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The Boys Ploughing Match and the Festival of the Horse, South Ronaldsay. Orkney

On the third Saturday of August a unique and practically unbroken custom takes place on the small island of South Ronaldsay in Orkney. In the early 1800's the men of Orkney would have ploughing matches in April, where their skills were judged, their ploughs polished and inspected and their horses would be spruced up for the occasion with harnesses blackened and pom poms and ribbons added the their manes. Their children would no doubt look on and at some point they started to emulate their elders by holding their own competitions.


At first their ploughs would be a stick with an Ox hoof tied to it but as time went on these became more elaborate and then in 1920 a local blacksmith, Bill Hourston, made a beautiful replica plough. Fathers would then make their sons miniature ploughs in order to teach them their skills and prepare them for a life working the land. The children's competition became more formalised and different categories were added.

Of course you can't have a plough without a horse. The children started to dress in highly stylised horse harnesses, complete with a mane and often a tail, mimicking the Clydesdale horse decorations. Due to the often harsh weather in April, the competition moved to August. These children's competitions once happened all over Orkney but today only one still survives in the village of St Margaret's Hope and on the nearby beach, the Sands O'Wright. These days girls are allowed to dress as horses but not to take part in the ploughing match.


The 18th August was bright and sunny in St Margaret's Hope and the MoBF's director was invited to help set up the tables and chairs for the judging. The children arrived with their parents and suitcases of elaborate costumes were unpacked in the local school hall. Having dressed, the children lined up, the horses reins being held by a ploughboy. A Piper then lead the children out in a procession where the boys sat down with their ploughs on a row of benches, while the horses lined up behind them, ready to be judged.


The horses' costumes really are extraordinary and are often passed down the family line, being embellished along the way. Several of the costumes on show were originally from the late 1940's. The styles change slightly from year to year, some favouring more or less decoration. Judges mark on the quality of decoration and of how close to a real horses attire the outfit is. The boys are judged on how well they have kept their ploughs during the past year.

After the judging the children are lead back into the hall by the piper before everyone makes their way down to the beach at the Sands O'Wright. Here an area has been swept and marked out for the boys ploughing match. Lots are drawn to determine who gets which patch of sand and the boys split into three groups. These are the Under 8's, the Ordinary Class and the Champion Class.


The boys are encouraged by their helpers, usually family members who were former plough boys, but they are not allowed to assist with the actual ploughing. A whistle is blown and the boys have 45 minutes to work their way back and forth ploughing the damp sand. An air of intense concentration falls as the boys aim to keep a consistent depth of furrow which is as straight as possible. As with the horses, once the time is up and the judges take stock, the winners are not announced until later. After the allotted time everyone stands back to inspect their work and that of others.


The prizes are not given out until later back at the school hall. As well as cups and rosettes, family members bring gifts for the children which are heaped upon long tables. This ensures that nobody goes home empty handed and each child is rewarded for the effort they have made during the day.

Should you wish to visit St Margaret's be sure to call into the Blacksmiths Museum which has an example of a horse costume as well as many interesting images from past festivals. The MoBF is indebted to Herbert and Ingrid MacKenzie for all their time and help.

Simon Costin would also very much like to thank Moira Budge, Anne Peace, John Thomson, Janette Park and the people of South Ronaldsay for their kindness and advice during his stay.