Ploughing Matches
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A Scotch Plough at Work

The horses are yoked to the swing-trees by light trace-chains, linked on one end to the hooks of the haims, and hooked at the other into the eyes of the swing-trees... The swing-trees are hooked to the draught-swivel of the bridle of the plough, enabling both horses to exercise their united strength on that single point; and being yoked abreast, they are enabled to exert their united strength much more effectually than if yoked a trip -- that is, one before the other.

Henry Stephens, Book of the Farm, originally published in 1844 (an  illustration in When the Ground Fails).

Ploughing Matches

Ploughing matches were another form of recreation that complemented the work-world of the Scottish Canadian. The British notion of agricultural improvement arrived in Canada with the emigrants. The organized development of farming skills was therefore of vital concern -- once the cabin and cattle shed had been erected, a patch cleared out of the forest and the first several crops harvested. There were many Scots among the agricultural leaders of Upper Canada -- and most Scottish-Canadian farmers took their business very seriously. The spirit of competition in their business life was carried over into their ploughing matches. But, at the same time, the ploughing matches were occasions for community recreation.

One of the first ploughing matches in Scarborough was held near the present McCowan Road. The match was featured in the May 3 1833 issue of the "Patriot and Farmer's Monitor":

A ploughing match took place this day (May 1) on the farm of Mr. Robert Stobo situated nine miles from York, beside the Kingston Road. The following gentlemen were chosen managers: The Hon. John Elmsley, W.B. Jarvis Esq., Mr. Robert Stobo, Mr. John Torrens [Torrance], Mr. Jonathon Gates, Mr. Cornel, Mr. William Armstrong. There were nine competitors, and each with a pair of horses yoked (abreast) to a plough was to turn over the surface of one-third part of an acre in five hours. Having appointed Messrs. William Crone, Francis Johnstone and Thomas Davidson to be judges, the glittering shares were laid to earth, and off they went, each high of hope that the first prize would be his own.

The day was beautiful -- and so was the work performed. Every one executed his part as if the world with all its concerns, was instantly to be left behind, and he was anxious to leave a "sample" for others to imitate and admire. One of the competitors had lost the left hand; but its place being supplied by a hook, he not only ploughed well but the work was admired by all the spectators.

All had finished their tasks in four hours and a half; and the Judges, having examined every part of the work, decided that the following competitors were entitled to the prizes:  

      s d
Robert McNare 1st prize 3 0 0
John Lawrie   2d 2 10 0
Alexander Gibb 3d 2 0 0
David Scott 4th 1 10 0
John Torrens 5th 1 0 0


All the competitors were Scotchmen.

The Hon. John Elmsley gave notice, that sometime in autumn, a number of prizes will be distributed to the best ploughmen -- but it is an express condition that no man will be allowed to compete who has ever turned a furrow in any of the British Islands.

I offer no remark upon the above, because a discerning public will instantly perceive the wisdom of the regulation, which must create or foster that spirit of emulation inherent in the breasts of all; while those who have not had such opportunities of arriving at perfection in the art will feel no backwardness at presenting themselves candidates along with their compeers.

Several foot races were vigourously contested by some of the on lookers -- among whom was Guy Pollock, the talented Blacksmith of Scarborough. He can use the quill better that his feet. One old man, with hair like snow, had drunk so much that, sitting upon a waggon with shut eyes, he imitated all the motions which are caused to the driver by the jolting of that carriage on a bad road. Two men took the vile animal and, laying him along upon the ground, he, snoring, slept off the effects of the delightful beverage. With that exception, all was pleasant and delightful -- filling the minds of the spectators with wonder, on considering that the ground which so lately was a primeval forest, and traversed only by the Indian, should now exhibit such specimens of perfection in the first of arts.[i]

That farming skills development was critical to the Scarborough Scots' community is evident in the proposal that no one who had ploughed in the British Islands would be permitted to compete in the autumn match. Those who had practised other occupations in the old country were thus encouraged to improve their agricultural skills.

Drinking figured prominently at the early ploughing matches in Scarborough. David Martin stated that, at a match held on his father's farm in 1850:

There were three [beer] booths, that his father supplied a keg, and that he himself carried the beer around, and his brother, Robert, distributed the cakes... It was then quite common to see three or four liquorbars in the field in full blast, the hotel-keeper holding that his license conferred the right to sell drink anywhere within the limits of the municipality. Nobody questioned it: indeed, it was thought quite a convenience to have the supply there, a state of matters which public opinion would not now tolerate for an instant.[ii]

The boys' mid-century "beer and cakes" menu was gradually superseded by a more sumptuous feast prepared by the ladies of the community. Indeed, the important organizational role of women at the ploughing matches must not be overlooked. At the annual match of the East York Branch of the Ontario Plowmen's Association in November, 1912:

The Agincourt Branch of the E.Y.W.I. as usual were the caterers, and plowmen and spectators who dined at their tent had nothing but praise for the excellent meals and service.[iii]

[i]          The article was written by W. Sibbald, Editor of the "Canadian Magazine", York, May 1, 1833. "Guy Pollock" was the pseudonym of Dr. Robert Douglas Hamilton, a "canny Scotsman from Lanarkshire" and Scarborough 's first resident doctor. He took his alias from a Scarborough blacksmith named Guy Pollock. (Boyle, Scarboro, p. 132, 206.)

[ii]         Boyle, Scarboro, p. 78, 80-81. There is some confusion as to whether or not the last two sentences are from the pen of David Martin, Boyle's faithful correspondent in 1896.

[iii]         Markham Economist, November 14, 1912.


From The Scarboro Heights Record V1 #2 and V13 #10