Leading Borders farmer and a former president of the Suffolk Sheep Society William (Willum) Stewart of Bartlehill, Kelso, has died at the age of 92. He was a much-loved figure in the Borders farming community for his jovial personality and keen sense of humor and as a prominent breeder of both Suffolk sheep and Aberdeen-Angus cattle.
Born at Tinnis in the Yarrow valley in 1930, the third of Archie and Margaret Stewart’s six children, the family moved to Grahamslaw Farm, Kelso, in 1941. At 16, he went to work for one of the leading Aberdeen-Angus cattlemen of the time, Gavin Ogg, at Carroch, Kirriemuir. The learning experience kindled his interest in the Aberdeen-Angus breed and led to the establishment of a pedigree herd at Grahamslaw in 1950.
Following his marriage in 1954 to Jennie Todd, whose family bred Aberdeen-Angus at Greenend, St Boswells, he moved to Bartlehill, taking the cattle with him but retaining the Grahamslaw herd prefix, and in partnership with his father and two brothers, Archie and Charlie, trading as A Stewart and Sons, building up a highly productive farm.
The Suffolk flock was founded in 1954 with purchases from Hugh Fraser, Linton Burnfoot, Kelso, and sold rams at the Kelso ram sales for 60 years. The breed record price at the time for ram lambs was held on three occasions with prices of £2,400, £2,900 and £4,600, the latter for Bartlehill Balsteros, which was sold to the Mair family’s Muiresk flock in Aberdeenshire, and went on to become breed Sire of the Year based on the average price of progeny sold. Perhaps the most noted ram bred in the flock was Bartlehill Cannon, named Sire of the Year twice for Jimmy Wilson’s Bridgestone flock.
The Bridgestone flock won the breed championship at seven summer shows in one season, including the Highland and the Royal, with different progeny of Cannon. The male championship was won twice by Bartlehill at the breed’s annual show and sale in Edinburgh and a further championship success was recorded at the annual breed sale at Malton in Yorkshire.
Willum’s services as a judge were much in demand and he officiated at all the major shows throughout the country, including the Royal Highland, Royal, Great Yorkshire and Royal Ulster as well as at all the major breed sales. He was also a past president of the Suffolk Sheep Society and a founder member of both the Borders Suffolk Club and the Borders Aberdeen-Angus Club.
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The Grahamslaw Aberdeen-Angus herd was noted for the breeding of solid commercial cattle for use in suckler herds but also won a junior championship and award for the best group of three bulls at a Perth autumn bull sale in the 1970s. The herd also showed success at the Royal Highland Show and the Border Union Show.
Willum was part of an Aberdeen-Angus delegation from the UK which visited Argentina in 1970 to attend the famous Palermo show and sale in Buenos Aires and visit many of the top Aberdeen-Angus herds.
He was a late recruit to the hunting scene but became a keen supporter of the Buccleuch after winning a bet with his friend, the late Jock Mitchell of Birgham Haugh, Coldstream, that he couldn’t manage a day’s hunting. He did and raised £500 for Eccles Church. Shortly afterwards, he even bought a horse and eventually became joint hunt secretary for a number of years, enjoying many great hunting days over the years with Jennie.
Willum farmed at Bartlehill until 2001 and at Springhall, Kelso, from 1964 to date and East Buccleuch from 1976 to 1986, as well as managing Eccles Mains for Mrs Joyce Wilson in the 1960s. I have maintained his partnership in A Stewart and Sons, farming at Grahamslaw, Towford, Under Chatto, Over Dalgleish and Gordon East Mains.
According to his family, he remained as “argumentative and full of life as ever” right to the end, with an electric scooter allowing him to get around the farms to see what was going on.
Paying tribute to his close friend and fellow Suffolk breeder, Jimmy Wilson said: “He was a real character who will be sorely missed. I always looked forward to meeting up with him at the breed sales, where we would invariably adjourn to his trailer for him to enjoy a refreshment. Willum and Jennie were always very hospitable.”
Mr Wilson also recalls the show of 40-60 shearling rams from Bartlehill at the Kelso ram sales each year which were always a great attraction and were always amongst the highest averages.
An example of Willum’s humor involved a visit by the Borders Aberdeen-Angus Club to the Ogg family’s Buchaam Aberdeen-Angus herd at Strathdon in the 1970s to view one of the first Canadian Aberdeen-Angus bulls imported to the UK from Canada. The group were amazed that the late Alex Ogg was prepared to show off his bull, which was totally different from the type Alex (or anybody else) was breeding in the UK at the time – tall, narrow, long-legged and plain, compared with the traditional smaller short-coupled Aberdeen-Angus which were in vogue at the time.
Nobody was saying very much about the bull until Alex said: “Ye’re a’ afa’ quiet – fit dae ye think o’ ma new bull?” Willum was the only one brave enough to venture a reply and he did not mince his words about it.
“Well, Alex,” he said. “Since you ask I’ll tell you what I think. The bugger should be shot. But you’ll hae to tak’ him fae the side as he’s sae bloody narrow, you’ll never hit him fae behind!”
Willum survived a cancer operation only six weeks before his death but died after collapsing in his garden at home.
He is survived by his wife, Jennie, four children, 12 grandchildren and 11 great grandchildren.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.