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  The Festival of the Horse and Boys' Ploughing Match

Horse CostumesOnce a year, in the island of South Ronaldsay, mothers and fathers delve deep into their attics and cupboards.

They are preparing for a tradition - believed to be unique to Orkney - which dates back to at least the early 19th century.

Metal ploughs are polished, buttons are cleaned, ribbons replaced and the youngsters are ready to go. Ahead of them is a very important date in the South Ronaldsay calendar - the South Ronaldsay Boys' Ploughing Match and the Festival of the Horse.

Although the earliest records of the event come from the 1800s, but it is not known exactly when the tradition began.

Originally, only young boys had participated, either in the ploughing or being dressed as the horse (mimicking the Clydesdale horse decoration), but following a revival in the 20th century, it was decided girls could take part, but only as horses.

In the early days the ploughing was done in a 'Hope kailyard. These days the activity has moved to the beach at the Sands o’ Wright.

The early ploughs often just consisted of an ox hoof, or horn, tied to a stick. In 1920, the first miniature metal plough was made by the local blacksmith, Bill Hourston. Some of these are still in use today, and they are works of art, being precise replicas in every detail of full-size adult ploughs.

In the competition, each furrow must be identical to its neighbour. With a four to five feet square patch, the boys must plough straight and even furrows over the whole area.

The judges look for the best start, which includes how the boys set the dreels, and the neatest ending of their work, as well as the overall ploughing. No help is allowed when ploughing. The fathers, grandfathers and uncles can only stand back and watch and hope their painstaking tuition has paid off.

The "horse" outfits, as pictured above, are spectacular. A collar, hat, belt and feet decorations are added to complete the overall picture. A tail can be fixed to the jacket and pom-poms or fringes sewn on the cuffs to resemble the forefeet.