Highland cattle, Living with Nature, Uncategorized, Uvie Farm

Granite granny & the birds

A covey of french partridges whirr away from bracken at the base of the Aspen paddock. Black Abby and dun Holly are given a cursory tickle just to maintain friendly relations, and I’m headin up the old township road toward breakfast. Watching the birds skim the grass like portly sprinters- a short expletive makes me look up: ‘Tchack’ -just that. Twoscore jackdaws high up head due west from somewhere downriver. I see this every morning: these birds are commuting: I have no idea why or where to. ‘Tchack’ drops like a stick from the beak of one of these sociable intelligent birds – it may be in the old speech of the place- Gaelic. The poetic gaels had a wonderful way of eliding, compressing meaning in musical syllables: the name of the farm, a case in point. Uvie was spelt Ubhaidh – a name that is almost a story: ‘Place of beauty in the lap of fear’. Write it again! ‘Place of beauty in the lap of fear’. This tells how my pastures are suspended between granite outcrops like an apron over bony knees. Follow the knees upwards and your sight fills with the dark granite cliffs of Creag Dubh – again from the Gaelic-‘ the Black Mountain’. A place of fear indeed and yet the crag is a granite matriarch hunkered with her sheltering back to the north wind and her knees spread to catch the warmth of the southern sun, skirts rolled up to her knees. It was her name that the fighters of Clan Macpherson yelled as they ran into battle: feared she may be – and loved.
So the terse call of the jack may be understood as something close to: ‘ No good watching your wellies, look up!Something will be happening in the sky.’
A smaller flock sweeps past the windows of the house, and lower yet a foursome fly so close to the ground they curve into the slight hollow of the Apron pasture. It is often like this – there appear to be set flight paths distinct for each group.
As I watch a flock in middle air steering busily toward the west in their untidy way, a single bird glides close – easily mistaken for one of the same but larger. A solitary raven brushes past angling downwards, as inscrutable in its lone mission as these foragers in their clannish foray. The raven lives and breeds on the cliffs above, a small blackness launched from the crag to patrol the farm.


Essential spillikins – to lift or leave?

The wind drove the rain against the windows last night – I think of the animals & sleep fitfully. In the morning half-light I trudge up to the yard following the day’s order: release the chickens that don’t have the sense or ability to roost in the barn roof, visit the three animals in the calving paddock-
hornless Moira and the two Alices, mother and daughter,
big Billy and eight various in the Apron – the hollow pasture spread taut before the kitchen window,
Angus Halfhorn with Holly,Abby and two wee stotts in the Aspen paddock at the bottom.
Check feed, water & welfare – my wealth of livestock.
Today I notice broken spars lying by the handling crate like spillikins, I walk here every day- how long have they been here – months, years even? They have come from the top of the fence – a few broken off when I scrape the yard and empty the muck over the top. One breaks and then another until an untidy pile is created which stays there as time passes, and I pass – until it almost earns the right to permanence, something grown in and grown over.
It is a small part of the Endless List that I am looking at- the living with tasks undone, things that are walked by, a skill soon learned by any single hander like myself.
I lift the sticks to stack them against the fence – inches from where they were but ordered now, considered- as if that settled something.
Today I must attempt my annual tax computation. Taking broken sticks that mark payments, assets, choices: arranging them in a kind of order.
A veil of water pulses across the face of Creag Dhubh a few hundred yards away obscuring the summit, masking the dark cliffs. I watch the show: here on the farm I am dry. When it passes, the summit is speckled white.

Highland cattle, Living with Nature, Uncategorized

There was this cow sat at the bar…

Four swans fly downriver over peat dark water. Occasional pale sun illuminates thin game crops without warmth. There is no wind. I leave this morning with the cattle wandering the Apron heads down. I felt a twinge of guilt at such slim pickings as they must have finished their silage to forage for the remnants of the summer grass. I return at lunch, pick up JCB keys, loose the Nog and head for the hardstanding. The feeder is now surrounded by the animals – every one of them with their heads through the bars apart from Holly and the wee stott standing head to head like some strange octoped. I open the gate feeling like a visitor to a local pub where the conversation dies at a stranger’s entrance. They have plenty to eat – but are doing it as if to a signal. Billy wanders round to present his flank. I scratch abstractedly along the sides of his spine – careful not to get caught against the metal if he chooses to lean. There are things I don’t understand: more to learn.

The radio featured Dougie Maclean’s ‘Caledonia’ earlier today, part of the current Independance/separation obsession. I sang it in the car on my way home two years ago. the day before losing half my roof to the worst wind in fifty years. It is a day of signs and portents: the usual small dramas.This is where I live.

Farm Life, Highland cattle, Uvie Farm

Ghosts don’t eat soft fruit

Lunch is a time sandwich: crunchy farm filling between slabs of morning and afternoon joinery. Demi Og watches me arrive, lifting her head from the round feeder- I raise mine to her as if horned. Arthritic old Morag has moved up the field from her dead-buffalo-on the prairie position she had adopted when I left, reassuring me that she is not ready to give up just yet.  

It is the second day of the mild south-westerly & the ground is soft, perhaps the last chance to plant the potted sticks that bother me at the door: red gooseberry & domesticated bramble. I open the door to the ecstatic Nog and head down to the kitchen garden. It is the first year established: sowing was late and little produced but I am glad it is there. It covers half the area of the old kaleyard, the area of subsistence crops for the old township, dominated by the tumbledown farmhouse. I plant the shrubs at the top of the rectangle- almost exactly the vantage of a photographer in 1903 who took shots of Mrs Logan and her home. He saw a substantial thatched house with peat store and cartshed attached at right angles protecting the house and yard from the wild westerlies, In the foreground, cabbages grow where I have my modest collection of fruiting shrubs. I imagine the stern hardworking old ghosts tut-tutting at my frivolity – ‘gooseberries, redcurrants & blaberries not cabbages, eh?’.

Maybe I malign them, they planted lilacs after all: my fruit trees will blossom for them also.


Saddle the Elephants!

The chimney plume is blown from the south west: it is wet and mild. Abbie is sentinel at the paddock gate. She shifts uneasily at my approach and her skin quivers as I extend my hand slowly, knowing that she is poised to flit. She accepts my touch and relaxes as I palpate her quarters. Her ears tight against her head, she starts a shimmy – her head moving one way, her rear another: her spine snaking as though scratching hard on a post. I must give her some time: I suspect she is being bullied by Holly though repeated special treatment may isolate her by expectation.

The silage in the round tombstone feeder is low with a hard-to-reach mound remaining in the centre. I climb inside to spread the remaining feed to the side both to make it available even to the young stotts but also to prepare a cupped seat for the new bale. The animals poke their heads between the uprights reaching down on all sides to pick over the rearranged strands as I bend to my work in the centre. The scene reminds me of those old;fashioned kids toys where carved chickens peck at a wooden disk.

Later I return with the quad and loaded buggy. I bring one of my precious hay bales to save the soft ground from damage, For today the heavy silage bales carted by the JCB, heavier yet, will have to remain on hard roads only. The winter campaign is just beginning, a mountain range to cross before spring. 

Farm Life, Highland cattle, Timber building

its not just plumbing fails in winter

Hard frost covers grass, vehicles, animals -& nothing works all day, or functions grudgingly without rhythm or grace.The digger doesn’t start when I need to cart silage to Billy the girls, and once successful (after a trip to Newtonmore for additional fuel), Billy attacks the bale using his horns to send gouts of fodder over his back onto the dirt. I talk to him sternly – and replace armfuls that would otherwise be wasted. The valve in Angie Halfhorn’s water trough has rotated sideways and is frozen anyway, but the animals are good, well adapted to this weather.

Lenny is failing. He has come to fix the disfunctional heating system in the timber framed extension to the coffee shop. His voice is a coarse whisper – as it has been for a month now, Standing before the water cylinder he explains to me meticulously how the pellet stove sends water at a pre set temperature into the cylinder which demands the heat until it has reached temperature of another setting at which point it releases it to the central heating – but not, stresses Lennie in such away as to rob the tap water that circulates inside a coil inside the tank that is then balanced with cold  before sent to the taps. Additionally, Lennie points out, the solar heating, (when there is any on days less pallid) shunts warmth to the system from another coil at the base. As he croaks these intricacies of procuring warmth, Lennie is poking a roll-up through his whiskers, threatening conflagration. The hospital has requested his attendance, but for now he takes time to tell me how things work.

Back at the farm I replace the lagging insulating my own water system, pre-empting malfunction though not conclusively: winter is a continual skirmishing against greater forces. I can only choose my ground.

Farm Life, Highland cattle, Living with Nature

The ridge hinges from its north axis to head east. Light fades but the sky is bright with blue and gold. Strathspey is entirely green, grass and darker foliage of conifers, apart fiery reflections from meandered loops of the river. It is windless: even the Nog, who doesn’t understand peaceful, sits watching the valley.Scattered snow like swagged net veils surrounding ridges and higher and further the valleys beckon upwards to blanketed white plateaus merging with cloud,

Sunday is for maintenance and renewal. House cleaning was interrupted by four guests to the farm, Edinburgh students, wanting to see the animals. Little Holly poses shyly, Morag’s arthritic leg is hanging almost useless, Billy lumbers over. At one stage he has the men on one side and the women on the other – all of them caressing him in a kind of wonderment. Happy man! Angus Halfhorn presents his neck to me then characteristically selects one of the visitors for half-welcomed greetings.

Next to complete the chores: load the log basket ( I will not start the heating until the water is threatened with freezing), split kindlers, load bottles and tins for the banks, set the sourdough to prove and out to the hill before I lose the light. I don’t have time for the full ridge walk so I flog up to the saddle along the old peat road assisted by my awareness of others passed the same way. On the crest the view opens to the west, ranks of snowy peaks hazy and luminous in the cold air receding towards the sea.

I hear ravens overhead, a fullthroated trouble of dogs, lazy car engines- somewhere a light plane. From here, the big house becomes a small house, it is clusters of houses that flag human occupancy in this wide waste. Headlights track lazily up the slope toward Drumochter summit – weekenders heading for home. Time I did the same- there is bread to bake.

Even the Nog knows peaceful

Timber building, Uncategorized

A green coat is not a white coat

I wore my green coat today. My green coat is not my white coat. My white coat is kept pristine for the showring. My green coat belongs in the pen- where preparations are made: the butlers apron for polishing the silver not his frockcoat for dinner service. Today is the first day of use for my building at the pottery coffee shop. It is traditional post and beam, built on the farm from large baulks of douglas fir and brought along the road in pieces to be assembled and erected. As my worksite for more than a year it hasn’t dictated how I am seen here any more than  the cattle would object if my hat was back to front so I often attend as part of the farmyard. Today this changed: the lights are on, the coffee machine spits steam, the steel tables are cleaned and loaded – and I wear my green coat.

Highland cattle, Uncategorized

Contentment found among cattle

Today is ordinary- a day like other days. Cold again, but not so cold that I have to break ice on the troughs- and dry, so the beasts are content. Bill is rubbing himself on a feed trough as though drawing it to my attention. I lean on his flank some moments scratching the short hair behind his front leg. I know he enjoys his spine and rump being worked over but also this leaning my head over his back, the way the animals do it. Little Holly brings her nose close and I blow gently – she will need separating from the males soon: penned with little Alice  she will help me manage the newcomer’s distress when weaned from her mother.

Sounds are muffled and engine  noise drifts down benignly from the road as I head downfield noting in passing the levels in the watertroughs. Mother Holly stands by the feeder but head lifted to watch me arrive. She has managed to throw a thatch of silage onto her back that I push aside to massage her wide rump – she bends her head to lick the back of my leg in her usual gesture of reciprocity. Abbie is nervous – I suspect that she was the animal hoisted into the water trough by one of her fellows – as I reach towards her she catches sight of the Nog bouncing frustratedly on the other side of the wire and shies away. Angus Halfhorn is behind her standing quietly, conserving warmth after a frosty night in the open, bends his head towards my feet as I approach. I must stretch over his horns to scratch the centre parting on the top of his neck. I oblige – reflecting how close these gestures are to the attack postures that would enable these animals to use their strength to do harm.

It is peaceful today: the two young stotts stand watch chewing the cud. Up the hill my house stands and breathes.

Highland cattle

The first day of winter

Ice smears the ground this morning. The air is still. The animals have their heads down on the Apron but I shall feed them today. This marks the start of winter, establishing the pattern that will prevail until the new grass.

The digger is mute and cold – its old engine will not start under its own power so I hook up the charger and squirt juice into the air filter. It turns grudgingly and apparently on its dying revolution fires into life. I let it run for a while, use the time to drain the field roller of water to avoid bursting the welds under the pressure of expanding ice. Picking up the first bale end-on, I drop it to come in sideways, entering offcentre to allow for the skewed pallet fork I bent swinging too fast past a tree, and head down to the hardstanding. The plastic covering the ends of the round bale is cut & I slash hard along the front just above the forks, and pull both wrap and net back against the bucket, tying it to the fork bars. Lifting and tilting I drop the bale and the grass is freed from its covering which now hangs like an untidy flag from my loose knot. The smell of part fermented grass is on my hands now – not a haybale’s wistful reminder of summer but something with sourer notes, reassuring nonetheless.

Returning with a tombstone feeder balanced on the forks, I find that Billy has rammed the bale as though a rival, shifting it several feet unrolling as it goes. A good part of the feed is now at risk from being trampled and lost. Yelling at the delinquent veteran  I hoop the feeder over the bale, reversing to pull it into position like landing a fish. I jump down to pull out as much of I can of the fringe of silage projecting from the ring, while avoiding Billy swinging his horns at marauders.

Taking the second bale to Angus halfhorn and the girls goes smoothly enough, but feed is not enough: I have to ensure their water supply. A few days ago, one of the animals had fallen in the water trough, breaching it. I installed a replacement but finished in darkness and only discovered later that the ballvalve was not closing the incoming supply. The well had emptied but more importantly the pump was hunting for water in the dry borehole and might burn out, leaving the farm waterless. Stripped to my shirtsleeves I feel in the cold water for the machine screw retaining the float, and reset it

Farm duties done, I can now set about some paid employment.