Saturday, 23 June 2018

Hugh Watson (1787 – 1865), the first great improver of polled Angus cattle


Today the Aberdeen Angus is the most popular breed of beef cattle in the world, being the principal choice of farmers in the major beef-producing countries of the USA, Canada and Argentina.  The reasons for the popularity of the breed are hardiness, docility, natural hornlessness, early maturation, ease of calving and large, high value muscle content.   The Aberden Angus emerged from the native polled animals of the North East of Scotland, largely during the 19th century.

Before they were improved, and the breed characteristics were defined by parental selection and enhanced feeding, the animals were of only small-to-medium size and were variable in appearance and physiology.  Their rise from having only local significance to world-domination required the intervention of several skilled and analytical herd-improvers, from both the north and the south sides of the Grampian mountains.  The most important of these early innovators was Hugh Watson.  Like many great men, the achievements for which he is remembered today are only a subset of his works of note.  Hugh Watson is justifiably labelled as the father of the Aberdeen Angus breed, but he also had a major influence on the development of the railway system between Perth and Aberdeen and he was the most important adaptor of Southdown sheep and Leicester – Southdown crosses for medium elevations in Scotland.  Fundamentally, he was an entrepreneur and businessman, who was open to fresh ideas and always willing to branch out in a novel direction.

This is the story of Hugh Watson’s life.
Hugh Watson engraving

The Watson family

Hugh Watson was born in 1787 at Bannatyne, which lies near the village of Newtyle in the county presently known as Angus. During the 19th century it was called Forfarshire, though Angusshire was, even then, an alternative name.  Forfarshire, except for the city of Dundee, was a largely agricultural county and the patriclinal antecedents (father, grandfather and great grandfather) of Hugh Watson had all been involved in raising native polled cattle.  As with the rest of rural Scotland, land ownership in Forfarshire was dominated by a few major proprietors.  In the late 19th century the Belmont estate in Forfarshire was owned by Lord Wharncliffe and Hugh Watson’s father, William, and paternal grandfather, George, had both been factor (manager) on the Belmont estate.  This role was important, intermediating between the estate owner and the population of tenant farmers, ensuring that the land was husbanded properly, and its value preserved, thus generating the rental income on which the owner depended for maintaining an elevated lifestyle.  Hugh Watson’s great-grandfather had also reared polled cattle on the farm of Cattie.  William Watson, the father of Hugh, at some stage became the tenant of the farm of Auchtertyre on the Kinpurnie estate (owned by the Wharncliffes) and it may have been at this farm that Hugh Watson was born.   He thus grew up in economically comfortable circumstances, steeped in local knowledge about livestock and crops and, especially, the local dodded (hornless) cattle.

Keillor Farm

Hugh Watson’s family were wealthy enough to send him to Edinburgh University for one or two sessions (academic years) but his aspirations were clearly focussed on a career in farming and at the age of about 21, probably in 1808, he became the tenant of another Wharncliffe farm, Keillor, which was adjacent to his father’s farm, Auchtertyre.  (Hugh Watson is thought to have leased Keillor for “three nineteeners” and when he retired in 1861 the last lease had 4 years still to run.  Thus subtracting 53 years from 1861 gives the year 1808 as the start of his occupancy).  Keillor farm lies at the foot of the Sidlaw Hills on the southern edge of Strathmore (“large valley” in Gaelic), a fertile farming area running in a north-easterly direction across Forfarshire.  Hugh Watson quickly established himself as a farmer, raising sheep, polled cattle and a variety of arable crops.  He also fitted effortlessly into the social life of the landowning and agricultural community of the county, in due course fulfilling the role of chairman, croupier or steward at frequent celebratory dinners. Hugh Watson became close to both Captain Barclay of Ury, Kincardineshire and Lord Panmure, who lived at Brechin castle.  (Robert Barclay-Allardyce was a remarkable character who once walked 1000 miles in 1000 hours for a £1000 wager.  His family founded Barclay’s Bank.  William Maule, Lord Panmure, was the second son of Lord Dalhousie, but took the surname Maule when he inherited the Panmure estates from a maternal great uncle.  Both Barclay and Panmure were major landowners and became cattle breeders, Barclay of Shorthorns and Panmure of polled black cattle.) The sporting interests of Hugh Watson included horse racing and coursing with greyhounds.

Watson gained the respect of his landlord, Lord Warncliffe, through his agricultural endeavours, as the following anecdote demonstrates.  Sometime in the period 1831 – 1841, following a survey of Keillor farm for the purpose of improving it, Hugh Watson went to speak with Wharncliffe about the rental level to be charged.  Wharncliffe simply said, “I may safely leave it to yourself Watson for after what I have seen today I think you have a better right to be here than I have.”
Keillor and Auchtertyre farms   

A revolution in cattle farming

During the first half of the 19th century, cattle farming in Scotland underwent a dramatic change in organisation.  Before the advent of steam locomotion (railways and steam ships) and artificial phosphate fertilisers (bone dust and guano), cattle were raised throughout the northern parts of the country and moved to market by droving, usually in the late summer/early autumn, often for several hundred miles. They travelled in a lean condition to be overwintered and fattened in milder climes, in the south of Scotland or England, before being moved on to the ultimate markets in the large cities of both countries.  This economic model was replaced by one where the cattle were fattened in cattle courts overwinter in the producing counties, using feed consisting mainly of straw, cattle cake and especially turnips grown with the aid of added phosphate fertilisers.  Animals were then transported to market by steam ships and, especially, the railways.  The wealth of the cattle-producers was greatly increased by this change.  This agricultural revolution is discussed more extensively in William McCombie (1805 – 1880), “creator of a peculiarly excellent sort of bullocks” on this blogsite.  William McCombie was another important developer of the Aberdeen Angus breed whose early career partly overlapped that of Hugh Watson.
Keillor farm steadings, now converted to housing

Native Scottish cattle

The information available on native Scottish cattle, early in the 19th century and before, suggests that they were diverse with regional variations in appearance.  They also differed in their physiological and behavioural characteristics.  Polled cattle have existed in Scotland for hundreds of years and they were common throughout the north east counties of Scotland by the 18th century.  At some stage they became a breed, the hornless state becoming a marker, rather than just a genetically determined variant scattered in a heterogeneous bovine continuum.  This breed differentiation implied that some level of parental selection was operating.  The diversity of early Scottish cattle is discussed in William McCombie (1805 – 1880), “creator of a peculiarly excellent sort of bullocks”. 

In the county of Fife, which is adjacent to Forfarshire, there was a distinct type of polled cattle, Fife doddies, which were recognisably different from their neighbours, the Angus doddies.  It is claimed that Hugh Watson’s (Watson) great grandfather had reared polled cattle and, although the date is not known, it cannot have been later than the mid-18th century.  Probably in 1808 (it could have been as early as 1807 or as late as 1811 from various indicators) Hugh Watson took a lease to Keillor Farm, began his own herd of Angus dodded cattle and initiated the process of “improving” the characteristics of the animals by selective breeding.  It is possible, even likely, that he was not the first such selective breeder of Angus doddies but he was the first such herd keeper whose efforts were documented to a significant extent, and who was generally recognised by his peers for the success of his efforts.

The origins of Hugh Watson’s Angus herd 

Hugh Watson started cattle breeding in 1810, but from where did Hugh he get the animals to found his herd?  It is claimed that his original cows were six black dodded Angus beasts from his father’s herd at the adjacent farm of Auchtertyre, along with one Angus bull.  He obtained a second bull from the Trinity Muir market, held in Brechin each June and this animal was given the name of “Tarnity Jock” (it appears that “Trinity” was corrupted to “Tarnity”, “Tarnty” and “Taranty”).  A further ten heifers were also bought at Trinity Muir and were believed to come from the farms of West Scryne, Kinnaird and Fannell in East Forfarshire.  This stock of largely undocumented animals formed the starting material from which Hugh Watson’s great venture was initiated.  Another significant feature of Hugh Watson’s herd was related by his friend, Thomas Ferguson of Kinochtry.  He said that for a period of 50 years (ie about 1808 – 1858), virtually the whole of Hugh Watson’s career as a cattle breeder, he almost always used bulls from his own stock (“President 3rd” appears to have been an exception).  This was in marked contrast to other significant (but later) breeders of the polled black cattle, such as Lord Panmure of Brechin Castle, Mr Fullerton of Ardovie, Mr Bowie of Mains of Kelly, Mr Walker of Portlethen and Mr McCombie of Tillyfour, who regularly bought bulls and other breeding stock from high status herds in Forfarshire, Kincardineshire and Aberdeenshire. 

In the period 1810 – 1815 the Perthshire Courier reported an increase in the popularity of black dodded cattle and the first indications of the use of turnips for cattle feeding over winter, for example in December 1811, “Sales of black cattle greatly improved.  Feeding cattle are now all tied up and derive much good from the turnip”.  Polled cattle were very popular with English dealers who annually came to Forfarshire to buy grazing cattle for fattening, mainly in Norfolk and Leicestershire.  At that time, these Angus polled cattle were lumped together with the Galloways and termed “Galloway Scots”.  In June 1815, the Perthshire Courier wrote, “Demand for cattle was brisk and those in good condition brought high prices, particularly dodded or hornless stots which seem daily coming more in vogue.”  Was Hugh Watson responding to this increased popularity of the dodded Angus cattle by developing his herd?  Was he, to some extent, responsible for the increase in demand due to his improvement of the breed by selection?

Did Hugh Watson hybridise Angus and Galloway polled cattle?

In August 1818, Hugh Watson advertised his “annual sale by auction of cattle and horses reared on the farm of Keillor, Angusshire”.  This was the first such advertisement detected in the present study, but it raised the possibility that there had been an earlier annual sale, or sales, of cattle at Keillor.  The advertisement remarked that the cattle were of the “improved Dodded” variety and that they were of both “Angus” and “Galloway” types.  This entry in the Perthshire Courier also contained the intriguing information that Hugh Watson was crossing Angus and Galloway cattle to combine the best qualities of each breed.  “The above stock of cattle have been bred with great attention to crossing, etc and will be found to combine the symmetry of the Galloways with the justly esteemed fattening qualities of the Angus Ox.  Gentlemen wishing to get into a superior breed of cattle will find them well worth their attention.”   It was certainly the case that Galloways had been used in the improvement of the beef Shorthorns.  Much later in the 19th century there would be persistent debate about the “purity” of the Aberdeen and Angus polled cattle, there being several claims that there had in the past been some crossing with Galloways, Shorthorns or even Guernseys, followed by back-crossing to Aberdeen and Angus polled types.  At the Highland show at Perth in 1829 Hugh Watson gained a prize for a “heifer whose dam had a strain of Guernsey blood was again shown in London same year at the Smithfield show”.  The judges said of her “that in their opinion she was nearer the point of perfection than any animal ever shown at Smithfield.
In the 1818 advertisement, Hugh Watson also mentioned two of his bulls, “Galloway Jock”, who was presumably a Galloway and “Sir John Barleycorn”, of unknown type but presumably dodded, who had been used to inseminate 20 queys (heifers) which were offered for sale.   A similar sale occurred the following August (1819).  About 100 animals in total were made available, including “two bull calves got by Galloway Jock and Sir John Barleycorn out of superior dodded cows”.  Such young bulls were clearly intended for breeding and at least one of them seems to have been a cross involving a dodded cow and a Galloway bull. 

Much later, in 1850, a book was published by James Dickinson, a cattle dealer, entitled, “The breeding and economy of livestock being the result of 40 years’ practical experience in the management and disposal of cattle, horses, sheep and pigs.”  He gave the opinion that Angus polled cattle were similar to Galloways but inferior to them in not laying down flesh so well, being less symmetrical, lacking “compactness and substance”, having thinner hides and being not so “mellow”. James Dickinson admitted that there were some fine specimens of “improved” Angus cattle found in the stocks of many eminent breeders, “such as Mr Watson”, but he thought this improvement had come from crossing with Galloways.  There were “many careless breeders in Angusshire.”   Although carelessness does not seem to have been part of the character of Hugh Watson, did Galloway - Angus crossing constitute part of his programme of improvement of dodded cattle?  Is this what was being implied by the term “improved dodded breed”?  It seems highly likely that this was so and that the Aberdeen Angus herds of today, all of which probably link back to Hugh Watson’s early animals, had an input of Galloway genetic material. 

Hugh Watson was not the only Forfarshire farmer who was successful in breeding and raising polled cattle in the early years of the 19th century.  At the Strathmore Agricultural Association show held at Cupar Angus in 1820, the first prize for the best polled bull was won by David Inches of Cardean, which lies near Meigle about seven miles north of Keillor, with Hugh Watson’s entry being placed second.  David Inches was successful in other competitions too, with both horned and polled cattle, though mostly his prize-winning animals were in the latter category.  The expertise of Mr Inches was recognised by his appointment as a judge of cattle, for example at the Highland Society show held at Galloway in 1830 when he acted along with Hugh Watson.

Hugh Watson and Shorthorns

Most of Hugh Watson’s show cattle were Angus polls but on at least three occasions, at Dundee in 1843 and Strathmore in 1844 and 1845, he won prizes with Shorthorns.  He still had an interest in Shorthorns in 1846 when he bought a Shorthorn bull at the Ury annual sale and in 1847, when he sold a Shorthorn bull at the Highland show in Aberdeen.  There is no direct evidence that Hugh Watson crossed Angus and Shorthorn animals for breeding purposes.  It is much more likely that generally he was creating bullocks and heifers for beef production by crossing Angus cows with Shorthorn bulls.  In 1858 at the Royal Highland show in Aberdeen, there were exhibited several “cross-bred oxen” produced by Hugh Watson but entered by new owners.   However, in describing one of his favourite bull’s qualities, he said “Old Jock” had “much of the Shorthorn superiority in hair and touch”, which seems to have been a telling remark.  Was this an admission of early hybridisation between an Angus and a Shorthorn?

Cattle shows and reputation

By 1820 Hugh Watson’s status as a producer of fine dodded Angus cattle was well established.  In the advertisement for his sale of cattle and horses in August of that year, he felt emboldened to write the following.  “The superiority of the above breed of cattle (polled Angus) is now so well established that any farther description is unnecessary.  This lot is confidently submitted to the public as exceeding in point of shape and quality all the stock of their kind hitherto shown at Keillor.”  Part of the sale offering was “20 Aberdeenshire spayed heifers rising 4 years old; will make excellent beef for Gentlemen who kill for their own tables.”  Watson clearly thought of Aberdeenshire polled cattle as being different from Angus cattle at that time.  It is unclear if those Aberdeenshire animals had been bred by Hugh Watson, or if they had been bought in and fattened by him.  He also offered “40 stots rising 3 years old of the Improved Dodded Breed in fine condition for wintering or feeding”, which do appear to have been produced on his farm.  In 1824 Hugh Watson was certainly crossing Aberdeen and Angus cattle.  The Fife Herald reported that an “extraordinary fat heifer” from Mr Watson which was a cross between “the Aberdeenshire and Angus breeds” was killed by butcher David Niven.  “This very uncommon animal was all sold in a few hours on Monday at 1s per pound.” 
Similar annual sales of 100 – 120 dodded cattle and a variety of horses were advertised by Hugh Watson in the Perthshire Courier until 1827.  After that year typical advertisements were not found, though the British Newspaper Archive, which was consulted, has digitised copies available of that organ for all years from 1809 to 1855.  However, there was a one-off sale of Angus polled breeding cattle at Keillor in 1848.  Hugh Watson may have advertised his sales in a different location after 1827, or he may have decided to use a different technique for disposing of his stock.  Some sales of cattle were certainly achieved at the end of major cattle shows, for example, he sold a white Shorthorn bull calf at the end of the Highland show at Dundee in 1843 but it is likely that most of his sales were achieved through private bargain, such was the status of Watson and his animals.  Other cattle breeders including his friends Lord Panmure (Angus doddies) and Captain Barclay(Shorthorns) certainly held annual sales in the mid-1840s.

In the first half of the 19th century agricultural shows became very important for displaying the animal and plant products of the agricultural industry and many new agricultural societies were formed, often with the intention of mounting such shows on a local basis.  The Strathmore Agricultural Association was formed in 1820 and held its first show the same year at Cupar Angus, Forfarshire.  Hugh Watson entered a polled bull in the competition but was beaten to first place by an animal entered by David Inches of Cardean.  Watson had the consolation of winning a first prize with his stallion, Farmer’s Glory.  This was the first show where there was evidence of Hugh Watson entering polled cattle, though there was a suggestion that he had been entering such animals at shows since 1818.  In 1821, Hugh Watson did win first prize with his dodded bull at Coupar Angus.  The following year several first places for Keillor dodded cattle were awarded and more success was gained in 1824.

The Royal Highland and Agricultural Society was founded in Edinburgh in 1784 and, from 1822, it was responsible for organising the Royal Highland Show, which for some years moved around the eight electoral areas of the Society.  Hugh Watson became a member of the Society in 1828 and in 1829 the Highland show was held in Perth.  This was the first occasion that Hugh Watson had entered livestock in a show of national significance.  He was awarded first prize in three polled cattle categories, together with a premium for a lot of six polled Angus cows.  A pair of oxen on show from Keillor, “elicited such general admiration from their size and symmetry, the black Angus one weighed 150 stones of 14lbs and the black Galloway 116 stones”.  One of Hugh Watson’s cows had been bought from Peter Watson, Kirriemuir, a dealer in Aberdeenshire cattle and it is possible that she was an Aberdeenshire polled animal.  All polled cattle at this time were lumped together in a single category for show purposes but Hugh Watson recognised Angus and Galloway polls as different and both were clearly present on his farm and in his plans.

An appearance at Smithfield

Hugh Watson’s polled Angus ox attracted such attention that he was persuaded to send the animal to the premier English livestock show held at Smithfield, London in December each year.  The aim of the Smithfield Club was to arrange improvement in all those breeds of animals which were best suited “for supplying the cattle market of Smithfield and other places with the cheapest and best meat”.  The animal was reported to have walked 60 miles by road and was then transported 400 miles by sea to reach London.  Although the port of departure is not certainly known, the distances quoted would be consistent with the ox having walked from Keillor to Leith, the port of Edinburgh, via the Queensferry crossing of the Forth estuary, before embarking on a steamer for London.  The animal gained favourable attention in the English capital, “We observe there is a beautiful black Scotch ox sent here all the way from Scotland and which justly attracts his fair share of notice.”  It was stated that the beast was fed on “grass, hay, roots and latterly has had some bruised grain”.  Watson apparently did not win a prize and he did not show again at Smithfield, except for the solitary year of 1844.  Unlike William McCombie of Tillyfour who became a regular exhibitor and winner at Smithfield and used Smithfield as a major outlet for his fat cattle, this premier English market did not appear to feature in Hugh Watson’s sales plan, probably because transport was too difficult until the railway link to London was completed in 1843.  Hugh Watson was very commercial in his approach to agricultural shows and, from his own experience, knew that premiums awarded for success did not cover his transport and associated costs.  During his career he is said to have won about 200 prizes in the showring, far fewer than the 500 won by William McCombie of Tillyfour.

Strathmore, the Royal Highland and beyond

In the period 1829 – 1850 Hugh Watson was a regular exhibitor and winner with his cattle at the bi-annual Strathmore shows at Coupar Angus and at the annual Royal Highland show held at various locations around Scotland.  But from about 1849 Hugh Watson’s showyard presence diminished.  In that year, a letter to the Aberdeen Journal remarked, “As it now stands ….Mr Watson of Keillor whose name stands so high that he rarely puts himself to the trouble to send cattle to a local show…”.  In 1853 the same newspaper, commenting on the Angus Agricultural Association show at Forfar, said, “It was universally regretted that Mr Watson of Keillor one of the most famous and successful rearers of native stock in the county had no cattle on the ground but Mr Watson no doubt had good reason for the blank without meaning the slightest disrespect to the Angus Association of which he is a fast friend.  Perhaps he is wishful to keep his strength for a comparison at the Aberdeen show next week with his successful rival at Perth last year Mr McCombie of Tillyfour.”  Perhaps a more significant factor in Hugh Watson’s absence was his increasing age of 66 years.  At this stage of his career he was highly successful and did not need to exert himself to attend every possible agricultural show.

Hugh Watson’s status as the most successful improver of polled Angus cattle was established early in his farming career locally in Forfarshire.  Over the subsequent decades it grew, and his fame spread throughout Great Britain.  In 1834 the Scotsman reported, “We observed in passing through the Middle Flesh Market yesterday morning an extraordinary show of veal at Messrs McEwan and Cowan’s stands particularly a calf only a few months old, fed by that celebrated agriculturalist Hugh Watson of Keillor, which weighs from 60lb to 70lb per quarter and of the finest quality.  This gentleman’s stock is well-known and has gained the prizes in various competitions.”.  In 1837 Watson’s animals had become so prominent that the Farmer’s Magazine carried an engraving of one of his bulls in its February edition.  The Mark Lane Express, a farming newspaper, in 1838 carried a letter from a “Scotch Farmer” which said, “Mr Watson of Keillor an enterprising breeder in Forfarshire has succeeded in bringing to great perfection some of this breed from a judicious selection from amongst themselves which improved stock are now generally denominated the Keillor breed.”  Hugh Watson’s own portrait appeared in the London Illustrated News in December 1845.  It was engraved on steel by JB Hunt from a photograph taken by Mr Beard.  This appears to be the only likeness of Hugh Watson which has survived.

Hugh Watson did occasionally display his animals outwith Scotland.  In 1843 he exhibited an Angus bull at the Royal Agricultural Society of Ireland meeting in Belfast, where he won the first prize of 20 sovereigns.  He returned to Ireland in 1847 for the show in Londonderry, where his polled bull “Strathmore” was placed first.   Other shows where Hugh Watson was represented were the Royal Agricultural Show at Windsor in 1851 and the Paris International Exhibition in 1856.

The Exposition Universelle was held at Paris in 1856.  The newly self-declared Emperor, Napoleon III, wanted a French show to rival the Crystal Palace exhibition, which had taken place in London.  There was a contingent of 437 cattle dispatched from Great Britain to compete in the various classes.  In the polled bull category, the results read like a roll of honour for the top British breeders.  1.  McCombie, Tillyfour.  2.  Walker, Portlethen.  3.  Watson, Keillor.  4.  Beattie, Galloway.  5.  Earl of Southesk.  6.  James Stewart, Aberdeen.  Napoleon III was a Doddie fancier and bought two cows from William McCombie and Hugh Watson’s 3rd-placed bull.  The cows were later recorded in volume 1 of the polled herd book (see below).  Members of the Irish delegation at the Paris exhibition were entertained by some French friends to dinner during the show and they in turn asked the English and Scottish delegations to send a representative to be included in the Irish party.  The Scots unanimously chose Hugh Watson “as being best known and appreciated on the Continent, his name being identified for many years with the improved polled Angus or hornless breed of cattle which attracted such admiration in the showyard.”  Hugh Watson was also in a group of exhibitors which was presented to Napoleon III.

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and Hugh Watson’s prize ox

An ox belonging to Hugh Watson, which was also exhibited in Belfast in 1843, caught the eye of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort.  He was subsequently bought by, or given to, Prince Albert and in May of 1844 he was sent down to London from Keillor.  The animal travelled from the recently-opened Newtyle terminus station, close to Keillor, to Dundee, where he was shipped by the steamer “London” to the English capital and then travelled on to the Flemish Farm at Windsor.  The Prince’s plan was to fatten the animal and then show him at the Smithfield show in the coming December.   Keeping polled Angus cattle became fashionable with the upper classes, more for prestige than for profit.  At Smithfield the ox attracted great attention due to his enormous size, at this time weighing over 210 stones.  He was sold to a butcher and as Prince Albert went to give him a farewell pat the beast turned to lick his hand.  Queen Victoria was so moved by this gesture from the gentle bovine that she commanded that he should be bought back.  Thus, saved from the poleaxe, he was returned to Windsor.  This animal was of such perfect form that the Royals had his portrait painted.  An image was engraved, and copies dispersed widely, one even being found some years later in a Hindu temple in India, where cattle are revered.  This Angus ox lived on for many years at Windsor and was used for ploughing.  He finally died there at the age of 18.

Hugh Watson as judge

A good indicator of the standing of Hugh Watson in the agricultural community in Scotland was his attendance at agricultural events in a judicial capacity.  He was in great demand as a judge of cattle from 1830, when he served in this capacity at the Highland Society’s show at Dumfries.  However, his services were also sought frequently for horses and sheep and, occasionally, for ploughing matches.  The greatest accolade to his experience and evaluation skills with cattle came in 1855 when he was selected as a judge for the international cattle show held at the Champ de Mars, Paris.

Towards the end of his career, Hugh Watson’s status as a polled cattle breeder was well summarised by the Aberdeen Journal. “Within a period of 40 years the polled cattle in the north have been much improved, principally by selection and feeding.  The size has been increased, the form more rounded and symmetrical and the tendency to early maturity and quickness in fattening more fully developed.  Foremost as an improver of this breed has been Hugh Watson of Keillor.  The polled cattle in the north eastern counties of Scotland owe mainly to him their present character as an improved breed."

Edward James Ravenscroft (1816 – 1890) and the Polled Herd Book

This gentleman became the first editor of the Polled Herd Book, a compilation of the leading polled animals from the north and south sides of the Grampian mountains and from south-west Scotland.  To understand the process by which this publication came into existence and the attitude of Hugh Watson to it, it is first necessary to give Edward Ravenscroft’s potted biography.

Edward Ravenscroft was born in London in 1816, the son of a peruke-maker (man’s powdered wig, such as those worn by members of the legal profession).  The year after the birth of Edward, his father Humphry was declared bankrupt.  Ravenscroft junior married Hannah Northcroft at St Pancras, London in 1836 and the couple’s first child was born the same year.  Edward Ravenscroft became a printer, engraver, publisher, dealer and chapman (pedlar or travelling salesman).  Commercial success quickly eluded him, and he too was declared bankrupt in 1837.  Ironically, one of his then recent publications had been of a one-shilling leaflet on the new Act for abolishing imprisonment for debt!
During 1840 - 1841, Edward Ravenscroft moved to Aberdeen and at the 1841 Census he described himself as a printer.  He did not stay for long in the Granite City, appearing in Wick, Caithness, in the far north of the Scottish mainland by October 1842.  In 1844 he returned to Aberdeen with his growing family, perhaps to branch out in a different career direction.  He became the agent for the Agricultural Cattle Insurance Company, which had just published its prospectus, and he also became the editor of a farming magazine of his own creation, “The Scottish Farmer”, and of the newspaper, “The Constitutional”.  Other commercial initiatives surfaced, including acting as interim secretary of the proposed Wick and Thurso Railway and becoming publisher of the “Town and County Directory” for Aberdeen.  Another publishing initiative was the launch of the “Family Journal for the North of Scotland” in 1846.  It appears to have had a slow start in attracting subscribers as the following year he tried to boost circulation by running a £100 sweepstake based on subscriber identifier.  The Agricultural Cattle Insurance Company, the Scottish Farmer and the Family Journal for the North of Scotland continued for several years.  In 1847 Edward’s various enterprises were being run from the “Scottish Farmer” office at 43 Union Street.

This constant striving for commercial success continued with further ventures.  Agent for Waghorn and Co’s Overland Route to India and publisher of “Ravenscroft’s Aberdeen Kalendar” were both initiated in 1847.  However, not all initiatives were running smoothly.  Cattle diseases were causing problems for the cattle insurance company and the two partners in “The Scottish Farmer”, Mr Avery and Edward Ravenscroft, parted company.  His publishing ventures continued with a plan for the development of the city, a 9 am, daily publication for Royalists on Queen Victoria’s visit to Scotland in 1848, and other leaflets.  

In October 1848 an unusual advertisement was placed in the Inverness Courier by Edward Ravenscroft.  A graduate of high standing of extensive experience in tuition and who can show the most satisfactory testimonials is induced to offer his services as tutor to a young gentleman attending Marischal College or Kings College.  Board and lodgings can also be furnished and in this case the superintendence would be general.  The great desirableness of such superintendence with respect to health, morals and comfort, as well as progress in learning, will be appreciated by every parent who has occasion to send his son to the University at a young age; and it is seldom that this important desideratum can be supplied to such advantage on terms so very moderate.  Address: AM, care of E Ravenscroft, Esq, Publisher, Aberdeen.  Was this another money-making idea, thinly disguised?  The student of Edward Ravenscroft’s career progress is left with the impression of a busy and imaginative man, desperately trying to find a well-remunerated position in life, but never quite succeeding.

About 1847, Edward Ravenscroft became secretary of the Aberdeenshire Horticultural Society.  Presumably his interests in both animal and plant crops led to his admission to the Highland Society of Scotland in the same year and he soon became a functionary of the Society when he was appointed as the assistant conservator of the organisation’s agricultural museum in Edinburgh, which occurred between 1849 and 1851.  The conservator of the museum was Charles Lawson, a prominent Edinburgh seedsman and nurseryman, who had started the museum on his own initiative and transferred to the Highland Society in 1844.   On Edward taking up his position, the Ravenscoft family moved from Aberdeen to Edinburgh.  At the 1851 Census, which was conducted on the night of 30 – 31 March, the Ravenscrofts were living at Peffer Mill, Liberton.

The Polled Herd Book

It is entirely unclear who initiated the project to create a herd book for polled cattle.  It seems most likely to have been either the cattle interest within the Highland Society, where the lack of pedigree information on this important breed would have been recognised as a major deficiency, or Edward Ravenscroft himself, who might have gained a similar understanding from his employment in cattle insurance and his experience as a publisher.  Also, (see below) Edward claimed ownership of the copyright in the work.  Whatever the stimulus, a project to collect data on the individual polled cattle of the main breeders began about the time of Edward Ravenscroft’s appointment to the Highland Society museum.

Charles Lawson, the seedsman and the Highland and Agricultural Society shared premises in a large and handsome building on George IV Bridge in Edinburgh, with Lawson residing on the lower floors and the Society on the upper stories.  In late November 1851, a fire started in Charles Lawson’s part of the building and quickly spread up the property.  The intervention of the fire brigade limited the damage to the rear of the building, but the Highland Society suffered significant losses, especially to its library.  An interesting collection of books and paintings was completely destroyed.  Also consumed by the fire was the initial collection of data for the polled cattle herd book project.  Edward Ravenscroft then seemed to give up data collection activities on polled cattle for some years. 

In the meantime, Edward continued, butterfly-like, flitting from one venture to another in his portfolio career.  In 1853 he was responsible for the floral decoration of the Edinburgh Corn Market during the Highland Society show of poultry and dairy produce.  His affiliation at the time was described as being with Messrs Lawson and Sons.  In 1854 Edward’s publishing activities were reignited when he edited and substantially rewrote the 5th edition of “The Fruit Flower and Kitchen Garden” by the late Patrick Neil.  He also became involved with other societies such as the Gifford Society and the Scottish Arboricultural Society.  The Ravenscoft family also suffered a domestic conflagration in 1856, when Gilmerton Old Farmhouse, which they were occupying at the time, was burned to the ground in about one hour.  Fortunately, there were no injuries or deaths.

The polled cattle herd book project was revived in 1857, apparently under the stimulus of the Highland Society, which was described as the patron of the project.  In early 1858, the Edinburgh Evening Courant wrote the following.  “We are glad to learn that what has long been a desideratum in Scotland, a polled herd book, will now be established under the patronage of the Highland Society.  In it there will be annually registered cattle of the Aberdeen, Angus and Galloway breeds and we doubt not that the same benefits will follow to this class of cattle from a herd book as has been the case with Shorthorns. The work is under the charge of Mr Ravenscroft of the Highland Society’s museum in Edinburgh.”  Edward Ravenscroft re-commenced the collection of data from breeders and herd owners.  However, his activities were not confined to the cattle project.  Edward published “Index Juridicus; The Scottish Law List and Legal Directory for 1857, to which is added the Scottish Insurance Directory” and he did further work on botanical decoration for the Bi-Centenary celebrations of Heriot’s Hospital and the annual dinner of the Merchants’ Company.  Edward Ravenscroft also began to earn money as a landlord of domestic property in Edinburgh.  Throughout his whole period in Edinburgh, probably 1851 to about 1870, Edward Ravenscroft continued in the post as assistant conservator at the Highland Society museum.

By 1859 a considerable quantity of data on polled cattle had been collected by Edward Ravenscroft.  This is clear from an advertisement he placed in the Aberdeen Journal in March of that year.  “Breeders of polled cattle are informed that the first volume of the Polled Herd Book is now prepared for press.”  It went on to give a list of 17 breeders whose herds would be included and invited others to obtain blank entry forms from himself.  The list was an august one, containing most of the prominent polled cattle breeders of the time, but with one glaring omission - Hugh Watson.

It is inconceivable, given Hugh Watson’s status as the most significant improver of polled cattle at the time, that he would not have been approached to provide pedigree data from his herd.  His son, William, was later to claim that he was not approached but, according to Barclay and Keith, authors of the seminal work “The Aberdeen-Angus Breed: a History”, Edward Ravenscroft twice visited Keillor but was turned away.  The reason for Hugh Watson’s obstruction is not known.  Did he feel that he was being asked to divulge commercial secrets?  Was he offended at being approached by a minor functionary of the Highland Society? Was there a clash of personalities between the busy, but ephemeral, Ravenscroft and the focussed, commercial Watson?  The answer is not known.

Proof sheets for the polled herd book had been produced by September 1860 and the first edition was published in April 1862.  The price was 1 guinea if ordered before publication and 1 ½ guineas afterwards.  Without naming Hugh Watson, or any other breeder, Edward Ravenscroft alluded to data collection obstacles in the Preface to the first edition.  “In the preparation of the volume considerable difficulties have been encountered; and in some cases where assistance was naturally looked for, obstacles were thrown in the way of procuring information.  Now that the work is fairly launched, and its general scope and objects are apparent, it is trusted that assistance will be freely and cheerfully given in the preparation of future volumes.…. While regretting the apathy of some Breeders and the opposition of others during the progress of the work,…”.  “Valuable assistance” was received from the Earl of Southesk, Sir John Stuart Forbes, Hon Charles Carnegie, Alexander Bowie, Mains of Kelly, Fullerton, Ardestie Mains, Robert Walker Portlethen and Mr Threshie, Dumfries.  In addition to Hugh Watson, William McCombie of Tillyfour seems to be a notable absentee from the list of those providing help.  In 1859, at about the time that Edward Ravenscroft may have approached Hugh Watson to ask for his cooperation, Watson was 72 and in the process of retiring from farming (see below).  He also suffered from serious problems with his lungs towards the end of his life.  These were pronounced by 1861, when he was under “medical treatment and forbidden to expose himself to night air” and in the last three years of his life (1863 – 1865) he was confined to his room.  Illness may have contributed to his mood of non-co-operation.

It is known that Hugh Watson kept detailed records of his herd and could have provided the information being sought by Edward Ravenscroft, but Watson’s antagonism prevented him acceding to the request.  His wife shared his sense of injustice and she took drastic, unilateral action, which permanently excluded co-operation.  She assembled all the herd records for Keillor and burned them!  Tragically for her husband’s reputation as the greatest breeder of polled Angus cattle in the early period of breed definition, posterity has been left with an inadequate account of his methods and achievements.  This outcome put Edward Ravenscroft in a difficult position.  Hugh Watson’s animals had to be included in the polled herd book and so Ravenscroft cobbled together what information he could from other sources.  The outcome was that information on Keillor stock in volume 1 is both sparse and inaccurate.  At least the first registered bull was the Keillor beast “Old Jock” (date of calving not recorded) and the first cow was “Old Grannie” (date of calving 1824), another famous Hugh Watson-bred animal.  The next four bulls were also Hugh Watson’s, 2. “Grey-breasted Jock” (1840), 3.  “Black Jock” (1848), 4.  “Young Jock” (not recorded), 5.  “Strathmore” (1851).  Similarly, the first five cows were all Hugh Watson beasts, 2.  “Favourite” (date not recorded), “Hope” (date not recorded), “Lady Clara” (date not recorded), 5.  “Beauty of Buchan” (date not recorded).  Hugh Watson’s son, William, was able to provide some of the missing information for the subsequent editions of the polled herd book, but the glaring gaps were still obvious.  Hugh Watson started improving the polled Angus cattle in the “teen” years of the 19th century, yet the first recorded Keillor calving in the herd book is in 1824.  He is known to have had bulls “Tarnity Jock” and “Prince Charlie” (calved 1821) in this period, whose details were not formally recorded.  There must have been other significant animals too whose vital statistics have been cast into oblivion.

“Old Grannie” was Hugh Watson’s most famous cow.  She died in 1859, possibly after being struck by lightning.  Hugh Watson had kept her because he was curious to know at what age a dodded cow of excellent constitution would die.   “Old Grannie” bore 25 calves, the last in her 29th year.  In 1858 Old Grannie was exhibited at the Highland Show in Aberdeen in a class of her own.  At the request of Prince Albert her photograph was placed in the Royal collection at Balmoral.  Hugh Watson said that his favourite four bulls were “Old Jock”, “Angus”, “Strathmore” and “Pat”.
Information on 23 bulls and 22 cows of the Keillor herd were contained in the first edition of the polled herd book, none of the information coming from Hugh Watson himself.  In comparison Robert Walker of Portlethen, a willing collaborator, provided information on 26 bulls and 85 cows.  William McCombie of Tillyfour’s data were also sparse, 20 bulls and 32 cows.  There were 47 individual subscribers to volume 1, some aristocrats taking multiple copies.  Despite his non-cooperation with the production process, Hugh Watson, who in 1862 had retired and was living at The Den, Kinnoull, near Perth, was a subscriber.  It is to be wondered if, on leafing through volume 1, he had any feelings of regret that his record had been diminished though his own agency and that of his wife.
"Old Grannie"

The Polled Cattle Society

It is a remarkable fact that the much-fancied breed of polled cattle prevalent in the north-east counties of Scotland throughout the earlier years of the 19th century and known by a variety of names, did not achieve a single, unifying title until 1879, 14 years after the death of Hugh Watson and just a few months before the demise of William McCombie of Tillyfour.  The name chosen was Aberdeen Angus, which was a compromise recognising the two main areas from which the breed originated.

A meeting was called in July 1879, under the chairmanship of Charles Gordon, 11th Marquis of Huntly, who kept a herd of polled cattle (he called them doddies) at Aboyne Castle.  The aim of the meeting was to establish a society, to be called The Polled Cattle Society.  Its aim was, “To maintain unimpaired the purity of the breed of cattle hitherto known as Polled Aberdeen or Angus cattle and to promote the breeding of these cattle.  To collect, verify, preserve and publish the pedigrees of the said cattle and other useful information relating to them.  To further the above objects by continuing the issue of the publication called “The Polled Herd Book”.  

Charles Gordon was elected the first president of the Polled Cattle Society and two vice-presidents were also appointed, the ageing William McCombie of Tillyfour and Sir George McPherson Grant of Ballindalloch on Speyside, the second and third great improvers, respectively, of the breed after Hugh Watson.  This was to be the last public appearance of the Laird of Tillyfour.  The first meeting of the council of the society was in mid-December 1879, when William McCombie of Easter Skene, McCombie of Tillyfour’s cousin, was called to the chair.  William McCombie of Tillyfour had by this time been prostrated by a stroke, a crisis from which he would not recover.

Sir George Macpherson Grant recalled that in 1871 when the Highland show was last held in Perth they were in an unfortunate position with regard to the Polled Herd Book.  Mr Ravenscroft had published the first volume in 1862 and had collected some data for the second volume but no progress had been made towards its publication.  It seems that Ravenscroft had lost interest in the project.  Alexander Ramsay, editor of the Banffshire Journal met with Ravenscroft and he agreed to sell the copyright to Ramsay.  Alexander Ramsay then worked with Mr Adamson on the production of the second volume, which appeared in 1884, 12 years after the first volume.  Adamson subsequently retired and Ramsay continued the work alone, completing four volumes of the Polled Herd Book.  At some stage the Polled Cattle Society bought the copyright from Ramsay for £350.  Ramsay was appointed editor of the Aberdeen Angus Herd Book and he remained in this position until he died in 1909. 

After disposing of the copyright to the Polled Herd Book, Edward Ravenscroft continued with his diverse activities as previously, publishing several works from Edinburgh.  By 1876 he had moved back to London, continuing as a publisher, as well as becoming a director of a company, the London and Westminster Supply Association.  He died in 1890 and his personal estate was valued at just over £1073 (about £132,000 in 2018 money).

Hugh Watson as agricultural innovator

On his retirement from active farming in 1861, Hugh Watson said, “In the early period of my occupancy of Keillor Farm, farming had not attained the high point it has now reached.  I tried to keep pace with all improvements so far as I could and when I could no longer do so I thought the best thing for me to do was to retire.”  The following examples show just how entrepreneurial Hugh Watson was. 

Bone Dust.  Hugh Watson is known to have been the first farmer to introduce bone dust to Forfarshire in 1827, principally for fertilising turnips for winter feeding of cattle.  In January 1828 he was elected to the Highland Society of Scotland (later the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland) and he immediately published a paper in the journal of that society on bones and manures.  In the paper he revealed that he annually grew 70 – 100 acres of turnips using bone meal fertilisation.  The following year machinery for crushing bones was installed at Keillor Farm, the first farm installation of such a device in Scotland.  It is on a large scale and by supplying the neighbourhood (ie Strathmore) with that invaluable manure has conferred a benefit on the district which we trust will be as lasting as it is great.”

Lime.  Hugh Watson was also involved in an early commercial venture for supplying lime for both farming and building purposes.  From as early as 1767 the Earl of Elgin owned a productive limeworks, ie lime kilns and a supply of coal and limestone, at Charlestown on the north bank of the Forth estuary.  From about 1811 advertisements for lime products from this source were placed in the local newspapers with a list of prominent individuals, probably the lessees of the works, to whom orders could be made.  In the period 1815 – 1822 both Hugh Watson and his father William appeared in the list of presumed lessees.  Products such as “lime shells, slacked lime and limestone” were supplied and could be delivered by ship from the Forth estuary to Bridge of Earn on the upper Tay estuary, near to Perth.  This would have been a convenient point from which to supply Perthshire and Forfarshire.

Bell’s Reaping Machine.  Another agricultural innovation which Hugh Watson sought to promote, though not apparently from a personal commercial motive, was a reaping machine invented in 1828 by Rev Patrick Bell, who had been born in 1799 at Auchterhouse, Angus.  This device consisted of a set of rotating vanes which led the cereal stalks into reciprocating scythe blades and the cut stalks then fell onto a moving apron which deposited the product laterally onto the ground neatly arrayed for the binders.  The Machine was conveyed by two large wheels and pushed by a pair of horses.  It was used by the inventor’s brother George on his farm and was progressively modified over a period of 20 years. In 1852, Hugh Watson advertised a sweepstake (50 sovereigns entry) to trial various reaping machines against each other, the test to take place at Keillor.  The Bell machine was operated under the supervision of Hugh Watson, who owned and successfully employed such a model.  Two other, different machines were entered in the trial but were outperformed by the Bell reaper, which won the trial.  Ominously, Mr McCormack from America observed the trial but did not enter his own reaper design.  Rev Bell misguidedly thought he would bring most benefit to mankind by not seeking a patent for his machine.  McCormack then obtained a patent in America for a machine working on similar principles and that led eventually to the formation of the International Harvester Company!

Other examples.  Hugh Watson was constantly alert to new possibilities for his agricultural business.  On one occasion he tried growing flax as a new crop.  On another occasion, in 1846, a field of barley started to germinate before it could be harvested.  Instead of condemning the crop he allowed the malting process to continue and then fed the barley to his cattle “with more profit than he had ever done before”.  Hugh Watson was also a regular attender at the Agricultural Chemistry Association meetings in Edinburgh.

Hugh Watson and sheep breeding

Hugh Watson is remembered as an improver of polled Angus cattle but his innovations in sheep breeding were also significant.  Unlike his activities with cattle, his methods and experiments with sheep were well-documented.  It is unlikely that his ideas for improving sheep differed much from his cattle methodology.  In 1838, Watson published an article entitled “On South-down Sheep” in the Quarterly Journal of Agriculture.  He had kept a flock of Southdowns since 1813 on the upper parts of the farm at Keillor, on the northern slopes of the Sidlaw Hills and the animals were well adapted to the conditions found there.  Comparisons had been made with both the Blackface and the Cheviot but Hugh Watson found the Southdowns to be ideal for land between 500ft and 1200ft above sea level “with moderate green sword and the rest whin and heather”.  The characteristics of the breed, which suited them to these conditions, were that they could travel over more ground to get food and they could survive severe weather better than other breeds.  Their wool was closely matted on the back and around the head.  After a storm they appear dry and did not have the droukit (drenched) appearance of long-wooled sheep.  They enjoyed good health, they were easily managed at lambing time and they were affectionate mothers. Watson found that his Southdowns were “superior in wool and carcase to any other breed with constitution and endurance of climate not surpassed by the hardiest mountain sheep”.  Even at the time of his displenishment sale in 1850, Hugh Watson appeared to have still been experimenting with other breeds, since he disposed of a single Oxford Down ram.     But Hugh Watson’s fatstock production system had another element, he crossed his Southdown ewes with Leicester tups and the resulting hybrid lambs had an excellent combination of meat and wool qualities and could be fed over winter on turnips for about 2d per week. 

At the end of his article, Hugh Watson made a very interesting statement about the duties of breeders to communicate their results.  I have at present some experiments going on (crossing Blackface and Southdown sheep) which I trust will go far to determine these points.  When finished I shall be glad to communicate the results to my brother breeders considering it a duty every British farmer owes to his country to make known whatever he conceives may be for the general good or that may in the smallest degree tend to keep up the proud position we now stand in as a body feeling it can only be by combined efforts this position can be maintained, laying aside all selfish and narrow-minded jealousies.  Such noble thoughts seem to have deserted Hugh Watson when asked to reveal his data on polled cattle breeding about 1859!  This stance also suggests that Hugh Watson’s objection to revealing pedigree data on his polled cattle was not related to revealing his commercial methods but perhaps more likely to have been due to a personal antagonism between him and Edward Ravenscroft.

As with his production of polled and hybrid cattle, Hugh Watson sold sheep at his annual sales at Keillor in the period 1818 – 1826.  A special sale of Leicester, Southdown and cross sheep was held at Keillor in 1837.  Hugh Watson described his flocks as follows, “Pedigrees of the pure-bred stock will be found to include the blood of the most successful breeders of the last century”.  This suggests that he had chosen his starting animals with care and that he practised selection with his breeding animals.  Hugh Watson also regularly showed his sheep at agricultural exhibitions and was a frequent prize-winner.  At the Highland Society show held in 1836, when demand for Leicester tups was weak, Hugh Watson refused an offer of £100 for his prize animal.  At the same show the judges who were debating the merits of three sheep in one category, differed in their opinions as to which deserved first prize.  They then discovered that all three belonged to Hugh Watson!

Hugh Watson also occasionally exported sheep to other countries.  In 1836 twenty fine Leicester rams were put on board the ss Forfarshire for Hull, there to be re-shipped for the Emperor of Russia.  This vessel was the same ss Forfarshire, a paddle steamer, which foundered on the Farne Islands on 7 Sept 1838, the survivors being rescued by William Darling, lighthouse keeper of the Longstone Light and his 23-year-old daughter Grace. 
Reporting on the Perth Farming Association autumn show, held in August 1840, the Perthshire Courier wrote, “It was remarked that amongst the very great increase of superior Leicester sheep produced the premiums were generally awarded to those of the blood of the Keillor stock belonging to Mr Watson”.  Hugh Watson was the leading proponent of Southdown sheep in Scotland and continued with his flocks until the displenishing sale held at Belmont Home Farm in 1850.

Perthshire Wool Market

About 1834 Inverness instituted a wool and sheep market and Hugh Watson attended its inauguration.  However, Inverness was somewhat distant from Strathmore and Watson clearly felt that Perth would be a better location for such a market for sheep farmers in Perthshire and Forfarshire.  He immediately proposed such a venture to the civil authorities in Perth and a sheep and wool fair was held for the first time in July 1835.  The fair was successful and at the celebratory dinner after the 1838 market, one speaker referred to Hugh Watson as an independent and intelligent man and a most successful agriculturalist”.  The following year he received further praise for his role in initiating the market when Sir John Richardson spoke about the founding of the market.  “With respect to the establishment of the Wool Fair to which Provost Greig has referred I would say ferat qui meruit palmam (Let whoever earns the palm wear it).  The Wool Fair was first suggested by my excellent and intelligent friend Mr Hugh Watson of Keillor.  I deserve very little credit in the matter although I did what in me lay to get it established; but to the intelligence assiduity and perseverance of Mr Watson are the City and County mainly indebted for possessing it.”

Hugh Watson and horse breeding
Hugh Watson bred horses at Keillor and his sales of cattle and sheep were often accompanied by the disposal of horses.  His equine production, however, was not specialised and his breeding efforts seemed mostly to serve the transport and traction needs of his farms, the excess being sold, though on occasion he did show his horses and win prizes.  The horses fell into several categories, including hunters, hacknies, Highland ponies and cart horses.  About 1823 he also appears to have raced horses and on one occasion he is known to have attended the St Leger racecourse at Doncaster.

Transport investment - the Defiance coach

Before the completion of the railway link from Edinburgh to Aberdeen in 1850, the journey between the two cities was tedious and took about two days by stage coach.  In early 1828 Hugh Watson and Captain Robert Barclay discussed the lack of a rapid coach link down the east coast of Scotland and considered the commercial prospects of introducing a “Gentleman’s” service which could cover the journey from one city to the other within a day.  On 1 July 1829 the “Defiance” service was initiated with a coach leaving Aberdeen at 5am, driven by Captain Barclay.  The promoters and owners of the coach were Robert Barclay and Hugh Watson.  Coupar Angus in Strathmore was reached at 1.45pm, having stopped for 25 minutes to allow the passengers to take breakfast.  Along the route people came out to view the splendid coach.  It was renowned for its light weight (allowing higher speeds) and relative comfort.  There was the inevitable celebratory dinner held in Coupar Angus the same afternoon at the Defiance hotel, with William Maule MP presiding and Hugh Watson acting as croupier.  Local gentlemen were so delighted with the service that they later presented Barclay and Watson each with a piece of plate, the three guards on the coach were each gifted a handsome Kent bugle and the coachmen received whips.  However, this was a service which met the needs only of the wealthy and by 1850 it had been terminated, killed off by a new and disruptive technology, the steam train running on steel rails.

Sadly, in 1854 Robert Barclay died as the result of injuries inflicted by a horse kick.  Hugh Watson acted as agent for the sale of the Ury estate near Stonehaven, which had belonged to his friend and former business partner.

Transport investment - Hugh Watson and the railways

The lack of an appropriate means of transport effectively limited the access that Strathmore farmers had to the most important markets for their cattle and sheep.  Hugh Watson was familiar with this drawback and, due to his status in the agricultural community he was asked to give evidence, in 1845, to the Railway Committee investigating the proposal to build a line linking Aberdeen to the network leading to Edinburgh and onwards into England. He spoke on the agricultural transport needs of Strathmore.  The early familiarity that he gained of the plans of the railway promoters clearly led him to view railways as an investment prospect.

In 1845 the Scottish Midland Junction Railway Company (SMJR) was authorised to construct a line linking Perth with Forfar.  It held its first meeting of shareholders in September of that year.  Hugh Watson was an investor in, and a director of, the company from the start.  At the second meeting in March 1846, Hugh Watson was elevated to the chair.  He was clearly valued by his fellow directors for his business acumen and not just his financial contribution to the project.  In 1848 he was appointed as Deputy Chairman of the company.  This was a time of frenetic railway building across Great Britain and other schemes were quickly promoted which would collectively formed a rail network linking Aberdeen with the rest of Scotland and beyond.  In September 1847 the foundation stone of the General Railway Terminus at Perth was laid by Fox Maule, MP, with all the pomp of full Masonic honours.  Hugh Watson was present representing the SMJR. The Perth to Forfar link was opened in August 1848.  Two proposals were then made to extend the railway from Forfar to Aberdeen, one by the SMJR and one by the Aberdeen Railway Company (AR).  The SMJR did not gain approval and later, in 1856, the SMJR merged with the AR to form the Scottish North Eastern Railway (SNER).

Hugh Watson was involved with other railway proposals too, such as the Dundee and Newtyle Railway, where he was both a shareholder and a director.  This railway, conveniently, terminated close to Keillor farm.  In 1846 Watson was reported as having invested almost £29,000 (about £3.346 million in 2018 money) in rail ventures.

The expanding rail network was quickly utilised by the Royal Family for their annual pilgrimage to Balmoral.  In September 1850, the Queen, Prince Albert and their children performed the laying of the foundation stone of the National Gallery in Edinburgh before travelling on by train through Stirling to Perth.  There they were met by directors of the SMJR, including Hugh Watson, before travelling on to Coupar Angus, a journey time of 30 minutes.  The directors also travelled on the Royal train and at Coupar Angus there was another welcoming party.  Mrs Watson and her children, no doubt decked out in their finery, were present at the station.  The Royal party then travelled on by coach through Glenshee to Balmoral.  The following year, 1851, the railway had progressed as far as Aberdeen and Stonehaven was the terminus for the Royal journey.  This time their coach route was over the Slug road to mid-Deeside, not much shorter than the journey via Glenshee, but perhaps the Royal party wanted to see a different part of the country.  Hugh Watson was, as usual, on duty to greet the Royal visitors at Perth.  In 1852, the Queen and her party again took the route through Glenshee.  By 1857 the Royal travellers were able to continue on from Perth to Blairgowrie by train, before proceeding to Braemar and then on to Balmoral by horse-power.

Hugh Watson’s involvement with railway developments was becoming more substantial, not just as an investor but also as an active board member.  By 1855 he was regularly chairing meetings of the board and of the proprietors of the SMJR.  In that year he was awarded 100gns by the shareholders of the SMJR for his efforts in relation to the development of the Blairgowrie and Kirriemuir branch lines.  After the amalgamation of the SMJR and the AR in 1856, to form the SNER, Hugh Watson was appointed a director of the new company, at an annual fee of £600.  Even after retirement Hugh Watson continued with his railway involvement.  In 1861, after he had moved to his retirement home near Perth, he became a member of the provisional committee promoting the formation of the Scottish Northern Junction Railway Company which aimed to link the two rail termini at Aberdeen, one coming in from the north and one from the south, a particularly tricky venture given the built-up nature of the city.  Interestingly, Robert Walker of Portlethen and William McCombie of Easter Skene, both famous breeders of polled cattle, were also members of that committee.  Hugh Watson’s last-known involvement with the railways was in 1862 when he attended a social meeting for the employees of the SNER, when about 1200 persons were present.  Shortly afterwards serious ill-health confined him to his room at Keillor.

Politics and protection

Politically, Hugh Watson was a supporter of the Conservative party and he frequently attended meetings addressed by prospective Parliamentary candidates.  In 1851 it was rumoured that he intended to seek the nomination for the constituency of Forfarshire, standing on a platform of tariff-based protection for British farmers, but nothing came of this rumour.

However, on the general matter of protection, particularly the retention of the Corn Laws, he was a vociferous and persistent advocate.  The Corn Laws had been introduced in 1815 at the end of the Napoleonic Wars to shield British land owners and farmers from competition with Continental grain producers and exporters.  These laws remained in place until 1846 when they were abolished under the premiership of Sir Robert Peel (a Conservative) with the support of the Whigs.  Hugh Watson made an economic calculation of the impact of free trade on the profitability of his farm and published the data in Blackwood’s Magazine in January 1850.  He was widely ridiculed for his pessimistic analysis, which claimed that he made a loss by farming under conditions of free trade.  Watson stood his ground.  He became a member of the council of the Scottish Protective Association and was a member of a delegation which went to London to see Prime Minister, Lord John Russell.  Russell, a Whig, gave the delegation no encouragement.  At a meeting held by supporters of protection in the Crown and Anchor tavern, Watson gave an emotional speech in support of another attendee.  He had been incensed by the claim of their opponents that tenant farmers “had neither the moral nor the physical courage to stand up and insist upon their rights” and quoted from Shakespear’s Macbeth in rousing his audience.  “Come on, Macduff, and damned be he who first cries – Hold, enough.”

Back in the north east of Scotland the rural opposition to free trade did not die down for some time.  The local minister at Bendochy, near Coupar Angus, Rev James Barty, wrote letters to the press from a mythical countryman, “Peter Plough” defending farmers from what he saw as unfair claims made against them.  A delegation of farmers, including Hugh Watson, waited on him and made a presentation to show their appreciation for his support.  But the farmers got no encouragement from the towns, where free trade was popular, as it reduced the cost on food.  The agricultural industry had to adapt to the new reality.

Social attitudes and interests

Hugh Watson’s life was dominated by farming and business.  That is what he was good at and that is where he largely spent his time.  But other matters did occasionally command his attention.  He felt that there was a common interest in the landlords, tenants and farm servants working together to their mutual benefit and this theme surfaced from time to time in his after-dinner speeches.
In 1854 an “Association for improving the dwellings and domestic conditions of agricultural labourers” was formed and Hugh Watson gave evidence at the inaugural meeting in Edinburgh.  His statement showed that he had worked out an effective servant strategy, which he applied to his own farm.  “Witness does not approve of the bothy system where it can be avoided.  Upon his own farm he encourages the cottage system; two thirds of his farm servants are married, they are much steadier than men living in bothies and he besides gets the labour of their families; most of them are employed all the year round at moderate wages which is an advantage to them and they are absolutely necessary to him.  Men who live in bothies never form the same attachment in their places, or to their employers, as those who live in cottages.  The former are constantly moving about from place to place, being all unmarried.  Amongst the latter he has servants who have been 25 years with him.”  One particularly loyal servant was James Thompson who looked after “Old Grannie” all her life.  He served Hugh Watson for 42 years.  There were also loyal female servants inside the Keillor farmhouse. William McCombie of Easter Skene was also a supporter of the Association and William McCombie of Tillyfour was equally enlightened on the matter of the conditions of farm servants - see William McCombie (1805 – 1880), “creator of a peculiarly excellent sort of bullocks” on this blogsite.  In 1856 Hugh Watson reported that for the last two years he had been improving the cottages on his farm at his own expense and he believed he had been rewarded by increased rent or reduced wages from satisfied farm workers.

In 1847 when the spread of potato blight to the Highlands caused a starvation crisis, Hugh Watson made a proposal to employ poor Highlanders throughout Scotland and relieve their conditions through remunerated work.  His paper appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Agriculture.  Each parish in the non-Highland areas of Scotland was to take at least 20 impoverished Highland families to work on the land, thus removing the want of labour caused by farm servants leaving for manufacturing and railway employment.  Drawing on his own railway experience he suggested that 2000 men could immediately find work in railway construction on the line from Stirling to Perth and onwards to Forfar.  Putting his money where his mouth was, he declared, “I am ready to accommodate six to ten families on my own farms.”  It is not known if anything came of this proposal.

Hugh Watson was also a supporter of the Mechanics’ Institutes and other self-help organisations for the working classes to try to wean them away from destructive social practices, such as drinking alcohol and gambling.  He frequently chaired meetings held in the Mechanics’ Institute in Coupar Angus. However, he did not seem to involve himself with charitable giving, the only such gift detected from him being the donation of six large sacks of oat chaff to the Matron of Dundee Royal Infirmary for the patients’ beds.  This was a rather modest gift for such a wealthy man!

Hugh Watson regularly appealed to, or cajoled, the landlords to support their tenants.  For example, in 1843 at the dinner following the Highland show at Dundee he replied to a toast given to the tenantry of Scotland.  He asked the landlords to help the tenants in improving their estates and asked them to cherish the tenants, as an act of self-interest.
The Church of Scotland enjoyed the fervent support of Hugh Watson throughout his life.  He was an elder of the church in Newtyle, where he and his wife were married and would be buried and, on several occasions, he was elected as a delegate to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.  Prayer books still exist at Newtyle which were presented by Hugh Watson and endorsed by his own hand.

Hugh Watson served as a JP for some years and in 1860, in this capacity, he witnessed the taking of the oath of allegiance by Rifle Volunteers at Newtyle.  He was a supporter of the Volunteer movement, as were Lord and Lady Wharncliffe, and Watson attended the dinner held at Belmont Castle following a Volunteers’ rifle competition the same year.  As usual, he was called to reply to a toast on behalf of the tenantry of Strathmore.

The assured farmer from Keillor was not afraid to lock horns with officialdom.  In 1846 he sued Charles Donaldson, Tacksman of Customs, West Port Dundee for £1 14s 8d overcharged for barley sent into the burgh for export, but stored for a few days before being shipped, rather than taken directly to a vessel.  It would have attracted the higher rate of tax if it had been used in the burgh.  Watson won his case and the overcharge, plus expenses, was commanded to be returned.


Hugh Watson had taken on two other farms in addition to Keillor, Auchtertyre in 1830 after the death of his father, William, and the Home farm at Belmont Castle.   In 1850, when he would have been 63, Hugh Watson began an apparently phased retirement from the farming business, when the whole stock of sheep and horses at Belmont Home Farm were disposed of by public roup.  A further major sale of cattle occurred at the farm of Auchtertyre in 1853.  Watson finally retired in 1861, aged 74, when his remaining stock at Keillor farm was sold.  His cattle were in great demand and commanded high prices.  William McCombie of Tillyfour, who by this date was recognised as Hugh Watson’s successor to the title of the most noted improver of dodded black cattle, was a major buyer of Keillor animals at the roup.

When he retired, Hugh Watson still had four years to run on his then current lease of Keillor farm.  Lord Wharncliffe, long an admirer of Hugh Watson, let the farm to Mr George Patullo, Merchant, Forebank Dundee at a rent of £1400 p.a.  Hugh Watson was paying £780 p.a.  Hugh Watson received the balance of the increased rent.  Keillor farm was described in the following terms.  “Eight hundred and seventeen imperial acres, of which 530 – 540 are arable and the rest hill and other pasture, fences and roads.  Arable land is sub-divided and enclosed.  Hill pasture is fenced.  Farm steading is complete and in good order.  Dwelling house good and commodious with garden and pleasant grounds.”

On his retirement in 1861, a complimentary dinner was given to Hugh Watson at Coupar Angus.  William Watson of Bimms, his oldest son, was one of those present.  Hugh Watson was very emotional on this occasion, his voice being tremulous during his response to a speech in his honour, which reflected on his career.  At the request of the Chairman, Hugh Watson sang, with much spirit and expression “The ewie wi’ the crookit horn” and, at his own request, Captain Thomas sang “Gae fetch to me a pint o’ wine”!  It must have been a remarkable occasion.

Hugh Watson’s family

Hugh Watson married Margaret Rose in 1824, when he was 37 and his wife was 19.  She was the daughter of an estate factor from Nairnshire, though at the time of her marriage she was living in the parish of St Vigeans, Forfarshire.  The couple went on to have a family of 13 children, including seven girls.  This brood included two sets of same-sex twins.  At least two sons became farmers, William and George and at least four sons emigrated, William to Oregon and George, Adam and Patrick to Australia.  In 1840 Hugh Watson attended a meeting of gentlemen interested in the colony of New South Wales.  It was addressed by Thomas Barker of Sydney.  Was this the stimulus which led three of his sons to leave for the Antipodes?  Of the girls, Margaret married Richard Jackson Jones who hailed from a wealthy English family.  He seemed to live the life of a gentleman of leisure and died at an early age.  Janet married Samuel Fergusson, who became the manager of an insurance company and was also a landowner.  Mary married William Newall, who was a captain in the Gordon Highlanders and Elizabeth married James McGregor, a Dundee rope and sail manufacturer.  Some of the girls appeared to remain unmarried and several of them died in young adulthood.

Due to his ill-health, Hugh Watson and his wife Margaret did not long enjoy their retirement at The Den, Kinnoull, near Perth.  Hugh died in November 1865 and his wife followed him almost exactly a year later.  Both were buried at Newtyle, the church where Hugh had been baptised and where the couple was married.  It was the church he had served all his life.  As was typical of the man, he had thought out his succession plans and appointed executors to look after his affairs.  His wife received liferent on his assets and she and any unmarried daughters were to live together at The Den.  Interestingly, and in marked contrast to most wills of the time, the bulk of his assets were subsequently to be passed to his daughters or, if deceased, their surviving children.  He gave his reasoning quite briefly.  Inasmuch as I have already furnished each of my sons with an outfit and established them in life, it is not necessary to make any large provision for them… .”  His personal estate was valued at £5,266 (about £632,000 in 2018 money).  William, his senior son, who took up the profession of cattle farmer, was to receive Hugh Watson’s awards from the showring.

The legacy of Hugh Watson

A project such as the present one generates a plethora of detail on an individual’s life and a part of the biographer’s task is to winnow the grain from the chaff.  But, having done that, it is then usually straightforward to distil the essence of the person and to identify the fundamental properties of personality which propelled the subject along the route to success.

In the case of Hugh Watson, he was clearly an intelligent and analytical man who could solve problems by performing his own agricultural experiments and acting on the results.  This showed most clearly in his work on sheep breeding in relation to the conditions on his farms in Strathmore, where his Southdowns and Southdown/Leicester crosses combined hardiness and weight gain with wool and meat quality to optimise his financial returns.  Although the direct evidence has been lost, due to the antagonism generated in the production of the first volume of the polled cattle herd book, it is likely that his improvement of the polled Angus cattle was similarly innovative and seems probably to have involved hybridisation with Galloways (and possibly also Shorthorns and, even Guernseys), followed by back-crossing to Angus animals.  His approach to agriculture was always highly commercial and it is not surprising that he should have become wealthy through his farming activities.

Hugh Watson also showed that he could innovate in agricultural areas not directly related to the production of cattle and sheep.  The employment of Bell’s mechanical reaper, the promotion of the Perth sheep and wool market, the use of bone dust and the installation of a bone crusher at Keillor to supply the district, all fell into this category.

Nor was agriculture the only arena in which his commercial talents were on display.  His investments in transport, particularly in the railways in North East Scotland and his directorial involvement with railway companies showed that his talents could transfer to areas outside farming.  His analysis of the problems associated with restless farm servants, his proven solutions to these personnel problems and his willingness to back his ideas with his own money, also spoke eloquently to the qualities of the man.

Hugh Watson built a reputation as a producer of fine cattle and sheep which was so well-known that “Keillor”, in effect, became a brand, which was recognised as a mark of quality throughout Britain, Ireland and beyond.  With time and long after his death he is currently and justifiably recognised as the most important early breeder of polled Aberdeen Angus cattle, a breed which rose to world domination in the market for quality beef.  Most Aberdeen Angus herds at present extant can trace their origins, at least in part, to beasts emerging from Keillor farm in the first half of the 19th century.  That is a remarkable legacy, but it is to be hoped that his other achievements will not be lost in the glare of admiration surrounding that signal achievement.

Don Fox


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  2. hello, we are trying to reach you because we would like to interview you on Hugh Watson for a documentary we are making right now. Please let us know where and how to contact you. Thank you very much. Verane Frediani

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  4. I’m the last Watson, under my Farther and Uncle, in Far North Qld Australia, my 3rd Great Grandfather was Hugh’s youngest son Patrick Watson, who came to Far North Qld Australia
    This article was great thank you
    Warwick Watson