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Extract from Home Farm Magazine

No 105 April/May 1993             Copyright ©  Pam Shaw

Highlands hill farm

by Pam Shaw

 

The story so far. . . Last year I described how sixteen years ago we took over the tenancy of a hill farm in the Highlands. This was already stocked with 620 almost feral Scottish Blackface sheep which we gradually crossed and pacified into white, clean-headed Cheviots and woolly Oldenburgs. Our attempts at milking unsuitable suckler cows ended when we met Bramble, a week old pedigree Ayrshire calf at a local dispersal sale.

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Bramble arrived at the Rhanich on the same day as mains electricity so she shared her journey home with a new colour TV bought to celebrate the end of seven years of living with the 'genny'. Bramble was also the first to benefit from an infra-red lamp set up in the stable as I struggled to keep her alive. Generators were not really suited to day-long running on one light so previously all sick and weak lambs had to come into the kitchen by the Rayburn. Once a calf, too, briefly.

 

One unbelievably bad day towards the end of a lambing in late April when the birth fluid was freezing on the lambs as they were born, and a neigh­bour lost nearly one hundred lambs in four days of blizzards, our kitchen sheltered fifteen lambs and eight hu­mans, not to mention the usual cats and dogs. So hooray for infra-red lamps and mains electricity. Even the sparrows sunbathe under the lamps and Bramble grew to be a bonny red and white heifer.

 

The 'genny', like a giant heartbeat on Winter evenings, was in place when we first moved in; a reliable 3kw Lister diesel engine. A Lister also powers our grain bruiser and the water pump from our well. A generator dominates your life in a way 'normal' electricity never could. No lights during the day, vacuuming and washing machine planned together and preferably in the evenings, a gas powered fridge, no freezer and a black and white TV worked from a car battery. We used oil lamps for much of the evening while we were all in the kitchen to­gether and an oil lamp kept the well from freezing in Winter. The memory of their warm, soft light brings back nostalgic thoughts of cosy Winter eve­nings, while forgetting the incredible amount of condensation created by them, or the times when you got into bed, switched off the light and the generator was still running. This meant that a light had been left on somewhere, usually in the farthest part of the house and had to be switched off. Recriminations all around!

 

During the first few Winter months that we were here we realised that the electricity cables connecting the generator to the house were in desperate need of repair. As the storms from the North swept in we would watch sparks travelling along the ca­bles from breaks joined with insulat­ing tape. The main cable was strung from shed roof to house across the track used by all farm traffic, and the first lorry that came to collect the lambs in the Autumn demolished it. We dug the cables underground. Apart from running out of fuel occasionally with only a four-minute warning of fading lights and stuttering, the 'genny' ran reliably for seven years and still does sometimes to give us the luxury of being the only house in the village with light during a power cut.

Our water comes from a well and is pumped to the house by electricity. It is pure and sweet-tasting and sup­ports a wide variety of plant and ani­mal life, including the occasional frog. As with electricity a lot of work needed to be done to make the water supply reliable. During cold spells in Winter the water would freeze because the pipes were not deep enough below the ground. The Winters seemed much colder then with the boys buildings igloos and skiing on the slopes and us being regularly snowed in - once for ten days. The reality of carrying water in buckets is not as romantic as it sounds if you have children and ani­mals to feed and water and you have to break the ice first. The novelty soon wears off. So nowadays we have a light bulb burning in our pump house through the coldest nights, the pipes are not well dug in and we have an automatic float switch to keep the water supply constant. Shortage of water is not really a problem in the Highlands.

In 1985 by the time Bramble was a year old and thriving, we had 400 odd sheep (everything here is odd), a small herd of suckler cows, a few goats, the usual farmyard hens and a small flock of Shetlands that had been started five years before. I had never heard of these small coloured sheep until a friend told me he was bringing in 200 that Autumn from Foula and I could buy some. I started with four, and still remember the sight of 200 multi-col­oured lambs pouring down the road into the yard led by a beautiful black and white one. I still have her - the last of the originals, although she is not so beautiful now. At first the small group of Shetlands would not stay oil our land. Once they decided our heather hills were as good as our neighbours they became hefted and now all the generations bred from them will not stray. Not so the tups however. Luckily we have good neighbours who don't seem to mind the occasional injection of Shetland blood into their flocks. Shetlands make you more friends than enemies. They are always the most popular breed with friends, visitors or customers.

 

As the farm got bigger so did our need for help. The old Fordson tractor without a pickup hitch was traded in for a more modem Massey Ferguson 165 and we acquired various imple­ments from farm sales. In the early days friends helped a lot at busy times. As the boys got bigger they helped too, as my youngest son's first diary shows. In an 8 year old's hand he has written, 'fed the sheep' every day for over a month as his after school chore, and this was individual buckets in up to thirty lambing pens.

 

This is now proudly shown as proof of exploitation. Our one and only ag­ricultural student left in a state of shock after three days for a 'proper' farm where the animals didn't all have names and machines did all the work.

So ten years ago we joined WWOOF (Working Weekends on Organic Farms). Since then we have probably had around 100 visitors, mainly from abroad. It is easier to laugh about the disasters afterwards. One of our first visitors nearly set light to the kitchen ceiling because she didn't know how to work oil lamps. There was a French boy who left the tractor door open while driving through a gate and took the door off. Or the English boy who wrote off our old van and ate raw garlic all the time (which was worse?). It certainly makes life interesting. Hopefully the Rhanich is no longer the 'place of weeping' as its Gaelic name implies.

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