Thursday, 23 August 2012

Taking stock

Following on from the outdoor classrooms and learning from the seasons, I wanted to reflect on where I stand today.

Like many others, I wonder where time has gone and how best have I used the time.

Our daughter has recently turned 16 and has turned into a beautiful, confident and happy woman. Perhaps it was reflection on how fast children grow up but I thought of our lives when she was young and how they are now.

I ran a small croft plus a fairly decent gardening service when Rosie was tiny. We kept a lot of various poultry, hens, turkeys, geese plus a small herd of milking goats. The field which came with the house was divided between the poultry and crops. Rosie was always with me and helped collect eggs, helped to drive the goats to fresh pasture and learned never to go near the turkeys without putting up an umbrella. (It makes you look bigger than them and they won't chase you)

When we both moved up the glen, Rosie was at school and I continued gardening for people plus had enrolled to study medicine in Edinburgh. I had to get up extra early to feed a reduced stock, get Rosie's school uniform and breakfast ready for the childminder then travel the long road to Edinburgh each day.
While I loved University and would have plodded on with this arrangement, my father became unwell so studies had to be put to one side while I cared for him.

It was during this time that I met The Farmer; I had been able to offer part time shepherding to neighbours and we met when we were both helping a neighbour round up some cattle.
I asked him if he could use an extra pair of hands on his farm and he was happy to accept my help.

When I look at where I stood then, my tractor work was a bit rusty. We were taught how to operate and maintain tractors and machinery when I trained in horticulture, twenty five years ago. We were taught how to weld (and I wonder how many trainee doctors were accepted for university with a certificate in advanced tractor driving plus level 6 welding in addition to their Higher certificates!)

Under The Farmer's patient instruction, I quickly learned how to operate the various machines around the farm and found a confidence once it was realised that I no longer needed his help, that I could manage it on my own.

My eldest son was the main carer for my Dad but his escape from the difficult job of caring for a loved one with dementia, was to help out on the farm. He learned quickly and learned to love the peace which comes from long solitary work.

Dad was a meat inspector/ livestock officer and had taught me a lot about animals. I began going round farms with Dad during the 1960's and he would point out what to look for in good stock whether it was cattle, sheep or pigs. I became familiar with auctions, the complexities of a Caithness auctioneer in full flow, plus the abattoir. Dad was also an accomplished butcher and taught me about the carcass of an animal and how to cut it correctly for freezing or cooking.

Once The Farmer and I married then settled into raising our family and running the farm, we found a rhythm and got on with the work. All the skills that I had learned in my life were utilised to the max, even the hated book keeping.
Dad's lifelong teaching on stock became invaluable and he loved nothing better than to keep a watchful eye from his window or walk up to the farm to 'check the beasts'. "Fine beasts, those" he would say and that was praise indeed.

I walked into that farm a novice and now, ten years later, can honestly say that I am familiar and comfortable with the running of a farm. At first, it seemed like a baffling array of work but now I have learned that it runs with the seasons. You get into a routine (although every day is different) and very quickly one year morphs into another. "The same but different" springs to mind.

The Farmer has taught me how to shoulder the blows, how to accept failures, how to look for realistic alternatives as well as hands on farming. He has illustrated the complexities of our profession yet has prepared me well to cope with them.

I asked him this morning if my son and I were farmers. He thought about it for a while and then said "Yes". In his opinion we were. He felt everyone was still learning, including himself but this was a lifelong learning which everyone experiences.
He felt we had coped when he had been unwell and had kept the momentum going. We had stepped into his wellies and not missed a step.

I feel a huge sense of achievement today. Some days, it is important to stand and take stock, see what you have achieved.

Agriculture/ stock husbandry ought to be taught as part of the National Curriculum with outdoor classrooms available on farms.

Looking the future, when our Land is freed up from feudal shackles, the demand for land workers will soar. It would be sensible to teach this subject from a young age and even create an O'level/ Higher in the subject. Imagine the input from fresh new minds if the subject was really studied in depth on a national level. Imagine the progress and improvement for human and land.

So here I am, using my past as experience, standing in the now, looking to the future. Through a farmer's eyes.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

School's out.

I have been very interested in the issues raised during the 'Scottish Six' debates by Lesley Riddoch and Andy Wightman last week at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Sadly, due to tatty rogueing, I could not attend however I feel passionate about one particular aspect of the discussions, namely huts, community allotments and the benefits for children.

We are extremely fortunate to have a nature kindergarten in Perthshire. The children are taught outdoors in rain, hail or shine. They wear Arctic snowsuits in winter or waterproofs and wellies for rainy days.
The nursery is found in a forty acre wood, rented from the local landowner. There are huts for the children to play or cook in, my favourite being the cooking hut, an open sided, circular, wooden structure with a fire pit in the centre, benches around the sides.

The children are taught how to make and respect fire. They are given proper (child sized) saws in order to cut wood, they are taught safety, environmental awareness, seasonal awareness, animal husbandry, maths in nature, cookery plus lots of play and tree climbing.They grow and maintain their own food - potatoes, salad foods, apples plus which plants help other plants and which ones are dangerous.

The children are happy, healthy children who have a wonderful confidence and a strong sense of community. They look after each other.

Once they have 'graduated' nursery aged five, they move on to local primary schools and the feedback tends to be that they are excellent at fine motor skills eg writing, the concentration is excellent and they show a maturity understanding environmental issues.

Our son should be in Primary 1 but as I mentioned in a previous blog, transport and boundaries were a bit of a problem for us so we are continuing his education outdoors and he is responding well.
Social contact with other children/ his friends is a vital part of his life, especially one who lives quite remotely so it is our responsibility to maintain a good social diary for him.

Parents know their children best. They recognise the individual personalities, requirements, strengths, ability. Mainstream education, in my opinion, tends toward a herd provision especially a herd kept indoors. Forgive the crude analogy; Asda may sell hundreds of pairs of size five shoes but are they any good for your feet?
I wish local authorities would be open to a wider vision on education; teach children outside, let them learn and grow their own food, be aware of the seasons and local food, open areas of rivers to be fished, teach them how to grow trees, make and respect fire, get fresh air and exercise and discover a wealth of interests away from electronic gadgetry and sedentary lifestyles.
The four 'R's' are not forgotten, far from it, they can be discovered in a different form.

There are millions of acres of land and forest in Scotland, most of it privately owned and heavily subsidised.

The answer seems obvious. Free up the land, teach the children how to work and manage it and my guess would be that children would respond extremely well.
Encourage parents to connect with their children by providing huts for shelter and social interaction just like they have in Scandinavian countries. Nothing fancy, just a decent wind and watertight, warm shelter. A bothy or the like.

Sorry, I still cannot do a decent link but here is a superb article on huts

We have the wealth of potential right on our doorsteps. The resources available for education and health. Retired land workers who have years of knowledge to pass on could teach agriculture, forestry, horticulture, fishing.

Heaven knows we need to free the land from the minority who 'own' it and create an equality for all the people of Scotland (and beyond).

Look beyond the inner classroom, past the restrictions of land ownership, past the X Box and computer, obesity and narrow thinking. Unite rural and urban.

We owe at least this to our children and their children.

Thursday, 16 August 2012


The Scottish schools have reopened for the autumn/winter term and many five year olds will be settling in to an entire new routine.

Our son should have been one of them but given our geography, there is an issue with transport and we were never entirely sure which school he should have attended in the first place, boundaries and the like.

So, he is being educated at home.

He is very keen to learn and although this is only day two, he has been learning and writing the letters of the alphabet. Counting was cunningly disguised as a cookery lesson and he had to weigh out ingredients, crack eggs, cut out the scone mix then lurked until they were ready for eating.

We made jam yesterday.

He is a delight to teach.

The television is switched off, no radio reception here so the house was in relative silence. When we stopped for lunch, I wanted to check the news and was horrified to read that the Westminster Government had warned the Ecuador Embassy that it would walk in and arrest Assange.

Putting aside any personal opinion on Assange - the violation of our right to democracy and right to seek asylum in the safety of an Embassy, plus the right to peaceful demonstration appear to have been trampled over.
If this is sabre rattling by the Westminster government then they are even more foolish than they realise. Two billion pounds spent on the biggest PR coup in recent British history, only to be undone on the instruction of William Hague.

The world is watching.

A million miles away, on our farm in the middle of nowhere, today a child learned how to write 'a', 's' and 'kicking kay'. He learned how to make scones. He learned what democracy meant and what happens when it is threatened.

He understood today's lessons and even better, had questions. "Why are they doing that?" was one of them.

It is one of the questions that many people are asking today and waiting for an answer. The sad truth is that a child, living in the back of beyond has already experienced a perception of so called democracy (or rather, the lack of) in his own country.

Remind me. Who owns us?

I cannot even answer that.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Hell's bales

Yesterday, the sun came out properly. The sky was a clear blue with a hint of tiny clouds and the pasture which had been cut a few days before (then rained on) was to be wuffled and maybe even turned into hay.

We started early, The Farmer wuffling all the cut grass, the sun drying it out and a slight warm breeze aiding the drying. The air had that lovely smell of newly mown grass, all was going well.
The dogs were happy, running up and down the field, the children were happy as they were with their big brother and eating food that was normally frowned upon, the ducks were happy. Hell, it was happy farm.

The fields were wuffled a few times and The Farmer thought that all being well, we could begin bailing in the afternoon once the grass was good and dry. I love bailing and was ready with my bottle of water, fags and child ear protectors which Gracie had chewed.

It is one of those highlights of the year, enclosed in the tractor, cares thrown to the side, several hours of (almost) peace and the satisfaction of turning grass into neat bales for winter.

If ever a photograph could emit a feeling of absolute joy, this one would.

The ground was still quite wet but firm enough in places to take the weight of the tractor without giving you that horrible feeling when it gives way a bit as you drive over deceptively solid looking ground but which is really mud with a disguise on.
My mashed left foot was bound by several thick socks and stuffed into a welly.

It was at this point that things started to go a bit pear shaped.
The dogs started to 'round' up the tractor and were taken from the field to the stern and watchful eye of our oldest son.
The bailer refused to spit out the bales so we tried braking suddenly then reversing and braking suddenly but to no avail. The only way to eject them was to leave the back open then gather more grass to force them out then stop the machine, pull the grass out and restart the engine to close the back properly.

It was taking ages to make one bale and the sky had changed to a worrying collection of massive clouds, greying at the edges, bruised and slightly fearsome looking. A bit like the Farmer and I at that point.

Then the thing jammed. Something had gone wrong with the bit which scoops up the grass and feeds it into the bailer. The only solution is to shut everything down and manually pull the grass out bit by bit.

There is nothing more soul destroying than trying to empty a jam-packed bailer. Well, there are plenty of things more soul destroying but at that moment, you know that the next hour is one which is going to sap your strength and cut your hands to ribbons plus it was getting late.

I won't go into the gory details but after half an hour of tugging, hauling, calling the bailer all the terrible things Withnail called Uncle Monty, tears, snot and more tugging, the thing was still jammed solid.
The Farmer eventually joined me and we tugged together to free the compacted grass. A car full of children and collies even turned up and the entire family tugged at mass which eventually freed. A small "YAY" then children and dogs all went back into the car and went away again.

I started the engine, drove all of three feet and a hideous noise came from the bailer.

A bar had snapped and broken.

It had finally died.

I hobbled out of the cab and The Farmer gave me a big cuddle. Everything bloody hurt and it all got A Bit Much.

"I'll phone the Ring" he said.

Visions of hobbits, wizards and elphins turning up to make hay stooks did cross my mind but apparently the Ring is a collective of machinery/ helpers who can step in to help other farmers who need help.

Magically, someone turned up with a working bailer and worked late late to transform the grass into bales. It was too damp for hay so it is now haylage - halfway between hay and sileage. God Bless the person who did the work, I don't know who it was as I set off for home absolutely shattered but had to bathe and settle a very bright eyed five year old who was absolutely NOT wanting to go to bed.
My wonderful neighbour had baked a loaf of bread and made some raspberry jam and had tied the parcel on to the door handle. Her act of thoughtfulness made me cry.

This morning is wet. The bales are done, The Farmer and I have woken with sore bits we never knew existed.
We had bread and jam for breakfast and will gingerly go about our work today in a manner more fitting for a collective age of 107. I feel every year right now.

Plus VAT.