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Cattle, Sheep, Whisky

Cattle, Sheep, Whisky

In late 2013, I was fortunate to be invited up to the Northern Highlands to spend some time with my friend Ewen Simpson and his wife Maureen at their farm in Ross–Shire, Northern Highlands Scotland. Dotted with the remnants of ancient settlements and Highland bothies, Ewen’s farm spans 350 acres between the Dornoch Firth and Struie Hill.

The farm sits in the midst of  some of the most hauntingly beautiful landscapes in all of Scotland. It is a privilege to call such a place home and I’m grateful Ewen and Maureen invited me up.

I took a train from Edinburgh north through Cairngorm National Park to Inverness. Within an hour, the bedroom communities along the route through Fife gave way to farms and rolling hills. Soon these gave way to forests and canyons framed beautifully through the carriage windows. I brought a book with me but managed only a dozen pages before I gave in to the scenery.

scotland_map

Map of Scotland and the Dornoch Firth

I arrived in Inverness at dusk, checked in to my lodgings and took a solitary walk along the river Ness in the pre-Christmas chill. Eventually I stopped into a pub just across from the marvelous Castle Inverness which rival’s Edinburgh’s in its’ stately, commanding authority. There I had a pint and a plate of sausage, neeps and tatties. I watched with the regulars as Celtic were demolished by Barcelona 6-1.

No one seemed surprised–hey, its Scotland.

It was very, very quiet in the pub after the drubbing, so I left and went to bed so I could get an early start.

 

The next morning, I rented a car and drove the hour north from Inverness into the northern wildness that is Scotland at its’ romantic best. My destination was the seaside town of Dornoch just east of Bonar Bridge and north of Tain. The Simpson farm lies between Tain and Bonar Bridge in the village of Edderton. I was privileged to see most of the farm and to spend a couple of great nights with Ewen and his wife  Maureen in the pub. I was even invited to the annual Edderton Christmas tree–lighting ceremony where Ewen was in charge of lighting the tree.

The Highlands were once a much more densely populated part of Scotland than they are now. Eastern Ross-Shire along the Dornoch Firth was no exception. The farm has many obvious remnants of settlements. Some probably as old as the Pictish and Viking eras. More recently, the Highlands were cleared of small croft farmers in favor of sheep. Many of these farm families were forcibly and brutally moved. The remnants of the “bothy” in the photo below dates to the 19th century and the inhabitants were probably burned out of their house in the late 19th or early 20th century.

Although Ewen farms his 350 acres in tandem with his father’s and brother’s farms, many of his days are spent working alone. His wife Maureen works at the local primary school and helps out during holidays. His two grown children have elected not to not work in agriculture and have moved south to Inverness. While Ewen exudes a Scottish sense of humor and is unfailingly friendly–hey, its Scotland–there is a touch of melancholy in his voice when he talks about the long hours spent working alone.

As a younger man, Ewen drove lorries for a living and still drives the Sunday milk run to Thurso (The northern most town in mainland U.K.) every week. Along with two years spent at agricultural college, driving a lorrie was Ewen’s escape into the wider world. A glimpse of life beyond the farm.

Among the many ancient remnant’s on the farm, there are some more recent reminders of rural Scottish farm life. Sitting alone and somewhat regally near a pond and a stand of lichen covered birches, a rusted Albion finger-bar mower waits for its long departed driver. Ewen showed me this mysterious piece of machinery explaining that this one had been converted from horse-drawn to tractor operation for cutting hay, but was eventually used at end-of-life for cutting down rashes (rushes). According to Ewen, “It was one of the last jobs my Grandfather did before having his leg removed–cancer I think, he died when I was 3, but I have vivid good memories of him. He had finished the outrun (rough grazing, where fields merge to scrub/trees) and had left it there in the late ’50s.”

It was never driven again.

It now sits as a very personal monument to the elder Simpson who had come from Orkney in the north to settle the original farm after the First World War. Ewen often sits against the nearby birch tree looking at the mower with the Struie hill in the background and thinks of him.

In his early twenties, Ewen spent three years working at the local Balblair whisky distillery. At the pub, Ewen regaled me with stories of the hi-jinks he shared with his co-workers at the distillery. Balblair lived up to its’ impish reputation as the location for the Ken Loach 2012 comedy The Angel’s Share.

Ross–Shire is home to two of the most famous distilleries, Glenmorangie and Balblair. I took an afternoon tour of the Balblair distillery hoste by Simpson neighbor and friend Julie Ross. It was a blustery “driech” day–hey, its Scotland–and the distillery’s humid warmth perfumed by the smell of malting barley were a welcome haven from the weather.

I spent three nights in the beautiful firth–side town of Dornoch just across the firth from Edderton. Its a lovely “English” styled village with a cathedral, famous golf course – hey, its Scotland–and beautiful dunes along the water. The pub at the Eagle had reasonably priced rooms, great food and plenty of good drink. The breakfasts alone were worth the tariff.

If you find yourself driving up the A9 take a short detour through Tain, Edderton and Bonar Bridge on to Dornoch. Its well worth the diversion. I don’t know that I’ve ever been to a more peaceful, lovely place in my life.

Give Ewen and the ladies a wave as you pass-by.