Farm Accommodation, farm bunkhouse, Farm Life, Living with Nature, Other People's Stories, Uncategorized

Getting a better signal

This is the second night in a row I have enjoyed an extended ‘phone conversation with a young man about life, work and everything but the price of fish. Last night it was my stepson Jake: tonight, my son Ran.
The truth is – and I tell them this: it is laughable that a smallholder in an isolated part of North Britain, breeding a marginal herd of cattle and doing the laundry for walking groups – should advise on contemporary metropolitan career paths.
But I do it anyway.
Ran has a remarkable take on decision making: the avoidance of regret.
I tell him to leave regret to the oldies: its our specialism.
I also tell him I’m standing on the deck (for a better signal) under a clear night sky-
– in the light of a halfmoon.

Farm Life, Highland cattle, Living with Nature, Other People's Stories, Uncategorized

Old and cold today

There is frost on the ground this morning: water is skinned with ice like cooling soup, breaking with a crunch as the quad wheels break through. The air is fresh in my nostrils as I motor down the hill to Angus Halfhorn, and his prime pregnant heifers: Alice and Demi Og. Angie is waiting by the stock fence as I climb over with the feed sack. He watches me without importuning, and then follows to the trough taking his place patiently as I spread the nuts evenly along its length.  He is simply a decent lad, so I take time to acknowledge him, looking him in the eye, hailing him cheerfully and communicating something more subtle but equally important to a herd member- my heartfelt goodwill.

The cold feels correct, a settled seasonality, though troublesome.


Ten minutes drive takes me to the coffee-shop for my quarterly book-keeping session with the endlessly patient Wilma, delayed a half-hour for frozen roads. Jimmy arrives, taking a break from chopping logs for sale in the roofless farmhouse across the road. He has been lamenting the mild weather as no-one is burning his sticks, but today he blows on his fingers complaining of the chill wind. Jimmy celebrated his birthday last week – he is 84.


I have a bale to deliver to the geriatrics at the yard- Billy and the girls. It is just a short stretch from the other side of the yard, but the rusting yellow JCB must be nursed into life to shift the heavy silage. This task is reserved  for late afternoon so that the cold metal of the big engine benefits from the warmth of the day. Even so, having attached the battery charger, administered quick start fluid – it takes the third (and final, for sure) spasm of the wheezing engine to catch and clear.

We ready for work even as twilight falls and the frosts of a new night gather.

Farm Life, Highland cattle, Other People's Stories, Uncategorized, Uvie Farm

Nothing happens – but time is told

Nothing happened today. Why would it – on a day so still, damp – and short? The hours tiptoe down the road winding between dawn and dusk.
The moist air holds woodsmoke as the Nog and I disembark from the house onto the jetty of the day; it is drawing from the east, heralding colder weather.
The beasts need fed after a day of semi-starvation. The rusting yellow JCB fires up with a boost to its failing battery and a squirt of spirit in the air filter, the Nog scrambles on board for shelter from the light drizzle and a bale is dropped over the fence for Billy and the girls. The bale wrap catches and falls; I use the backactor to release pressure on the plastic, and jump down to roll it up. Billy obstructs me, turning his great horn-ringed head to the side, more interested in contact than feeding: I oblige with a good scratch to his spine.
This evening I am up to the yard again: latch the door to the chooky house, check whether Holly, lying in the shed, is close to calving and away uphill with the Nog.
Cars are speeding parallel to us as we set out on the old road past the gallows mound. The Nog is the colour of dry bracken, I am in deerstalking camouflage; we don’t disturb the drivers. Crossing the road at the old tinker’s stance with its declaration of larches, we take the oblique path through the ancient quarry workings. Vapour sweeps the cliffs like skirts below the monument to the lairds wife. Damp bracken is near crimson against the dark purple of heather stems.
Behind the hill, the burn drains the peat above the crags, tumbling with a sound of endless transition, emblem and agent of constancy in change. A jet ploughs the high atmosphere on its way over the top of the world, unseen above two ravens calling briefly to each other as they head for their roost in crevices on the black crags. Water drops hang unmoving on the birch twigs like small dulled lights.
Cold claps my cheeks and earlobes as I walk steadily upwards, dismissing any scent from the sodden vegetation. Arrived at the small summit, the monument resolves itself in a memory. I stand to share the view awhile with Sarah Justina Macpherson, ‘beloved wife and mother..’ A brief light illumines the clouds above the snows of Ben Alder and Ben Nevis, while to the east the headlamps of a single vehicle creep around the base of the mountain towards our starting point.
The Nog stays close as we descend to the birches with their roosting pheasants, he knows not to disturb the massed ewes grazing the slopes
The stove is still lit, the house is warm.
A small old clock sits by the stove.
I have it from my grandmother. Carried from France to the New World by her grandmother, it sat inert in my grandparents house, having no key.
Yesterday I cleaned the metal case with a toothbrush and pickling vinegar.
Today, it is telling time again.
Tomorrow I will sharpen the chainsaw and make alot of noise blocking logs.

Other People's Stories, Uvie Farm

Christmas Story

Snow drove hard against the windows all last night. The wind has slackened by morning with a few farewell gusts to shake the house as if in warning. The cattle are gathered at the gate, quietly expectant. I am surprised by a white van parked in the yard – broken down maybe and pulled off the road. It has seen better days, ex fleet but tidy, signwritten with the details of Joe’s joinery, Gateshead. I scoosh calf nuts into a bucket for the little girls and then fill the scoop with chooky corn and head across to the shed.
I have become used to Holly mugging me with little horns as soon as I enter the gate, but today she and Alice are waiting inside the shed gathered at the hay rack.

I am shocked to find people inside, a young couple, seated by the hay bale half picked apart for the girls. They have collected a couple of Ikea chairs from the loft and are sitting comfortably against walls of hay. A small camping gas stove perches on the bed of one of the machines I moved up from the workshop yesterday. The chooks watch from the roof.
I like to welcome visitors to the farm, however unusual, especially at this time of the year when strangers bring good luck.
Hello I say as naturally as I can manage.
Oh hello there she says, pretty, young, dark hair.
You broken down?
No- the pub was shut.
Oh yes, the owners closed it last month – for good
Ah we wondered – this from him, bearded, neat, a tradesman.
She again – We needed somewhere in a hurry – she gestures to the pen.
I look over to where the calves are standing, close by the rack but not feeding. There is a bloody guddle in the bedding: the sort I am used to from calving, but I know the heifers are too young. I spot a bundle of fabric half-hidden in the rack, and move over to inspect.
Oh my goodness – but it’s a -a baby, and turning to her – last night?She nods.

Are you okay?
We’re fine he says, really, don’t worry. We’ll just rest awhile if that’s okay and then we’ll be on our way. We want to register him at home, you see- the year of the independence referendum, it matters somehow.
Anything I can do, porridge at the house maybe?
No thanks, he nods towards the stove where the water was boiling, we found a couple of eggs, hope that’s okay.
Laying at this time of the year, that’s a miracle – I laugh.
A gift from the chickens he says seriously.
If you like, I say slightly riled, I’ll get on now. Mind the stove near the hay eh?
She nods and holds my eye: Thank you.
I feel obscurely blessed pouring the feed into the trough as Holly and Alice appear to wake from a trance as the nuts rattle against the metal, and amble over.
Leaving the pen to recross the yard I find another vehicle, a larger van, parked outside the gate. Three Asian guys are sitting in the cab, resting from their journey with a steaming thermos. The driver winds down the window.

I try not to sound territorial:
He shakes his head ; No we meant to be here.
On Christmas day? he laughs and gestures at the back of the van – but if you’re looking for a nice wool carpet?- offcuts from fitting out a luxury hotel in Aberdeen. Free gifts.
No thanks – but why are you here? – not to sell me carpets, surely.
We came to see the child.
What in the shed – but it was only born last night, how..?
Oh there was a voice – he laughs again- we followed the star.

No kidding

Aye – Satnav.

He puts on a tinny robotic voice:
Take the A86, turn left at the first roundabout – etc etc
But satnav doesn’t work here – it lands you on Balgowan 3 miles away- I say suspiciously
That’s okay he says – we saw the light on in the shed, took a chance.

He grins at me. I’m ready to take offence at being mocked but I find his smile kind, inclusive. Whatever this is, he appears to suggest, we are in it together. I decide to accept his version of this strange day.
I smile in return- leave you to it- whatever it is-and turn back to my chores with a wave to his companions.
There is a pale gleam of winter sun lighting the underside of white cloud as I finish feeding the remaining animals and head back to the house. Rounding the bend heading up towards the garage, I realise I have heard nothing from Lesley whose cussing and swearing normally accompanies his attempts to set out feed for his unruly ewes in the field below.
He’s in a good mood today I think – maybe it’s catching – I feel glad at being part of this morning’s story.

Farm Life, Other People's Stories, today's story

New life beckons in the place of execution

The farm horizons change daily. Snow comes and goes, clouds hide different levels of the slopes. Today as I walk up the road I don’t recognise Creag Dubh. There is a white wasteland behind the ridge. It is as if the Monadhliath plateau has drifted like a liner to berth against the summit. It is a white desert beckoning. I wait to understand that it is simply the higher contours picked out by a night-time blizzard, while the foreground remains dark. My sense of the familiar is further rocked to find Moira gone. Flora and Morag alone wait at the gate to be fed. There is always a lurch of anxiety when an animal breaks a routine and I need to set my mind at rest urgently.

The calving paddock housing the three elderly cows is constructed around the new shed built 18 months ago. The shed provides a refuge, there is a south facing slope for the animals to soak up precious winter sun, open ground for the babies to scamper, trees for cover and a granite mound at its centre that provides shelter whatever the wind direction. It is my calving mound but its gaelic name, Tom na Cruachan, indicates a very different past. Cruachan is a cruck or frame: as a joiner I have made many types but not this one. When I mount the rock ledge bordering my calving mound in search of Moira, I am climbing towards the old gallows site.

Behind the shed and skirting the mound, there are some large rocks telling of the old entrance to the farm while the level path winding through the trees is in fact the old road before the new highway was embanked and straightened to become the A86. I stand where felons swung, poor wretches. Here I can see on all sides in search of the missing animal: in the past, road travellers would have looked up to this eminence- and shuddered. It is never a comfortable place to stand, but serves its new purpose. I have spotted Moira’s rear behind the far end of the shed where she has been sheltering.

It will only be a month or so now before the first babies bring new life to the place. It has been quiet long enough.