The Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme

The Festival of the Horse and Boys’ Ploughing Match

During the annual Festival of the Horse and Boys' Ploughing Match in South Ronaldsay the young girls of the parish are dressed up to resemble horses while the young boys take on the role of ploughmen.

The ploughing match usually takes place on the first Wednesday in April – tides permitting. This is because the ploughing takes place at the Sands of Wright, a large clean beach about a mile-and-a-half from St Margaret's Hope.

The event begins in the square outside the Cromarty Hall where the 'horses' and ploughmen assemble. Final adjustments are made to the outfits and ploughs are given a final polish. 

When ready, everyone enters the hall where the horses stand in a circle in the main part of the hall while the boys with their ploughs gather on the stage.

Judging

The boys are equipped with model ploughs which represent the real thing. Often these are family heirlooms handed down over the generations and very much treasured. The detail in these ploughs is very fine. They are painted and polished, and the judging of them is a serious business.

After much deliberation and discussion a winner is chosen and then it is time to view the 'horses'.

 The Sands of Wright

The 'horses' are splendid to see. The costumes are decorated with all manner of treasures – brooches, sequins, buttons, medals, ribbon – in fact anything that is brightly coloured and glitters. Black shoes represent the hooves and silver horse shoes are painted on to them.
 
Nothing is sacred when it comes to decorating the costumes and it is a sensible parent who hides the family treasures while the youngster looks for more items to decorate their 'horse'.

Harness and blinkers are often added and the whole ensemble is bright, lively, colourful and sometimes noisy as bells are added to the harness to make a tinkering sound when the horses move.

Like the ploughs, these costumes are handed down from generation to generation and each adds more adornments to an already elaborate costume. 

When judging has ended a convoy of cars and buses makes its way down to the Sands of Wright for the ploughing competition.

They begin when the tide is out leaving a large beach of hard damp sand. Each boy is given a four foot square of 'land', which he draws lots for, and then he does his very best to carve smooth and even furrows with the plough.

Judging by the Field Committee takes time. Each furrough is inspected, and the ploughing discussed in great detail, before a winner is announced.

With the hard work finished the children have the chance to enjoy themselves after their labours. In the evening they assemble again in the Cromarty Hall to enjoy a grand feed and to see the presentation of the prizes. 

History

Richly-decorated horse costume on display at Orkney MuseumThe earliest records for this tradition are recorded in the 1880s but it is unclear where this tradition comes and when it began.

In the past it was not such an elaborate affair.  A plough might simply consist of a hoof stuck on to a stick and the costumes were Sunday suits adorned with a few bits of ribbon and badges pinned on.

Of course people are more affluent now but it is wonderful that, even when there was not much to go around, they would make that special effort for the festival.

Today the tradition still has a strong following.