Farm Life, History of the Highlands, Living with Nature, Uvie Farm

We walk on the heels of others’ workboots

I follow the Nog uphill on a mild overcast evening.. The snow picks out paths that are barely discernible relics worn by footfall, carts sledges even. Our route takes us up to Sarah Justina Macpherson’s monument behind and above the farm. We skirt the cliffs beneath the rusting enclosure, through birchwoods containing uncanny quiet here in the lee of the westerlies. It is a place of mounds and small valleys, sphagnum moss and blaberry plants with banks of golden chanterelle mushrooms in a moist late summer.
It is also an industrial landscape.
Many of the great houses of the area were built with Creag Dhubh granite. The place would have rung with the sounds of work and activity bouncing from bare granite faces.
So Romanian Mike, come to pick up a site saw that I have no need of, straightens in surprise at the sound of a military jet hammering low down the strath-

‘That’s not what the Highlands is about’-
Maybe not, not now – but sometimes I prefer the noise.

Animal stories, Highland cattle, Uvie Farm

Taking baby to cover

Mild and damp after a night of lashing rain. The old dears are lying on muddied flanks like stranded river barges; Abbie’s newborn is hunched and lethargic after his first night in the open, provoking fear of infections. I rearrange the hurdles to create a playpen with a haybale opened in the northeast corner. Wee man may not find his way in there just yet but when there’s more calves playing together they’ll use it for shelter & warmth.
I walk with the Nog past the paddock checking that everyone has settled: they’re all chewing the cud – ‘chawing the cood’ as show supremo Rich Thomson says. I walk down the fence towards the old tinkers’ rest at the roadside. The sound of shots blows across intermittently ¬†from the estate on the steady wind that combs the Creag Dhubh waterfall sideways across the darkened granite. Turning south into the boggy aspen copse, the Nog takes off excitedly: a female roe breaks elegantly to the marsh. She is not alone but I can’t make out any more until a pair of well-grown calves shoot up the hill synchronised as if in harness.
Roe calves make me nervous in case the Nog catches them, or rather doesn’t but takes off after them and then I have to take off after him – unfair contest! This pair crash heavily between the wires of the stock fence and away.
Returning from opening the dry pasture to Angus Halfhorn and his pair of females (mainly so that Alice can use her sandcracked hooves on drier ground), I spy the deer again, all three of them. The doe, her charges already regathered, is bounding across the open field returning them to the cover of the lower ground. The Nog is hunting mice – muzzle thrust into the mud at the base of a rush clump- so, to my relief, neither sees nor smells them.
Time I returned my charges to cover – I’ll rest easier with wee man inside the shed.

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.

Farm Life, Highland cattle, Uncategorized, Uvie Farm

creatures of habit

A blowy night with rain lashing the house and the cattle down in the wood. I’m out a tad later, having worked the weekend but not so late as to disturb the clock watchers in fields and sheds; awesomely dependant on a routine that I have established and must maintain. The wind has blown the gate to the calving pen open and Flora has been able to raid the feed store – trampling and knocking stuff over. Mind you I’m not the tidiest so I can make good quick enough, and even succeed in coralling Morag separately for her dose of of cod liver oil. Is it my imagination or is she placing a little more weight on that dodgy rear leg?
These days my approach to the yard is heralded by a fountain of pheasants exploding outwards like a municipal firework display. In the feed shed there is always a little hen pheasant who is taken by surprise every morning, lifts off vertically to clatter against the tin roof before whirring outward like a wizz-bang. There is a regular visitor too who announces himself in the halflight as a blur at the corner of vision, swooping between the hay stack and the old JCB. As the light grows I make him out darting from vantage to vantage along my route attending on different tasks during the day: piling windblown sheets of corrugated iron finds him watching from a peat pile, clearing a windblown hawthorn finds him concealed in the pile of branches. A few days ago, one of high wind and driving rain, I was astonished to find him fluttering past the gate as I went to open it, blown ragged by the gale but dauntless in his opportunism.
I heard David Attenborough today talking about this bird, robin redbreast. Apparently, thousands of years ago, robins learned to follow tribes of pigs, picking over the ground they disturbed. Then as humans became herders, the birds followed the domesticated animals and ultimately transferred allegiance to the herder as provider.
So, I have been adopted, my care of the herd bringing me a shadow asserting an ancient relationship extending many generations behind my current routines- and the return? Nothing more than cheerful companionship.

Good enough.

Farm Life, Highland cattle, Uvie Farm

Runaway machines are just routine- really

The old girls are fed, chooks released, Angus Halfhorn and his ladies need vittles. The ground is soft after yesterday’s rain, so I don’t want to use the heavy JCB to take the bale down to their paddock. I’ll use the quad and bogey to cart hay to them. I bring the quad up from the garage with the Nog doing his kamikaze best to interfere. The only way to deal with this is to gun straight at him yelling: ‘I’ll get you, I’ll run you down you mad galoot’, at which point he sprints ahead up the road. With the shed safely achieved, I climb the stack of bales and, squeezing between two bales, use my back and knees to topple one to the ground, checking first that the Nog’s curiosity isn’t likely to be fatal.
Pulling the bale onto the bogey using the scorpion tail grab, I lock the hinge on the drawbar and haul out. I have to pass through the Apron, the big central pasture inhabited by Billy and the stotts. The Nog and the stotts have a similar approach to chores, dancing around each other in a kind of bullfight: he launching feints at their heads, they butting at him with their heads and kicking up their heels. It is not surprising therefore in this high octane atmoshere that I arrive at the gate with a dancing cohort ready to follow me out of the field.
The trick is to park the quad and trailer, swing the gate open, jump back onboard, speed through and return to close the gate before the animals escape. Gate open, quad through and the stotts are already following to pastures new. I set the handlebars to autopilot ¬†turning up the hill to roll to a halt, while I run back to chain the gate. I close the gate but before I can latch it, I realise that the wheels have turned down the slope and the quad pulling the loaded trailer is gathering pace down the hill. It is a fine judgement as to how much ground I can make up on the accelerating rig before it reaches terminal velocity and crashes to the bottom of the field. This, with the weight of the bale and trailer, would destroy a substantial section of stock fence. The other element of downside involves me failing to remount the runaway machine and getting ploughed under by the trailer like Marshall Blucher by Napoleon’s cavalry. (‘I’m sorry – I schtink’ are supposedly his first words on meeting up with Wellington covered in malodorous mud.)
In the event I judge it right – jump on, correct the quad’s trajectory with just one wobbly moment and proceed as planned.
Y’know- farming really is nothing more than a series of well-rehearsed routines.

Highland cattle, Timber building, Uncategorized, Uvie Farm

Do we really prefer the rain?

Doom and gloom, wind and rain, forecast for the weekend – and we’re on the roof! The day starts quiet enough – though there’s a bank of heavy cloud skirting the north of the farm, and the wind is southerly so I leave without my raingear. Long banks of cloud are driving purposefully across the sky- marauding squadrons trimmed with occasional patches of crimson. The three old girls by the shed need feeding with care: Flora and Moira first and then I can ensure that Morag gets the bucket laced with cod-liver oil for her rheumatics. By the time I’ve finished with the calves, Flora has her head down in Moira’s bucket, Moira in Morag’s and Morag in Flora’s.
Ach well -the best laid schemes of mice and men gang aft a-gley.
Down to the Pottery to await the roofer. Andrew appears at lunchtime and in spite of persistant rain sets to cheerfully. The worst of the gale is shielded by the monument crag rising from the roadside to the south but it is still blowing hard and driving damp through our clothing. Andrew is a sailor, and at times is spreadeagled along the ridge like an old time mariner reefing topsails. It is a race against dark but we keep working through the rain and by dark the ridge is watertight. I am standing on the roofing ladder supplying Andrew with tools and lead. From this vantage I watch the strath – car headlights lighting up the murk as though inside a cave, the monument to a forgotten laird presiding yet from the crag above, the lower wooded slopes of Creag Dubh leading up to vanish in cloud and the ridges fading into the distance as they lead downriver towards Cairngorm.
‘It’s a great landscape whatever the weather, eh Andrew?’
and he, game as ever-
‘Wouldn’t have it any different.’
Returning in the dark I light the sheds. Holly and Alice have invaded the half concreted for my new workshop – leaving signatures in dung on the pristine floor. The other shed is empty – the three old cows have ignored the chance of shelter preferring to lie out in the rain.
Sometimes I think Highlanders make it hard on themselves.

Farm Life, Highland cattle, Living with Nature, today's story

day of leisure?

I shift the cattle – O that sounds simple!- redistributing them in preparation for calving, and weaning young Alice from her mum. O boy – Deep breath!- billyandthegirlsbroughttotheyard.florashedtothecalvingpaddock.alicesyoungandoldbroughtouttojointheothers.littlehollyandlittlealiceretainedintheyardwithbigaliceanddemiog.billyandtheboysleddownintothewood.angushalfhornledoutwithabbyandbighollyrunningallthewayuptotheyard.oncefedangusfollowsbackdowntheaspenpaddockwiththenewcowaliceanddemiogleavinghercalfwithlittlehollyintheshed.nowbillyandtheboyscanbeletoutofthewoodandhollyandabbycanbeleddowntojointhem.sorted-phew!
…except..dammitthebigstottsareganginguponpregnantHollyandforcinghertoherknees – Imakemyselfbiggerand fiercerthanacoupleoftonsofangrybeeftopartthemandrushtheboysoutontothefarmroad and shut the gate.
-but that’s not the story.
It has been damp and grey – I walk the Nog to visit Mrs Cluny (Sarah Justina Macpherson,wife to a nineteenth century laird) whose monument stands atop the outcrop of Creag Dubh behind the farm. The path is sheltered and closed in by cliffs and the mounds from old quarry workings, a good place to walk on a wild day but with short horizons. I start playing grievances in my mind as I walk, particularly my disappointment at Laggan Forest Trust, an organisation founded and mandated to source work for local people. They are building a new visitor centre in the community forest and have not bothered to find out what my buildings are about, let alone provide me with an opportunity for a high profile project. I am rehearsing my recriminations, my telling public critique – until suddenly I take stock and say aloud to the darkening birches ‘Stop!’

This is not the story.
The small twigs of the birches are cross-hatched against the sky, water is slicking the path under my feet, the burn running from the waterfall down the crags is rushing and gossipping at the side. Lichens gleam on sticks dislodged by the recent winds like patches of snow. The wind blows warm on my face from the south-west, filling my nostrils with odours of damp vegetation. The Nog’s raised tail is higlighted against the sky at the top of the path, just the tail, the dog’s body has disappeared into the gloaming.


that is today’s story.


I think cows have a different view of snowstorms..

Big Billy growled at me today. Well, not exactly growled: there is a specific belching bellow that he uses when uncomfortable. Discomfort covers many areas of sensation: physical like itching mites and hair growth and loss that continually besets these unique animals- Highland Cattle. I wonder though if their emotions are also felt primarily as sensation – not exactly inarticulate (because Billy has made himself very plain this morning, grinding his backside against the feed trough that he evidently thinks I should be filling) – but not as defined as we like to assume. Pleasure is a shiver, frustration an itch, anger a belly ache, love is sweet release of milk from a swollen udder.
Perhaps not – if this was the case, emotion would play no part in herd-speak -a shared sense that knits these animals as a family, related or no. Welfare is selfish but collective, supervised by dominant Billy in this case, but within which animals will be vying for position: first place at the trough, feeder or the dry place in the lee of the wind. Being a part of this is a comfortable widening – a generosity of companionship: there is no more peaceful place than within a herd of cows with their heads down to grass.
They needed it today. The day started clear with a scattering of snow and stars. Pillow cloud built from the west, encroaching on the sky in a line like sand dragged by a rope held at each end by labouring giants. Creag Dubh to the north is obscured and the Breakachy ridge across the river but here on the green Apron in the middle of the hills the snow has not yet wetted me. I make it inside for breakfast, the fire already lit, and while I make porridge the hills disappear as if a bag is emptied over them. By the time I am seated with my bowl, the day is clearing, the sun is out and suddenly I see the summits shining white!
The cattle have collected under the trees: there will be more storms- no wonder Billy growls.

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.