Blue Greys

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Blue greys beneath an open roof

The weather is almost guaranteed to be horrendous in Newcastleton during the last week in October. Rain falls in blue curtains over the landscape, turning the burns into writhing white ribbons. Langholm Moor glowers over the town – miles of red, autumnal grass lie vulnerable beneath banks of cloud and mist. Black grouse lurk through cushions of moss and bracken, and the hills drip cold like a dungeon.

The Great Annual Sale of blue grey cattle takes place at Newcastleton every autumn. It is the oldest suckler cattle sale in Britain, and it has been held in the same auction ring since the 1880s. Bleak, autumnal weather adds to the spectacle of the sale. Bidders and spectators gather in a tight crowd as the beasts begin to stir and are organised into their lots. The sale is lit by an open roof, and dull, natural light floods in from a glowering sky above. It is difficult to imagine the sale on a crisp, sunny day – it would hardly work without waterproof leggings and heavy jackets. Steaming teams of hairy cows are poured in to the ring like ingredients. They are stirred and kneaded by men in blue jackets, and their owners walk slowly behind them, bearing expressions of pained resignation. The wooden walls bear faded, tatty remnants of Edwardian advertisements between patches of mildew and mould.

Of course the bidding is mysterious and unreadable. This is a world of poker-faced subtlety. If you can attract the auctioneer’s attention with a single throbbing vein, then you’re almost a man, my son. Protocol dictates that all faces around the ring should be left utterly blank, but allowances are sometimes made for expressions of despair and boredom. In this game, triumph and defeat run in screaming riot behind a screen of pessimistic indifference. After four centuries of determined Presbyterianism in the Southern Uplands, this is a masterclass in suppressed emotion.

Blue greys are a living symbol of co-operation. The animals are a first generation mix between a black galloway cow and a white shorthorn bull. In theory, the hybrid calf takes on the best characteristics of both hardy mother and productive father, and the heifers are sought after as breeding animals for commercial farms. Blue greys have had a bumpy ride over the last thirty years – many of their best characteristics have been ignored or forgotten in the modern rollercoaster of commercial beef production. It was really nice to see blue greys selling for good money at Newcastleton, because so much of this traditional farm heritage has withered and died, even in my lifetime. The prices showed that these animals are still relevant.

Studying Scottish Language at Glasgow almost ten years ago, I was struck by a series of lectures which argued that “Scotland” and “England” are clumsy terms. It makes far more sense to divide the two into three countries: “The Highlands” north of the Highland line, “the North” between Edinburgh and Hull, and “the Lowlands” from Hull to the Channel.

I can really subscribe to this idea, particularly when you remember how arbitrary and recent the current border is between Scotland and England. I see more of Galloway in Cumbria than I do in Sutherland. The blue grey symbolises this theoretical “North”, combining the best characteristics of the Northumbrian shorthorn with the Scottish galloway, and these are important connections. The mart at Newcastleton was a babel of regional accents during the blue grey sale, with clashing twangs of Wigtownshire and Lancashire, Cumbria and Durham. The smell of chips and onion gravy blurred with cow shit and hot axle mud. Long may these blends continue.

The ingredients: A white shorthorn bull and a black galloway cow

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