Gun­bower’s gun shearer

Shepparton News - Country News - - FRONT PAGE - By Bray­den May

Out on the board the old shearer stands,

Grasp­ing his shears in his long, bony hands,

Fixed is his gaze on a bare­bel­lied ‘Joe’,

Glory if he gets her, won’t he make the ‘ringer’ go.

Click go the shears boys, click, click, click,

Wide is his blow and his hands move quick,

The ringer looks around and is beaten by a blow,

And curses the old snag­ger with the blue-bel­lied ‘Joe’.

It’s an Aus­tralian clas­sic that be­gan some­where back in the 1850s, its au­thor lost in time.

It be­gan even be­fore Gun­bower’s Colin ‘Pa’ McGil­livray was born.

And that would be 86 years ago. But it could have been writ­ten about him be­cause the oc­to­ge­nar­ian, who reck­ons he has about five mil­lion shorn sheep stretch­ing back into the mists of his own time, can still be found out on the board.

About, he reck­ons, 70 years af­ter he first took up the comb and started drag­ging sheep from the hold­ing pens and across the board to his stand.

To­day Pa looks as though he is about to bend into an­other sheep — hav­ing spent so much of his life head down, back bent and bat­tling big Meri­nos — es­pe­cially the rams — at some of the big­gest sheep sta­tions in the coun­try.

While he is now fo­cused on his own prop­erty in his home­town, there is ar­guably noth­ing that could slow him down — not even a re­cent short stint in hos­pi­tal.

Which he has dis­missed as noth­ing more than ‘‘just a bump in the road’’.

Be­cause the way he sees it, some­one has to shear the sheep and he is pretty sure he will do it bet­ter than most — even though he may not give the guns and the ringers as much of a go these days.

But fi­nally, de­ter­minedly, even his wife Betty thinks it’s time to slow down.

‘‘She’s seen a lot over the years,’’ Colin said.

‘‘I think I drive her nuts some­times, I’m not sure how she’s put up with it — and me.

‘‘I’ve had my fair share of in­ci­dents where she has just shaken her head at me.’’

But no mat­ter what hap­pens; Betty says she will al­ways be along for the ride.

‘‘I just go with the flow and let him do what he wants,’’ she said.

‘‘As long as Colin is happy and healthy and I’m happy to let him do what he wants.’’

Al­though, there have been some mo­ments in their jour­ney where Betty did se­ri­ously start to ques­tion whether the sheep or their mar­riage was Colin’s num­ber one pri­or­ity.

‘‘One day we went to Shep­par­ton to do our Christ­mas shop­ping,’’ she re­called.

‘‘Colin dropped me off at the shops and said he was go­ing out to the auc­tion — but only to have a look. He promised me he wouldn’t buy any sheep.

‘‘When he came back to pick me up, he had this mas­sive smile on his face, so I knew some­thing had hap­pened.

‘‘I opened the boot and there were three sheep sit­ting there.

‘‘I would say I should have been sur­prised; but I wasn’t — this sort of thing hap­pened all the time with Colin.’’

Then there were the times where Colin went rogue.

Most no­tably, when the lo­cal po­lice of­fi­cer pulled him over for hav­ing the sheep in the pas­sen­ger seat of his beloved ute.

‘‘I had them strapped in,’’ he said.

Not ashamed to tell the story, Colin was more than happy to speak about the day’s ac­tiv­i­ties.

‘‘I bought a few sheep and didn’t have enough room to fit them all in the back of the ute,’’ he said.

‘‘So, putting one in the front seat was the only op­tion I had.

‘‘The po­lice of­fi­cer wasn’t too happy with my ex­cuse. But I did man­age to get the sheep home.’’

While Colin now has new sta­teof-the-art sheep yards this has not al­ways been the case.

You wouldn’t know it, but his old yards sit just off the side of the Mur­ray Val­ley Hwy about one kilo­me­tre out of Gun­bower.

Most likely you have seen them with­out ever notic­ing them — other than to per­haps reg­is­ter a scrappy mess. Af­ter all, Colin built them from scrap ma­te­rial.

Colin has al­ways found a use for any­thing he could find for free, in­clud­ing wooden pal­lets, old gates and wire to con­struct them.

At one time a prom­i­nent Face­book page had them ranked as the worst sheep yards in the coun­try.

‘‘My par­ents al­ways taught me to not waste any­thing that could still be used,’’ he said.

‘‘The yards don’t look great, but I was able to make them work. I’ve had a lot of sheep go through those yards and I’m proud of what I was able to achieve there.

‘‘The ‘award’ gave me a good laugh be­cause peo­ple would al­ways laugh at what they had seen.

‘‘But my idea of mak­ing the most out of ev­ery­thing even goes into my shear­ing, when I take ev­ery piece of wool that I can.’’

Dur­ing the 1980s, Colin spent a lot of time at Dun­lop Sta­tion in NSW — one of Aus­tralia’s most fa­mous sheep sta­tions.

And he still re­mem­bers his daily work like it was yes­ter­day.

‘‘There were 50 shear­ers who would do 80,000 sheep,’’ he said.

‘‘It was a lot of work, but we never com­plained about it. It was phys­i­cally de­mand­ing, but my body al­ways adapted.

‘‘I’m very lucky I had a good back.

‘‘I’ve also worked in cen­tral Aus­tralia and that was a real chal­lenge. In the shed tem­per­a­tures could get as high as 70°C, but I still didn’t raise a sweat.

‘‘I could have gone again and again.’’

Colin also main­tains he has never in­jured him­self while shear­ing— al­though there has been one in­jury.

‘‘When I was work­ing at Kerang, I fell on one of the steps and spilt my shin open,’’ he said.

‘‘I didn’t think it was too bad at the time, but I ended up with 50 stitches.’’

And as you might ex­pect, this old vet­eran hasn’t been afraid to leave his com­fort zone dur­ing his life­time.

Shear­ing sheep was only the be­gin­ning when it came to work­ing with an­i­mals. He was also the town’s part-time groomer.

‘‘Al­pacas were al­ways the worst an­i­mals to work with be­cause they would spit at me — it would drive me nuts,’’ he said.

‘‘Dogs weren’t too bad, but I did have some fun when a cus­tomer might an­noy me. I would say I dec­o­rated the dog when no-one was look­ing.

‘‘One of the bet­ter ex­pe­ri­ences was when I went to Kyne­ton af­ter a woman asked for help on her prop­erty for a week.

‘‘I lived on a diet of Ger­man sausages and prob­a­bly didn’t eat for a week once I got home.’’

While he might be slow­ing down, Colin is do­ing ev­ery­thing he can to en­sure his legacy as a shearer lives on.

With 14 grand­chil­dren and 19 great grand­chil­dren it’s very likely there will be a shearer among them — or a classer or rousie at least.

‘‘The great grand­kids love com­ing out and shear­ing the sheep,’’ he said.

‘‘The girls ac­tu­ally en­joy it more than the boys.

‘‘Some of them think I’m mad, maybe I am, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.’’

Pic­tures: Cath Grey

Man of the land . . . Gun­bower shearer Colin McGil­livray. The oc­to­ge­nar­ian reck­ons he has shorn about five mil­lion sheep over the years.

Hard at it . . . Colin McGil­livray shears yet an­other sheep. He says he won’t slow down, not even af­ter a re­cent stint in hos­pi­tal, which he dis­missed as ‘‘just a bump in the road’’.

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