Sunday, 22 November 2015

Martinmas in 2015 Scotland

Many excellent blogs and articles have been written regarding the forthcoming eviction of Andrew Stoddart, a tenant farmer who has lived and worked Colstoun Mains for twenty two years. Much has been written and discussed regarding the legal aspects of this eviction but very few cover the human aspect.
Andrew, his wife and three young daughters plus his tractorman, his wife and four children all face a pre Christmas eviction from their homes and workplace. Martinmas, to be precise. (28th of November although research shows that the Feast of St Martin takes place on 11th November).

Who is St Martin?

St. Martin of Tours started out as a Roman soldier then was baptized as an adult and became a monk. It is understood that he was a kind man who led a quiet and simple life. The best known legend of his life is that he once cut his cloak in half to share with a beggar during a snowstorm, to save the beggar from dying from the cold. That night he dreamed that Jesus was wearing the half-cloak. Martin heard Jesus say to the angels, "Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not baptised; he has clothed me." [2]

Whilst Martinmas is celebrated all over Europe in the form of feasting after a gathering in of the harvest, in Scotland it is the day tenant farmers pay their rent or get evicted. Oh the irony of a day when the ethos of a humble and generous man becomes as far removed from the original sentiment.... St Martin, the friend of children and patron saint of the poor.

Many years ago, when I was in an absolute state of despair regarding the conditions on our own farm, Andrew Stoddart was the first person to contact us and offer any help he could. He had never met us nor had we ever spoken on the phone yet here was a man offering unconditional help to a fellow tenant...... nor are we the first people whom Andrew has helped. This quiet, painfully shy man, built like an oak tree, is enduring an agony few of us can comprehend. Even at this late hour with only a few days left on his tenancy, the Scottish Government seem oddly reluctant to come up with a solution whereby the families are not made redundant and homeless.
Yes, the lairds may have won the legal debate, big whoop, but morally some of them appear devoid of humanity, utterly lacking in empathy at the prospect of seven children being thrown out of their homes, having to leave their school and friends in the depths of winter. The landowner of the Colstoun Trust does not have to evict Andrew Stoddart from the land he has worked for 22 years, the landowner is evicting him because he can.

Scotland. Be ashamed.

The tie between a farmer and his land is an extremely intimate relationship, it has taken me years to understand just how intimate, but safe to say every farmer's wife or partner will understand when I say that when you live with a farmer, there are three in the relationship and the farm comes first. How do you begin to describe how a farmer feels about the land he works? How can I illustrate an emotion so deep and unseen, the driving force which compels the farmer to endure sometimes raw and savage conditions, the successes and failures, the births and deaths....I don't like to make a generalisation but some farmers are astonishing in their tenacity and their tie to the soil itself can appear that it is part of their Soul.
I asked a tenant farmer how he would feel if he saw another person working his land, especially land he had worked yet been taken from him. "It would be like seeing another man sleep with your wife" was the quiet reply.

There are human beings behind these evictions, people who are worried sick, probably unable to sleep or eat properly, worried how their bairns will cope. I'm not going to argue the EUHR legal stuff as I don't really understand it but I will ask why the right to own property has precedence over living, breathing human beings.

This eviction, the first of several, need not take place. It invokes a dark, dark time in Scottish history when families were thrown from their homes as sheep were more profitable; humans were seen then as a commodity and now, in 21st Century Scotland, we have never progressed with the rest of the world.
Scottish people are still being used as a commodity, discarded once they have been bled for their achievements, bled dry of their assets. In the place of the small family farms, we are beginning to see an anaemic type of farming arise, huge crops of subsidies being harvested yet the spoils hogged by the powerful and wealthy. Slavery is still alive in Scotland, it would appear.

I urge you to act on behalf of the tenants facing eviction. Please imagine how they feel right now, please try to imagine how you would feel if it were happening to you, how worthless you would feel, how rejected and hopeless a situation, and not of your making.

Richard Lochhead MSP, you are the man who is in charge here. I cannot say that you have shown a proactive stance on any aspect of Scottish agriculture or fishing.
Many of us would fully understand if you were to step down given the difficult personal challenges you face. Whilst many have described you as being a warm and lovely man, we need someone as cold and calculating as the very law which has created a situation of exclusion and inhuman abandonment of tenant farmers.
I urge you to stop this eviction and the other evictions which are forthcoming or watch whilst those who pay your handsome wage evict you.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Still haven't found what you are looking for?

“The STFA continues to suggest that there are tenants being treated unfairly by landlords. own survey into landlord-tenant relationships showed the 
“If it is the case that there are examples where tenants are being treated unfairly we want to root out the problem but the STFA needs to produce evidence of this and we urge them in the strongest possible terms to do that.
Quote from the Scottish Land &Estates publication. Read it and try to ignore the mental image of a Billy Idol style sneering twist of the mouth by the author/ authors.
"IF it is the case". *sneer*

I know that we are able to freely read about the wonderful relationship that 'tenants' have with their landowners but firstly, let us be realistic about the type of tenant. Let's concentrate on 1991 Secure tenant farmers in Scotland. I have yet to meet the Secure tenant who is happy in his relationship with his landowner, never mind the alleged 80% who are utterly ecstatic with theirs.

We Secure 1991 tenants are experiencing an extremely vulnerable stage in our lives; proposals have been put forward by the Agricultural Holdings Group after extensive meetings/ talks etc with both farmers and landowners. Some of the proposals are very worrying indeed for the farmer and have created feelings of deep insecurity. Some of us feel demoralised, others are angry.
Who can afford the £10,000 per day for the land court and legal representation? Certainly, none of the 'ecstatic', happy Secure tenants that I know.

The Scottish Farmer warned last week of landowners using evasive action hence the spin from the SL&E. The faux shock in the SL&E publication at the fact that there may still be problems and issues between laird and (Secure) tenant is demeaning, dismissive and evasive. How ironic.

What did the C.E.O. of the S.L&E not see when he came to visit our farmhouse? Did he fail to see the thick green mould on the walls, did he not see that I could not offer him a cup of tea as there was no electricity? Did he see a bottle of clean water to drink rather than risk his health with the erratic and frankly, filthy water we are provided with?
Did he see a house which people in 2015 Scotland are expected to live in? Was he unaware of a  seven year old child who has never in his life drunk water from a tap on the farm?
Did he not understand the stress of human beings being excluded from their own homes due to the evasive actions of their landowners?
Did he conveniently 'forget' the issue of fields being taken from agricultural use - fields which would provide income and food - for pheasants to roam on? Did he forget about the compensation or the legal paperwork whereby the farmer agreed (or disagreed) to release the land YET is still being charged rent on a field which is padlocked.

Did he forget the reason that GentleOtter began to write about? She wanted a roof for the family farmhouse but had to ask. She wanted the 150 year old roof, which her husband's family had maintained for well over 100 years but through fair wear and tear had come to the end of its life, she wanted it made wind and waterproofed. Did he feel she was being unreasonable to ask for such a basic thing which belonged to another man?

It has been a year and a half since that visit. What was achieved, apart from a bit of P.R. spin for SL&E?
Absolutely nothing.

What has arrived is a whopping electricity bill and another water failure notice.

We had a small fire in the agricultural shed in November which affected the electricity supply to the entire farm. My husband had sustained an injury whilst working which rendered him incapable of mobility. I took over his work, the care of our family, the care of the livestock and this was done with no power, no access to hot water unless you lit a fire outside to boil a kettle. No access to clean water for washing in unless it was from a barrel of rainwater - just like they did in days of yore.
Yes, we have all ingested the water and yes, we have all been affected. You get used to it.

When the abnormal becomes the norm, then it is time to worry. When you become used to such primitive conditions, it becomes a form of institutionalisation. The base of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs isn't so much chipped at, it is utterly demolished.

This may be uncomfortable for some but try ploughing a field whilst menstruating. Try lighting a fire, boiling a kettle then finding a secluded area of an open field in an attempt at keeping dignity and personal hygiene. Basic needs which could and ought to be available on the farm we have rented for 125 years. One hundred and twenty five years.
Ignore the utter exhaustion that occurs at that time of the month and push yourself to the limit, in the dark. You do it as you are fully responsible for good husbandry to your livestock and family, yes, in that order.
The fire in your soul fuels you with energy, the injustice of those who have gone before you or those who live like you push the bellows which provide oxygen to the furnace. This injustice has gone on for too long. Scotland in 2015 looks no different to Scotland 1715.

We tried to communicate with the estate regarding the reconnection of the electricity, we employed men to come and dig a new trench (despite an appeal to the estate who were employing digger operators working on neighbouring farms....they could have come and done some work to help us), we bought and laid a new electricity cable which is ready for reconnection and has been ready for some time.
Phone calls to the estate have been dismissed with haughty messages that the person in charge is in a meeting. Yes, that old chestnut again. Email replies have been tardy. My appeal for reconnection was met by a stinging reply that 'They would get back to us in due course".
 Fine if you are sitting in a warm office with electricity and a clean water supply, not fine if you are desperate for the luxury of washing your hands in warm water on the farm.

Evasive is not a strong enough word. Rude, arrogant, ignorant, yes. Uncaring, inhuman, negligent, dismissive. Controlling.
Feudal. There now, I've said it. The 'Eff' word.

So, SL&E dudes. If you still haven't found what you are looking for, your CEO knows the road to our farm. It lies forgotten at The Back of Beyond, out of sight, out of mind but there are human beings trying to live and work here, trying to raise a family and care for animals. In hellish conditions. I have only ever asked for a roof, clean water and our land back. Now I am adding an electricity connection.
 Sell the farm to us if this is too difficult for you. Sell us it anyway, we can do a better job with it than you are doing. We are working people with basic needs and will achieve our needs if given the freedom to do so. We have bought and paid for this farm many times over yet are treated like dirt - our difference being that we cherish the dirt, improve it and make a living from it to provide others with food.

Just because we cannot wash our hands in warm, clean water does not mean you can wash your hands of us.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Tarquin has 432 biscuits.....

Do you remember those old maths problems at school? Pages and pages of them which rendered the pupil almost comatose with boredom and non-comprehension.
"If it takes Tam two days to dig a trench at £6.60 minimum wage, how long does it take before his piece break gets longer and his attitude begins to stink a bit?"

Say Tarquin had 432 biscuits.
Now, if he ate them all, he would be setting himself up nicely for morbid obesity, tooth decay, stroke, diabetes and being thought of as a greedy pig.

Say Tam had no biscuits.
If Tarquin were to share his stash, technically Tam could have 216 biscuits but only if Tarquin agreed to share. The onus being on Tarquin's willingness to find it in his heart and conscience to share his biscuits with Tam.
If Tam was a tenant farmer, Tarquin might compare his biscuits to something unreasonable, say a comparison between Tesco basic-buy biscuits to Organic Fancy-Pants Originals dipped in artisan chocolate which has passed through the intestine of a rare civet cat.
Tarquin would then demand Tam was responsible for 432 fancy biscuits which would come out of Tam's income, Tarquin would hog the lot then ramp Tam's rent up using the threat of the Land Court and a Life Of Hell.
If Tam's wife wanted to diversify and make her own biscuits, Tarquin could and would demand half of her profit then try to terrify her if she tried to complain. Tam's wife would pay tax on her biscuits yet Tarquin........
Tam would have to be jolly well thankful for Tarquin's non sharing of the biscuits but secretly Tam hoped that a large dog would come and scoff the biscuits when Tarquin was gazing over 'his' vast expanses of bleak grouse moorland, mountains and rivers. He hoped the large dog would take a chunk from Tarquin's gluteus maximus as it was growing in size with all those biscuits.

Tarquin could share with 431 others and if they halved their biscuits, 862 people could enjoy their sweet, buttery delights. Apology if my maths are out a bit. I gazed out of the school window a lot.

On the other hand, Tarquin could hog the lot and say his family had always owned lots of biscuits as they had 'relocated' other people's biscuits, historically, to amass a stockpile except their biscuits lay in a fousty, mouldering heap, quite inedible as they had not been kept very well.
Tarquin felt he was entitled to his 432 biscuits therefore did not have to justify his stash to anyone.

Tam and his fellow workmates were sick of the minimum wage, sick and tired of Tarquin's unreasonable and selfish behaviour. Tam's kith and kin saw a future whereby abody had a biscuit, hell, Tam and his workmates could supply the raw ingredients, the wheat, eggs, milk and butter, there was no reason why everyone could not have a biscuit. The biscuit would be plain at first but with work, variety could be introduced.

Other biscuitless people from town and country empathised with Tam and realised they wanted a biscuit too. They wanted to escape the urban sprawl and enjoy their biscuit in the fresh country air. They had fresh, new ideas on the type of biscuit they wanted to taste.

Tarquin freaked out at the thought of his biscuits shared by the many as opposed to being hogged by the few. The Biscuitless people met and discussed how to share the stash, bloodlessly, given that it is now 2015 and Things Have Moved On.

So, good people. The biscuits are out there, no more will be made, they are precious and need tender care but they will reap great benefit if shared out equally.

We just need to teach Tarquin how to open his hand and share.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Rocks and rolls.

Today was one of those days when you try something for the very first time, succeed and fall in love with it. Today was my first time ploughing a field alone.

The Farmer's leg is still firmly out of action so I am trying my best to carry his workload; it seemed a good day to swallow any fears about hitching the plough and turning over the little field which has seen no chemicals or artificial fertilizers for many years.
The Farmer muttered a few instructions, pointed to some levers, dials and switches in the tractor then, rather wisely, hobbled off to a safe distance to observe.

The feeling of turning over tired looking old pasture into rich, brown fat dumplings of earth is indescribable. It is a sensory experience, the musky scent of the soil, the hidden crumbly brown earth lying neatly in a row, birds appearing from nowhere to pull rudely disturbed worms and insects, the human contortion of driving forward whilst looking backwards..... a blissful delight of a task.
I'll admit to having The Extreme Fear a couple of times when the tractor hit a hidden dip or two, the wheels lifted clean off the ground and the steering suited itself, sliding worryingly towards the fence or the plough steadfastly refusing to budge an unseen boulder thus grinding everything to a halt despite the screaming complaints of the tractor's huge engine.
 The ploughwoman rocking and rolling, whooping with sheer delight and terror, whilst the earth herself became exposed to the crisp, winter air with a sleepy reluctance.

The ground will rest a while and be broken up by frost, rain and sun. When the time is right, it will be harrowed to a fine tilth then planted with a meadow mix of grasses and wild flowers which will hopefully encourage insects and birds to the little field. It will be cut for hay and provide the sheep with feed in the winter months.
The sleepy field will soon transform into a riot of colour and a haven for wildlife.

On days like these, this isn't work, although sweat was broken.
This is sheer, unbridled joy.

Friday, 2 January 2015

The Year of Change. Bring it on.

Happy New Year!

I have not written for such a long time, my apologies as there is no excuse but the New Year always begins with fresh hopes and ideas.

The Old Year is one I've been glad to see the back of. It started off well, no complaints about weather, etc but as the year progressed, we were hit by a series of misfortunes which added to the workload considerably.

The Farmer had an accident in the Big Shed, he fell over a piece of machinery and ruptured his Achilles tendon so was rendered immobile with a large knee to ankle plaster cast. I think it happened in October, the months have morphed into a blurry frenzy of farm activity; we moved back to the farm, where I tried to look after all in Chez Otter - Rosie, who has now left school and needs full time care, Young Otter who is 7 and full of energy plus The Farmer... vexed at his inability to do physical farm work during a hectic season or two .......also a herd of cattle, small flock of sheep, farm collies, farm cats, a million hens, the guinea pig and Bob the duck. All are well and thriving.

We managed to get into some sort of routine, a bourachy guddle of a routine but with an eventual  semblance of order, things were ticking over until a fire in the mains electricity box saw zero power to the entire farm. This was compounded with an intermittent water supply and things just got A Bit Much so we had to leave again and return to the temporary house.
The power is still off and it is going to be a big task to have it replaced and reconnected. I've taken to lighting little fires outside to boil a kettle and warm frozen fingers which hurt like mad from being bashed on all the things you can bash your hands on in a dark cow shed.

On the positive front, we were very fortunate to have good new neighbours move into the farm next door and we look forward to working with them over the forthcoming years. Young Otter is delighted as they have children his age so he has a new pair of best friends and we have a huge amount of respect for this very hard working, honest family. The New Farmer has a wealth of knowledge and experience with sheep and it has been an education to pick up snippets of advice or general chat about breed types, etc and we wish them every good luck on their new venture.

We have also been helped by a cheerful bunch of Fifers - hard workers, grafters to be honest, who carried out some of the very heavy work with great humour, excellent swears, music,  flasks of steaming hot coffee and cigarette breaks. They shifted grain, plumbed in a new trough, built the rickety, antique bull pen, plus many of the wee footery jobs which needed doing - all with enormous energy and good nature. It brought a lungful of fresh air and joy to the almost depressed, Cold Comfort Farmesque scenario we lived/live in.

This year is the year of Land Reform.
There are so many of us eager to see positive change in Scotland, change which will bring a fairer distribution of land, opportunities for many, hopefully. There is an energy brewing and swirling from a cauldron of frustration but the time is ripe for radical change. The old 'system' dying a death as it has become untenable and unfair.
I would love to see an improvement in rural housing, rural water supplies, investment in ramshackle farms, opportunities to diversify and expand without having to pay the 'laird's share', better rights for Crofters and much of the stagnant, redundant grouse moors utilised for the benefit of the majority rather than the plaything for the few, the countryside opened to the people from towns and cities. I also want to see our unique culture respected and acknowledged.

We shall see. It is an exciting year and here on The Farm At The Back Of Beyond, we have managed to cope with pretty grim conditions so things can only move up locally and further afield.

I wish you all good health, happiness, fairness and positive change.