Story and photos by Gabrielle Pullen, L.M.T.
master farrier and blacksmith. A frequent clinician in America in recent years, he has helped generations of up and coming farriers learn the trade both in the U.K. and here in the U.S.
As we covered the ground from Kenilworth to the lowlands of Scotland (driving on the left side of the road as is customary in the U.K.) he pointed out places of interest: Norman churches built in 1076, or tidbits of history inspired by the places we passed. A man with a vivid sense of pride in his heritage and an extremely active mind, the discussion covered a wide range of topicseverything from details about the fighting tactics used by the English against the Scots at the Battle of Culloden in 1745 to quotations of poetry that seemed pertinent to the subject at hand.
One of four generations of farriers and blacksmiths, Edward Martin began his apprenticeship in the Auld Smiddy just across the street from the house in which he was born, as his father before him, and his grand-father before him, had done. (See Anvil Magazine interview September/October 1993) His great-grandfather, who was a huge man (6’4” and weighed some twenty-four stone), moved to Closeburn in the county of Dumfries in 1854. Edward still resides in Closeburn to this day. They were demanding teachers, these men who each had at one time or another won the annual Blacksmithing and Shoeing Competitions held at the Highland Game. The games are a modern-day version of the ancient tradition that was once known as the Gathering of the Clans. Under their vigilant tutelage, the standard of workmanship exacted by these master craftsmen was high. They lent him not only their knowledge and keen eye, but their name, as well. Each one of them in turn went by the name of Edward Martin.
From the age of 13 to the age of 18, Edward worked as an apprentice for room and board until he finally ventured to ask if perhaps it might be time for him to be earning a wage. With slow deliberation, his Da put down the hammer where he stood in front of the anvil and answered his question with a question, incredulous: “What would you want to be earning a wage for, lad? Why, you’re being given a trade.” The emphasis was clearly on the word ’given.’ Young Edward then ventured to face up to his father with the reply, “Well, I might like to be like the rest.” His Da replied, “No, now mark my words, lad. Sheep flock together, but eagles fly alone.” And that was the end of it. Yet, as if in premonition of today’s market, these words ring even more true now than they did then. Since the trade is no longer passed on from father to son, an ability to have the vision necessary to work alone is almost a pre-requisite for success.
Edward Martin continued to talk now and then as he drove at nerve-wracking
speed through sheets of rain past rolling green hills. “Ah, he was a goude
man wi’ a hammer, there’s no doubt about that,” he said of his father as
we drove on through the bit of a pass. The pass signals the proximity of
the border between Scotland and England, and the elevation of the road increased.
The hills above us rose in a majestic foreshadowing of the highlands further
north, if only briefly. It was early in September, and the heather was just
beginning to bloom in brilliant purple snatches across the massive hills.
Ahead of us, landscape reverted back to vivid green hills that rolled in
like waves on the sea. The road cut through them sharp and straight in the
distance like the clean edge of a knife. It is not difficult to understand
the deep connection that Edward has with Scotland, for its beauty is
were made to sleep under the kitchen table. It was the safest place in the house, you see. But I was never afraid. I remember looking forward to the air raids because it was great fun to spend the night in the kitchen.
“During the war especially, there was nothing new, no new cars or tools. Everything went to the war effort, so from about 1939 well into 1948 there was plenty of blacksmithing work to be had in the way of things to mend. We even made shocks for cars because parts were hard to come by. There were horses to shoe because almost all the farm work in Scotland was done with working horses. Then, when the first tractors came out, mostly of English make, they only slowly began to replace the horses in the field. The first machine-made horseshoes came out in the 1920’s, but they were worthless. My father threw them right out the door, regardless. We made all our own shoes, the three of us working steady, sometimes shoeing 30 horses a day. At that time, any tradesman who did blacksmithing did farriery too, the one simply included the other. We stayed busy by always doing a little of both, never specializing. And we had a name built on three generations of quality craftsmanship; we had built a reputation.”
Here Edward paused to raise an imperative index finger in emphasis, “I’ll tell you one thing, if you do goude work, you’ll never want for lack of business, and that’s a fact. Another thing, never go to them, have them come to you, and always let them know that they are responsible for the horse, and make sure you have the owner stand at the horse’s head, or you’ll spend all your time chasing horses and none earning a living.”
We passed fields dotted with plump sheep. Each field separated by miles and miles of dry stone walls made of flat white rocks, no mortar. Another craft that has been kept intact to this day in spite of the encroachment of modern technologythe craft of making these walls is known as ‘dyking’. Some of them are over two or three hundred years old, but they are still maintained in the traditional way. Modern day dyke-building competitions continue to keep the skill alive. Scotland is a land steeped in evidence of that which has gone before.
Edward Martin is aware of the realities imposed by technological advances
on the marketplace, and yet he also sees the ties between the past and the
present. “It used to be that shoeing a horse with four eggbar shoes paid
£10.00. Nowadays the lads get £200.00 for the same job, even though
the shoes are machine made. But the trade attracts some sharp young men now,
and I hope to see some of them at the competition this weekend.” We were
on our way to Closeburn for the annual Clydesdale Shoeing Competition that
Edward and his wife Marion have been organizing for over thirty years.
and Dixieland jazz. The shop had been white-washed in readiness for the event. Row upon row of nippers, tongs and neat table-tops were covered with tools - four generations of tools - seemed to set the atmosphere in anticipation of the competition the next day.
Although it had rained steadily all the way up to Closeburn from England,
the weekend of the Clydesdale Competition dawned crisp and clear. The sun
persisted throughout the day, falling through the green tarp that provided
shade over the freshly painted coal forges. It gave the overflow of competitors
that did not fit into the shop a place to work outside in case of rain. The
well-worn anvils that had provided guests the night before with a place to
set their drinks were brought into service for their true purpose: as a surface
on which to shape seemingly lifeless metal into the living substance it becomes
as it glows, making it bend and soften to the will of master and striker,
working in unison.
submission. The first thing about them that hit like a ton of bricks was the size of their feet, like dinner plates all hung with feathers. They stood quietly all day long as the competition proceeded. Two of them were less than four years old, although you’d never know it by the size of them or by the calmness they exhibited. Their big heads dwarfed the heads of the farriers working underneath them. Soft eyes, some of them blue, made their huge Roman noses less severe. The gentleness of these Scottish work horses is legendary for good reason: they stood all day without fussing.
The terms of the Competition were: no hoof rasping, flatters or bob-punches allowed, hammer-finished shoes only. Competitors were to finish hoof preparation before starting the shoe, and summon the judge for evaluation of the work. No abrasive materials were allowed to polish the fitted or the specimen shoe. The competitors went at it as soon as the horses were settled in. Each worked with his striker to shape the 1/2” x 1 1/4” bar stock into a traditional Clydesdale shoe, complete with heel cocks to create traction for the horse ploughing the field. The horses’ feathers were tied up out of the way with duct tape or held up by pieces of old nylons to prevent being singed as the hot shoes were fitted to the foot. The steam generated by hot seating one of these mammoth feet wafted in great billows around both horse and farrier. The level of skill exhibited was a clear demonstration of the fact that although the era of the horse as primary machine for farm labor is past, the desire to excel in the skill of shaping hot bar stock to the dimensions of these huge feet is by no means a dead art.
consumed and dessert and coffee were being cleared away. The judge, Ian Wade, made remarks to indicate his genuine pleasure at the standard of workmanship demonstrated at the competition. He tempered his praise only with the admonition to the seniors to ‘know exactly what you’re after before you take the metal out of the coals.’ In other words, have a plan about how to move the metal before removing it from the fire, so that it does not get cold by the time you figure out what you need to do with it.
Awards were distributed for 1st through 3rd place in the senior competition to James Balfour, Derek Gardner, and Kevin Balfour in that order. Additional awards went to Ian Ritchie, for Best Shod Foot , Gary Hood, for Best Dressed Foot, A. Duffy, Sr., for Best Made Clydesdale Shoe, and David Wilson, for Best Specimen Shoe. David Wilson also won the High Points Award for the day. In the Apprentice Competition under 21, 1st through 3rd place went to Scott Rose, Ian Marshall and I. Gatezak, respectively. And for Apprentices over 21, 1st through 3rd was awarded to Adam Fox, David Varini, and Alick Nicol. The 1st through 3rd place Awards for Welding and Fabricating went to David Wilson, Kenneth Mitchell, and Alick Nicol.
Live music began as the tables were folded up and set against the wall with the help of all hands to clear the dance floor . Young children began to wriggle. Couples took to the floor. Old timers sat on the sidelines, reminiscing about competitions past. The evening ended as everyone banded together hand over hand in a great circle to sway back and forth, all joining in to sing Auld Lang Syne. Next year will be the last year Edward Martin will be organizing the Closeburn Clydesdale Competition, after doing so since the late fifties. The warmth with which he has so long imbued the competition will indeed be sorely missed.
The next day the unseasonably beautiful weather for the beginning of September in Scotland seemed ready to pass. Looking out the window, Marion commented that there would be gale force winds on the way. ‘When bad weather threatens, the trees turn their backs, so they do,’ she said, referring to the silver undersides of the leaves on the tree outside, all facing the kitchen window. In spite of the impending weather, and no little amount of exhaustion from the demands of the weekend, Edward was bound and determined to give us a tour of local sights. He takes his role as tour guide very seriously, proud of the wealth of history written in the very hills surrounding Closeburn.
We passed by the location of at least five places that used to be smithies in times not that far gone, including the shop of Kirkpatrick McMillan, the blacksmith who invented the bicycle in his little shop in 1839. We visited Closeburn Church and saw fine examples of workmanship done by Edward’s own hand: the gate in front of the church, the lamp set over the great wooden door, the weather vane that turned in the wind way up on the spire above, the candelabras over the pews, and the elaborate cross next to the altar that serves as a stand for decorative bouquets of flowers during the service. In fact, we passed many examples of his work in the outlying countryside, mostly gates and weathervanes.
He went out of his way to include another “wee kirk” in the tour after we visited Caerlaverock Castle. This tiny little church was nestled into the last village before the road turns into the highland pass that winds around the gargantuan hillside on its way to Edinburgh. The Spartan, almost Quaker interior of the kirk was softened by simple yet beautiful ironwork. Edward Martin respects independent thinking. “The Church of Scotland is the only free church in Great Britain with complete separation of church and state. A man dinna need a pope to talk to God,” he said, referring to the struggle for religious freedom in Scotland that lasted for over 100 years, from 1600 on. The significance of this little church is that it was one of the first churches to house a schoolroom for the teaching of reading so that the people could learn to read the Bible for themselves without a priest acting as intermediary between the individual and God.
The lowlands of Scotland form a landscape dotted with sheep, where conformity is deeply entrenched in ages of tradition. Edward Martin, being a remarkable individual, remains stubbornly independent in his attitudes. In his respect for skill and knowledge, which he himself so aptly demonstrates, he realizes the need to adapt to circumstance. He sees the importance of passing on the skill honed by generations of craftsmen that have gone before, yet he is aware of the need to find new ways to pass on that information. The difference between knowledge and skill is in practice, and so he has worked tirelessly over the years to encourage farriers and blacksmiths to keep learning. He has covered many miles, traveling internationally to do clinics. He has striven to provide the competition at Closeburn as a forum for farriers at all levels to transform theory into practical skill. His efforts have been an important contribution to the trade, for in passing on that information and in demonstrating the discipline that the skill requires, he has done much to keep the craft alive, now that the tradition that the son follows in the footsteps of the father exists no more.