Just when I think I have things sorted..

It’s been bugging me the last few days – the state of the calving paddock.
It comprises an enclosure around the open shed where the hay and the digger are stored and where the cattle can find shelter. It has the rocks of the gallows mound for dry footing and a small area of south facing pasture where the girls sun themselves on a dry day.
It is intended for short term occupancy in the period around a calving – but they are now a month late: a whole month of poaching the ground where the water runs off the hardstanding. I normally approach from the other side to skoosh nuts in the trough or remove net from a silage bale, but today I penetrate the interior to see how Demi-Og has settled in: I strain to lift my feet from the coagulated mire.
Some animals like Abby keep themselves clean; others like Flora flaunt caked mud. All of them labour in the heavy footing: it could prove fatal for arthritic Morag or a new baby learning to walk.
I think back to my first winters with no buildings on the farm. virtually no fences – the animals roamed around the farm at will, seeking the best for themselves, finding hard ground and limited shelter when they needed it.
Trouble is – I had to wander about too, looking for expectant mothers who had found privacy for birthing or babies hidden in long grass. If anything went wrong, we might be a long way from warmth and cover – too long sometimes.
Nonetheless, tomorrow I will make changes. Weather permitting, I will install a new gate from the paddock to the field below – where they will be able to range, dry their hooves- and return for food and shelter.
It is not as easy for me to manage – but it demands to be done – I hear it.

Clan Macpherson, Highland cattle, highland landscapes, hillwalking, History of the Highlands, Uncategorized

I see you, Sarah Justina

The Nog is a shooting dog – a Hingarian Vizla dual-purpose point and retrieve.
A shooting dog who is terrified of shooting.
An airline pilot afraid of flying, a mountaineer with vertigo, claustrophic lift attendant – could not be worse.
As we head round the back of the gallows mound towards the old travellers stance bordered by bare larch trees, he hangs back – and then squats. We reached this point a couple of weeks ago, when some distant sportsmen loosed a volley of shots. To me they were barely audible but to the Nog meant imminent destruction demanding instant refuge in the roundhouse. This time I do not intend to to humour him like a Victorian lady with the vapours, so I bark at him to get over himself and come for a walk –

because we are indeed making our customary evening visit to a Victorian lady.

Sarah Justina is waiting. She is patient enough these days, sat on granite on the hill above the farm.
A ten minute climb takes me to the foot of her memorial obelisk – accompanied by a newly resolute Nog.
Her inscription incised in stone is set on the side of the obeslisk facing across the wide river valley towards her husband’s memorial. It is at eye-level –
‘Dedicated to the memory of Sarah Justina Macpherson – wife of Ewan chief of Clan Chattan – She lived at Cluny Castle for upwards of fifty years. She died March 1886 . Much beloved and deeply mourned’
There is some more but this, from memory, is close – I see it several times most weeks.
Today our companionship altered. I received, from the USA, a book commemorating their Golden Wedding three and a half years earlier- with a photo and hand-written inscription- her hand. Reading the plaque I see, behind the words, a plump litle lady seated with a book open, prayer book maybe but more likely a laundry list or other reminder of a life spent maintaining a household.
She is dressed exactly as we are used to seeing Queen Victoria – hair bunched under white lace, otherwise decked in black. Of course, the old queen was still on the throne then – in fact, the coronation was in the same year as Sarah Justina’s wedding. She herself had a coronation of sorts at Dalwhinnie where landowners and tenants turned out to cheer the young couple home, assisted by copious toasts in whisky and mountain dew.
It would be no suprise if she modelled herself on her more elevated sister as they both struggled with the privileges and duties of empire; responsibilities that for one spanned half the globe and-for the other- most of Laggan parish.
I imagine you did your duty Sarah Justina- and your reward?
A fine view shared -looking southward.

Animal stories, Farm Life, Highland cattle, Uncategorized, Uvie Farm

Biology commands, but tenderness prevails

Today is fine and mild. The mist wound around the lower slopes of Creag Dubh has lifted, defining the crags in the clear air. It is a day for working with the animals. I have priorities.

At the Oban show last weekend I encountered Stuart, Demi-Og’s breeder, who warned me of the big calves they are seeing to their stock bull: potentially difficult for a first time mother like my new acquisition. I have to bring her up to the calving paddock where I can keep an closer eye on her and the new baby will be able to find shelter in the building.
Abby’s baby needs his second tag. the stotts need weighing and dosing for parasites, little Holly and Alice likewise. The older cows need their udders clipped of long hair that could confuse a new young mouth seeking the teat. In fact, every animal on the farm needs handling in some way.

I have to do it alone.
There is an order to be followed. The older animals at the yard need dealing with and Billy returned to his quarters before Angus Halfhorn is brought up to avoid an ugly confrontation between father and son.

Abby’s lad is forced into the race – the confined corridor leading to the handling crate. I have the tagger ready, chase him into the crate and close the door. He turns round, digs his little head under the gate and uses his already powerful bull’s neck to lift and open – back to square one. It will get harder as he gets frantic. Backing down the race, I use my body to jam him against the rails, grab his ear, feel for the space between the blood vessels, force the tongs together and withdraw before he can take off. Success.
Now for the big girls with the hairy udders, Holly is trapped in the pen – it’ll be easier if she is caught in the the race but she backs into a corner of the pen and refuses to move. There is a dynamic of trust with the older animals that I am reluctant to break by forcing her like a stranger beast. I feel under her body as she stands unrestrained, teasing her teats clear of the muddy strands of hair. She knows my touch, twitches but stands. Taking care to avoid sensitive flesh I clip the obscuring dangleberries around the lifegiving dugs. Dear Holly trusts me to complete one side, move round to the other and clear the area.
Moira is next – not as trusting as Holly, but greedy. I permit her to drop her head into a bucket of nuts and work as she eats. By the time she finishes, I am too. A stress free operation.
Flora is my biggest and best breeder. She is a pragmatist: she suffers me when she must. Trapped in the pen she takes charge and makes her own way into the race, easing her wide span of horns sideways through the yoke defining the narrow corridor. I slide a bar in behind to hold her, reach through from the sides to clear her bulging sac of hair and hanging mud. Thank you, darling – out you go.
Demi-Og will come up with Angus from below, lured by a bag of nuts rattled on the back of the quad. The air fills with the stink of testosterone as the two bulls catch sight of each other, and roar and groan, digging at the ground with their horns, plastering their heads and horns with dirt to confront their rival with the requisite awfulness.
Both take time out to accept a tickle: Billy on his spine, Angus on his hairy crown.
Biology takes second place to tenderness.

Highland cattle, Uncategorized, Uvie Farm

Watching for new life

The calves are late this year – Billy is slowing down , and I didn’t spot it. I approached this year assuming his customary reliability driving the farm forward from spring to spring.
I brought my familiar cows up to the calving paddock surrounding the shed, leaving Angus Halfhorn with the two new girls due to calve later. Now it’s neck and neck to the birth canal – my plans are in shreds – and I don’t know who to tend where.
Fortunately the weather is mild – perfect for animals mothering in the open air. Even at midnight, there is hardly a chill. Angus is lying chewing the cud – ‘chawing the cood’ – as supershowman Rich Thompson calls it- so that’s how I think of it now – a sign of contentment, a good sign to a herdsman- chawing the cood.
The girls are on the their feet in the dark – both Alice and Demi Og, tails pulled to the side to relieve the pressure of the life within, shifting uncomfortably from leg to leg. I am concerned they might drop calves imminently , and return an hour later – to find the scene deserted.
Probing the darkness with the torch, I locate them at the feeder – raiding the fridge as it were. Light shone impertinently at their rear reveals that nothing is happening- or likely to happen.
Time for bed, I will maintain my watch in daylight.


Stranger’s world

Last night I stayed in a hotel room – in town. In Oban, in fact: a small town, on the west coast where the ferries sail for the Hebrides – but a town nonetheless.
Towns have streetlighting – so I wake at intervals to greet a strange new day dressed in orange light seeping through the curtains. It calls me to tend to the cattle – a hundred miles away. .
I also wake at the rumble and shake of the wind as I am used to the westerlies rocking the roundhouse – mistaking the sound of delivery trucks rolling down the hill to the chainstores.
Am I adrift in this unfamiliar world – or did I reinvent it?

highland landscapes, hillwalking, Living with Nature, Uncategorized

Tiring work, this visiting different worlds

There are two worlds here: high and low.
The farm is low, as is all present day human habitation. The river, the roads, bridges, pasture – all low.
The tops, the ridges, the plateaus are high – with deer and grouse and eagles, berries and mosses.
At the current time the difference between the two is very clear: the one variegated, the other pure white. There is a line strung across the landscape, slightly diffused but surprisingly consistent across separate hillsides – almost like the watermargin of an invisible lake, with everything familiar submerged while the pristine summits rise clear from the confused blend of colours, habitats, contrivances.
So the Nog and I visit the second, the high world. Our transportation is ploddery – well, his is more gallivantery, but mine is ploddery for sure: first through the heather stems and ploutery peat cuttings, and increasingly through webs of damp snow caught in dishes and drains; into a new terrain where every footstep is placed on unseen ground, and carries a small burden of snow when lifted. Every step tells – and there are many to the far corner of the ground where three estates march.
Over the ridge, the going levels out. Here snow covers the high hags – deep, black peat where little grows, that now host wormlike white ridges gleaming icily in the winter sun with powder dusted flanks. The Nog is entranced by the glamour of this new world, I place one foot in front of the other. The wind blows a dense front toward us from the west, there is a purple yellow glow to the belly of dark cloud presaging snow. These hags are not a place to be caught out: there is no shelter, and if the snow drops over us in a whiteout – it will fool me. However well I know this ground – I will struggle to guide us out without risk.
For the time being the storm stays on the far side of the valley so we climb to our intended vantage. The weather comes in as we turn – if I can just make it to the corner of the deer fence, slip down the gulley, traverse towards the spy stone. My landmarks are still in view: I am not lost- tired, but not lost.
One foot in front of another will take me there – aiming for the watershed. I talk, ostensibly to the dog, as we trudge the last slope ‘Good boy, good boy – almost there. We’re going to make it – yes we’ll make it, just a bit further.’
And now we’re over the ridge, heading downhill. The snow is thinning. The final half mile sees us crossing clear ground – for the first time I stride out rhythmically.
It is still light as I open the truck door and call the Nog in – but not by much. The day is done, drained.
Heading home, I know how the wind blows across infinite white wastes – in the high world.

heroic ambition, today's story, Uncategorized, village life

Flying beyond the flock

Two small birds tear into the sky – and out again – like streakers on a cricket field.
Their compact profile and short triangular wings are familiar – but anomalous. They are surely starlings – and not only that – they are the starlings nesting in my eaves – or rather under the tin roof of the bunkhouse. I see them flying in and out of the gable end when I cross the bridge to my office – but mostly in the summer. There is something remarkable about this pair climbing the air above the Apron field where the stotts are now clearing the troughs of this morning’s nuts.
Starlings are woodland birds, so tree-loving not house sharing: and profoundly gregarious, swirling in great single-minded flocks like shoals. My birds behave differently, of necessity maybe or choice – and this aspiring glory in solitary flight marks my vision as I race the quad up to the gate from the bottom paddock with the Nog zigzagging madly across my bows.
Feeding the beasts is a welcome obligation – I know how to start my day – but to continue….? Work with immediate tasks- tag the carcase hanging by the pond, text the gamedealer, empty my pack to dry out my gear, oil and sharpen my knives – and then…?

Which item on the Endless List is fit for crossing off?
-and then-

Lynda phones to say Marie and Kari are here.
These are Wally’s womenfolk: – Wally Herbert- the greatest British polar traveller – ┬áresident in the village for the last decade of his life
– and generous host

– and friend.
Wally made his own path where there are none; forcing his way forward in places without precedent, against Nature’s adversity and with little support or acclaim.

Marie and Kari follow in his steps, not the ones quickly filled with blown snow on the polar approaches, but the more enduring habits of psychological enterprise and endurance.

Some habits cast hard like pre-human prints on a beach- or the flight of starlings.