I have been to Scotland three times and every visit was so different each deserves
a separate discussion. The one thing that remained constant was my difficulty in
understanding the accent; if any country were to list me as hearing impaired it would be
Scotland: Pardon me?
In March of 1985 I went to Glasgow to report on the World Curling
Championship. The event was known as the Air Canada Silver Broom and the sponsor
provided airfare for working media. I’d had the pleasure of covering curling competitions
for Radio Southern Manitoba for half-a-dozen years before joining their employ full time,
so I was off to Scotland.
The Championships were held the last week of March in Kelvin Hall, a cavernous
exhibit hall built in 1927. To say it was past its prime would be kind, some of the glass at
the upper levels was missing and there were more than a few pigeons inhabiting the
building. Though past curling events had been concerned with drippings—but never
droppings—we escaped the week unscathed.
My partner in crime for much of the week was Ken Thompson who wrote for the
Ontario Curler and we made an effort to capture as much culture as we could, both at and
away from the venue.
One of the exhibitors at the trade show, held in conjunction with the curling event
was a weaver who claimed to have the pattern for every possible tartan. Ken was insistent
that he should get a piece of Thompson dress tartan to take home for some yet-to-be-
determined article of clothing, and I accompanied him on the visit. The clerk at the
counter had a massive book of tartan samples, found the Thompson Dress in a matter of
minutes, then turned to me and asked what I would like.
“I don’t think our family has a tartan,” I said politely. He insisted and patting the
book told me they were all listed and he was sure mine would be in the book.
“Kletke” I said, “it is a German name, and grandfather left from Poland. I think
we might be more of a polka dot kind of people.” He missed my reference to that type of
dance but politely checked the Ks before agreeing we did not have a pattern in the Book
One night after an evening match we walked from Kelvin Hall back to our hotel,
stopping at a few pubs along the way. We thought we had made new friends in several
places but the lady looking after the media at the Silver Broom told us we were extremely
lucky to get home alive—considering the part of town we had walked through.
Not aware of how rough and tumble a city we were in we purchased tickets to a
Football match for Saturday. The Rangers were playing the Celtics, the top catholic
versus the top protestant team and we thought it would be a good one. This was at the
height of soccer hooliganism and the working media explained that six deaths at the
match was the benchmark—more than that it made the papers. Less than that it was just a
Saturday afternoon football match . . .
Ken found a friend who would drive us the 65 miles to play the St. Andrews old
golf course. We were more than a bit surprised when his friend pulled up and would not
let Ken wear his green coat in the car. It had to be locked in the truck lest someone see
him with a passenger wearing a green coat—orange would have been fine, but no green.
We had thought that rivalry was restricted to Ireland but apparently not.
We played the course and from there managed to beg our way into the clubhouse,
main floor only, though we did try for the second floor. We were told in no uncertain
terms we were not going up there, and thought better of it. Their tag is still on my golf
bag, just as a reminder of the day.
Yes, it’s true, the one bunker on the course is so deep there’s a ladder to get out of
it—and the wind off the North Sea in March is cold . . .
After the curling championships, I took a day to visit Ailsa Craig where I toured
the factory where the granite for curling stones is mined.
The Scots are an incredibly welcoming and warm people and take great pride in
their country. I cannot say enough about the hospitality I was shown. However, it became
an issue when I said I was a farmer and had to get home to seed.
“I thought you said you were a farmer?” was the comment.
“I am and it is seeding time,” I said, fearing I was already pushing the time to be
in the field.
“Here a farmer would not be seeding, he has people that do that. A farmer is the
land owner, not the worker.” I made a note of that, being aware of the connotations of the
word, and how it was being used here.
My second visit to Scotland did not go nearly as well. It was Easter weekend of
1995 and I had just completed two months of study with eight other fellows on the
prescribed part of my Nuffield Scholarship. The nine of us (three Canadians, two
Aussies, two Kiwis, a Frenchman, and a Zimbabwean) had crisscrossed the UK, France
and Austria studying agriculture. I was about to go back to Canada but I had one more
three-day poultry tour with a group of Nuffield Scholars from England who would be
visiting the facilities in Scotland.
Big Tony (Aus) was dropping Little Tony (NZ) and myself at the borders region
before he carried on with the car we all ‘owned’ at one time or another. We stopped for
lunch and walked into the restaurant. The boot of the car was full with the two Tonys’
gear so mine was on the back seat. While we were in the restaurant a car came through
the parking lot smashed the rear passenger window and stole my suitcases. Clothes, who
cares? But nine weeks of notes and pictures from my entire time of study? Gone, just like
The police took the report and gave me the paperwork I would need for a new
passport and insurance claims, but they were painfully honest:
“Not likely we will recover any of it—most likely be at a boot sale on Saturday
afternoon,” said the officer. “Might bring enough for a box of beer but there are so many
sales and so many cars it is impossible to check them. The things important to you like
your pictures and journals will be in the rubbish bin by now.”
It does not matter how important the items are to you, to the guy doing the job it
is just a case of beer waiting to be consumed. It was a hard lesson but one that I kept in
mind in later travels.
Little Tony went on to catch the bus for the tour; Big Tony changed his plans and
drove me back to London. Then he spent the night and next day with me, saying I was
not in a good frame of mind to be alone.
He stayed with me to visit the authorities and have my passport replaced, and it
was done in less than 24 hours, that is how common the process was.
After that Tony made me go to Hamleys’, the Finest Toy Shop in the world, and
buy gifts for my kids.
“Your trip has been ruined, no reason your kids’ should be. Now let’s go get them
something nice for when you get home.” While we were out he had his entire set of notes
photocopied at the front desk, ready for me when we got back.
You don’t meet enough people like Big Tony. The world does not have enough
people like Big Tony. He defines true friendship.
My third visit would come later that summer. I had returned home in spring and
when school was over we packed up the family and moved to England for July and
August. We headquartered at a farm near the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester,
the center of the country, and travelled out from there. I have always been a fan of the
Clydesdale horse and when I found a list of fairs in Scotland, the home of the breed, I had
to visit that country one more time.
It was not quite what I had expected. When I got to the Fair I was surprised by
the low number of entries; I was even more surprised when I spent some time on a hay
bale in the barn and learned that the breed was on the endangered species list in the
country that had developed it. Seems that much of their prime breeding stock had been
exported to America at a time when a large number of horses were required for beer
wagons and now the show hitches were buying up the top animals for their wagons.
Our apartment back at Cirencester was in a converted stable and the farm had a
shop with a butcher who was working with the Royal Ag Society to restore heritage
breeds. Talking with him I learned that the best way to make a breed flourish is to eat it . .
. The butcher was promoting heritage breeds of sheep by selling mutton in his shop. The
logic made sense—when people are buying meat, the supply of breeding stock increases
to meet the demand. (The same approach is used in the seed business—nothing keeps an
old variety of tomatoes alive like people using them for sandwiches.)
When there was no longer a demand for the big horses in Scotland their numbers
fell. It was through the PMU (Pregnant Mare Urine) business that the Clydesdale became
more common in western Canada. PMU operators used Clydesdales on the line. For the
same cost as feeding a grade mare this breed could be produced with quality
genetics—bringing a good price from racing outfits with fancy hitches. Now the quality
genetics of the Clydesdales were concentrated in western Canada, and when the decision
was made to restore the breed in Scotland, that is where the Scots came for quality
The Borders Festival of the Horse was still a great event though smaller than I
expected. The Scots take great pride in what they produce and it showed at the ring and in
the trophy tent. Most of the agricultural shows had gone by the wayside in North America
but not so in the mid 1990s in Scotland; the livestock and seed shows were something to
behold and well worth attending.
I did not get to see the number of big horses that I expected but the quality of the
horses I did see was exceptional, and the stories shared on hay bales in the barn were
better than most—and I must say that I have heard a few. In nearly three decades of
covering agricultural events I have heard my share of barn stories, and I would not trade
them for anything. Many are the highlights of a life well spent, and the Clydesdale Show
in the Borders region of Scotland was as good as any.