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!

Animal stories, Highland cattle, Uncategorized


Everyone is gathered round the the feeder at the shed this evening. Abby has come into season for the first time since giving birth: Billy has been shadowing her all day, Abby’s baby shadowing him. She avoids his elderly advances with ease, though currently she is pestered by equally geriatric (and massively pregnant) Flora, made senseless by hormonal vapours. Holly, oblivious of the action behind her, stares at me chewing philosophically; old Morag is just happy to be here another day, chewing her cud like tobacco –

No surprise if she spits!

Demi Og is not there. She and baby are tucked against the fence in the hollow of the hayfield – just being private. Three days on from his birth, we have a routine that will be useful to maintain if the weather hardens. I push them gently to the fieldgate and up the road to the yard: she turns straight into the isolation pen, I pin the hurdles to. A scoop of nuts, an armful of hay; the two of them have comfort til morning-

and so do I.

I will rest knowing they are inside –
– however loud the ragged night rattles, patters and roars at my windows.

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, Highland cattle, Uvie Farm

Change now, betterment later – and a small death

Tonight is the longest of the year. In winter the night limits the day, and defines it. The roundhouse sits high on a coronet of rock catching the wind on a stormy night. Last night I listened to the lashing rain. preparing for the day ahead and the implications for the cattle in their separate areas.
The little girls are best off, just the two, able to shelter in the bedded pen coming out to meet me with the morning feed. The small round shape lying on the concrete is the corpse of the ailing Wyandotte. She has not been brutalised, not shredded – just died- pretty little hen.
The three old girls are relauctant to use the shelter but they are learning the benefits. Billy and the girls have no shelter apart from the bare trees and the lee of the rocks. Billy boy chose his spot last night ; I watched him settle below the big birch beside the road and this morning he is still there, chewing the cud like an old sailor in the corner of a bar. The older animals are more comfortable or resigned to this spell of wet and wind but the yearlings who enjoyed a hay-bedded corner of the big shed as last springs calves, have never endured this before and suffer with lowered heads and hunched rears.
The geography of water and land has changed dramaticly overnight. The snow that powdered the slopes like chainstore cosmetics has slipped with the rain into the river spilling over the valley floor. A full flood creates a new inland sea with shores mounting my lower fields: today’s event is enough to fill the dry meanders of the slow river creating new serpentine patterns of water among the low ground pastures. New islands rise to view, where before there were low-ground mounds and more prominent morraines where unwary herders can find their animals trapped for days on end.
Uvie rises on granite towards the crags, so the flood never reaches far but covers the tussocky paddock that is open to Angus Halfhorn, Alice and Demi-Og. They could be trapped if caught sheltering in the willows. To my relief, I find them gathered round the feeder by the improvised tin shed that lost its roof in the summer and was cobbled back together this backend. There is shelter here but it opens to the south with its back to the prevailing wind, and these gales are driving in from that direction so the floor is saturated and ugly, telling me that there will have been little solace for these animals overnight. They are feeding voraciously with an unusual intensity, starting to understand the implications of winter. I wonder about improving their situation so long as Angus and his father Billy continue to apart to avoid fighting.
I jump into the feeder and help them reach the hay in the middle. As I pull the rainsoaked hay to the side, I uncover a layer that is green and dry, smelling of hot summer. The questing animals latch onto this at once as if they too were clinging to a token of change and betterment.

Highland cattle, Uvie Farm

little girls get ready for school

Little Holly stares at me from inside the yard. She has a hay coiffure where she has pulled it from the rack onto her head where it sits like a jackdaw’s nest. I back through the gate so as to close it easier; she tries to force her nose in to the bucket that I am holding closed with my other hand. I am saving time by holding the scoop with chookie corn in the same hand, so she risks spilling it and sending me back to the feed shed to refill. Little Alice is hanging back still, but this pushiness from Holly means that Alice must be be starting to assert herself.

Alice is the more naturally adventurous of the two – it is she that forces her way into the section of the shed that is to house my new workshop, and she is the one making the trailer quake mysteriously by rubbing an itch as I am inside unloading. These days I give the two of them the freedom of the yard not simply the pen outside the shed. They relish the extra space and interest; testing the breeze for new possibilities.
This new freedom will build confidence like giving a child the run of the house: good preparation for schooling them in a month or so. Alice is a jumpjet of a calf, taking off at the slightest provocation. I need to work her inquisitive nature to develop a habit of co-operation if she is to stay on the farm as a breeding female.

I wonder if I should get a school-bell?

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.