LittleField Notes A Trip to the Auld Country
LittleField Notes A Trip to the Auld Country

Old hotel at John O’Groats featuring lovely dry stack stone wall.

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.

LittleField Notes A Trip to the Auld Country

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.

Turns out, the grain stubble I had spotted was that of barley, fed to the island’s dairy cows which, in addition to supplying milk for the local people, is also used in the production of cheese and ice cream, the latter being popular with the many tourists who frequent the island in the summertime.

Barley has a long history of use in marginal lands and extreme climates. It is grown in the mountains of Nepal, the slopes of the Andes, and in Star Valley Wyoming, where I am originally from, a 6,000 ft mountain valley where the typical American corn ration was replaced with barley for feeding dairy cattle. Sadly the dairy farms in the region are all but gone, replaced by five acre “ranchettes” for retirees and others who want to own a piece of the mythic West and have a taste of that glorious mountain scenery. Indeed the production of milk in this country has been largely relegated to industrial “farms” with 10,000 or more cows and robots to do the milking. This gets to the heart of why places like Orkney are so special: the dominance of industrial food production in much of the world is so utterly complete, that to have opportunity to see first hand an intact culture of vibrant small farming is truly exciting. The only experience I have to compare it with is that of taking a drive through Holmes County, Ohio where to a knowing eye there is an obvious correct balance of land, livestock, crops and people.

LittleField Notes A Trip to the Auld Country

Sheep at dusk, John O’Groats, Scotland.

One element common to the farms of Orkney and those of Holmes County is the presence of small fields surrounded by fences. You will notice in sterile, mono-cultural farmscapes a distinct lack of fences. This of course hearkens back to the days of Earl Butz and his admonition to plow from “fencerow to fencerow.” The presence of a fence says a lot about a farm. If a farm lacks fences, it lacks livestock; if it lacks livestock it lacks manure; if it lacks manure it lacks organic matter and good tilth and must rely on purchased inputs. A farm without fences will likely lack children to help with chores morning and evening; if it lacks children it probably lacks a farmstead with sheds, barns and house; without a farmstead there is little chance for a kitchen garden, flowers and fruit trees or small flock of laying hens. Indeed the day is not far off when a field of soybeans will be planted with a self-driving tractor and monitored by drones. A hired man won’t even be necessary, just a corporate lackey in a far off cubical monitoring moisture levels and pest numbers and running algorithms to determine which toxic brew to next administer.

Though it is lovely to see even regular old barbed wire fences around fields, nothing can compare to the elegant permanence of a stonewall. To build a stone fence (is it a wall or a fence?) is to put all your stock in the future, to leave some- thing of undeniably real and lasting value to your great-great-grandchildren. Orkney, and indeed much of the highland country of Scotland is ribboned with stonewalls, some crumbling and neglected, others perfectly maintained. Impressively, I even spotted several stone corrals, complete with two or three pens and an alley for working cattle and sheep.

It must be said, for fairness’ sake, that the majority of farming I saw in Scotland appeared to be small in scale and entirely appropriate to its place, but even the mainland Scots I spoke with would nod their heads in deference and say “Aye, they take a lot o’care fer ther stock oot on Orkney, the cews fairly glo’.”

I went to Scotland not only to search for agricultural roots, but family roots as well. My maternal grandfather was a McIntyre, and my maternal great grandmother was a Drysdale born on the Isle of Sky. I didn’t have time to go seeking out long lost cousins many times removed in mossy old cottages, but for my genetically Scottish self to be in that landscape after the swift passage of only two and three generations sent a wave of emotion through me that took me off guard. Sure I like my eggs sunny side up with bacon, sausages and roasted tomatoes for breakfast; and sure my heart quickens at the sound of the highland pipes; and yes I felt an unbidden urge to record a Robert Burns song on my record, Follow the Plow; and I sure enough like to whip up a reel or slow air on my own wee fiddle; and yes, I like to wear wool caps and sweaters; and I do feel perfectly at home in the misty damp chill of the Pacific Northwest; and I may even have been known to savor a pint of ale or a finger of peaty Scotch from time to time, but these Celtic tastes alone are not enough to make me Scottish, are they? Not per se, but it does give me pause. How is it that my natural inclinations so closely mirror my cultural heritage when I didn’t grow up in a house that was particularly aware of its old world identity? After all, I was not raised eating haggis and playing in the local pipe band.

I have come to believe that there must be a memory of place and culture in our genes. If my white skin, blue eyes and brown hair have come to me directly from the British Isles of my ancestors, is it so unreasonable to think that my tastes and tendencies would not also? And what does that notion have to say about farming in one place for generations? What does it say about the seeds and stock that are bred and nurtured in that place? And what are the long-term ramifications for the disjointed, fickle and rootless way that so many of us now live?

LittleField Notes A Trip to the Auld Country

The Ring of Brodger – neolithic stone circle, Orkney Island.

On the fourth day of our trip we boarded a Virgin Atlantic train at King’s Cross London and headed north through the beautiful English countryside, through the venerable old city of Edinburgh and thence to the Scottish highlands where we finally disembarked at Inverness, a sizable town situated at the north end of the famous Loch Ness. When we stepped out of the railway station and beheld the town, an almost eerie quiet seemed settled over the place. A castle, silhouetted in a veil of mist atop a hill looked down ominously upon us. It was dark, and what few streetlights there were, glowed with a softness not seen in the States. I would find out otherwise next morning in the daylight, but at this late hour it seemed as if nothing new had been built here since Mary, Queen of Scots sat on the throne. Here the River Ness flows north from Loch Ness into the sea. The dim lights of the town played off the ripples of the steady current as it flowed through the heart of the ancient highland city.

That evening, though it was late, we decided to head over to a local pub for a chance to hear some live music. I guess it’s a sign of the times that the band, even though it sported a fairly good piper, began the evening with two songs “from America.” It is impossible to truly leave America anymore; it will follow you everywhere in the form of advertising, television, movies, t-shirts, fast food and music.

After listening to a few songs and quaffing a pint, we fell in by chance with a man and his wife just over from Glasgow visiting family. To be sure, he was already well sauced by the time he unceremoniously plopped down next to us and without hesitation began inquiring about the American presidential election. I didn’t try to hide my embarrassment at the mean state of American politics, and we worked that topic over for a while before hashing over the recent, and surprising Brexit vote. Then we came to the subject of family roots. He surprised me by being utterly unimpressed with my desire to visit the place of my ancestors. “I am Sco’ish and hae been fer centuries. Yew are an American, and let’s just leave i’ a’ tha’!” What he said about the English is not fit to print (I wisely decided to “mums the word” that my other ancestors were English).

I didn’t mention it in the din of the late night pub, but I thought to myself, “My passport declares me to be an American, true enough, but my family have only been in America for a hundred and fifty years, yet we were in the British Isles for centuries,” just like my Glasgow friend. I don’t hold it against him; he doesn’t know what it’s like to live in such a young country, what it’s like to wonder, really wonder where you come from.

This business of immigrating to a home thousands of miles away is relatively new for the human species. In the grand parade of history humans have generally stuck to the same region for generation upon generation, with immigration happening only very slowly over time and space. It follows that we should feel comforted in seeking to understand our roots, roots passed on in story and song, tradition and custom, elder to younger. When that line of transmission is broken, some of those that follow will still feel an ancient call, will recognize a void and try to fill it. We seek to understand something of our present by unearthing layers of our past.

LittleField Notes A Trip to the Auld Country

The author, dwarfed by neolithic standing stone, Orkney Island. Photo by Joe Finnerty.

Alas, we cannot simply pack up and return to the old glen and start herding sheep again. What we can do, indeed, what we must do, is to set down our own roots, raise our children close to land, save the seeds from crops that thrive in our own little glens, sing our songs, tell our stories and teach them to our children and grandchildren. So it has ever been. Farmers have always been the stewards of place, both physical and cultural. Only a stable and settled people can ever know its true place in the world. In this frenzied, fickle and mobile country we need more than ever to realize a re-settling of America. And it can only be realized by more people doing good work on small plots of land, planting cultural taproots to anchor future generations.

The little blue train toots its diminutive horn ahead of a level grade crossing that maybe only sees a handful of cars per week. I look up just in time to see, standing amidst a small mixed flock of sheep and cattle, a stocky, well built Clydesdale watching as our train clickety-clacks passed. It is the first workhorse I have seen on my journey, though I have keenly looked. For just this moment, in this place so far from home, yet at once so strangely close, all is perfect with the world.