change of season, Farm Accommodation, farm bunkhouse, Farm Life, highland landscapes, Living with Nature, today's story, Uvie Farm

Five minute story

Against expectation, the farm is flooded with sunshine. Long seeded grass in the silage fields lies almost flat under the weight of night rain and carries a polished sheen when scanned from ground level. The cattle in Logan’s meadow stand drying off the nights dampness, chewing the cud in appreciation. Housemartins and swallows forage further afield on a clear day like this, since the supply of insects around the house house is blessedly diminished by their constant activity.

That is where my attention is set.

A single leaf twists through the still air falling from the giant silver birch as I open the tap to start the flow.

Standard
Animal stories, Farm Accommodation, Farm Life, Highland cattle, Living with Nature, new birth, today's story, Uncategorized, Uvie Farm

Mad for life

Close to a week ago now I heard a great bellow
as I ladled feed
one wet morning.
Flora, my best cow with a great spread of horns and hanging belly
has calved with no trouble
The baby is tall
so cannot find the swollen teats her mother proffers
like munitions.
I bring them in
avoiding Flora’s flailing horns clanging against the metal,
milk her and feed the baby:
2 litres of yellow firstmilk-
she will not sleep hungry in the open field.
Flatflanked next night she takes another bottle
but is not done-
sucking against the metal my arm waterproofs.
staggers into the yard
milk mad berserker
If a pack of wild dogs stood in the way
of milk
she would challenge for leadership.
I guide her to Flora in the crate
breaking the year’s seal on each tit in turn

before offering it over my forearm

like claret.

milkmad baby

This one will do, I think,
looking round at the winter deep muck
greening with algae,
as she pulls the swollen cone
to a flaccid hanging scrap.
This will do.

 

Standard
heroic ambition, today's story, Uncategorized, village life

Flying beyond the flock

Two small birds tear into the sky – and out again – like streakers on a cricket field.
Their compact profile and short triangular wings are familiar – but anomalous. They are surely starlings – and not only that – they are the starlings nesting in my eaves – or rather under the tin roof of the bunkhouse. I see them flying in and out of the gable end when I cross the bridge to my office – but mostly in the summer. There is something remarkable about this pair climbing the air above the Apron field where the stotts are now clearing the troughs of this morning’s nuts.
Starlings are woodland birds, so tree-loving not house sharing: and profoundly gregarious, swirling in great single-minded flocks like shoals. My birds behave differently, of necessity maybe or choice – and this aspiring glory in solitary flight marks my vision as I race the quad up to the gate from the bottom paddock with the Nog zigzagging madly across my bows.
Feeding the beasts is a welcome obligation – I know how to start my day – but to continue….? Work with immediate tasks- tag the carcase hanging by the pond, text the gamedealer, empty my pack to dry out my gear, oil and sharpen my knives – and then…?

Which item on the Endless List is fit for crossing off?
-and then-

Lynda phones to say Marie and Kari are here.
These are Wally’s womenfolk: – Wally Herbert- the greatest British polar traveller –  resident in the village for the last decade of his life
– and generous host

– and friend.
Wally made his own path where there are none; forcing his way forward in places without precedent, against Nature’s adversity and with little support or acclaim.

Marie and Kari follow in his steps, not the ones quickly filled with blown snow on the polar approaches, but the more enduring habits of psychological enterprise and endurance.

Some habits cast hard like pre-human prints on a beach- or the flight of starlings.

Standard
deerstalking, today's story, Uncategorized

Today it takes the long drag

I brought the hind off the hill today.
Cuckoo burn offers bad quad access with the old road broken down by sheep and scattered rocks adding to the danger of traversing a rough slope; but with snow obscuring the hazards –
it could be lethal.
So it has to be a drag- all the way from where the hind is lying to the gate on the roadside where I can heave her into the pick-up. It can’t be more than a mile but it is the hardest physical work…
Walking up to where I cleaned the hind yesterday takes about 40 minutes. Legs strapped I hook a rope around the neck with the end wrapped round my body – and set off – or stumble off anyway.
I am not built for dragging.
My boxer buddy Paul is. He has the height and bulk to lean into the rope to haul the dead weight. When I lean forward nothing much happens apart from my nose getting alot closer to the ground: I have to heave and sweat.
The snow helps – where it fills a sheep track or a drain, it provides a chute for the hind to slide along. I attack the task in chunks – a few paces at a time- stop to catch my breath and survey the ground for the best route ahead, scanning for heather tussocks, boulders, depressions that will bring me to a jarring halt. At times I even pull uphill pull, to maintain the high ground on the hill rather than jam myself against the fence on the broken-down path following the burn to the roadside pastures.

I fall over in the snow a few times, grunt and groan continuously, pant horribly after a longer travel and repeatedly stop after only a few yards over the rougher sections. Anyone looking on would think I am mad- or disabled maybe – as I crawl laboriously over the landscape tied to my quarry like the mariner to his albatross.
But it is not a penance – it is a kind of honouring of the beautiful dead creature behind me. If this is what it takes to complete the cycle from the hunt to the table- then this is what I must do.
I stagger onwards – approaching the slope down to the pasture the sheepbitten grass becomes short and smooth: I run downhill, my burden sliding effortlessly behind me.
A solitary figure is skylined on the monument crag. Someone has seen this whole performance.

My today has become part of someone else’s story.

Standard
Animal stories, Chooks, Farm Life, heroic ambition, Living with Nature, today's story, Uncategorized

Working is for the birds

A light rain falls as I convert some of my timber stack to firewood using the chainsaw. A choice must be made- these are sawn boards, and seasoned for years in the lean-to, in case I am called to use it to make furniture. There is ash there, local pine, larch, beech, sycamore,oak, chestnut, walnut – all fit to be machined and worked, but none of it used in the last twenty years – so why keep it?

*

Firewood has a real value, not potential. I guage the value of my segmented timber stock in hours of burning – this board gives me an hour, two hours; this pile gives me a day, a week, longer. Horizons come closer in winter: this mild spell will end, and now I have stored some insurance like racking potatoes.

*
As I swing the bellowing saw, a tiny finch works alongside, also laying down reserves against winter extremes. The lesser redpolls have been active in the birches for some weeks now, settling in sudden showers among the purplish twigs waving at the branches’ extremities. They strip out the residues of nutritous seeds with rapid agility. This little bird is working alone, out of context in more ways than one, nipping not at the seed source but at the deposits on the black plastic wrapping my silage. Its head has a blush of russet, a cape of yellow descends its neck,  its wings carry dark brown flecks like grains. It is focussed on its task and observant but oblivious of my operations-
-unlike the robin.
My companion ghost appears at the far side of the finch, perched on the roadside gatepost. The robin has no work, he has authority. He is a beadle, hands clasped behind his tailcoat, observing the industry of the deserving poor (me and the finch, that is) while pretending to watch the road traffic.

*
By 4 o’clock the timber for warmth is cut and the timber for making is stored; but someone is working harder than ever. Cocky disappeared into the lonely chooky house earlier, but now, as I prepare to lock him in, he returns to the open. He has his gaze fixed on the roof timbers where his ladies have all learned to roost, leaving him earthbound. Not for much longer, his body language says.
His posture is rigid, his neck points forward and upward like a brandished cavalry sword. He braces himself… and launches.

*
He gains an elevation of a full eighteen inches- (His ladies manage fifteen foot to the tie beam in three stages)- and holds fast. Sadly, his perch is a fence post that, being cylindrical, rolls backwards and forwards as he struggles for equilibrium like a logger on a Canadian river. His efforts, plainly incompetent, alert the predatory instincts of the Nog who I oblige to sit. Cocky is eventually dislodged, but remaining totally focussed on his task, stalks forward for his next attempt completely unaware of his proximity to the motionless Nog, who salivates silently.

*
He is attached to the deluded intent that he can fly directly up to the tie beams without following the pattern established by the womenfolk. I leave while he is still working on the problem, and return later to shut the chooky house on the assumption that he failed, and is sulking within like great Achilles.

*
I reckon his power to weight ratio is against him – or maybe brain to muscle. Ambition for change came late – but for all that it looks like it’s here to stay.
We are all fighting our battles on windy plains before locked cities.

We are all mighty.

Standard
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.

Standard
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.

Now-

that is today’s story.

Standard