Ploughing matches have been part of the rural scene in Scotland since the late eighteenth century. At these events ploughmen (or ploughwomen) each plough part of a field and the resulting furrows are judged for neatness and straightness. Since around 1800 the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland has encouraged these matches by offering awards at locally organised events. In Largo Parish, during the second half of the nineteenth century, the Largo District Ploughing Society arranged an annual ploughing match at which a representative from the H.A.S.S. attended and prizes were given.
Largo's society and annual competition originated early in 1846. That year many Largo agricultural folk attended a ploughing match at Winthank, near St Andrews. Several Largo ploughmen competed - the winner being Thomas Lindsay of Teuchats. The judges were all Largo farmers. It was resolved on that day to "have an annual meeting for the improvement of ploughing" and the society was formed (see 19 Feb 1846 Fifeshire Journal piece below).
The table further below shows the details of the annual ploughing matches that followed. The venue rotated around the local farms. Thomas Lindsay was a frequent winner in the early years. Later William Latto and Henry Dalrymple had multiple wins. The number of ploughs competing was typically more than twenty. The month in which the ploughing match was held varied, so some calendar years had two matches while others had none. The matches attracted many spectators despite the fact that often the weather conditions were unfavourable. Mrs Duff's Inn at Upper Largo became the post-match venue of choice, hosting the society's dinner almost every year.
As well as encouraging a competitive spirit among ploughmen, ploughing matches played an important role in developing the skill and technique of ploughing and even stimulated improvements in plough design. The matches usually took place on lea ground (that is open meadow, grass or arable land). The best part of the field is selected and an equal allocation of ground given to each competitor. A peg, bearing a number, is fixed in the ground at the end of each lot, which are as many as ploughs entered in competition. Numbers on slips of paper corresponding to those on the pegs, are drawn by the competing ploughmen, who take the lots as drawn. Plenty time is allowed to finish the ploughing of each lot. Speed is not as important as the quality of execution. Generally, the judges are brought in from outside the immediate locality, so that they can have no personal interest in the exhibition.
The fact that the annual Largo event started in 1846 and continued for the immediately following decades had much to do with the arrival of Lilias Dundas Calderwood Durham at Largo House in late 1845. She supported the event by giving towards the annual prize money (this was one pound annually as a donation in the 1840s). From the start, and for many years, her overseer, Archibald Smail was the secretary to the society. The 13 November 1845 Northern Warder piece below tells of the "festive rejoicings" upon her arrival at her "patrimonial mansion" and the lighting of a large bonfire at the top of Largo Law to mark the occasion. As well as the main prizes, there was a junior section of the competition for those under 18 years of age.
The main image used on this post is of a ploughing match held locally. Thought to be at Buckthorns around 1910, the photograph shows how well-dressed the horses were. Prizes were often given for the appearance of the horses as well as for the skill of the ploughing. For example a prize might be awarded for best kept harness. Prizes for this tended to be of a practical nature - such as whips or leggings. The Largo District Ploughing Society eventually ceased - to be replaced with organisations that covered a wider geographical area - such as the East of Fife Ploughing Union and later the Fife Ploughing Society. The nature of the ploughing changed over time of course with the increasing mechanisation of farming. However, ploughing matches can still be seen up and down the country - often showcasing vintage machinery.