Note: This report was originally published in the Canadian Shorthorn Report. Our thanks to Grand Alexander for sharing the article and photos.
A Trip To The Homeland
On June 16, I boarded a plane, in Regina, for the first leg on my trip to visit Scotland.I decided to make this trip for several reasons. Firstly, I had been urged by some Scottish breeders I had met in recent years to come and visit. For some time now, I always found excuses not to go, but when I found a very reasonable airfare, I thought this must be an omen. I decided that if I did not make this trip now, I may well never do it. In the past few years, we have sent a number of embryos to Scottish breeders and I have been wanting to see some of the resulting calves. Since these calves were scattered throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, I knew that it would be impossible to see all the calves in the short eight days I had planned for this trip. I also wanted to see some Shorthorn herds in Scotland and get an idea of the cattle they were raising and what type of Shorthorns they wanted to raise. There really is no good reason to send genetics over there that are not suited for their environment or for their markets.
Scotland is a place I have always wanted to visit. It is the homeland of the Shorthorn breed, and it is also the homeland of some of my ancestors. My grandfather, James Alexander, was born in 1877 on a farm near Rothiemay, in Banffshire, in northern Scotland. In 1884, he immigrated to the US with his family. In 1903, James was married in Emerson, Manitoba, and the couple boarded a train to Weyburn, Saskatchewan to homestead a farm and raise their family. Shorthorn cattle soon followed and the first registered Shorthorns arrived in 1917. It was in this year that the Scottish government, shipped a load of Shorthorns to Canada, and held a sale in Brandon, Manitoba. This sale was called the Scottish flood relief sale, and the Scottish government assisted with the shipping of these cattle as a means to assist the struggling Scottish breeders. The first registered Shorthorns were purchased in this sale, and they have been raised on our farm ever since. I can remember as a very young boy that I dreamed of visiting Scotland and over 50 years later, I finally realized that dream.
It was near noon on June 17 when I arrived in Edinburgh. Actually it was only 23 hours since I had left home, but with the 7 hours time difference, I lost a part of a day and I would not regain this until I returned home. James Playfair-Hannay met me at the airport and took me back to his farm which is located about 70 miles south of Edinburgh, very close to the England border. That was my first lesson about Scotland. They use miles for measuring distance rather than kilometres. The speed limit signs were in miles per hours. I was told that miles had always been the unit of measurement there. I assumed that all of Britain had been using the Metric system for many years… not so. My second realization was that travelling on the opposite side of the road, takes a little getting used to, especially when you are travelling on narrow secondary roads. Many of these roads are not wide enough for two vehicles to pass each other. Several times during my trip we would have to come to a sudden stop when we met an oncoming vehicle around a bend in the road. I never really figured out how it was decided who backed up and found a place to get off the road so the other could pass. This was done in a very friendly manner… no road rage, no horn honking, just a polite smile and a wave as they passed each other.
I first met James Playfair-Hannay when he attended the 1987 Canadian Western Agribition. We next met at the 2001 World Shorthorn Conference and Tour here in Canada. We had kept in touch ever since, on an occasional basis and it was James who had called me a few months ago and asked me why I was not coming over to visit. The excuses I gave him were not good enough for him. He was one of the people who planted the seed for this trip, and for this I will be forever grateful.
We arrived at the Playfair farm, where his family were busy getting ready to head to the Royal Highland show in Edinburgh. The Playfair’s Tofts herds of Shorthorn and Angus, are well known throughout Britain. In 1991 the Tofts herd produced a Shorthorn bull that would become one of the great sires that helped the breed regain popularity in Britain. This bull was Tofts Romany. Romany was the major herd sire at Chapelton for several years, and he was a two time winner of the Royal Highland show. It was comforting to me to see that getting ready to head to a show in Scotland was as hectic and crazy as it is here in Canada.
The Playfair estate consists of approximately 4200 acres. The landscape consists of high hills with fertile fields in the valleys and on the hillsides. The Playfair family have 300 cows and close to 1000 breeding sheep, along with some crop land. They have purebred herds of Angus and Shorthorn, and they are run very practically. The cows are wintered on top of a huge hill on the farm (to a prairie boy it was more like a small mountain), which is not grazed during the summer. The cows graze the native grass through the winter months and are only supplemented with additional hay when it is required. As we toured the farm, James showed me historical evidence that agriculture had been conducted on this farm for many centuries. There is so much history here.
The Shorthorn herd is a very good working herd of cows. They are good uddered and appear to be very fertile and productive. They had a great set of calves at side. Many of the cows have been influenced by North American bloodlines. While attending the 1987 Agribition show, James purchased Glenford Pacesetter 3W, a son of Glenford Ayatollah 2nd x from Bender’s Shorthorns, Neudorf, SK. He also purchased a heifer, River Acres Talcott Joyful 27W, by Ayatollah, from Earl McCorriston, Ridgedale, SK. There are several descendants of these animals in the Tofts herd yet. More recently the Playfair’s have purchased several Canadian Shorthorn embryos to add new genetics to their herd. These embryos have come from Dan and Jill Stephenson`s, Diamond Shorthorns, as well as our farm, Horseshoe Creek. As a result of these purchases, the Toft’s herd has a high incidence of Canadian Shorthorn bloodlines. Four of their present herd sires resulted from the embryos they have imported from Canada. Tofts Captain X698 (P) ET is a son of GAFA Captain McBest 6G x and Cactus Flat Clare 11C x. He is now gone but several of his offspring are still in the herd. Tofts Shoufler X689 (H) ET is a son ofShouflers El Bonito 104X ET x* and HC Secret Maid 18F *. He is a heavily muscled red bull that is also the sire of Tofts Atlas 2900 (H), a two year old bull with outstanding performance and carcass data. James has exportable semen available on Atlas and he feels this bull can offer some important economic traits to breeders in Britain as well as breeders around the world. Another son of Secret Maid 18F* is alsobeing used in the herd. This is Tofts Master Y773 (P) , sired by Byland Sparkler 31A65 x. Still another herdsire, Tofts Premier X691 (P) is a son of Waukaru Prime Minister ET x* and Shadybrook Presto 73G x*, and he also resulted from a Canadian embryo purchase. Besides these bulls that have been retained as herd sires, the Tofts herd presently has 7 ET females in the herd from the Secret Maid and Presto donors and they have also produced some other bulls that have been sold to other herds in Britain. At the 2008 Perth sale, Tofts Hector ( P) topped the sale at 8000 British pounds (approximately $16,000 CDN) and another of their entries sold for 5500 British pounds (or approximately $11,000 CDN). After our tour of the Toft’s farming operation, we headed back to Edinburgh to attend the Royal Highland show.
Tofts Atlas,.... at halter Paul Tinker(Tofts herdsman), Anna Playfair and her father, James and a local cattleman.)
The Royal Highland show is one of the largest agricultural showcases in Scotland and it is a huge event. Cattle numbers in all breeds were down from normal entries this year, due to some health and travel restrictions mainly in the south. Despite this, all the shows were interesting and very competitive. Grand Champion bull was Cainsmore Thrasher (H) exhibited by M.A. Holmes, from Albrighton, Northern England. He was bred by the Landers, Cairnsmore herd in Southern Scotland. This 6 year old bull was massive in his make-up and he weighed in excess of 3000 pounds. He is a good example of how the British have used traditional Shorthorn and Maine Anjou blood to develop Shorthorn cattle that are once again becoming extremely popular with British producers. Reserve Grand bull honors went to Glenisla Zambesi (P), a growthy yearling bull sired by the Australian Belmore Fuel Injected (P). This bull has plenty of Canadian genetics in his dam, as she is sired by Eionmor Mr. Gus 80C x. Several other Canadian born sires appear further back in the pedigree. This bull was bred and exhibited by Major John Gibb and his family, Perth, Scotland. Many will remember Major Gibb from his many trips to Canada in recent years. I had really wanted to visit Major Gibbs herd, however, he was going to be at the Royal Highland show for most of the time of my trip.
Glenisla Carnation Rouge W216)
Grand Champion female was Glenisla Carnation Rouge W216 (P), a 5 year old cow with a good bull calf at side. She was another entry of Major Gibb and she is a daughter ofBelmore Fuel Injected (P). This female is another example of how the British breeders have blended genetics to develop cattle useful to their beef industry. She was a very popular champion.
Glenisla Carnation Rouge W216
Reserve Grand Champion female was Chapelton Duchess 2403 (P), shown by Donald Biggar’sChapelton herd, Castle Douglas, Scotland. This March, 2007 heifer has a Canadian pedigree as both her sire and dam came from embryos from Canada. She is sired by Chapelton Typhoon (P) ET ( CF Varsity X x* and Blue Ridge Cheerleader x). her dam is Chapelton Duchess 690 (P) ET(Winalot Big Mac x and Lazy HJ Duchess 11D x). This female is a very thick made, easy fleshing female with lots of performance.
I spent two full days at the Royal Highland show, and I did not see all the exhibits at the show. As I mentioned earlier, it is an extremely large show with numerous show rings and acres of exhibits of agricultural machinery and technology. There were several large horse shows and I probably saw more Clydesdale horses than I have seen in my entire life. The sheep shows were huge and I saw many breeds that I have never heard of before. The crowds at the sheep shows were huge, showing how important sheep are to agriculture here. While walking through the sheep exhibit one afternoon, I came upon an auction between two producers who were both wanting to purchase the same ram lamb. The owner simply held an auction between the two producers and the ram sold for $30,000 British pounds, which is just over $60,000 (Canadian). I was told that a ram sold last year, by the same method, for 101,000 British pounds, or just over $200,000 Canadian.
I was impressed with how food production and the importance of local production was promoted to the public at this show. Even McDonalds (of the Golden Arches fame) had a large exhibit with many exhibits showing where their food originated. This exhibit had several attendees interacting with the public informing them about the importance of maintaining a healthy agricultural sector, along with a healthy food supply. I had to wonder why we do not have corporate food industries telling the same story here. There were many displays throughout the show that were based on consumer education. Scottish Beef also had an excellent display which also promoted the importance of a strong agricultural sector in the nation, as well as the quality and high nutritional value of beef in Scotland.
While attending the Royal Highland show, I met up with Jamie and Cathryn Williamson and Victor and Kate Watson, from Alvie Estate, Aviemore, Inverness, Scotland. The Williamson’s own Alvie Estate and Victor Watson is their farm manager. These two couples had spent 10 days at Canadian Western Agribition last November. Following two days at the Royal Highland show I travelled back to Alvie Estate with them.
Jamie and Cathryn Williamson, my hosts at Alvie Estate
Alvie Estate is a diversified estate, located near the geographic center of Scotland. It consists of 13,000 acres in the highlands of Scotland. The farming operation consists of 900 breeding sheep, a commercial cattle herd of 130 breeding females, and most recently a purebred Shorthorn herd. Besides these enterprises, Alvie Estates also has a granite quarry; a fish hatchery and fish farm; a greenhouse business that specializes in strawberry production; a wood chip business, that specializes in alternative heating systems for homes and businesses; a large caravan park; horse stables; forestry consulting and management; a large catering business using the large estate home; and hunting excursions. It is a busy place! The history of this land was again brought home to me, when I was shown the Delfour Standing stones, located on the estate that date back 6000 years.
Alvie Estates are relatively new to the Shorthorn breed. Their interest began when they purchased a Shorthorn herd sire to use in their commercial herd. They decided to use a Shorthorn bull to add some more docility to their herd. They were pleasantly surprised by the results they received, as not only were the resulting calves very easy to work with, they also had excellent growth. After seeing this, they decided to start a purebred herd and purchased a few females from Scottish breeders. These females are an impressive set and they will provide a great foundation to build their herd upon.In 2007 they decided to purchase some embryos and use some of their commercial cows as recipients. Ten embryos were purchased from our farm and they have 8 offspring on the ground. These calves are sired by Saskvalley Pioneer 126P x and Wolf Willow Major Leroy 1M x. Another ten embryos were purchased in 2008.
ET heifer, Alvie Bracken (P) ET ( Saskvalley Pioneer 126P x X Prairie Lane Sparkle 1K x
Bull calf by Saskvalley Pioneer x Prairie Lane Sparkle at Alvie Estates
It took most of the first day there to tour the different parts of Alvie Estate. Cathryn and Victor toured me through the purebred and commercial herds in the morning. Jamie then gave me a tour of the rest of the operation, and this took almost the entire afternoon. To give you an idea of how high the hills in the highlands are, the road from the estate to the top of the hill is 6.5 miles long, most of it bending its way up and around the hill to the top. The highland hills have a very fragile ecosystem, and they are used mainly for sheep as well as wildlife habitat.
Some foundation females at Alvie Estate
The next day, Victor Watson drove me over into Perthshire to see the countryside of my ancestors. The countryside around Rothiemay is very productive agricultural land and is more gently rolling than the Highlands. The spring fed streams that are common throughout all the parts of Scotland I visited, were also prominent here. The crops were amazing. I had to think that things must have been very bad in Scotland in 1884, for my forebearers to move their family from such a beautiful place. It was raining hard when we arrived at Rothiemay so we drove through the countryside and got a good understanding of this part of Scotland. The buildings in the small villages are very old, but kept in excellent repair. I was also very impressed with how clean these villages were, and how well maintained the yards were.
We were only a few miles from the farm of Henk and Helen Rennienear, Insch in Aberdeenshire, so we stopped in for a visit. I had met Henk at the Royal Highland show and he had asked me to try to stop in if I was in the vicinity. The Rennie’s have a very high quality Angus herd, as well as a small group of Shorthorn’s. They had purchased an embryo from us from our Elsie’s Jade donor and sired by Byland Gold Spear x. They had a beautiful 3 year old female that they were very proud of, named Ardoyne Elsie’s Jade Gold (P). They also have a very good late June, 2007 ET heifer sired by Shouflers El Bonito 104X ET x* and Winalot Isabelle 2M x* that was purchased from Dixon Farms, Vermilion, AB. As we drove into the Rennie’s yard, the rain stopped. We spent four hours visiting with Henk and Helen and it did not rain during this time. As we left, the rain started again and it was raining hard as we drove down the lane. It was almost as if it had been planned this way.
Ardoyne Elsie`s Jade Gold (P)
The following day started out bright and mild. Victor Watson, Cathryn Williamson and myself headed north to visit some more Shorthorn herds. It was a one and a half hour drive to the Ross-shire district, to visit the Fearn herd owned by James and John Scott. One thing that surprised me somewhat was that as we headed north, out of the Scottish highlands, the landscape was flatter and very fertile. We were heading into some of most fertile agricultural land in Scotland. The first stop of the day was at Fearn Farm, Fearn, Tain, Ross-shire, owned by James and John Scott and their families. The Scott families have a diversified farming operation consisting of the purebred Shorthorn herd, a commercial beef herd, crops and a sizable sheep operation. John purchased their first purebred Shorthorn females in the Calrossie dispersal in 1995. Two females were purchased and the genetics of these combined to produce Fearn Scotsman (P) whose dam died when he was two weeks old. Despite this setback, Scotsman continued to grow and he as the first bull the Scott`s sold at Perth. He topped the 2003 Perth sale at 11,000 guineas which was the highest price paid for a Shorthorn bull in more than 40 years in Britain. He sold to Cairnsmore Shorthorns in Southern Scotland.
As we drove into the pasture, a red bull calf stood up and he instantly got my attention. This calf was only a few weeks old but he already had the look of becoming a significant herd sire. He was red and polled and sired by the Australian sire, Bundaleer Yankee Cruiser (P).John pointed out another Yankee Cruiser bull calf and he also was very impressive. As we moved into the herd, it became more obvious why these calves were good. Their dams were also very impressive. James and John Scott may not have the biggest herd of Shorthorns, but they have certainly concentrated on quality animals.
One of the very good females in this herd is one I will always remember. This female is Fearn Passion (P), and she is one of the most outstanding females I have ever seen. This cow is now nine years old but still is very youthful in appearance. This cow`s pedigree is a blend of Scottish and Canadian Shorthorn bloodlines with some Maine genetics in her background as well. She is a daughter of Uppermill Loch Alsh (P) and Glenisla Fairy Clipper K33 (P). Two bulls imported from Canada appear within the top three generations, these being Banner Instant Royal 31Y x (he appears twice) and Diamond Xerxes 8X x. Passion is a big cow, who weighs in excess of 2300 pounds on pasture, but she is also a very productive female. She is tremendously thick and long bodied, and is smooth as an apple. She is very broody in appearance and she has several offspring in the pasture to prove her breeding ability. Her offspring also possess exceptional quality. One of her sons, Fearn Wyvis (P) topped the 2005 Perth Bull Sale at 8000 guineas and sold to Major John Gibbs, Glenisla herd. Six more daughters also look exceptional. In the next field, Passion`s two year old ET son is working. This bull is Fearn Zeus (P) ET and he is a full brother to Fearn Wyvis (P). He is sired by Dunsyre North Star (P). Zeus possesses his dam`s thickness, length and smoothness. He appears to be very easy fleshing and weighs over 2200 pounds as a two year old. The Scott`s plan to sell him in Perth in February, 2009. This bull has much to offer!
Fearn Passion (P)
Fearn Zeus (P) - a two year old son of Fearn Passion (P)
Fearn Passion X (P) – one of 6 daughters of Fearn Passion (P) in the Fearn herd
Just before leaving the Fearn farm, James Scott asked me if I had ever heard of the Calrossie herd of Shorthorns. I said that I had grown up hearing about Calrossie and remembered several great Calrossie sires that had come to Canada a few decades ago. He said that Calrossie was the next farm to them, and that Donald and Di MacGillvary still lived there and now had a commercial herd of cattle. John Scott suggested we should at least go over to see them while we were so close. As we approached Calrossie, we found the MacGillvary’s sitting on the side of the road in their vehicle, as they were moving their cows to a new pasture. They are now quite elderly, but still take a very active part in the management of their cowherd and their farm. We had a great visit and the MacGillvary’s related many stories of days gone by, when they sold many Shorthorns to all parts of the world.
Donald and Di actually met at the Perth Bull Sale. Di had grown up in Australia and at age 18 was sent to Scotland by her father, to purchase a herd sire at the Perth Bull Sale. We could have visited all day, as their stories brought back many memories from the past. They recalled many names of Canadian and American Shorthorn breeders who made many trips to Scotland to purchase breeding stock. This was indeed one of the highlights of my visit to Scotland.
On our way back towards Edinburgh we stopped to visit the Woodend herd owned by Ken Greenwood. The Greenwood’s herd is small in numbers but high in quality. Two red full sisters were very impressive and they were the type anyone would be proud to own. The Greenwood`s produced an excellent bull, Woodend Yale (P)that is now a herd sire in the famed Uppermill herd, which is now in Northern Ireland. Their present herd sire is a big framed Uppermill bred sire.
Full sisters at Woodend- sired by Balmyle Zeus (H) ET
By now it was late afternoon and my flight home was early the next morning. We headed back to Alvie Estate, and then on to Edinburgh where I would stay that night. In some ways, I was feeling that my trip was way too short, but then, I had known that before I left home. There was still far too much to see. My stay had only allowed me to see a very few of the great Shorthorn herds in Britain. The herds I had the privilege to visit all left a strong impression with me. It appeared to me that the British Shorthorn breeders have done an excellent job of moving the breed to a place where they are now being again accepted in the beef industry there. The future of the Shorthorn breed there looks positive and bright. The hospitality shown to me was world class. The people I met were genuine, and superb. Scotland is a beautiful part of the world, with many changes in landscape and many centuries of history. The next morning as I waited to board my plane, I knew one thing for certain. I would be back to visit again… and it would be sooner rather than later.