A host of recent farming TV shows have introduced the general public to the skills of shearing sheep. With a few skilful sweeps of their shears, these experts divest the woolly sheep who, then skip out into the fields ready to start growing next year's woolly coat.
The TV programmes seldom follow up with what happens to the cast-off fleeces, which are, after all, the whole purpose of the exercise. Yet this is where Alison McNeil came into her own. She was Scottish Champion Wool Handler for an amazing ten years in a row after demonstrating her skills in tidying up the fleeces then rolling them up prior to being packed ready for the wool merchants.
A fellow wool handler has described the main requirements of the job as having “speed, agility and attention to detail”.
Alison Jappy and her siblings – Katherine, Davy and Sandra – were born and brought up in the Hawick area at Lairhope Teviothead, in the Scottish Borders where their father worked as a shepherd and her mother was a nurse. Living in quite remote areas, the Jappy children made their own entertainment, and it was here Alison's natural love of animals just grew and grew.
After Drumlanrig Primary School in Hawick, she went on to secondary at the High school in the same town. While at school, she not only proved a diligent pupil but also gained national recognition when she won the National Orienteering championship, first while she was at primary school and then again during her secondary school years.
Tertiary education started at Borders College where she took an Ordinary National Diploma in business studies before she headed off to Auchincruive in Ayrshire to study Agriculture. As part of this latter course, she had to spend a year doing practical farming, which she did with her father on a sheep farm at Westruther in the Lammermuir Hills.
Here Alison picked up skills which, combined with her independent approach to life, saw her head off to New Zealand after completing her two-year diploma course. Once there, she worked for shearing contractors on some of the large sheep stations and then became involved in some of the shearing competitions where she picked up the skills of a wool handler or, as they are called in that sheep rearing part of the world, roustabouts or rousies.
Coming back home to Scotland in 1997, Alison was instrumental in staging wool handling competitions at all the major Scottish sheep shearing events. She won the first ever Wool Handling competition held in Scotland and this led to her selection for the Scottish team at the world championships in Ireland.
More victories were achieved with major competition wins in Wales, England and Ireland as well as notable placings in the World Wool Handling championships, taking 4th in Ireland, 5th in South Africa, 3rd on home turf in Scotland and 5th in Australia. All of these were quite an achievement as she was competing against New Zealanders and Australians who “rousie” as a full-time job.
Such was the dominance this well-organised woman with a warm smile and keen sense of humour had in domestic competitions at this time that one likely overexcited commentator was heard to exclaim that she had “been winning shows all over Scotland for the past 300 years!”
During this period of her life Alison met and married Graham McNeil, whom she met through their shearing exploits. Together they established a successful shearing business based mainly in the Dumfries & Galloway area. Alison continued the business after her separation from Graham, adding in work with the British Wool Marketing Board training up wool handlers. She also helped train shepherds who came over from Scandinavia to learn about shearing and wool handling. After a brief interlude as a policewoman, Alison's focus on agriculture continued.
She was still working in the South West of Scotland when the 2001 foot and mouth disease pandemic struck.
As someone with good organisational abilities and a steely determination for what would be a very stressful job she was asked to coordinate shepherds in gathering animals. For two months, without a single day's break, the team systematically gathered thousands of animals. This drastic action helped to control the spread of the virulent disease. It was a most distressing period for all who loved animals, and especially Alison, whose life was centred on looking after livestock.
She was both very proud and surprised when she was awarded the MBE for her efforts in this gruesome task. Her Investiture by HRH Prince Charles at Holyrood Palace, accompanied by her parents and Katherine, was a day to remember.
Although she made seven lengthy trips to New Zealand working and competing, there was never any doubt her homeland was Scotland. Possibly to emphasise this Scottishness and, to confirm a remark made by a friend and colleague that she “was a grafter who was successful in everything she put her mind to,” Alison learned to play the bagpipes and, having done so, she joined the Hawick Scout Pipe Band
This well-organised woman who was confident, independent, unassuming and patient, was generous with her time, passing on her knowledge as she represented her country on the world championship stage.
Alison was a loyal and long-standing friend to many both in her home area and in the sheep world.
If you would like to submit an obituary (800-1000 words preferred, with jpeg image), or have a suggestion for a subject, contact [email protected]
Subscribe at www.scotsman.com/subscriptions