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Encounter

I am walking an unaccustomed road today: High St Kensington.  Simon and I are heading for  a pub to catch up, when I shock him by accosting a woman with long wavy hair like polished bronze- even more when we hug. The chances of a Highland farmer meeting a friend by chance in the street in London must be slim, but Isobel agrees to join us. We head into a side street to find a small bar with leather upholstery, timber panelling & beer on the handles. We  seek todays story – I’m not sure of mine but tell yesterday’s ‘transit’ where my journey from the airport to the city centre echoes others by dislocated populations when choices are made about who gets out and who stays.

Isobel spoke of a holiday with her mother- a rare event – at a time when her father’s health was bringing trouble to the older woman. The weather turned sour and Isobel grew an image in her mind of a pleasant place of refuge – a pub with an open fire. They see a building with a light in the window but no sign – a pub but ‘ as if it shouldn’t be there’. Inside there is a roaring fire and with drink in hand the two women request that they join a women already in place. She readily accepts and they start talking. The women  has fleshy arms & heavy breasts, wide thighs are cased in white leggings and her round face has a smile like the sun. Isobel is more used to travel and the encounters that depend on  strangers’ meetings, but it is her mother that the seated woman engages with. As time passes and wine is drunk – her mother finds herself discussing the issues that she was carrying with her in such a way that she hardly knew if she or the stranger woman was telling them. By the time the evening ended and the hailstorm passed on, her mother had lightened her mind as if carrying a bag of split sticks that she’d thrown one by one on the pub fire.

Time to move: Simon and I to supper and Isobel to Clerkenwell.

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The golden man

When he was young the golden man- high born, athletic, gifted and sociable- met a girl also high born. The girl lived with her family in a big house in a lonely part of the country. Her father held to standards that he had inherited from his father, but not the money that maintained them. The golden man was brought to the big house to meet the girl’s father, whom he was keen to impress, because he needed to ask permission to marry his daughter. However, the girl’s father was also keen to impress the young man with his sternness and his standards. The girl had a younger sister, a singer, just fifteen years old who was sat next to the young man at the first dinner he attended. Dinner was a formal affair where standards were on view, and  the singer was not exactly afraid of her father but his anger seemed to fall on her more than she was due. 

The father was content with the standards that he was presenting to the young man until he noticed that the singer, his younger daughter, had not collected her napkin from the sideboard.

‘Where is your napkin child?’ he called down the table: and the singer prepared to drift in the shame of this exposure but before she could, she felt a hand on her arm below the table. ‘It’s here father’ she said happily – presenting the napkin that the young man had passed her.

Many years later, the golden man lay dying. His family was gathered round , but he did not acknowledge them and they fell glum and silent. He was no longer married to the singer’s sister, but she loved him still, so she travelled to his bedside. His second wife was the only other person in the room when the singer started to talk to him. It was as if she was chatting with someone seated next to her at table. No-one waiting outside heard what she said but when the golden man’s wife came out of the room, she was smiling for the first time in many days.

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Transit

I wait with others under a metal shelter by a number taped to a post: it is drizzling gently. Our attention is focussed on an orange van with oil dirty hubs that will take us into the city. A young man unlocks it, invites us aboard – struggling with the language he summons those with tickets for the 2.30. Four of us climb on – others thrust papers forward – for the 1.40, 1.15, 2.40. He flushes with the burden of selection. An old man shows him a boarding card -‘ no no must be for bus – this for plane’. The man dressed in working best, looks blank – ‘Little english – where..?. The van fills slowly – a couple is allowed on – they have two small children – ‘but you say three only!’ – ‘this one sit with me’ – a well dressed pair, mother and daughter, are left at the stand orbiting vacantly holding tickets for the 1.15 . The A4 sheets serving as tickets are torn roughly in half and crammed into the passenger glove box. The sliding door is hauled shut and we head out on the rain-slicked roadway.

A smiling trucker stands in the rain at the curving entry to the motorway holding a set of transit plates and a two part sign: – ‘York Shire’.

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The sky is clear this morning, all colour frost drained before sun-up. Mist clogs the valley floor rising to a bar of dark pines lining the undulating horizon. The sun surfaces at 8.30, radiating pale above the dark crest, the light core shining past the tree trunks that show as black sticks, burnt studs. The birds are busy – still air fit for those that work the farm: chaffinches, pheasants, partridges and those that travel, geese, jacks, possibly osprey-the longwinged pair that are heading westward high up.

The big stotts are roaring after yesterday’s excitements, but there is nothing wrong that I can see. I take the comb from the truck, show it in my hand – Billy knows the implement and turns his head away presenting the curls on his powerful neck. I scrape down his frozen coat – ice crystals floating off in small clouds – until he is clear. Demi-Og comes close, knocks horns – welcome confidence – she too earns a short spell with the comb.

In the bottom paddock the water trough is gushing, the retaining wooden embrasure (knocked together from feed pallets) is damaged, timber fragments floating on the water.One of the animals has fallen, or more likely been shoved into the trough, breaking it. A new task for the day – but first I must comb Abby’s matted flank, Angie’s head, Holly’s rump- as if we were headed for the showring.

Abby’s gaze is fixed beyond the wire enclosure – I glimpse a head and after a time the roe doe surfaces from the marsh grass. A calf joins her to stand on the sheep cropped river bank silhouetted in the white shadowlight before the sun. A second calf gains confidence to cross the open ground and the three animals bounce lightly eastwards towards the day.

 

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The vet will arrive at 1.30 although it is Saturday. He mails that he has served at the abattoir all week: will come then as he lives closeby – I can see his house from the crags behind the farm. My new breeding females need testing to avoid disease, and two young bulls need castrating and dehorning. All animals in each group must come to the yard  before separation. First, Billy and the girls from the Apron, the hollow pasture that lies like an old fashioned skirt across bony granite knees. My darling bull responds first from the bottom of the field bringing the others with him – a stott (last year’s castrato) bounces up confidently in front and  -Demi Og – the new blond heifer carrying a calf and my herd’s future- follows third her horns held high and alert. Billy breaks into a canter and all respond even Flora with her breached birth muscle that nearly killed her champion calf early this year; even old Morag, ugly, white and growling,mother of champions,puts her arthritic hind leg to ground to propel her forwards.

Billy leads them through the barnyard and into the calving paddock where I have set a new surface to the hardstanding, a fresh bale in the feeder and feednuts in the metal trough, Turning to check the followers I find Demi-Og has taken a short cut and isolated herself in a corner gazing longingly at her contented companions. When I herd her towards the gate she sets off athletically in the opposite direction and then returns, gathers herself neatly to clear  the roadside wire and trots across to the others. After just a month on the farm she is very much a part of the herd, the family, though unfamiliar with my gates..

Angus and the young cows Holly and Abby are waiting in the bottom paddock with two calves, spread along the fence not gathered round the feeder, indicating  that their hay is low. Angus charges out of the opened gate. I gun the quad up the field and the young bull follows at a gallop, leading the way in that most glorious sight: a stampede of highlanders- coat-shaking, hoofstamping, headlong energy. At the yard, Angus and Billy start roaring and pawing the ground, but two fences remain between them.The bull calf is shed off and we ready to return down the hill.I pull on a round bale behind the quad using the bogey’s scorpions tail bar that slides over it and cants it on to the bogey as I move forward. Angus is waiting at the gate  – I jerk forward to head him away from the opening – and the bale drops off the back, but Angus has started away from a potential confrontation with his father Billy and I retrieve the bale at leisure. I lead them back down, all except solitary Moira, rattling a bag of feed. Angus races alongside me this time, simple, friendly,direct showing signs of that ‘extra vertebra’ that marks my best bulls – he will partner me for many years to come; the rest follow at speed.Reversing the bale buggy towards the feeder I hear a despairing roar from the stott who had lingered at the yard confining his brother, and now pelts down to the paddock as if his life depended on it. I can tilt the feeder easily at his time of the year without needing to prise it from the frieze of frost that binds it down deeper in the winter.

Finally, after the vet has left, I bring Alice and her baby across to the calving paddock – Moira is there, Solitary, hornless she will be the first of the Uvie family met by the shy newcomer. Alice is glad of it extending her nose to greet the older cow – Moira  stands off, arching her neck in a tense bow, her head low glaring sideways – it will do her good to dominate, and Alice will belong – little by little. The rain holds off, the vet is gone and the animals adapt to their new circumstances. Billy is standing at the side fence with the bleeding stott – I can sense his confusion and reproach. He was not damaged- but herded – I broke a compact, I’ll make it up to him tomorrow.

Young & Old

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Grey

The cloud is low today – swabbing the upper slopes of Creag Dubh with white fibrous vapour –  no sky to watch. We are earthbound, ready to cast a concrete floor enveloping the compressed dung of the last decade, high density foam insulation board and interlocking steel mesh in a small tidal bore of lumpy grey. The wind strengthens around the building  but we are head-down shovelling  the synthetic lava into the corners. The mixer wagon was late but done with by 2 pm. Chris will move back to Glasgow now. This was his last task after 18 months on the farm: the hardening floor marks a fittingly tangible culmination.

The clouds are breaking as I drive into Kingussie to return  hire equipment, angry red openings cut into grey fabric over Creag Dubh. The summit is visible now, lurid in the light fading before a coming storm. A solitary white bull faces squarely into the wind in marshy pastures below the road.

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Preparing ground

No frantic roe calf trapped in the bottom paddock today, but the animals are standing awkwardly like Windmill girls in wartime. Holly turns slowly as I enter, her horns garlanded with hay alongside Angus whose head is lost inside the ring feeder, black Abby moves cautiously round to feed from the opposite side, while Moira dehorned and solitary, stands with her quarters against the fence as if for safety. I must attend to this unease when I allocate their places for winter.

I am on the JCB preparing the calving paddock, clearing the guttery areas round the feeder.Alice and her baby move in once I have dug stone into the sump for the roof runoff that turned to glutinous mud last year. Young Alice kicks her hind legs in the air, dancing excitedly in the cool November sun.The yard where they have spent the last two weeks is cleared and a dressing of stone spread. We’ll be waiting on the concrete wagon in the morning – pouring a floor in the shed for my new joinery workshop. Then we’ll set pens for the weekend using metal hurdles so the animals can be brought in for blood tests monitoring against disease. I alone will assist the vet as the concreting will be Chris’s last task on the farm after 18 months skilling in quadbiking, chainsawing, timber framing, molecatching, deerstalking, cattle herding: the many various tasks required by this life and place. He has found work and love, and is moving on

A pair of mallard lift off the pond – they too are preparing their ground.

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Today’s Story: Seeking

Leaving the house I watch for today’s story. Uvie farm is home to many dramas, but like deer on an autumnal hillside, they may be easy missed.

Alice and her calf need feeding at the shed where we’re preparing a floor to move my woodworking machines. The crowing of my new cockerel is a muffled reminder to release him and his two ladies. I watch the sky as I walk the farm road towards the pastured animals: this is what I tell some farm volunteers, often wound round with threads of internal discourse: ‘Look at the sky; something will arrive there soon!”. A flock of jackdaws sweep round the house like burnt wishes. A story may fall, fly.

Down to Angus the young bull, separate from his father, with three cows. Holly, the dun is standing as if sheltering but she is to windward of the shelter – some strangeness within the herd may trigger a communal narrative- I talk to her, stroke her – she is okay. Something unfamiliar flashes along the fence beyond the cattle: a roe calf- shouldn’t be here, shouldn’t be away from her mother yet – she is in mortal danger from the Nog. I call him close – walk down the paddock to open the gate, trusting the cattle’s placidity. The fine lithe little animal is running a few paces then lunging headfirst at the fence netting as if to burst through, I work back upfield to drive her towards the open gate – the Nog gives in to frustration and charges – the calf stumbles then springs rhythmically over the lumpy tussocks of marsh grass that hobble the dog. The deer evades us – and the open gate- returning to hiding. I will look for her tomorrow.

Up the road to the house and breakfast – the Nog is on a point, poised rigid into the wind. I shadow him across the tumbled stones of the ruined farmhouse, through the end door, hunting. Something is out there.

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