Obituaries: David Wilson BEM, champion blacksmith and farrier


David Wilson

With David Wilson’s recent death, this country has lost one of the most accomplished blacksmiths it has known. His prowess of him in making and fitting horseshoes was confirmed when he won the World Horse Shoeing Championship in Calgary, Canada in 1985.

This was no one-off achievement as David also won a number of championships at the Highland Show where he competed for over five decades. On one occasion, at the 1984 Highland show held at Ingliston, he won all the senior events. Helping to make that year a particularly memorable event for the Wilson family, his son, also David, took the Apprentice award at the same show.

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David’s first appearance at the Highland show came in 1956, when he entered the Apprentice class. As this was long before the Highland settled down at its Ingliston base, David and a friend drove their motorbikes up to Inverness where the show was held that year. They had booked no accommodation but slept in a tent on a heap of straw. And how did he get on in the competition? “I came second,” was his guarded reply from him, not revealing there were but two apprentice blacksmiths competing.

David Wilson competing at the World Championships

Nothing daunted, he persevered and went back next year to claim the Apprentice award when the Highland Show was held in Dundee.

As the years passed, he demonstrated he was one of the top farriers Scotland has produced by winning competitions not only around Scotland but also in America and Canada; often despite strong competition from the local champions.

He was born and brought up in Kilmany, near Cupar, where his father ran the local Smiddy. (Incidentally this small hamlet with no more than a dozen houses can claim it has produced two world champions; David and racing car champion, Jim Clark.)

David was destined to be a blacksmith as the previous five generations of his family stretching back almost 200 years had earned their livelihoods shaping horseshoes and hammering out ploughshares over the forge.

He learned his trade from his father and even at a young age was recognized for his positive response when faced with the bits of bent metal brought to the smiddy by neighboring farmers and their workers. In his schoolboy days, farmers often turned up with their horses to get them shod as was the custom, so David had experience from his early years in seeing the practice at shoeing.

Following his father’s death, he completed his apprenticeship with Jock McKenzie at Ayton Smiddy outside Cupar. Often the pair of them would, after their day’s work was done, practice the skills of farriery. When they competed in Pairs competitions, a judge remarked on the fact that, unlike their opposition, David and Jock did not speak to each other. David’s response was succinct: “We knew what the other person was going to do so there was no point in talking about it.” Their empathy in working together was proven when they scooped the world pairs competition.

After gaining successes at various competitions in Scotland, David had looked across the Atlantic to where the World Championships were held in Calgary and decided to test his skills there.

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His first venture to this hotbed cowboy country may not have resulted in success but it did whet his appetite to return and try again and when he did return, he was prepared for all the razzamatazz that accompanied the event.

After two days of intense competition that gradually whittled down the opposition David narrowly led the rest of the field. Despite working in temperatures reaching up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit brought about by the many forges being used by the competitors, he held onto this lead, making two near-perfect shoes, and thus secured the title of 1985 World Horse Shoeing champion.

After winning in Calgary, David traveled the world both as a highly respected judge and as a clinician. He was also an examiner for the Worshipful Company of Farriers and, as such, visited the various farrier schools around the UK.

His reputation in the profession saw him elected as president of the British Farriers and Blacksmiths Association. From his work in these positions, David was awarded a British Empire Medal for services to the farrier profession.

Back home, David and his wife Mairi ran the successful Balmullo smithy, where they carried out a large range of welding, fabrication and general blacksmithing tasks.

It wasn’t all work though: David’s lifelong hobby was pigeon racing, which he started while still a schoolboy and continued until his death. He was extremely proud to have won the yearling section of the Scottish National last year, with a very special pigeon which he named Sofia Mairi after one of his great granddaughters.

He became a local celebrity, having a street in his home village of Balmullo named after him. Not content with that, local Scottish dance band leader, Bobby Crowe, composed a jig called “David Wilson, the Balmullo Blacksmith” in his honor of him.

From his schooldays, David was very sporty. He was a successful middle distance runner at Highland Games and also an accomplished footballer.

David was a keen curler, being a long-time member and one-time president of the Forret Curling Club. He was also an enthusiastic golfer and often played with his brother and his grandchildren.

Always happy to do his part in the local community, David was chairman of Balmullo Burns Club, and would often be asked to judge Burns poetry competitions at Balmullo Primary School. He was also an elder at Leuchars Church for over 50 years

Most of all, David was a family man. He was married to Mairi for over 60 years. As often as time allowed, David and Mairi would travel to the Isle of Skye, where they had a family holiday home. These were times when he could relax and unwind, but he would often be found dipping and shearing sheep with the neighbours, cutting peats for the fire and repairing fences around the croft. While on Skye he very much enjoyed fishing for salmon on the river or going out on his boat to catch mackerel.

Together, David and Mairi had three daughters, Margaret, Ann and Donna, along with their son David, who has followed his father as a farrier. David had 11 grandchildren, two of whom have become the next generation of Wilson farriers. He also had 12 great grandchildren.

Although he reached the heights in his life, David remained very grounded and always was the best of company.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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