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Backbone of Britain: Legendary show secretary retires at 90-years-old

Stoicism is synonymous in the farming industry and nowhere is that more apparent than with Scottish hill farmer Jean Lindsay. Ewan Pate visits the 90-year-old at Runavey Farm, on the Invercauld Estate.

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Backbone of Britain: Legendary show secretary retires at 90-year-old

This year’s Strathardle Show was Jean Lindsay’s last as show secretary. She has held the post for 23 years and her efficiency and dedication to the job is, without doubt among her peers, something quite legendary.


Asked why she decided to retire when everything was going so well, she replies quietly: “Because I am 90.”


She certainly makes no other concessions to her age otherwise and is very much a full-time hill farmer who thinks nothing of driving her Land Rover Discovery with a trailer full of lambs down the 30 winding miles from her home at Runavey, at the head of Glenshee, to Forfar Mart.


Indeed when Farmers Guardian caught up with her on the day of the Strathardle Show weeks earlier, she had brought down her show cattle in the front half of the trailer and her secretarial equipment in the back half.


The show is more accurately the agricultural section of the Strathardle Highland Gathering, an event with a history going back 136 years. It is held by tradition in the Banner Field at Kirkmichael, so named because it was on this very spot that the Earl of Mar raised his banner and gathered his troops at the beginning of the ill-fated Jacobite Rebellion of 1715.


Nowadays the gathering in the Banner Field is less warlike, but it is still fiercely competitive. The afternoon is taken up with a full-blown and highly popular Highland Games, while the agricultural show takes centre stage in the morning.


“It is a great show,” reflects Jean. “We have 150 Blackface sheep here today which must be a record. We have exhibitors here who don’t go to any other shows but want to compete here.”



Like many of the other successful smaller shows, Strathardle entries are confined to the parishes of the East Perthshire and Angus Glens, all of which are renowned for their commercial stock.


The show of cross cattle, prime lambs and breeding sheep is always nothing less than outstanding.


“We have kept the numbers up too and have a new exhibitor of cattle here this year, which is encouraging,” she adds.


“It is a big week’s work. We start setting up on the Tuesday before the show, but there is a lot of unseen work before that.


“My job always starts in January with securing permission for the field, which is always gladly given. Then, in February, we have a meeting to select the judges. Then I write to them, but I rarely get a reply.


“I have to phone round and it’s normally a wife or sister who answers. They always say ‘Oh, he will have forgotten, but don’t worry, he will be there on the day.’ I have to tell them that is not good enough as I need to know for certain. I think it is the most difficult part of the job.”


“Once the judges are cajoled into replying, it is case of preparing schedules and ordering rosettes. Then the entries start to come in.”


When asked how she had become involved in the event, Jean explains it was quite by chance.


“The president at the time phoned to tell me he was looking for a show secretary and would I be interested,” she says.


“I thanked him for the offer and said I would let him know, but somehow that never happened. It just seemed to be assumed I had agreed and I have been here ever since.”



Brought up on a farm at Largoward, in Fife, Jean undertook her first lambing and shearing in 1942 – at the age of 14 – and has been farming enthusiastically ever since.


“I was born into it,” she says.


She has been at Runavey for 48 years, farming it single-handedly at first and later with her son, Sandy, also a Strathardle Gathering stalwart. Another son, Alan, farms in Fife, while other children Joanna and Richard found their careers away from the world of agriculture.


Runavey, which is on the Invercauld Estate, runs from 1,150 feet above sea level up to 3,000 feet and is home to 600 North-type Blackface ewes and 50 Shorthorn-cross cows.


“I have always liked the Shorthorn,” she says. “We use a Charolais as terminal sire, but I always put a few cows to the Shorthorn bull to breed replacements. We sell all young stock, sheep and cattle, as stores at Forfar Mart.


“The biggest job now is the paperwork. I can work the computer and I have become used to it gradually, but it must be terrible for anyone new coming into farming.”


While admitting farming has changed during her lifetime, Jean thinks there has been less difference in hill sheep farming than in other sectors.


“Apart from using electric shears instead of hand clipping, a lot of the tasks are very much the same,” she says.


“The biggest difference is in the availability of labour. We used to be able to gather the hill ourselves with help from neighbours, but now we have to go much further from home to find help.


“It is an awkward gather here and takes between five and six hours. The highest ground is just under 3,000 feet above sea level, so we still use dogs, although when the game keepers are helping us they use quad bikes.


“Also, we are able to use Land Rovers now to get out on to the hill rather than walking all the way, so that makes it easier.”



Asked if she would recommend the life of a hill farmer to a young person she thinks carefully.


“I would, but only if they were keen on the way of life and were willing to work hard physically,” she replies.


“We may have electric shears now, but every sheep still has to be handled. You can’t do everything with machinery. It is still hard work.”


Climate change is talked about all the time now, but Jean recalls there being far more snow during the 1970s.


“We were once blocked in for six weeks here,” she recalls. “We have a long farm road and I got into the way of taking my car down to the end if there was snow forecast. Then, at least if the pubic road was clear, I could walk down through the snow and use it to go to the shops for food.


“My grandchildren were here once and I asked them to leave their plastic sledge.


“They thought it was funny that granny was going sledging, but I needed to use it to take three or four bales out to the sheep in the worst weather.


“I often think mud is worse than snow. At least with snow you can build it up. You can’t do that with mud.”


Jean is now the oldest resident in Glen Shee and the longest established.


“Of course not all the farms are occupied now, which is pity. A lot of the sheep have been taken off the hills and I believe that is a mistake. However life moves on,” she adds.


There was little point in asking what plans she has for her ‘retirement.’ It will, of course, be the work of a hill farmer as usual.


“If you keep going on, then you keep on going,” Jean says.

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