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by Lewis McCalley

Any conversations surrounding top fanciers in Scotland or ‘men to beat’ of the last 30 years will have found the name of John Bosworth effortlessly roll off the tongue. A man Eddie Newcombe once described as “the pigeon fancier extraordinaire”.

John Bosworth, SNFC Gold Cup winner from Rennes (1997), SNFC young bird national winner from Redditch (1978) and SNFC old bird inland National winner from Eastbourne (2008), is undeniably one of the greats in Scottish pigeon racing’s recent history. Over the past 37 years the Elphinstone loft has won 349 Scottish National Flying club diplomas - 173 of these from races between 427 and 673 miles. He is twice the winner of the Scottish Homing Union Dewar Trophy (1985 and 1993), given to the fancier flying Scotland’s bird of the year. Add to this three gold award winning pigeons, which join the ranks of some of the greatest birds to fly into Scotland, all winning five top prizes each racing from France. Here are some of the positions won at national level since 1975.

  • 3 times 1st open
  • 12 times in the top 5 open
  • 22 times in the top 10 open
  • 48 times in the top 20 open
  • 76 times in the top 30 open

John’s performances in the Scottish National Flying Club over the course of the 2012 season have seen him win no fewer than five of the principal average trophies including the Dr W. Anderson Memorial for best average in our three longest races, the Clive Newcombe memorial trophy for the best average in all six old bird races and the jewel in the crown, The R. Telfer Award, for best average within the club in all seven events flown over the course of the year. This feat saw John secure his section (B) and region (East) all race average trophies.

John with his trophies won in 2012

The R. Telfer award is very special indeed. Robert Telfer was a great fancier in his in own right racing into the strong Lanarkshire Federation, where I’m told he was the Macaloney of his day. This memorial award was donated by the Telfer family and is arguably the greatest accolade a fancier in Scotland can achieve. On having a look at the trophy close up and reading through the list of past winners it drives home the level one would have to fly at in order to secure this honour. The very first winners of this trophy were the legendary Newcombe Brothers back in 1980 and it has been lifted by a further 20 different competitors since, many of whom are considered to be amongst Scottish pigeon racing’s all-time greats. The club’s archives show there to be eight multiple winners.

  • John Bosworth, Elphinstone - 5 times
  • Richard Combe, Elphinstone - 3 times
  • Newcombe Brothers, Macmerry - 2 times
  • Dale Newcombe, Macmerry - 2 times
  • Derik Norden, Langholm - 2 times
  • Dennis Anderson, Annan - 2 times
  • Scott Gibson, Falkirk - 2 times
  • Charlie Dickson, Bonnyrigg- 2 times

John lifted the award in 1983, 1985, 1995, and 1997 but let’s look at the 2012 record extending campaign where Mr Bosworth was the one of only two lofts in the club to appear on every SNFC result, of which there are seven in total: two inland old bird races which were flown from Cheltenham and Maidstone this season, three French races - The Alencon Gold Cup, Niort and Clermont, Ypres in Belgium and a further inland race for the youngsters, this season flown from Leicester. At this point it’s only fitting to acknowledge the runners up and only other loft to win their section average this season - Jock and Isabel Alston, Ravenstruther. Their record in national racing over the years is exceptional and they are a testament to the quality of fancier that can be found in the west of the country. The SNFC racing this last year started what seems like an age ago now. It was back on the 9th of June, or so we had hoped. Due to adverse weather conditions at and around the planned liberation point the pigeons were held over for several days before eventually being brought 50 miles further up the road to Cheltenham, where they were liberated on Wednesday the 13th of June at 0800. The race proved to be a bit on the tricky side with only a little over 10% of the convoy, close to 4000 strong, making it home on the day. However the Bosworth pigeons got off to a strong start with eight making the open result, four of which were in the first 100 and his first clocker, a 5 year old blue cock, covered the 279 miles in a little over 7 hours finishing 30th Open. This cock, known as ‘Van Leo’, is quite something as this is his fourth SNFC diploma having won the SNFC Silver award in 2011.

Van Leo

Poor weather also played its part in the second SNFC inland event of the year. A two day holdover meant the 3431 pigeons were liberated on Monday the 25th of June at 0645. Another testing race unfolded with the winning pigeon doing 1176 ypm. A star in the making kept John to the fore, a yearling blue cock timed in to finish 81st Open after covering the 357 miles in just over nine and a half hours. This pigeon will be given a special mention later on. Next up we had the blue riband event, the Gold Cup race flown from Alencon in Normandy, France on Friday 29th of June - 0630 liberation. After last year’s difficult Gold Cup event, in which only 54 brave birds made it home in race time and with the two previous races having fallen to extended holdovers, a good race was needed to lift morale. Alencon, which has been a good race point in the past, did not let us down. Despite the birds experiencing rain en route, 103 birds were clocked on the day of liberation and all open prizes collected by half past five the following morning into the central belt and by quarter past nine into the far north. Like so many times before, John Bosworth put up one of the great performances of the race. Flying 533 miles, two hens were clocked within two and half minutes of each other to take 11th and 14th Open. A third pigeon was clocked on the night taking 78th open. It could be noted that although John has had many outstanding cock birds, the majority of his successes from the channel races have come through hens.

11th Open Alencon

14th Open Alencon

The following weekend proved to be very special indeed. It’s on this weekend where the SNFC host two races. The Ypres event, which has grown to become Scotland’s most popular channel race, and the longest race. This season the longest race was flown from Niort, a distance of 672 miles to John Bosworth’s home. John’s loft showed the same kind of form from Ypres as it had the previous week in our Gold Cup race. The 426 mile course once more laid the platform for J. F. Bosworth to put up one of the performances of the race. Three pigeons were clocked in the first 31 of the open, the first of which saw John finish runner up in a SNFC race for the second time and win his section for a sixth time. Incidentally it was the earlier mentioned ‘star in the making’ that was responsible. Niort at a distance of 670 miles to central Scotland was never going to be an easy task and in actual fact it turned out to be the most difficult race of the season with only 8 pigeons making it home in race time. I think all 8 lofts who managed to clock in race time from this event should be recognised. Well done to Billy Smith, Tom Keenan, J. M Dalgleish, Billy Van Nuil, John Bosworth, Richard Combe, Jock King and Jock and Isabel Alston. John timed the first pigeon on the third day, a chequer hen that finished 5th open.

5th Open Niort Hen

It’s interesting looking back at this type of race. Although it could be deemed as a disaster there is a very small nucleus of fanciers who seem to be able to clock from them time and again. The final channel race of the 2012 SNFC campaign was flown from Clermont. Like the majority of races this season it did not prove to be straight forward. Whereas the pigeons weren’t held over the liberation was delayed, so much so that no pigeons made it into the country on the day. 80th and 159th Open would ensure John’s pigeons had done enough to bag a haul of trophies including the Joe Murphy Sporting Challenge fancier of the year award. A point of interest to arise from John’s Clermont performance is that his 80th open pigeon (also 68th Open Cheltenham) is actually a hen that he got in as stray when she was a youngster. The bird was bred by Cowie based fancier J.Berry. This is not the first time I have heard of this happening and I am sure it won’t be the last.

The NW Hen, 80th Open Clermont and 68th Open Cheltenham

Many of you will have read over the last few weeks this has been Joe Murphy’s last season organising his Sporting Challenge, which has done a great deal in highlighting many of the top pigeons and fanciers in Scotland since its birth. I for one will miss Joe’s coverage from this angle as it was one of the first things I’d skip to when opening the British Homing World on a Friday. As always seems the case it was then a long wait before national competition was under way again. After a couple of months racing the youngsters the closing event of the programme saw them get their turn in the annual race from Leicester. This season’s young bird national has been a great talking point, not only in this country but further afield. It was certainly the most dominant display I can recall seeing from this race, put up by Billy Bilsland the well-known sports personality and successful pigeoner to boot. This was an important race in the Bosworth season. He’d done the hard bit it would have appeared now it was left to his young hopefuls to put the rest into place. Of course they did not disappoint taking 130th, 133rd, 139th and 229th open. This sealed the deal so to speak and saw John clench the best average from ALL SNFC events for the year 2012.

130th Leicester YB national

It’s easy to get carried away when referencing the performances of a fancier of this calibre. What is encouraging is John’s attitude towards them. “If I can do it, so can you” he says. Another thing that I like to remind myself when looking into fanciers racing at the highest level is that they weren’t always as good as they are now. They were once novices and in John’s case he told me of a time when he was struggling to clock from Longtown on the day never mind Alencon.

John’s family moved to Musselburgh when he was an infant and it was in his teens he began to take an interest in pigeons. This was partly through seeing those of his grandfather who, although not a racer of pigeons, kept some along with some chickens and a few other little feathered wonders. John cites his grandfather as being very encouraging and has many fond memories of the times they spent together with the pigeons. It wasn’t a fancy loft in those days. In fact John’s first pigeons were kept in an orange box that was nailed to the side of a 6x4 shed in his grandfather’s garden. After a bit of persuasion his Pop was coaxed into allowing John half of this shed as a new home for the birds.

The original pigeons were strays John had caught and once it was realised this was not a passing fad he was gifted pigeons from some local fanciers to start him off on the right foot. Reflecting back on his teens he recalls having no real concept of where to train pigeons and age related to distances birds could fly etc. In fact on his many trips with the scouts it was not uncommon for John take a couple of pairs along in a cardboard box. This saw the pigeons being released from such places as Ayton, Inverness and Raasay off the Isle of Skye.

Once John got to grips with racing in his later teens a number of the old hands watched in disbelief as he would send yearling late bred birds to distances in excess of 500 miles and not only get them home but he topped the Midlothian Federation two years in succession from Beauvais (498miles) with such pigeons) finishing 9th open in the Usher Vaux both times.

The progress John made in his first season could be described as a meteoric rise. He went from struggling to clock from Longtown, 60 miles, to winning his club’s furthest race from Lewis, a distance of 380 miles. The winning pigeon that day was a six year old stray he caught in a box before it was transferred to him by the Davie Murdoch and Son partnership from Leslie in Fife. A further couple of pigeons were gifted to John by the partnership and these proved to work very well. There are no records to back this up but John recalls the Murdoch pigeons originating from the legendary Douglas Water loft of the Burrell Brothers. It was another gift pigeon that saw John’s first clock bird from France. Even today John maintains that he has had far more success with gift birds from friends than those bought. Where have we heard this before? This gift bird proved to be quite something. She was a mealy hen presented by Matt Greig of Whitecraigs, who himself at the time had a bit of reputation for timing yearlings from France. The hen is said to be of Stassart origin and when handled by the famous Piercey Brother s of Spittal was given the title of the best racing pigeon they had ever seen. She certainly did not let John down and when sent to the 1968 Usher Vaux Beauvais race nesting in the back of lawnmower full of grass clippings she came up trumps being the bird that topped the Midlothian Fed and 9th Open overall. Amazingly her son was the pigeon which repeated this feat the following year. Evidently this hen proved her worth as a producer and was bred around, becoming the mother of the Bosworth loft, before the move to Elphinstone in 1974.

John enjoyed success in Musselburgh, but it was when settling in Elphinstone after marrying his wife Arleen and finishing his apprenticeship as a quantity surveyor that things took off on the pigeon front. Elphinstone played a big part in John’s development as a fancier. It’s the old adage ‘Competition breeds success’. He was now racing into a village that was home to many of Scottish pigeon racing’s household names. Fanciers like John Ellis, Norrie Cochrane, Tam McLeod, The McEwans, Richard Combe, Mr and Mrs Smith and so on. If you had the first bird in Elphinstone it was sure be a good one.

Another pivotal moment in the pigeon racing career of the subject was his introduction to the Donaldson Brothers of Dunbar, who are widely recognised as a couple of the best fanciers to race into the East of Scotland. The encouragement they gave many up and coming fanciers around this time was incredible and every year John was allowed any two youngsters he fancied from this great loft. This brings us onto the development of John’s successful family of pigeons.

The foundations were laid in Musselburgh in the form of the Grieg Stassart mealy hen and the Murdoch birds. The Donaldson Brothers pigeons made an instant impact and in fact it was a first cross that gave John one of his biggest thrills to date with the pigeons, back in 1979. It was a drizzly day and the birds were racing into a head wind. John recalls his dark hen, named 'Fiona B' after his eldest daughter, coming from a south-westerly direction to take 1st Open in the Scottish National Flying Club young bird national from Redditch. The sire of the national winner was a Donaldson Bros cock. The brothers had tried all their life to win a national and seeing the joy it brought them when John reported back with this win gave him a lot of pleasure indeed. The dam was typical of John’s own racing family at the time and was a particularly good racer in SNFC winning 80th open Avranches in 1979, 38th Open Rennes 1981 and in 1983, the year of inland racing due to paramyxovirus, she was 92nd Open Exeter and 4th Open Dorchester. It’s from this you get what John referred to as his chequer hen family. When blended with pigeons from the lofts of John Ellis of Elphinstone, Sinclair Thomson of Port Seton, Mr and Mrs Kippax of Ko Nipius fame and John Cosgrove of Lesmahagow these birds kept the Bosworth name to the fore for many, many years.

One of the things I found most interesting of all from the information John provided was reading through the SNFC diplomas won by his birds. It would be impossible for me to mention all the performances but I feel it will be of interest to some if a few of the top birds through these old lines are highlighted.

SU81 E 909 - 173rd Open Exeter 1983, 198th Open Rennes 1984, 13th Open Rennes 1985.

SU82 E 2938 known as ‘Steven B’ being named after John’s son - 188th Open Hastings 1984, 14th Open Sartilly (1) and 2nd Open Sartilly (2) 1985.

SU88 E 03324 known as ‘J.B Special’ - winner of a SNFC Gold Award; 39th open Sartilly (2) 1989, 40th Open Sartilly (1) 1990, 78th Open Sartilly (1) 1991, 8th Open Sartilly (1) 1992 and 126th Open Rennes 1993.

SU89 E 0661 known as ‘Charley’ which was a nickname John had for his youngest daughter at the time - winner of a SNFC Gold Award; 83rd East Section Sartilly (1) 1991, 9th Open Rennes 1992, 180th Open Rennes 1993, 36th open Beauvais 1994 and 24th Open Rennes 1995.

SU91 E 0051 known as ‘Arleen’s Vintage’ - 5th open Niort 1995, 15th Open Niort 1996 and 3rd open Nantes 1997.

SU92 E 0879 - winner of a SNFC Gold Award; 164th open Beauvais 1994, 52nd Open Rennes 1996, 17th Open Nantes 1997, 14th open Nantes 1999 and 12th Open Nantes 2000.

SU93 E 1858 - SNFC Gold Cup winner known as ‘The Graduate’; 87th Open Sartilly 1995, 97th open Rennes 1996, 1st open Rennes 1997. The last week in June of 1997 proved to be quite remarkable for John, not just in pigeon terms. Both his son an eldest daughter graduated from university at the same time so the Gold Cup winner more or less named itself.

Top fanciers don’t tend to stand still for too long, whether it be bringing in birds to try against their own or tweaking proven methods, and John Bosworth is no different. Some recent introductions to make an impact have again been through friendship. For instance this past season’s 5th open SNFC Niort as well as going back to John’s old stuff contains the bloodlines of the West Region winning J & J Hood, father and son, partnership. The two Johns, who race their birds in Milton on Campsie, have a wonderful team of pigeons and are to the fore in SNFC racing year after year. Some more recent acquisitions that are showing their worth come from the Polmont loft of Jim Smith. Jim, who previously raced in California, has been winning at club, federation and national level for as long as I have kept pigeons and houses some outstanding Busschaert and Vandenabeele stock amongst others. The influence of the Leo Van Rijn pigeons from Alastair Kerr of Irvine cannot be overlooked. These birds have more than left their mark, proving to be veritable flying machines. Yes these pigeons have blended in exceptionally well and won through the card, excelling in national competition.

Some of the recent and present stars of the stable include. GB04 V 13264 - 18th Open Newbury, 103rd Newbury, 25th Newbury and 30th Newbury. This hen’s Grandchildren include SU07 P 1851 known as ‘Sixty Not Out’ - 1st Open Eastbourne and the pigeon John rates as probably his best bird at the moment ‘Van Leo’ who has won the following positions with the SNFC: 32nd Ypres, 36th Ypres, 20th Marlborough, 64th Ypres and 30th Open Cheltenham. SU 09 P 2765 - 1st Section B, 18th Open Marlborough 2011 and 77th Open Cheltenham 2012.

SU 09 P 2765 - 1st Section B, 18th Open Marlborough 2011 and 77th Open Cheltenham 2012

The current talk of the town and the bird that has John excited going into next season is a yearling blue cock SU 11 P 739 named ‘Skyfall’. He showed his class right from the word go being the first bird to the loft from the young bird national taking 17th Open. This season he scored again inland when he was 81st Open Maidstone. A fortnight later he recorded 2nd Open SNFC Ypres. Time will tell but you’d have to say he has the makings of a great champion. On talking to John over the phone one night whilst compiling this report I caught him just as he’d returned from the cinema with his wife, Arlene. It was this trip that turned the previously named ‘Jubilee John’ into ‘Skyfall’.


A while back now I read a wonderful self-penned article entitled ‘Survivors’. Whereas the basic principles in John’s loft still apply, his management has changed considerably over the last decade. This is partly through necessity and partly through his constant desire to improve. The pigeons were once managed on the popular ‘open bowl’ style system and enjoyed their liberty near enough all year round. With persistent raptor attacks this way of keeping the birds became progressively more difficult and is nearly unsustainable with today's predatory problems in Scotland. John races in a very competitive club and although it’s still races in excess of 300 miles that motivate him he was finding it difficult looking up the result sheet and seeing the name of J & G Whitson, Karen Newcombe, Brian Cunningham, Sinclair Thomson, Jocky Brown, Chris Bonnington, Rab Ainslie, Tam McLeod etc. constantly at the top. With the introduction of the Leo Van Rijn birds and the other aforementioned reasons, the decision was made to race the pigeons on a form of double widowhood or roundabout if you prefer. The emphasis was taken away from private training tosses and moved towards home exercise and more racing.

The original 38ft x 10ft loft built in the 70s still stands but on trying this different way of flying a few minor alterations were needed, a corridor now runs the full length of the loft. There are three nest box sections, a young bird section and one for the hens when they are spilt from their mates. I’ve visited a few lofts that have adopted a more ‘closed in’ design but John Bosworth’s loft isn’t one. The front of the loft is still 60% louvers and at the back a small meshed gap runs right along the top of the loft. All in all the air flow is fantastic. Floor grills are used throughout the entire loft acting as a labour saving device on top of preventing the birds from mixing with their own droppings.

John’s pigeons are paired in early February on no set date; the aim is to have the birds separated and their youngsters weaned by the first week in April. When pairing the birds John will pick mates for the main birds, taking into account ‘horses for courses’ and the rest will be allowed to choose their own mates. Of course if a pair are not taking to each other he won’t force the issue and will find a better suited bird for them to mate with. Once the pigeons have been split a few short tosses are carried out then it’s into the first race. After this the system of loft flying can commence. Once the pigeons are flying for half an hour unforced John feels they are ready to go in the basket but after racing has started both cocks and hens are exercised morning and evening for 40 minutes each time. When first trying this system John conferred with a few fanciers operating a similar method and then it was decided to send the pigeons to races on a weekly basis unless the bird is out of condition or carrying an injury of some sort. The nest bowls are kept upside down in the closed half of the nest box and on basket day they are upturned and the cocks allowed to access them. After around 10 minutes of this the hens are introduced to the sections. They are given time to sort themselves out as often one or two will go up to the wrong nest box first time. The birds are allowed to run together for no set time, it all depends on the order John baskets them in on that particular race day, some could be ten minutes some twenty. On return from a race the birds are allowed to remain together for one hour, sometimes slightly more, and it may not necessarily be their own mate entertaining them on return, as long as there is something for them to come back to. This system is operated from the first race, usually the third week in April, until the first SNFC inland race which is held in early June. On return from this race the birds are then left to go to nest in view of the up and coming SNFC events. It’s during this time the birds will be trained again on the road. John has noticed for the first couple of weeks of the birds re-pairing they are still in the habit of exercising well around the loft so it’s not until the week before their destined event that they will see the inside of a training basket. This season the training took place from Denholm and Carter Bar, roughly 35-40miles and the birds are usually given the last training flight three days before basketing for the channel.

John’s feeding methods are kept straight forward. No breaking down and no portion control. In fact the birds have food before them at all times. From the end of September until the beginning of February the pigeons are confined to the loft and fed on a good quality moulting mixture. As stated food is in front of the birds at all times but they are not given any more until they have eaten all the grains, not just their favourites. When breeding has commenced in February the birds are then switched to a breeding mix, which is fed in the same manner as the moulting mix. The birds will be on this breeding mixture right through the racing season and once into June an energy mix and peanuts are added. When asked about how much feeding methods have changed over the years John talked about coming away from predominantly protein based feeds for the pigeon and edging more in the direction of fats. Interestingly enough John has not fed his pigeons any tic beans for nearly twenty years or indeed any maple peas in the last eight.

For the last ten years or so John has practised the method of darkening all his youngsters. The birds are darkened at 7pm and the blind is lifted at 8 am. The young pigeons have access to an open loft all day, as at this time of year the sparrow hawk is less active and its gives the youngsters a good start in life. They are fed in the exact same way as the old birds during this time. John has noticed no adverse effects on his pigeons' performances as yearlings since darkening and the results more than back this up. The birds are usually taken off darkness the weekend of the first inland national, resulting in them having been on the shortened daylight hours for approximately six or seven weeks. Although if a later youngster is acquired they to go in with the rest and come off at the exact same time, again no adverse effects have been noted. The youngsters after pre-race training, consisting of 2 or 3 tosses between 20 and 30 miles with the old bird for the last channel race, are expected to go to every race which for them includes the national from Leicester. After their first race, much the same as the old birds, they are given very little road work and exercised around home.

When it comes to medication, during the race season John routinely treats for canker, coccidiosis and respiratory ailments. These are precautionary measures and the young pigeons are treated at the same times as the old birds. From the last young bird race until the breeding season is under way no medication is given, however the birds are inoculated in December with the compulsory PMV jab as well as vaccines for paratyphoid and pox. Again these are viewed as preventatives.

I always find it interesting to hear the views of other fanciers and on my visit to John’s I was eager to hear his opinions, particularly on the Scottish National Flying Club. The topic of the Inland Nationals came up and John is of the opinion they are one of the best things to happen to club. Not only is this where the club can generate big entries, they act as a great stepping stone in conjunction with the Ypres race and serve to encourage new members and less established long distance outfits with an opportunity to sample and enjoy national racing. Ypres was another hot topic, well, Belgian race points in general. John spoke of how he would like to see this racing line used more and feels the evidence of fairer racing and good returns is there for all to see. Ypres in particular is a race he feels is an excellent part of the channel candidate’s education having found his yearlings who come out of Ypres usually hit the ground running the following season. This is the theme of a feature I plan to start work on soon. I don’t intend to get too political in this piece so back to racing matters.

I asked John what advice he would give to novices or fanciers looking to improve. He went on to say the basics have not changed much - a dry well ventilated loft and well-structured management go a long way. Selection is another aspect he touched on, the term hard and often being used. You can test your pigeons at national level for as little as £3 today and long term it’s a sure fire way to improve. When talking of introducing pigeons John says that paper pedigrees and fashionable names do little for him. The key point here is to acquire birds from a consistent winning loft with a long line of tested pigeons. He touched on a number of local sales where fanciers can pick up good pigeons without shelling out big money.

John gives the impression of a fancier who is very thorough in his approach, but in an era where we have more full time fanciers than ever before he stressed that he doesn’t feel the need to spend every spare moment with his birds. It’s the quality of time spent over the quantity that makes the difference. Recently retired, he will be able to pursue a number of his other interests and spend more time with his wife, children and young grandchild. It will be interesting to see how he fares on the golf course. George Hunter has taken on a coaching role and I’m sure it will be only be a matter of time before John takes up Andy Miller, Barry Kinnear and John Bird on their challenge.

To conclude I’d like to thank John Hood for setting up the visit to Elphinstone and of course John Bosworth for allowing me to compile this report. I’ve found it very interesting and I hope I have succeeded in highlighting his achievements in the sport and given a brief outline of how his methods have developed. I enjoyed the time spent in John and Arleen’s home ‘talking doos’ and thank Arleen for the kind hospitality. She will need to tell Mr Hood and I where she bought that black pudding!