McCombie's Black Prince - by Duncan Harley

On 12 June 1878 a ponderously titled farming journal, The North British Agriculturist, published an article honouring Scotland’s ‘Cattle King’ - Mr William McCombie, of Tillyfourie. McCombie had, the previous Sunday, carried-off top honours for livestock at the Paris Exposition Universelle - better known perhaps as the Third Paris World Fair.

“This is indeed a proud week for Tillyfour and for the polled Angus or Aberdeen breed of cattle … Mr McCombie having been adjudged the £100 prize for the best group of cattle, bred by exhibitor and reared out of France,” ran the article. “McCombie’s successful group numbered six animals…every black polled animal has a ticket of some kind!”

Preparations for the Paris Exhibition had involved major upgrading of the French railway network, and it is fair to assume that McCombie’s cows had travelled in some comfort from Alford to Paris by train, before alighting at the delightfully named Gare du Champ de Mars, alongside the Eiffel Tower.
The Alford farmer was in good company. The likes of Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell were in attendance and the very latest industrial designs filled the giant exhibition halls.
Steam ploughs and ice-making machines vied with monoplanes and electric arc lamps for the attention of the thirteen million visitors who attended the event. Indeed with the notable exception of Germany which had until 1871 been at war with France, the industrialised countries of the world descended on the French capital to showcase the very best in international design.
Alongside the industrial halls, the 66-acre site featured show-rings for the judging of premium European livestock. In all 1700 cattle, 825 sheep and 380 pigs were entered for the various competitions.
McCombie was, by then, quite used to exhibition success, with a track record of wins occupying seventeen pages in the 1875 edition of his breed-book, ‘Cattle and Cattle Breeders’Gold medals, winners’ cups and cash prizes came his way by the dozen, and by the time of his death, in 1880, he had become recognised as the “great deliverer of the polled race” - a reference to the fact that pure-bred Aberdeen Angus are devoid of horns.

McCombie’s success in the show-ring was down to both careful management of his breeding programme and a quite brilliant flair for publicity. His Tillyfourie-bred bull Black Prince for example was invited to a royal audience with Queen Victoria at Windsor Royal Farm in recognition of his successive wins at Smithfield and Birmingham Fat Stock Shows. When the animal was finally ‘retired’, in around 1867, McCombie presented the monarch with a 90kg baron of beef sufficient to feed 60 people, from the carcass. A year or so later when the Queen travelled to Alford from Balmoral to inspect the Tillyfourie herd she was surprised to meet Black Prince once again. McCombie had retained the animal’s head which now hung, stuffed and in a prominent position, on the wall of his dining room.

The Aberdeen Angus breed has origins from long before William McCombie. Indeed, the herd book, or bible of the breed, records Hugh Watson’s bull Old Jock, from Keillor of Newtyle in Angus, as the originator of the blood-line we see today. McCombie is however widely regarded as the great improver of the breed and a life-size statue of his legacy stands on the southern approach to Alford in the form of Jeremy-Eric, a 20th century Kemnay bred prize-winning bull.

Unveiled by the Prince of Wales and the late Queen Mother, in perhaps her last Scottish public engagement, artist David Annand’s bronze statue is a fitting reminder of the role played by William McCombie in making the town of Alford famous as the home of the Aberdeen Angus.

More in The A-Z of Curious Aberdeenshire byDuncan Harley

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