll Never Find Another You (or should that be ewe?) I take my leave of the Cunningsburgh Show for another year.

Another hugely successful day is in the offing despite the challenging conditions, and the Cunningsburgh Show clearly remains, as it always has done, one of lots of peoples’ highlight events of the Shetland summer.

‘The show must go on’ as they say – and it’s very likely to do so for many years to come whatever challenges it may have to face in the future.

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