farm bunkhouse, highland landscapes, hillwalking, Living with Nature, Uncategorized

Cloudy Days

There are times the cloud seems to drag along the braes, catching in the birches so that I half expect fluffy white deposits like sheepswool on barbed wire.
Other times the hilltops are axed flat, bandaged in dense vapour like fabric, impenetrable and mysterious: a time to avoid walking the high tops for fear of disorientation, however familiar the terrain.
On a good day with a breeze and broken sun, the patterns of shadow pass over hillsides and pastures like fast moving geology, picking out grey rock, a flash of green upland pasture, a blaze of bracken, the gleam of water.
Today the wind has turned from the north (where the weather lurks unseen behind the dark mass of Creag Dhubh) to south east: warm but threatening the unaccustomed.

I haul the mountain bike from the pick-up and drop it over the gate to the hill-road on Catlodge. A Blue-Grey heifer is watching, head-up, ears pricked. As I wobble off down the rocky track the rest of the herd take flight and stampede down the track ahead of me, as if on a strange new steamrailway with me the monstrous locomotive. I curse under my breath, ashamed at the disruption as if a dog was running loose

Finally, the animals turn up the hill and slow, watching me pass.

When the road turns to grass, I prop the bike against the derelict fence of some forgotten environmental scheme, pull my whistlestick from the bungey holding it to my pack, and start the foot climb. I follow the half seen road used by the old peat cutters toward the green saddle that gives onto the far valley with long views to the west.

The first drops hit smartly, and turning I see cloud lowering over Drumochter Hills. Testing the wind I am forced to acknowledge the bank of rain heading for me like vengeance.
I look for the bright broken elements that presage showers, and the chance of drying off between downpours.
This I have learned to be comfortable with. but there is no relief in prospect.

I climb on-
until suddenly-
as I walk the wild-
my mind calls up an image of bedsheets left on the line.
That does it!
The Nog obediently turns with me as I head for home –
and a world of duty.

No No - I'm talking about all those black clouds!

No No – I’m talking about all those black clouds!

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Farm Life, Highland cattle, highland landscapes, Living with Nature, Uncategorized

I prepared the field last night, hauling the chain harrow to spread dung and molehills.
This morning is perfect for rolling.

A heavy mist covers the house allowing a luminous glow through the windows-

assurance of a cloudless sky.

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There has been no rain overnight, but the grass is so heavy with moisture it splashes on my face as I trundle the lines back and forward across the field, deep green

then silvery

then green again.

The mist lifts as I progress, revealing sunshine on the upper part of Creag Dubh,

its lower slopes still veiled as if for modesty.

By the time I finish my skin is chilled,

the smell of crushed grass fills my nostrils;

small rainbows hide in thinning vapour.

The day is opening.

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Animal stories, Farm Accommodation, Farm Life, farm visitors, Highland cattle, highland landscapes, hillwalking, Living with Nature, Uncategorized

Highland Spring

The drama is in the day.
Mild and easy when I put out the feed this morning, the wind starts up mid morning, It is strong but not a storm – a sailors wind, sending vessels scudding.
I have no vessel to scud – so this squall is merely inconvenient, blowing the cement from my shovel before I can fill the mixer-
but not threatening like so many that shake the buildings of a winter night like some nordic ogre.
I am inside when the rain hits the window sliding down half melted. It puts paid to the long walk I have promised the Nog today.
When it stops we leave the house.
At the entrance to the yard, two hundred yards away, the starving half -calf stops on the road and looks back at us as if beckoning. I feed him as efficiently as I can and pen him for the night with mother. She is laden with milk, inaccessible to him through some esoteric interdict of his own choosing.
Colours are clear in the water laden air, distance inviting. On the small summit I watch broken cloud driven across blue sky. To the west the sun is splintered by ragged cloud profiles sending shafts of light earthwards. There is rain coming in, lit with diffused radiance that conceals the shapes of the hills as much as illuminates so that they appear in silhoutte like two dimensional cut outs arranged in series, receding towards unseen summits.
A bird of prey holds itself up in the wind- a crisp profile like a keyhole in space. I run up the brace to stand on the fencepost squinting into the wind in an attempt to identify the bird. My eyes are watering so that I can’t see the ground and have to guess the distance to jump down.
From here I can see that the pasture of the farm is greening slightly, that Alice has not yet calved, that the weekend guests have departed.
A rainbow strikes the far ridge and curves over towards Creag Dubh, spanning the farm.

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Animal stories, Farm Life, Highland cattle, Living with Nature, Uncategorized, Uvie Farm

No country for old beasts- (but I make exceptions)

Moira is climbing the slope to the water trough. It is installed in the top corner of the lower paddock where she and Alice lend respectability to Angus Halhorn’s pretensions to be a stock bull. This year sees him become the one male animal with exclusive responsibility for populating the farm.

 

*
Currently most of the girls gravitate around Billy in the calving paddock and won’t be introduced to his successor for another month at least. The gestation period for cattle is the same as for humans, so if I want calves born in the New Year I have to wait a while yet.
Moira did not drop her calf last night as I thought she might, so she lugs her swollen body up the slope painfully slowly, not just heavy but also lame.
I hate seeing my animals age.
Billy is no longer reliable to serve the cows as he has for the last decade: his rear legs won’t support his weight to lift him onto the back of a fruitily fragrant female. Cows some into full season just one day a month, so a successful mating demands a kind of intense opportunism. Nature makes no concessions to age.
He is still splendid: reason enough to have him adorning my fields.
Morag is a kind of living ghost. An angular animal who always loses condition in winter so that pink patches of skin show through her thinning white coat, she is now so lame that one leg swings free much of the time.

She is also inspirational, an archetype of stoicism, enduring in all conditions to drop some of the most beautiful calves I have ever had.

*

Speaking of which, Demi-Og’s wee boy is lying still in the corner of the pen when I go up this morning. He should be standing, jumping about after a lusty breakfast from his mothers wonderful long teats.
At least he’s moving.
Close up I find that he has his head caught under the gate. He’s pushed it under while lying down, and to extract it…he stands up, only to find that the bottom bar won’t permit it. So he thinks he’s trapped and lies there helpless. I lift the gate as high as I am able – higher still – when I’ve lifted it to his full standing height, he finally saunters free, making a beeline for breakfast.
His presence must justify the pensioners.

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Farm Accommodation, Farm Life, farm visitors, Highland cattle, hillwalking, Uncategorized

Back and forward to the future

Today the cows are peaceful, the two bull calves are stotting in the sun– and I didn’t walk up the hill with the Nog as intended.
Sunday morning is for housework – fair enough – Sunday afternoon was for walking , skirting by Sarah Justina’s monument standing on the apron of Creag Dhubh, and straight up to the ridge that forms my northern horizon. Beyond there lies the back country.

As one walks, the present day recedes – to be replaced by something immediate.

With one’s back to the farm, the road and the river, one crosses the first waste, where the ‘dry loch’ tells a story of caught glacial water released when the barrier at the lower end gave way, leaving a horseshoe of upland bog.
Down to the old road in Dalbhalloch- now used by hikers and hunters only – ending at the lost village of Dal-na- sealg (Dalnashallach) where one house is maintained as a bothy.
Then further out and up to the Monadhliath plateau – kind to neither man nor beast – the first landmass – and realm of the great god Pan.-
-but I wasn’t there today.
Instead I was facing towards the future.
The two buildings on the farm, roundhouse and bunkhouse, are all electric – with a ground sourced heatpump for heating and hotwater, with the plan to become self-sufficient in power. As technology changes , this closing of the sustainability loop has been getting closer. Most solutions, however, involve laborious administration and big outlays to meet the demands of government incentives.
Zeno and Celine, with a company involved in generating by windpower, put shape to my intentions; confirming the option of self-installation without official intervention or incentive.
A day of progress therefore if not forward motion of the kind the Nog and I enjoy.
Pregnant ladies still need checking over, little Alice and Holly need more hay; Demi-Og and the lad are happy now to donder up to the shed to be shut in for the night..
-and, in the bottom paddock, Moira stands and shifts her weight, patiently preparing to calve- maybe tonight.

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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.

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highland landscapes, Uncategorized, village life

The view is better without snowstorms

Its not the best day for taking in the scenery from the Glen Truim viewpoint. The wind is blowing hard: this slope catches the brunt, looking straight up to the Corrieayrack pass due west of here. This ridge is the first obstruction to the weather’s force driving unimpeded down the open breadth of the strath – the wide, glacier-carved valley that supports the village of Lagganbridge and all the outlying settlements and farms such as mine at Uvie.
Oh – and it is snowing.
I have driven 10 miles to achieve half a mile. This point looks down directly on the farm-but separated by the river Spey. The roundhouse is clear, the metalclad bunkhouse. I observe the west wall of my tool shed dark with saturated moisture, how the animals are collected on drier ground, apart from the pregnant mothers who stand squarely in the mud with their heads rammed deep into the silage dropped for them yesterday – there is always goodness to be mined in the first day or so before the fermented grass starts to stale.
But this is not what I came for – I have further to climb. The wind helps me up the slope as if with a dancer’s hand on my elbow, but driven shards force me to walk with a hand sheltering the side of my face.
At the top I find what I came for- not the traditional cairn- but a haphazard looking assembly of scaffolding poles bolted to the granite, supporting some modest electrical apparatus. This is part of the relay system for the village broadband system, developed and maintained by volunteers like myself. We have 70-odd subscribers now – but have vouchsafed to provide the service to any locals frustrated enough with the big providers to want it. It is relayed wirelessly from tops such as this, like a yodel perhaps, and I am scanning for a clear view to other village homes from this point

If the weather will permit me.

I see clear to Cluny and Craig Dhubh, Balgowan and Laggan are supplied from another mast, but Glen Truim and Breakachy, candidates for the better service, are invisible, masked by rock or trees.
Another flurry hits as I pack away the binos – time to head back down. The rounded contours of the Nog are distorted by the wind so that he looks angular at times – a thing of facets like a stealth fighter.
It is quieter among the pines – not far to the truck along the forest road.

Job done: another one begun.

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Animal stories, Farm Life, Highland cattle, highland landscapes, Uncategorized

Winter quiet

The dark vegetation at the top of Creag Dhub is dusted with snow while the grey granite remains unchanged. It is the summer plumage of a ptarmigan, reminiscent of warmer days on the high tops where the wind cuts still. Now the mild morning is greeted as though the season had turned and I listen hatless to the full throated song of an unknown bird in the branches above the shed roof. It is easy to visualise the sound falling like water, or a blessing.
*
Snow swirls again around the house as I look out from breakfast preparations. The flakes are small and round, light enough to be lifted and carried on the breezes that eddy in the lee of the planes of the roundhouse and its segmented roof. The flakes reveal the architecture of the westerlies – some which swoop from the roof above, some swirling round the walls, some shooting out across the fields with only the briefest reference to the temporary obstruction of my home.
*
The cattle are watchful, healthy, unperturbed – no new calves are born, no crises undergone by the older animals. .
Six long-winged birds fly westward – swans probably – I follow them with my eyes but can’t identify them for sure. A mob of jackdaws-always activist- has occupied the perimeter of the kitchen garden.
We are suspended in a kind of uncertainty.
I will put out two bales of silage.

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Animal stories, Farm Life, Highland cattle, Living with Nature, Uncategorized, Uvie Farm, village life

The visitor

I was going to say that I never saw a human face today (so it’s a good thing I enjoy the animals) – but it is not true.
I am in the yard after dropping a bale into Billy and the gravid mothers. They are all outside since it is breezy and fine; Abby’s wee black boy gallops among the birches like a tiny stampeding bison, and Billy tries to intercept the bale hoisted above the feeder, reaching up like a basketball player.
Gates shut, JCB parked; my sole visitor appears at the gate. Trevor the woodsman wants to know who owns Lochain Ubhaidh (Wee loch Uvie – close enough to the farm to share a name).
He was standing between the cliffs and the water when he heard a thrashing in the water.
Sma-a-a-k. A giant fish clears the water and thumps back with the noise of a sledgehammer splintering a gatepost.
Sma–k. It breaches again.

The sound echoes from the looming crags, vigilant with ravens.

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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.

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