Twinkletoes in Britain Part 4: Farm Lass

In my last post I was on the Isle of Skye in June, summer hadn’t exactly set in and it grew colder as we headed further north. We spent a night in a tiny place named Camas-Luinie and then a night in Garve on our way north to Ullapool. The road signs we followed were simply written and pointed us to ‘The North’.

Ullapool was to be home for a week as we tried our hand at being Highland farmers! But first we spent some time exploring the town in drizzly rain and a freezing wind. We stocked up on winter woollies at the Edinburgh Woollen Mill, and then sat in the warmth of the local pub/café named ‘The Ceilidh Place’. There we were met by our host for the following week, a wonderful older lady who is struggling to run her small highland farm virtually on her own and unable to afford paid farm-workers.

Her farm is home to 400 sheep, 12 cattle, 1 sagging old Labrador and now us. Next door lives the shepherd, a proper Scotsman who spoke with “Och aye’s”, drank incredible quantities of whisky and called ‘ewes’ ‘yows’, to rhyme with ‘how’. With his accent we could understand the Gaelic spellings for places, in Gaelic ‘Inverness’ becomes ‘Inbhir Nis’ and from his mouth the ‘bh’ could just be made out, halfway to a ‘v’ sound. He had a most sleek and intelligent young sheep dog. She canoodled around the table, laying her head in each person’s lap and requesting pats. She has incredibly shiny, silky hair and a slim face with bright eyes.

The farm lies at the tip of Loch Broom and over the next week we saw an incredible range of moods descend on the Loch – from stormy purple clouds to searing, endless blue skies. Scotland’s Highlands have a unique light: there can be brooding hills under brooding skies, yet patches of brilliant golden sun stream through, lighting just one glen, or just one island, like a halo. It is a spectacular sight far beyond the capabilities of my phone camera to capture – but I do try!

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View from Ullapool down Loch Broom

It isn’t just the highland light which makes this area so appealing though, it is also the raw history and physical reminders of the past. The farm is an ancient place, the farmhouse though old (circa 1690) is significantly predated by the stone barn across the yard. Both building are mentioned in local stories of Bonnie Prince Charlie. According to the stories Prince Charlie was being smuggled north to safety and this farmhouse was intended as a safe haven. However the Scot organising the thing was captured by the English and details were leaked. The Hanoverian (English) soldiers ended up stationing themselves in this farmhouse – likely the soldiers in the barn and the officers in the house. Bonnie Prince Charlie would have caught wind of what was going on and never arrived as intended. However he was still greatly supported by the locals who banded together and slaughtered the Hanoverian soldiers. From my small amount of research I can’t find mention of the slaughter, but it seems true that the house was used as barracks for Hanoverian soldiers!

The turbulent past is not forgotten, and while we visited a possibly equally twisted period of British history was on the brink. It was just a week before the ‘Brexit’ referendum. Staying on a Scottish farm during that time gave us a unique insight into the mixed opinions and conflict even within an individual. Our host was convinced that she must become self-sufficient as leaving the EU would cause chaos and poverty, yet there was still a deep hatred for a system which fails the farming community. Her sheep cost more to have shorn than the price the wool will fetch at market. True, she receives a government subsidy, but there are many requirements, it is not free money. If her field contains too many rushes, she might not just loose the subsidy but also receive a fine. It sounded to an outsider not like a choice between good and bad, but between a rock and hard place for a small-holding farmer. I was sorry for the tough decision facing the country, but also immensely pleased that the hate mongering of the press appeared to have had no effect on this little group; race and immigration were not considered in any way part of the problem.

These were just the opinions of two people, I cannot for a moment assume this was reflective of greater Scotland, but it was interesting none the less to learn their perspective and reasoning.

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View from the farm towards Loch Broom

Our first taste of proper farming came the day after we arrived; as we sat down to lunch the phone rang. It was the Ullapool police! Our sheep had escaped their paddock and needed shepherding off the main road! We abandoned our omelette on toast, leapt into cars and zoomed down the road to block traffic and herd unwilling sheep back into the field. The gate was standing fully open and had no fencepost to secure it shut, so we piled rocks to hold it.

That first day also saw us constructing new gates in preparation for the cows’ artificial insemination later in the week. We worked hard concreting posts, carefully measuring distances and checking everything was level. Our efforts marvelously repaid with a hearty dinner of lamb steaks followed by strawberries and cream.

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The completed cow gates

The following day we completed the cow gates under bright skies – no woolly jumpers required! The field was full of wild and luscious stinging nettles, so working in summer clothes was dangerous. But by lunch we had completed the cow gates – all properly concreted in place, and we paused for a wonderful outdoor lunch. Under the shade of a large tree in the garden of the farmhouse we ate sausages fresh off a coal BBQ and drank elderflower cordial. Then lay back in the grass afterwards for a wee siesta before getting back to work.

The gate to the sheep field still needed mending and the stone walls all around the same field were crumbling. It was with makeshift building materials we had to make the field secure – two bed ends played a starring role, along with rocks from the nearby river bed. It is hot work lugging rocks from the river to the wall, but as the cows are moving into this field the walls need to be extra secure and able to withstand stroppy escape artists. One cow in particular is a force to be reckoned with: a very strong willed Highland Cow named Anne. In the past she had rebelled and made her own life decisions by breaking into the neighbour’s field where a large black bull lived. As our host said “she found herself a big black man”. Anne was pregnant already (unlike the others waiting for their AI’s), but not with a purebred Highland calf as intended!

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Broom in bloom

The high skies and warm weather didn’t stick around and the next few days were stormy. We worked in the barn assembling shelves and stacking paint cans. In the barn we discovered an enormous wooden box with unidentifiable paddle contraptions and a driveshaft which looked as though it might have once been powered by a water wheel. Our host confirmed later it was for threshing during the early to mid-1800s, when these fields were for grain not livestock (perhaps pre highland clearances?). There had been a waterwheel which was fed by a burn (mountain stream) and a small hill lochan was damned so the burn would flow only when the water was released. I marvelled at the history contained in this one small farm, and the number of stories which accompany the physical relics. It is strange to sleep in an unassuming farmhouse and know that it is older than any building in your own country (New Zealand being so young). That feeling of wonder was repeated many times throughout our stay:

  • A burnt out Manor house lies not far down the road, once the main house on this farm. It is a ghostly ruin now, pine trees over twenty years old grow in each room – all now open to the sky. Intricate ‘crow step’ stonework adorns every gable.
  • Metal detectorists have found ancient coins.
  • At one point we visited friends of our host, it was a strange feeling indeed approaching a 12th century castle not as tourists, but as potential friends or guests. Our host warned us it was ‘riddled with ghosts’.

The highlands are incredible really in their closeness to history, the land feels old, but so is the connection between man and land. The crumbling crofters cottages left to ruin by the highland clearances fringe lochs and tuck into hillsides. Some merely foundations or rubble, others still support chimneys and look as though all they need is a roof and some love. But so much is in languishing decline (although as I write this I am tucked up next to the fire in a crofters cottage which has been saved!)

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Ardvreck Castle, a short drive north of Ullapool, all that remains of the Clan MacLeod stronghold (later captured by the MacKenzies).

In the evenings we nestled in front of a roaring fire and listened to our host storytelling about her own life here in the highlands and about local history and myth. We enjoyed many delicious dinners including locally caught pheasant, home grown turnips and salad, local Venison, and home grown Rhubarb crumble (our host was once cook for the Duke of Argyll).

Our final day was spent assisting with the cows being AI’d. It was our only early morning farm start. In the still of dawn we herded the cows across the highway, long before all the motorcyclists were out.

I had never witnessed an artificial insemination; the vet was efficient and did her best to calm all the cows. Some stood placidly when the vet inserted her arm, others struggled, their eyes bulging and backs arched. Many had a good big poo as soon as the vet removed her hand. A plastic guide was used to insert the ‘T’ shaped AI and a blue cord was left hanging out like a tampon string.

Our final night we drove to Ullapool for takeway curries, and on the way back home I pointed out the signs saying ‘red squirrel next ¾ miles’ and asked our host if she had ever seen any. “Oh I have a couple in the freezer” she replied. “I hear they make good fish bait and they are always getting themselves run over.” Not the answer I had been expecting.

The following morning we each received a heartfelt hug, our time as willing workers on this highland farm was over. The enduring memories are of the people whose lives we briefly became a part of; our host’s incredible stories and cooking, the shepherd’s quick humour. The road was once more drawing us north though, this time beyond the British mainland and over to the Orkney Isles. If we had thought the Highlands were filled with ancient history, we hadn’t seen nothing yet!

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