LittleField Notes: A Trip to the Auld Country
by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
Wending its way down the highland valley, the little two car train stops briefly at one stone station after another, each wearing tidy blue and white trim and weathered slate roof: Thurso, Wick, Tain, Invergordon, Dunrobin Castle. Folk climbing aboard at the little country villages are bound mostly for Inverness, the big town at the end of the line for a day of shopping or visiting family. Others like me, are going home to someplace else: Edinburgh, Glasgow or in my case Seattle, via London and Vancouver.
I’ve come to the north of Scotland this October almost by accident. And I find myself standing on the windy, rocky point of land that is northernmost on the isle of Great Britain. The sea lies before me: the flooding tide from the Atlantic pours in on my left where it collides with the North Sea pouring in from the right, the opposing currents whipping up a frenzy of white capped, tidal confusion: for sailors past and present, treacherous waters indeed. Straight ahead, across the seething waters of Pentland Firth lie the Orkney Islands, my ultimate destination.
But for misfortune I would not be here at all. The trip was planned months in advance: my wife’s parents Jim and Judy were going back to the west coast of Ireland for a second consecutive year, back for another month of relaxing in a rented coastal cottage in Galway, the land of their ancestors. Only this time there was to be a prelude to Ireland: a week of sightseeing, first London — Westminster Abby, Evensong at St. Paul’s Cathedral, Tower of London; then to Scotland by train to Inverness, from there to John O’Groats and finally the Orkney Islands. But in June my beloved father-in-law Jim passed away after a short illness, leaving a vacancy for the trip. After months of finding reasons not go, I finally gave way at the last minute and bought a plane ticket and agreed to go in Jim’s place for the first portion of the trip; I would skip the extended Irish stay and go for the first week only. After all, the hotels, transportation and other arrangements were all taken care of, and Judy assured me that Jim would have wanted me to go.
When the ferry pulled slowly around the southwest headland of Orkney Island, the medieval village of Stromness came into view. I thought such a place existed only in fairy tales and in the half remembered voyages of St. Brendan, shrouded in the mists of northern maritime lore. Little stone houses and shops fronted by an ancient stone seawall, rose gracefully up the slope of the hills surrounding the inner harbor. As you would expect, a beautiful church steeple rose prominently above the town. Fishing boats came and went, while others remained tied to the pier: a timeless scene of quaint perfection. My gaze strayed then to the surrounding countryside: rolling hills crosshatched with stonewalls and dotted with the white dots of sheep and the black dots of cattle. The small fields were of either a brilliant green or the unmistakable brown of recently harvested grain. Evenly spaced among the fields, stone cottages and barns could be seen clustered at the end of tidy farm lanes: a picture of pastoral wonder.
Even though we were about to have a personal tour of the island, I tried to drink it all in at a glance. Much was readily apparent. Here was a place without shopping malls, fast food joints and so-called convenience stores; a place the greedy hands of Monsanto and Cargill had not yet fouled, a place it seemed, where a diversity of stock and crops were thoughtfully grazed over a carefully considered rotation of grass, clover and small grains. It was also apparent that to each farm belonged a family, making it a human scaled agriculture.
The four hours or so that we spent touring the island would confirm my initial impressions. Never have I seen such well-tended land and livestock. The fleece of the sheep and hides of the cattle showed unmistakably good health, each herd, it seemed of blue ribbon quality. The weed free pastures displayed an even growth that showed the ratio of livestock to land to be in perfect balance. And the benefits of running sheep and cattle together in the same field, or in rotation were obvious. I have only seen such evenness of growth and healthful vigor in pasturelands managed using intensive rotational grazing techniques, where cattle are moved twice daily to a small strip of fresh grass utilizing portable electric fencing. But on Orkney there was not an electric fence in sight. It struck me that after countless generations, going back to the Vikings and beyond, these farmers had found that elusive perfect ratio of livestock to land.