It's not every day that you receive an invitation from HM The Queen to become her gundog trainer, and its probably even rarer that such an invitation should initially be turned down.
This is exactly what happened to Bill Meldrum, however, after he won the Retriever Championship in 1963.
He began his career, aged 15, under his father, George, who was keeper at Leslie House in Fife. “I went straight on to the rearing field”, said Mr Meldrum. ”We had a hut on the field, which had a bed in it, and I stayed there all the time”.
He spent his early keepering years gaining experience on several estates on his fathers advice that if he wanted to get on in the job he shouldn’t stay too long in one place. When he went to join the army, however, they discovered during the medical that he had TB.
Told to leave keepering
“I was taken into hospital for five months, then spent another six months with some other young boys who’d also been found to have TB and we were sent away to a house in the hills in Stirlingshire to recover. We were looked after very strictly but we got better. I was told to leave keepering and that it wasnt a good career for someone who’d had TB, so I went to work in the town and I drove a lorry for five years.”
It looked as if his career in keepering was over, but not long after Mr Meldrum met his future wife, Annie. They needed somewhere to live and houses weren’t easy to come by at that time. When he saw a keepers job advertised with a house, he applied for it and got it.
“I stayed in that job for six years and during that time I got into field trials. I probably became interested at first through my father, who trained gundogs and ran them in field trials very successfully. Like anything, I enjoyed doing it simply for the sport and then all of a sudden I got two very good dogs and was very successful with them. I made-up both dogs to field trial champions and in one year came second with the bitch at the Championship and third the next year. The Championship was at Sandringham and The Queen was spectating. She came over and asked me how I trained my dogs. It was the first time I met her and she was very interested in the gundogs.
Field Trial Championship
”The following year I won the Championship at Woburn Abbey with Skid. Afterwards, we had a lot of people ringing up and writing to congratulate us, and we received a phone call from The Queens agent, Captain Fellowes, asking if wed like to come and spend three days at Sandringham. My wife Annie always had an interest in keepering and in the dogs, as she worked in the big house on an estate before. So we both came down to Sandringham for three days at The Queens expense. We were young and thought it was great, but nobody had mentioned anything about a job at that stage.
“Captain Fellowes took us up to meet The Queen and we talked away in the ballroom. She told me that it was her ambition to own a field trial champion. I thought I’m only a gamekeeper in my twenties and here’s The Queen talking to me about gundogs. I was completely taken aback when she then asked me if I’d like to come and work for her.
“Captain Fellowes showed us the house that went with the job and when we saw it we turned the job down because the house wasn’t suitable.
“The Duke of Edinburgh came in when we were meeting The Queen and discussing it, and said to Captain Fellowes, ‘You’ll have to do that house up, you can’t ask people to go and live in a house like that.’ He then turned to us and said, ’If we do the house up to your liking, would you consider it?’ We said yes, we would.
The Queen’s gundog trainer
“So we came to Sandringham with the intention of staying only for a short time. We’d moved around a bit and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to train the dogs full-time, so I said to The Queen that wed stay for four or five years. When I went for my 20-year medal, I walked into the room and she had a big smile on her face and said to me, ‘I knew that for someone who said they’d only stay for four or five years, once you got here you’d never leave.’
“It is a wonderful estate to be on and The Queen is a wonderful person, Mr Meldrum continued. She was always totally 100 per cent interested in the dogs I never bred a bitch without discussing it with her. She always had the final say. We got on great together.”
When Bill arrived at Sandringham, there were 37 dogs in the kennels almost all black Labradors. ”My father said to me just before I came here, ‘They’re The Queens dogs, dont tell The Queen whats wrong with them. Just go there and train her dogs.’
“The Queen left me alone for three months and I spotted a very good bitch in the kennels, which I liked and which had breeding that I liked. She came from the Duke of Wellington’s estate as a present. Her name was Juniper and I suggested to The Queen that we bred her with Skid, my dog that had won the Championship the year before. She agreed to it and we had a litter of puppies out of her and we had quite a lot of success after that. I had seven field trial champions, which was quite an achievement for The Queen.”
The royal gundogs year
Mr Meldrum fulfilled The Queens ambition to own a field trial champion several times, but he was not employed purely to run dogs in trials, he had to take charge of all the picking-up and the breeding of the dogs, too.
“My year would start in February. We’d mate the bitches, sometimes we’d be lucky and get them mated early. We would always breed an average of six litters a year and we’d hope that they would be born between April and the end of May, because I didn’t want to be taking small puppies to Balmoral. All the dogs went to Balmoral; they were put in a big lorry with partitions and travelled through the night. We went once or twice with a litter, which we put in a box for the journey, but it was better if they were older and then they could run about in a big pen.
“We used to keep 15 young dogs for training the next year. So in February we’d start training the dogs from the year before, which were nine or 10 months old by then. Come July, we’d pick possibly five from the 15 to keep and sell the rest as half-trained dogs. Theyd be sitting and steady, going swimming and picking dummies off the water. We sold them for £300 each, regardless of how good or bad they were, and they all went to shooting people as working dogs, never for pets. We kept the five best ones and carried them on, and if they didn’t make it we’d drop them off and sell them too.
Balmoral for grouse
“In August we would go to Balmoral for the grouse and I always looked forward to running the young dogs on the hill – a trainer always wants young dogs, its more exciting. Within the kennels we had purely picking-up dogs and I would keep about four or five field trialling dogs as well, which would go with me on the hill but they would only get special retrieves. If I didn’t go to Balmoral with at least 22 dogs, I was in trouble. They had to have a rest. You can go with them every day some keepers take their dogs every day on the hill but after two days the dogs get careless. If I saw a dog getting careless I dropped him off and let him have a couple of days rest. When dogs get tired you dont get the same out of them and they make mistakes.
“After the grouse, we would come home to Sandringham for the partridges and the duck, and sometimes if there were a lot of grouse wed go back to Balmoral in October for another fortnight at the grouse. Then we’d come back here for the pheasants and the partridges. In a good year, we shot a fortnight in early October and the beginning of November at the partridges, which were mostly English. Mr Christopher was the keeper then, and we shot quite a few days of more than 200 brace.
“The Queen was very keen and was a very good handler and picker-up. She wanted to do it right and when it was a shooting day she was treated the same as we were.”
The Ghillies Ball
Naturally Mr Meldrum could not tell me too many stories about The Queen and the Royal family, but his tale about the Ghillies Ball at Balmoral was my favourite.
“At the first ball my wife wanted to go but I didn’t want to, as I was a useless dancer. When the second one came around I still didn’t want to go because The Queen always said whom she wanted to dance with and I was worried she’d want to dance with me. The groom, who was Frankie Hatcher, said to me when we were talking about it one day, ‘I’ve been here 26 years and The Queen has never once asked me to dance with her, you’ve only been here a year, what chance have you got?'”
“That gave me confidence and I decided we could go,” said Mr Meldrum, ”and I was really enjoying myself until about midnight, when the equerry came over to me and said, ’Her Majesty would like to dance with you, Meldrum’. Well, I ran out of the hall.
“I came back in after a while, feeling really bad about it. A little later the Duke of Edinburgh came to me and said, ’What went wrong with the dogs on the hill today, Meldrum?’ I was young then, so I answered back straightaway, ’Nothing sir, the dogs were excellent.’ ‘No, no, The Queen said something went wrong today and shes very worried about it, you’d better go and see her’, he said.”
“Of course, like a mug, I went straight over, thinking I’ve got to sort this out, if there’s a problem with dogs then I’ve got to fix it right now. So I walked across to The Queen to where she was sitting in the alcove, and she said, ’It’s the Gay Gordons, Meldrum, if you cant do it I’ll teach you!’
“After that, I took dancing lessons – my wife made me – and dancing became our hobby.”
Working for the Duke
”When I had done 20 years working for The Queen with the dogs, The Duke of Edinburgh asked me if I’d like to go and work for him as keeper at Sandringham. In all the time I worked for him, he was never late. I don’t know how he did it, but it meant you knew where you stood.
“On my last days shooting he said, ’Where are we going today, Meldrum?’
‘Bunkers Hill, sir’, I replied.
‘No, the winds wrong for Bunkers Hill.’ He always liked to drive with the wind.
‘Yes I know, Sir, it’s wrong.’
‘It’s better to start at Lloyds wood and work our way to Bunkers Hill.’
‘Yes I know, Sir, but we’ll start at Bunkers Hill.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Well, Sir, I’ve sent all the beaters and pickers-up to meet us at Bunkers Hill.’
The Duke looked at the map and screwed it all up, threw his hands in the air and said ’Why do I bother?’
“Anyway, we went to Bunkers Hill and started and ended up having the biggest day of the season. He was good to get on with though, and good to discuss things with. He is very knowledgeable and if he makes a mistake he never blames anyone else. I liked working for him, and did 20 years with him, and retired 10 years ago.
“I have depended a lot on my wife, Annie. Even at 80, she still does the dogs and washes the kennels because I don’t do it right. I have two cockers and a Lab now, and a Lab puppy that I’ve bought. I only train one dog a year and I’ll sell it if its reasonable. I always buy a well-bred dog. I’ll train anything – some of them make it and some of them don’t.”