Retired Dumfries and Galloway farmer Billy McKenzie shares his story in Galloway People
Billy McKenzie is remarkably open about the day a cow nearly killed him in a field near Borgue.
Now a resident in Barlochan Care Home, Billy had been enjoying robust health until his brush with death five years ago.
He has never fully recovered, he tells me, his injuries the reason why he is in Barlochan full time.
Married to Ellise for 17 years, Whitecairn Farm near Castle Douglas had been the couple’s abode until the fateful incident.
A stockman all life, Billy had already survived an attack in 1948 by an Ayrshire bull at the family small holding at North Balfern, outside Kirkinner.
He was only a boy of 11 then and the broken bones healed.
But when the cow attacked him in 2016 he was 79 – and the outcome was not so good.
Billy’s memory of the day remains vivid – and to this day he is mystified why the cow broke his skull and shattered his bones.
“I had this wee place at Clachandolly where I kept 40 cows and calves as a hobby,” he explains as we chat in the gazebo outside reception.
“It was a Sunday and I went for a walk round the beasts.
“I was going across the field just watching them and saw this cow putting her head up. She had a calf but it was big – maybe seven or eight months.
“She wandered closer and I thought nothing of it. Suddenly she put on speed, sent me flying and trampled on top of me.
“She stuck her knees on my shoulders and battered me with her head.
“I had worked with livestock all my life – I had no idea that was going to happen.”
Billy admits he thought he was going to die – but was saved by the unlikeliest of heroes.
“One of the kye in the field was my wife’s,” he recalls. “It ran over I thought ‘you bugger, you are going to hit me too’.
“But she didn’t – and dunted the other cow straight in the ribs.
“My wife’s cow stood over the top of me and I escaped underneath her belly then crawled 300 yards to the gate.
“Then I heard a roar and the cow that had smashed me was running towards me. I couldn’t walk but that roar soon put me on my feet.
“Luckily the gate was open and the cow actually shoved me through it. I managed to pull it shut behind me as I shot past – if it had opened the other way I would have had it.
“She hit the gate with that much authority she bent the bars on it. It was a brand new gate as well.”
Purely by chance a passing motorist happened to be a district nurse, Billy recounts.
After applying emergency treatment and doing what she could Billy was rushed to Dumfries hospital with his life hanging in the balance.
“I was as near death as could be,” he says matter-of-factly. When the specialist came down the next day he said ‘I didn’t think you’d be here this morning’.
“I just answered ‘neither did I’.”
Billy admits to having “no idea” why the cow launched herself at him.
“To think that I bought her because she was quiet!” he grimaces. “Later when I was a bit better I went back to see my kye and this coo saw me.
“She roared as if to say don’t come in here or you’ll get the same again. I thought that’s okay, I’ll put you to market.”
There’s a strong tinge of regret in Billy’s voice as he describes how his life has been affected.
“That finished me,” he says sadly. “I’m no use now. Before it happened I was still combining, still strong and expecting to live well to over 100.
“But my life is scrap now.”
Helping him cope is Billy’s wife Ellise, who lives in Castle Douglas.
The couple met through playing bridge with their clubs, Kirkinner and Castle Douglas.
Billy recalls with a smile the moment he felt Ellise and he could become an item if he played his cards right.
“It was a Stewartry v Wigtownshire match in a hotel in Kirkcudbright,” he smiles. “I had spoken to her two or three times and thought we needed to do something about it.
“We got married in the Balcary Bay Hotel on September 7, 2004.”
Billy was born at brought up at North Balfern, in the heart of the Machars.
The McKenzies, along with dozens of the local families, took up low-rent tenancies of state-owned farmland as war loomed.
“They were all small holdings created by the government during wartime,” explains Billy.
“It was to boost the country and grow more crops. It was the best thing ever they did.
“But the government made one mistake – they stopped creating them and then sold them off.
“At North and South Balfern, there were 22 small holdings by 1940, each of between 50 and 70 acres. That was a lot of families – and there were farm cottages with folk in them forbye.”
Billy was second youngest of four children, his parents Robert and Isa (McQueen) also born and brought up in the rolling Machars lands. “We were at No 8 North Balfern and had 25 dairy kye, all Ayrshires,” he tells me.
“It was before the parlours and all the kye had to be milked by hand. I was doing that by the time I was six years old.
“We had 18 stalls in the big byre, 12 in the wee byre and did two milkings per day, at 5am and 5pm.
“All the milk was put in 12-gallon churns which was taken by our Hillman car and trailer to Bladnoch creamery.
“We got ninepence [about 4p] a gallon, which was same price as the price as the petrol that took it there.
“A loaf of bread was ninepence too.”
Self-sufficiency was the order of the day during the war and post-war years, Billy recalls.
“We grew oats and hay and turnips and all that went to feed the kye.
“We bought the oats from Mildriggan Mill at Braehead [three miles south of Wigtown].
“Some of that went into the meal ark in the back kitchen.
“We had porridge every morning with cream straight off the top of the churns.
“Bulk milk tanks spoiled all that because they had an automatic stirrer.”
With labour scarce prisoners-of-war were often drafted in to help out.
“We would just phone up the PoW camp at Minnigaff – it’s where the caravan site is now – and most of the time you got the men you wanted,” says Billy.
“There were some Germans, but most of them were Italians.
“There was nocht wrang with them – they were always great workers.
“One of our PoWs, a Yugoslav whose name was Branco, ended up marrying a local girl, Hannah Stewart.
“He was a topper of a worker.”
After Kirkinner Primary School – “I got eight of the belt for shooting peas across the classroom,” Billy laughs – heBilly was not long at the Douglas Ewart High School in Newton Stewart.
“I got an exemption from school at 13 to work on the farm and I never went back,” he says. “I loved the job – I would go back to it yet.
“The coos were just my friends and they thought I was theirs too.
“They all had names in those days and we knew them all individually.
“They all had different characters too – just the same as human beings.”
Working with cows was seldom troublesome – but the Ayrshire bull was a different matter entirely.
Billy usually applied caution but one day the 11-year-old farm hand made a mistake which almost cost him his life.
“I went to get the kye and the bull was not with them,” recounts Billy. “He wanted in with them so I hit him on the erse with a stick.
“He just turned round and hit me one back with his head and sent me flying.
“I was lying there on the ground and he bashed me with his head a couple of times. Then luckily for me he just walked away. I managed to fall over the gate and our neighbour Jimmy Hannah caught me.
“The ambulance came and I was in the hospital for a couple of weeks with a cracked skull, broken ribs and a broken arm.”
In typical Galloway fashion, Billy’s father Robert was keen to improve his family’s prospects and in 1948 purchased nearby Knockeffrick Farm.
The Ayrshire dairy herd was expanded to 70 or 80 but soon potential disaster loomed on the horizon.
“There was a big foot and mouth disease outbreak in 1952,” Billy recalls.
“A local farmer had brought calves in from the south of England and the disease came with them. He was not very well liked at that stage, you could say!
“Luckily the disease passed us by but there were quite a few places that had it.”
Outside farm chores, Billy tells me, he enjoyed two games in particular – bridge and tennis.
“When I was 15 or 16 I rebuilt the tennis courts in Kirkinner,” he says. “They were just done and the surface needed replaced.
“I was a very keen player and played in the Galloway championships.”
Not long after Billy attended the West of Scotland Agricultural College on Blythswood Square in Glasgow.
“It was a two-year course and I came out with a general agricultural degree,” he recalls.
“I boarded with my cousin Willie McKenzie in a tenement on Dalhousie Street in Garnethill.
“Glasgow was alright but it was not my style. I did not like the hustle and bustle of the city. I went to dances at the college and Glasgow University but that was about it.”
Back at Knockeffrick with his degree, Billy soon saw new opportunities for expanding the business.
“We built a piggery and got the whey from the old Sorbie Creamery,” he tells me.
“We started up with 150 pigs and got them as weaners from Lanark market. They were fed barley and soya meal as well. We fattened them up and sold them to [wholesale meat suppliers] FMC.”
Billy was already an experienced tractor driver when he qualified for L plates.
“I couldn’t wait to drive and passed my test on March 2, 1954 – the day after my 17th birthday.
“The next day the police were on a sweep for underage drivers and stopped me. They asked for my driving licence and I told them I didn’t have it because I had only passed my test yesterday.
“They said you wee bugger, you’ve been driving up and down that road for years!”
Wigtown Show was the biggest day out of the year – but getting “unco fu’ was never on his mind.
“I never touched a drop,” he says. “I have been tee-total all my days and never smoked either. I had nae notion for the drink and nae money onywey. My father never took a dram either.”
After Knockeffrick, Billy bought Barskeoch near Kirkcowan and expanded his dairy herd to 120.
His skills at combining were also top class and he bought the machinery to match.
“I had a combine which was the biggest in the whole of Scotland then,” smiles Billy. “I did contract work and would cut 600 acres of oats and barley every year.
“I would cut wherever there was money and came over to the Stewartry as well, to Meikle Carse at Palnure and Cassencarrie at Creetown. I was driving combines at 13.”
Billy has one daughter, Fiona, who lives in Glasgow, and a grand-daughter Lena, who is a solicitor in London.
As chance would have it, they had come to visit Billy at Barlochan two days before our chat.
“But my injuries are the reason I am here. And it does not sit well with me – far from it.”