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The Dounby Show – a history

‘Showies’, at the Market Stance, Dounby Show, 1910

By Patricia Long

The Dounby Show, has been one of the highlights of our summer for 130 years. The village of Dounby is only slightly older.

The story begins with Hosen Market, which was held three times a year at Geoth, north-east of the present village. According to my grandmother, Johina Leith, nee Kirkness, who was born at nearby Newhouse in 1899, and wrote some notes on Dounby, the market began at Hosen in Birsay but drifted across the parish boundary to Magz o’Geoth’s ale-house.

Grandma was told that, after Magz gave up her ale-house, Joseph (Josie) Mackay, who had built the Smithfield Inn, was responsible for the market’s next move.

It would be good for business to have the market near the ale house, so Josie marshalled public opinion into taking up a public subscription to buy a stance nearby with proper title deeds.

According to George Wylie, in his book, Showyard on the Heather, 1991, the subscription to buy the land was raised in 1865. But Josie and the market had arrived on that spot almost simultaneously, four years earlier.

The West Mainland Agricultural Society was formed in 1859. Two years later, they advertised a Cattle Tryst at Dounby, “for the dispersal of the Best Fat and Grazing Stock of the district.

Cartoon drawn for her parents by Anna Brundle, after a very wet Dounby Show.

New roads and steamships meant that farmers could export and Dounby Farm, between the main Harray and Birsay road and the new junction road through Sandwick, was the obvious place to sell animals. 1861 is also the year that Josie bought land at the junction from Magnus Smith, owner of Dounby Farm, and built his inn. He married Margaret Davie from Firth in 1862 and by the following year, according to the Orcadian, inn and market were thriving.

The market stance at Dounby, it is believed, is the best in the mainland… It is central and easy of access from all quarters, being held at the intersection of two roads. There is a good and commodious inn on the ground, conducted in a superior manner by Mr and Mrs Mackay, where a variety of refreshments can be had and a rest enjoyed.

Sometime in the 1870s, Josie built the larger Smithfield, which held the inn, the Post Office and one or two other businesses over the years. Grandma thought that it was probably the Post Office who fixed the name of Dounby Farm onto the village. It was certainly settled by 1877, when the Dounby Public School opened.

The first Dounby Show was held on a field loaned by William Hourie, tenant of Dounby Farm and was a great success. There were over 200 entries and more than 800 spectators. I was amazed to find that my g-g-grandfather, Robert Leask of Coldomo, Stenness was one of the prize-winners. It must have been quite an operation to get the animals to the Show then. Grandma had fond memories of the days before cattle trucks.

At one time it was interesting to watch the animals come up from Dounby, past the corner and then turn for Harray, Birsay or Evie, each with their tickets on.

At the dinner in the Smithfield Hotel on the evening of the first Show, it was suggested that there should be a Flower and Produce Show and it was held in the Dounby School just six weeks later. After that first year, the two shows were on the same day and the crowds flocked to Dounby.

The stock show was held on Dounby Farm until the Society bought five acres of uncultivated land from James Flett of Curcabreck in 1934 and built a wall around it.

  • Patricia Long is a tourist guide based in Stenness with a particular interest in social history. A longer and more detailed version of this article is available at her website, www.aboutorkney.com