"After spells at farming and safari guiding in East Africa, the Highlands were an incredible hospitable and beautiful place to continue this outside life."
The journal of the loon...
I was very fortunate to have been blown up like driftwood onto the banks of the Allt a Choilich, the burn “of the Blackcock” that flows through South Clunes, with its surrounding meadows and birch woodland. Renown over the years at Inverness market as good stock producing country, it was an ideal place for a young 28-year-old agricultural student to begin his fixed farming career.
After spells at farming and safari guiding in East Africa, the Highlands were an incredible hospitable and beautiful place to continue this outside life. I spent the early 80’s working for myself and others on different farms, eventually buying my own sheep, and small salmon cobble boats. The Menzies from Aberdeenshire, the Campbells from Dingwall and Cromarty, and the Martins from the Black Isle and gave generously of their time and experience to help an enthusiastic starter.
1st November 1984, was when I took possession of the keys and moved onto the farm, consisting of a house with two downstairs rooms and two bedrooms, a courtyard of tin roofed outbuildings, woodsheds, and a garage. The farmland was made up of 200 acres of ploughable upland pastures, and 200 acres of birch woodland with open grass clearings, including part of the amazing Moniack gorge. I took with me my Pick-up truck, a collie, a spaniel and a flock of cheviot sheep.
That first winter was as cold and snowy as in 1982, when there had been small icebergs flowing up and down the Beauly Firth on the winter tides. It reached -22C and all felt a very long way away from farming on the African equator. The only similarity during the day was the clear blue sky and bright but low midday sun. In these heavy frosty conditions, most surprising, was how comfortable the sheep looked chewing their cud under the birch trees in the deep snow. They just shook their backs and the snow fell off their dry wool, much better than driving rain and wind more often seen in today’s milder winter storms.
A big four-wheel drive Zetor tractor came with the farm, with a palatial cab, suitable for my girlfriend, Susie, the two dogs, and myself... We were able to reach the sheep in the deep snow, and bring them their hay and extra feeding as required. I dreamt of a shed to get the animals inside out of the inclement weather. That first Spring lambing was outside ,in the two paddocks by the house, but over the next 3 years we built a telegraph pole shed to house four hundred lambing ewes, which made life much easier.
I continued with the salmon netting during the summer at Fort George, but gave this up in 1988, when sweep netting in the Beauly firth was bought out and stopped. Susie and I were married and by chance we rented extra lovely flat fields at the bottom of the hill, Knockbain and Balchraggan. So with another Zetor added to the tractor pool, along with a mower, PZ turner and International 440 baler we embarked on producing wee bales for the west coast and local horse market.
The first Highland cows were bought at this time, and the first calf, Catriona of Clunes, registered. Her descendants are still on the farm today, although we also breed Luing cows and have expanded that herd to 50 cows. The sheep numbers have increased, the hay area grown bigger, extra sheds are in place, with the next generation helping to organise all the different students who pass through.
Fred and Sofia are now living on the farm in a cottage near us, having been safari guides in Kenya, they are helping with the cows, sheep and hay operations. They have also started to encourage visitors on to the farm, to experience all the rich flora and fauna, for example to see 14 different types of orchids, and if very lucky the guests may see the occasional beaver. Forty years on, we are now farming our rich mosaic of woods and pastures for food production and the benefit of the wildlife.