The Last King of Scotland
First published in the Guardian Weekend Magazine on 27th Feb 2016
He’s the lighthouse keeper, the sheep farmer, the firefighter, the air-traffic controller… We try to keep up with Billy Muir, the pensioner who almost single-handedly keeps the tiny island economy of North Ronaldsay afloat.
Three of us are sitting at the kitchen table at Billy and Isobel Muir’s farmhouse on North Ronaldsay: Robert the photographer, me, and Billy Muir. His wife Isabel is making lunch.
Or she’s trying to make lunch, but Billy keeps getting up and down to look for things, going into the sitting room, casting around, shifting the framed pictures of grandchildren from the mantelpiece, moving the Herd Register for Female Bovine Animals three inches to the left. He’s grumbling under his breath and Robert is clicking away in the corner. I keep asking questions. None of this is making Isobel’s life any easier.
After a couple of minutes, Billy comes in with a file which he puts down on the table. It’s a collection of letters congratulating him on receiving the MBE in 2009. The original citation for the award is for for ‘services to North Ronaldsay’, but as I flick through them, it becomes clear that none of the correspondents seem able to decide exactly which services they should be congratulating him for. Some letters thank him his 45 years as a keeper to the Northern Lighthouse Board. Others praise him for his efforts in preserving the island’s rare breed of seaweed-eating sheep. A couple talk about his work as a retained firefighter and his conservancy of the island’s historic buildings. The last letter, a handwritten note from a friend, says he should have got a medal for the way he dances an Eightsome Reel.
In fact, it would be quicker to describe what he doesn’t do than what he does. He doesn’t nurse, and he won’t preach.
If Buckingham Palace had really tried to itemise what services Billy provides, the citation would have run to several pages. In fact, it would be quicker to describe what he doesn’t do than what he does. He doesn’t nurse, and he won’t preach. But on the island of North Ronaldsay, he does almost everything else. He’s both fireman and air-traffic controller at the airfield, he restores the island’s historic buildings, he does the contracting for the wind turbines, sits on the local council, the island trust and the Crofting Commission, collects the rubbish, refuels and fixes everyone’s cars and farm machinery, builds houses, does electrics, plumbing and stonemasonry, manages the lighthouse holiday cottages and takes tours of the light. ‘Oh, I’m not doing as much as I used to,’ he says. ‘I’ve scaled back a lot.’
Up in the small communities of the far north of Scotland, most people double-up with jobs because it’s the only way to make the local economy work. So the vet might also be a fisherman, the staff who man the ferry terminals might just as easily be running the shop, the joiners could well be lawyers or architects. But even by Orkney’s profligate standards, Billy takes things to extremes. He is a one-man employment boom, a single-handed nation-state. Or, just as likely, he’s a 67-year-old Atlas holding up a failing island with a big yellow digger and sheer strength of belief.
After lunch, Billy puts his plate aside and turns to Isabel. ‘I’m getting decrepit,’ he says. ‘I hardly could get up the lighthouse today.’ This is a barefaced lie. Robert, who’s in his twenties, said Billy had scampered up the 176 tower steps at twice the speed he did. So does Isobel want him to start taking it easy? ‘Of course I want him to cut back,’ she says. ‘I want him to retire.’ Billy mimes shock. ‘Hell, no!,’ he says. ‘Retire? No, no, no! I’m not old enough. No, no. I’m far too young for that.’ If you did retire, I ask, who would do the work? ‘I don’t know. The younger generation.’
And that, really, is the heart of the matter. Because there is no-one from the younger generation. North Ronaldsay is the last of the Orkneys, the northernmost island before Shetland and Fair Isle. Around fifty people live here full-time, plus maybe another twenty or so second-homers. Nearly all the full-timers are well into retirement age, which means that Billy and a handful of others do all the jobs on the island because there’s nobody else to do them. And because he loves this place with the whole of himself.
‘What more do I do with the JCB? Someone said I used it as a bicycle.’
Billy disappears into the sitting room again and returns with a box full of bright yellow stationery all bearing the JCB logo. ‘Rubbers … pens. Rulers.’ He rakes over them. ‘You get freebies from the county show to make you buy more.’ What, so they give you a pencil and you buy a JCB? Isobel, standing by the sink, turns. ‘He did. He bought a digger. He went off on his own to the county show and bought a digger without ever telling me. The phone rings and there’s my friend saying she’d just passed the JCB stand and she’d seen a huge digger with a label with ”Sold – WT Muir’ on the bucket. That was the first I hear of it.’
Billy puts the box down, smiling, not even slightly sheepish. The purchase of the digger comes under his one guiding principle in life: ‘If you don’t ask, then the answer’s yes.’ Besides, as far as he’s concerned, that digger has more than earned its keep. ‘I do everything with the JCB. I pound the sheep, I put up fenceposts, I round the cattle up with the JCB, I feed the cattle with the JCB, I take in the bales to the field with the JCB – or my daughter does.‘ He looks at Isabel. ‘What more do I do with the JCB? Someone said I used it as a bicycle.’
‘That’s about it,’ says Isobel. ‘A rather expensive bicycle.’ So you use it for meetings? ‘Yes. Because I might be working in the field before. And if you’ve paid £45,000 for it, you’re going to want to use it, not sit and look at the thing.’ Have you thought of moving in to it? ‘Well, yes, I have thought of that too.’
* * *
To the non-Orcadian, North Ronaldsay is definitely an acquired taste. From the air, it’s a long skinny slip of land curved round to the right and divided by dry-stone walls into squares and rectangles. But down at ground level, it’s like arriving in a bizarre kind of geological operating theatre where all the things that go to make up what most people usually think of as a landscape have been removed. Imagine a patch of land and then take all the flesh off it. Take the hills away, and then the rivers. Take the hedges and the trees, the ploughed or growing fields. What you’re left with is the skeleton of an island, the barest bones of earth. Water, air, stone. Nothing else.
And because there’s no trees it feels as if there aren’t any seasons either, nothing to mark the passage of the year except maybe a row of snowdrops or daffodils or the grass turning either bright or dull. Nobody grows any arable crops here any more, so there’s no ploughing and no harvest. The fields are square and all the places where green stuff might normally be are full of grey-brown granite instead, so you can look along a line of grass and see walls that have stood and fallen and been rebuilt and fallen again so often it seems like it must have been the sea that put them there in the first place. The long stone enclosures for gathering and sorting the sheep (the pounds) look like something Andy Goldsworthy made with a hangover. Even the Norse-ish namings of place sound like a mouthful of pebbles: Grim Ness, South Gravity, Ire’s Taing, Viggay, Long Labour.
Still, it’s amazing how much interest you can generate with just three elements. The winds up here can hurl a grown man flat and send whole henhouses with all their occupants whirling out towards America. Beyond the north-eastern corner there’s a long flat slab of rock sticking right out into the middle of a shipping lane which must have wrecked as many ships as Cornwall has. The payback for all this ruthless beauty is a place which feels as if it belongs to another dimension. When the wind and the sea are up, there’s so much water in the air that it’s difficult to tell which is which, and when you come back from North Ronaldsay, it feels like you’ve been beaten back to a cleaner, clearer version of yourself.
The little six-seater Loganair plane functions as the bus, the train, the post-van and the delivery van.
That clarity affects other things as well. Everything here is both much simpler, and much more complicated. There’s no pub, no garage, and no GP. Everyone orders their weekly groceries from the supermarkets on Kirkwall on the Orkney mainland and gets them delivered on the plane. The nurses comes over for a few hours a week. The little six-seater Loganair plane functions as the bus, the train, the post-van and the delivery van. Without that subsidised service, and without Billy and a handful of others holding it together, the island fails.
The plane ride alone is an exercise in bureaucratic zen. At Kirkwall airport, you walk up to the Loganair office, you ask if there’s space on the next flight, and a lady wearing office clothes and a hi-vis jacket tell you yes or no. You and the other four passengers stand around chatting for a bit, and ten minutes later you all walk out to the six-seater plane. The pilot turns in his seat and says, ‘Hello. Everyone ready?‘ He consults with air traffic control, he taxis down the runway, and after half an hour’s sightseeing over a sunlit sea, you arrive. Outside a portakabin-sized hut, three men in late middle age in brown firefighters’ uniforms are leaning against the wall, watching. Sometimes it’s raining, sometimes it isn’t. You get out. That’s it. £21 return. No airport security, no iris-recognition, no stress-position pat-downs, no x-rays, no safety drill. No waiting, because if one flight gets cancelled due to bad weather they’ll just lay on an extra one later. Not even any need to switch off your mobile – ‘Not much point,’ says the pilot David Miller, gesturing towards the little plane’s vintage instrument panel. ‘No sophisticated electronics.’ The runway is just an ordinary unflattened field with a gravel strip.
But for all the simplicity of being here, it’s modern life that’s killing North Ronaldsay. Earlier that morning, Billy, Robert and I had sat in the lighthouse cottages picking over a large tin of shortbread and the Statistical Accounts, the 18th century equivalent of Google Analytics which give detailed records of every village and parish in Scotland. In 1787, they say there were 64 houses on North Ronaldsay with an average of six people per household. By the end of the 19th century, there were more than 500 inhabitants. Now there’s barely a tenth of that. So what happened?
Some clue lies in Billy’s own life. He was born here in 1948, when, ‘there was no electricity, there was no water in your house, no toilets – it was all very basic really. If you wanted water, you’d to go to the well and carry it home. And eventually we had a water pump that pumped the water from a petrol-driven engine. So that was quite a step forward, you could have piped water in your house. And then we had Lister Startomatics (generators) that gave us light and maybe a bit of heat as well. That came in maybe in the sixties, and we had television that came along with that. You could have your TV and maybe more significantly, you could have a deep freeze to store your food. That was a major breakthrough because everything before th
at had to be salted or had to be fresh and that wasn’t so easy, living on an island, if everything had to be fresh.’
So, even in a place full of people, self-sufficiency was a pre-requisite. ‘You couldn’t go to Kirkwall for everything every day. You had the ferry once a fortnight in those days when I was a boy, and you had a mailboat three times a week if you were lucky. And the ferry might be storm-stayed up to a month too. A month without a ferry. We can still get that today.’ The island got hydro electricity in 1983, and almost all of the houses were fitted up with toilets, showers and baths. More recently there’s been double-glazing, mobile masts and broadband, though at the moment the connection is so bad it makes working from home almost impossible.
Still, it seems counter-intuitive to think that all the things which made life hard here in the past – its distance from the centre, its minimalism – were also the things which made it successful. But now, if you’ve got the sort of career that requires offices and travel then remaining on the island isn’t even a possibility. It’s notable that both of Billy and Isabel’s daughters did their best to stay, but have now settled with their families on the Orkney mainland.
* * *
North Ronaldsay Primary School has two teachers and one pupil. Teigan Scott is ten and her specialist subject is hamsters. At home that evening, she announces that she likes being the only person at the school and that she doesn’t miss having anyone to play with before introducing us to the hamster and running upstairs to be photographed in her bedroom, a room so violently pink it sticks to my retinas for about three days afterwards.
Teigan’s parents came here from Lewis five years ago when the council built a couple of homes for young families. One family moved on after a year, but the Scotts have stayed. David does the roads, digs the graves, co-ordinates the airfield, works for the fire service and acts as handyman at the Bird Observatory. Maureen was working as a carer, but that came to an end when all her charges died of old age.
Teigan’s other two sisters are older – one is at college in Glasgow and Maxine, aged 14, commutes weekly from Kirkwall secondary school. Maureen blames the declining population at the lack of affordable housing. Even though by mainland standards North Ronaldsay seems like real-estate Christmas (there’s a croft on the market for £120k with 13.4 acres, several outbuildings and a free Neolithic burial site), it’s still out of the range of most families. The neighbouring island of Papa Westray, (Papay) which faced exactly the same problems as North Ronaldsay, turned things around by offering cheaper housing, improving communications and making it easier for people to work at home. Though smaller than North Ronaldsay, they’ve gone from 65 residents in 2001 to 90 now.
But what’s it like to live here all year round when the flights can’t get through and the sea rises so high it feels like it’s going to pull the whole island adrift? Maureen shrugs, relaxed. ‘We’ve only had one really bad gale in the four and a half years I’ve been here when the winds were over 90.’ And what are the bonuses of living here? Maureen appreciates the size of the island and the opportunity for more family time. And, she says, ‘I like not having loads and loads of supermarkets and shopping centres and all these things around me because the kids grow up not thinking that they need to have something – I don’t know, whatever, this huge constant list of things. It’s not that my kids don’t have junk, but they don’t get things in a constant stream. Other kids seem to need it like they need air.’
‘I wanted them, if they needed something, to know the difference between needing it and just wanting it. And also to open their minds up to something different. Because if they’re living in a place where there aren’t loads and loads of kids, whatever they decide they’re interested in, they don’t have to clear it with their peer group. It shows them that it’s OK to be different. You can’t help but be different living as the only child at the school or being the only child from a village, but it means that being different in other areas of their life isn’t such a big leap for them.’
* * *
That evening after dinner, Billy drives Robert and me back over to the lighthouse cottages. There are two lights on North Ronaldsay. Dennis Head, the older and lower of the two, was built in 1806 and decommissioned after 46 years. In 2006, it was the winning subject of a BBC Restoration appeal for which £300,000 was raised. Two centuries of bird guano was cleared out, the scaffolding went up … and nothing happened. A couple of islanders had objected to the plans for the restoration and the project became mired in disputes. Now the money has gone and the light stands untouched, encased in its prickles of scaffolding, waiting to disintegrate.
The new lighthouse (‘new’ being a relative term; it was lit in 1852) stands a little further away. It’s dark now and we find ourselves driving through the middle of a cloud, the air so saturated with moisture that when wisps of cloud slide across the headlights, it looks like wind made visible. Summer fogs stop the flights more often than winter gales. If the cloud cover is below 300 feet then the island stays cut off, lost to everything but itself.
Then suddenly the air was full of them, thousands exploding out of the clouds, as if the sky had been holding them down.
As we approach the light, we can see the windows of the tower lit up in a little row like buttons on a uniform. Robert gets out to take some photographs and Billy and I sit in the car, waiting. The beams turn slowly, shining out in a broad impeturbable crown of light. We’re caught beneath a great encircling arc of brilliance, watching the mist drifting and the lantern’s slow revolutions. Once in a while a bird flies into the beam, a sudden speck of white against the darkness. Somewhere out there is the sea.
The sight of this, and the privilege of it, makes both of us philosophical. Billy describes standing in the lantern room of the lighthouse in the early hours of a spring morning with a mist down over the whole island. As the sun rose, the mist rose too, sliding over the windows and trailing away. As he watched, a few birds began to break through, heading upwards to the sun. Then suddenly the air was full of them, thousands exploding out of the clouds, as if the sky had been holding them down. ‘I’ve seen some bonny things in my time,’ he says fondly.
Have you ever wanted to live anywhere else? ‘Me? No, not particularly. I like it here. Very much. I go to Kirkwall and if I have things to do I love it. But the minute I’ve done all I want to do, I think my God, I want to get home again, I’m wasting my time here.’ You get homesick in Kirkwall? ‘I do get homesick, yes, I do. I do.’ What is it that it gives you? ‘This. Your own identity, I guess.’ He is silent for a minute or two. Both of us look out at the tower, the light touching us and moving on, the steady rhythm of its turning. ‘If I had my time again, I would do it all just the same. I wouldn’t change a thing.’
Robert gets back into the car. We drive over to the light and climb the 176 steps again – Billy ahead of us all the way – to stand beside the majestic Fresnel lens. The glass throws colour against our faces, twisting us upside down or disappearing us through a trick of the light. Up here, on a night like this, the question isn’t why you’d want to be here, but why you’d ever think of being anywhere else.
But no matter how well he carries it, Billy can’t hold this place up for ever. Do you really think the island population might get too low to be viable, I ask as we make our way back down to the ground. ‘It’s a continual danger that, yes, but what the devil do you do? The real challenge is to create work. I’ve been lucky in my lifetime – I’ve had more work than I can do.’ Yes, but that’s because you keep taking on more tasks, I say. Come to think of it, we never did to the bottom of exactly how many jobs you do. I think we ran out of … ‘Time,’ he says, and laughs.
First published in BA High Life Magazine, Feb 2016.
Occupying 20,000 square feet of an abandoned limestone mine in Pennsylvania are state secrets, classified documents and the world’s greatest photographs. Bella Bathurst is granted access to the Corbis film archive, holder of the moments that defined a nation.
It isn’t until you get to its car park that you realise the Corbis film preservation facility is not your ordinary photo archive.
On a country road in Pennyslvania six hours due west from Manhattan there’s an inconspicuous hill where by 8am layer after terraced layer of saloons and family SUVs stretch way up the slope.
There must be well over a thousand cars here but absolutely no sign of their drivers – no visible offices, no employees, no contractors squinting through their early-morning fag break.
Down at the base, there’s a security booth and beyond it a great dark portal leading straight into the hillside. Ann Hartman, Manager of the Corbis archive, picks us up and drives us down the road into a scene from a Bond film. Through the portal is a great white-walled network of streets and offices mined from the raw stone. Roads branch out in different directions, spidering the inside of the hill with tarmac and traffic lights. Every few yards there’s a door leading into the rock or a space where a mined-out void still waits for occupants. Golf buggies zoom past commuter buses and sewage trucks head for the entrance, while everywhere there’s the hollow roar of giant air conditioning units. And there are people, lots and lots of ordinary-looking people walking along carrying files or foil-wrapped freezer bags full of pie for Thanksgiving.
This is the Iron Mountain National Data Centre and these are some of the 2,500 specialists who spend their professional lives mining information 250ft below ground. All those cars belong to experts in music or programming or data, and for anyone with even the smallest interest in American culture, this place is a proper bona-fide treasure-chest.
For the first half of the twentieth century, this place was used for limestone required in the production of Pittsburgh steel. By the 1950s the money had moved on, the Cold War had blown in, and owners US Steel had figured out a more lucrative use for all that empty space. They sold a portion of the mine to Iron Mountain who tidied the place up, paved the roads and replaced the stone with secrets.
There are, after all, huge advantages to storing things here. It’s environmentally stable, naturally cool, earthquake-proof, and access-controlled. The limestone seam had been mined in a grid pattern, leaving both a logical road system and thousands of potential vaults (spaces separated by 20ft of rock) for anyone needing secure storage. For clients like Corbis whose material is temperature-sensitive, the environment in those vaults can be adjusted to anything between normal and arctic. Some parts of the mine have been dammed and flooded, providing Iron Mountain with both a fresh-water drinking source and a lake to cool the servers. Over time the place has developed the outlines of a small town with its own subterranean fire service, medicare, ATM, lunchroom and coffee shop.
Marilyn on the grating. Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima. The Hindenberg exploding.
Corbis is unusual for being one of the few companies here to welcome a limited amount of publicity. Its assets are its images, so if people aren’t aware of those images, those assets have no worth. The majority of the mine’s users are less forthcoming. Most are, in the words of manager Tom Benjamin, ‘shy,’ though with most of the names here, ‘shy’ is not the first adjective that comes to mind. Amid the 2,500-plus organisations renting space are federal government agencies, film studios, record companies, banks, blue-chip Wall Street institutions and new technology companies. I’m not permitted to mention any specific names, but let’s just say you’ve definitely heard of them.
Ann Hartman drives us along a network of different streets before arriving at a clean white door in the wall with a screen showing some of the images the archive holds. Inside is an office space and a room with a lightbox. Behind that, there’s a much larger and colder vault holding Corbis’s real riches: 27 million of the finest photographs in the world.
Think of a 20th century image of America, and the odds are that Corbis probably hold it. Marilyn on the grating. Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima. The Hindenberg exploding. Sunlight falling through the windows of Grand Central Station. Buzz Aldrin staking out the Stars & Stripes on a windless moon. New York construction workers lunching on a high-rise crossbeam (that one is particularly interesting. Just after staff had scanned the glass plate, someone dropped it. It’s now in five pieces). Einstein sticking his tongue out. Rosa Parks on the bus. Kennedy in Dallas, seconds before he was shot.
Somewhere in these rows of cabinets are presidents, celebrities, Hollywood royalty, soldiers and models, corpses and scientists, affairs and calamities, woodcuts and celluloid, colour and monochrome. There’s a whole section devoted to the work of Lynn Goldsmith, a photographer who in 1997 sold Corbis her collection of candid rock shots. There are news agency archives and paparazzi shots, the biggest stories of the age and the smallest social details. ‘You see so many things, so many famous images,’ says production co-ordinator Sarah Scott, ‘that you almost become desensitised. When you go into the Holocaust folder, there’s only so many times you can look at something and (get that shock). But even if it’s a folder you’ve seen 25 times before, there’s always something new.’
And it’s locked in this great white bunker to stop it all from dying. Back in 1995, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates bought what was then the Bettmann archive. At the time the whole collection was stored in a downtown Manhattan block at ordinary room temperature. But once archivists started going through his new purchase, they realised that many of the original negatives had started to fade or corrupt, victims of something called Vinegar Syndrome. In warm or humid conditions, the acetate base of a negative begins to shrink away from the surface emulsion, buckling the image and releasing a sharp vinegary tang as it degrades. Open one of the worst-affected cabinets here, and it stinks like a fish supper. As Sarah says, ‘You’ll walk past some of the drawers and think, ‘Woooh! I want chips now, I’m hungry!’
Clients may ask for similar things which have happened before – bombings or shootings.
Photographic experts realised that the best – the only – way of preserving the remaining images was to freeze them. And so in 2002 Corbis stuck eight million of its images on a fleet of 18 tractor-trailers and drove them non-stop from New York to Pennyslvania. At the moment the whole lot – plus 19 million others – are stored at 7°C, but once they’ve been scanned the vault will be locked down to -4°C, leaving the greatest images of the American century frozen for eternity in Snow-White silence.
On a day-to-day basis, Ann and Sarah’s job is to respond to clients’ requests, pull out relevant material and take the negatives to the digital lab for scanning. So what kind of requests do they get? ‘We’re driven a lot by world events,’ says Anne, ‘So right now it’s a lot of the terrorism that’s just everywhere. Clients may ask for similar things which have happened before – bombings or shootings.’ There are also requests for obituary images. ‘Sometimes I’m coming in in the morning and a celebrity or an historical person has passed away. Corbis typically has something prepared for older people, but if they’re younger, clients want to know if we have something in our files.’
And what’s it like working here, buried down in the Batcave? ‘Once you get down here, you get involved with your phone calls and your emails,’ says Anne, ‘On a summer’s day we do miss the outside, so we go out and take a picnic.’ Staff from other companies do meet each other, and Ann has found out about some of the treasures on offer elsewhere. This, after all, is archivism with attitude, data-storage with a dose of drama. ‘Sometimes I get so excited about what’s here,’ says Ann as she closes up. ‘I look at these images and I think, ‘What a piece of work is Man. What a piece of work. Truly.’
First published in the Observer, 27th December 2015
It’s surprising how little freedom we have to walk this land. Now we have more and we must use it responsibly.
‘They sent some bugger up from the parish council to talk about footpaths,’ said Pat. Several hours afterwards, he was still blazing with indignation. Together with his wife Lesley, Pat runs a 150-acre hill farm on the border with Wales. Pat is 77 and though he hasn’t got the same energy he once had, nothing sparks him up like a really good row. ‘Footpaths! I sent him from here with a piece of my mind. Bloody footpaths.’
While Lesley gives all visitors an open welcome, Pat treats anyone setting foot on the farm as outlying snipers from a vast invading force of idiots and meddlers. Some weeks it’s DEFRA (or ‘the Ministry,’ as Pat still refers to them), some weeks it’s Welsh Water or the Single Farm Payment snoops. Like many farmers, he regards any incursion on his land not just as a personal affront, but as some sort of sinister intimation that he’s not doing his job properly. To concede land – even a sliver – to ramblers or utility companies would not just be an insult, it would be defeat in the eyes of his ancestors.
There are already two rights-of-way running through the farm, well-signed and maintained. But someone had recently been looking at old pre-war maps and found a path crossing from west to east. It had been heavily used during the 1920s when unemployment forced many farm labourers to walk down off the hills to the poor-house in the next village. With every inch of land pushed up to full capacity during the Second World War, the path fell into disuse. Though it remained on some of the old OS maps, no-one had since given it a thought. Until the Parish Man arrived.
‘Daft bugger!’ said Pat. ‘I’ve never heard anything so bloody stupid in all my days. I says to him, ‘Where the hell do you think I put the bull? Eh? Tell me that. Where’s the spare field to put the bull in?’ I never seen one, because the fields is all occupied, and I’m not moving all those beasts round just so some bloody ramblers can go for a walk. And’ – working up to full steam – ‘who’s going to pay for this, like? Tell me that. Who’s to pay? He don’t have an answer for that.’ After half an hour, having been set straight about Pat’s views on land in general and footpaths in particular, the man left. ‘I told him to get from here and don’t come back, like.’ He glared at me. ‘To be fair, he don’t look like he wanted to.’
Today’s announcement that work has started on opening up a huge swathe of England’s coastline to walkers might not bother Pat; his farm is nowhere near the coast. But for other, more distant farmers and landowners, it represents some significant territorial concessions and a great many skirmishes behind the scenes.
Rural Minister Rory Stewart – himself famed for once having walking 6,000 miles across Asia
At present the coastal path runs for only around 100 miles and, like the Thames Path in London, lurches from fabulous leg-stretching segments to long stretches of private land. Work has already started in Kent, Devon, Lincolnshire, Hampshire, and Lancashire, and the Rural Minister Rory Stewart – himself famed for once having walking 6,000 miles across Asia – says he’s keen to have every one of England’s 2,700 coastal miles joined up by 2020.
It’s the sort of announcement that no-one can complain about, an unmitigated, straightforward Good Thing. More walkers means more tourism and more tourism means more people making connections to both the sea and the land. It means more healthy people, and more of those healthy people falling in love with the countryside.
There really isn’t anything which sorts you out quicker than a good walk. There’s something about setting out to follow the line between water and earth that blows everything the right side out again. You go out with a headful of thought-spam, and after a few hours you come back exultant, knowing that for the first time in a month you’ve just done something which actually matters. Even in the middle of a rainy December, you’ve stared at Chesil Beach or Helston Cove or Whitley Bay and seen something bigger than just the next task.
Still, the fact that it has taken until now for a full coastal path to become a reality is a reminder that England still occupies the middle ground between freedom and possession. In Scotland, even without the SNP’s new land reforms, the law is generally on the walkers’ side. As long as your dog isn’t bothering stock and you’re not damaging crops, you can more or less walk where you like.
Back here, it’s probably fair to say that Pat has never been for a walk in his life.
In America, Land of the Free, everything you see is privately owned, so nowhere – except the National Parks and the freeway – is open. It makes those great wide skies feel somehow watchful and claustrophobic. I once went for a walk in Colorado, wandering down over a broken-down line of fencing to the railroad and beyond. When I got back, I told my hosts where I’d been. ‘You were lucky,’ they said. ‘You were trespassing, and there’s a lot of folks got guns round here.’ But I didn’t have dogs with me, I protested. ‘Oh no,’ they said, ‘They wouldn’t shoot dogs. They’d shoot you.’
Back here, it’s probably fair to say that Pat has never been for a walk in his life. Not a walk just for the sake of it. What would be the point? To him, the country is a place of work, and walking is for the poor, the young, or the idle. He might take Bryn the collie up the hill on the quad bike to look over the cows or walk down to the lower field to check none of the ewes had gone lame, but he wouldn’t just wander off on a stroll.
So, while it’s definitely worth savouring this new route round England’s edge, it’s also worth remembering that it comes at a price. What enrages Pat and other farmers is walkers who don’t fulfil their side of the bargain, who litter or leave gates open or let their dogs chase sheep. For Pat, beleaguered by global economics and the slump in prices for just about everything, his victory against the Parish Man was a rare push against an incoming tide. To live and walk in Britain is a privilege, but the countryside is also – still, just – the place where a lot of people make their futures. So tread softly, for you tread on their dreams.
First published in the Guardian Weekend Magazine, 4th Oct 2014
Long hours, intense physical labour, low pay and foxes in the hen house: who’d be a farmer today? A growing number, it seems. We enters a brave new world of drone tractors and designer sheep.
At the Three Counties show, the shearing competition is in full swing. Tucked into one corner of the vast showground is a stage into which are fitted six little booths like the starting gates on a racecourse. Each one has a number, a chalked-up name and an electrical point into which the competitors fit their shears. Six men line up and on the signal each one opens the gate, extracts a sheep, flips it round onto its back, wedges its head between their thighs, bends over and starts shearing belly first. The ewes do not seem quite as happy with this arrangement as the audience does.
Each shearer is trying to remove the fleece as quick and clean as pulling off a jersey, no nicks or cuts and no more than three minutes per sheep – the current British record stands at 30 seconds.* The spectators watching from the stands see six pairs of spindly legs splayed out like the wrong end of a hen party while the commentators’ voice rises and falls in one seamless sentence: ‘… And they’re going at it hammer and tongs here ladies and gents number five’s already into the left shoulder and number four’s turning to come down and that’s a Blue Leicester over in number six useless breed buy ’em in the morning snuffed it by the evening and number three’s streaking ahead down the last side easy home run and we’ve got the man from Mid Wales out to beat the English champion looks like number three’s going to be first out ooooh bad luck he’s got hold of a real wriggler she’s gone all Michael Flateley on him see tap-dancing all over the place won’t stay still shame about that cost him a couple of seconds and number one’s gone in for his second ewe looks like it’s going to be ve-ry tight here some real talent for you today …’
The voice of the commentary recedes. A few rows away on the New Holland stand, a boy of about three detaches himself from his parents and hurtles towards the tractor display. ‘Daddy! Daddy!’ he yells, halting at the largest one and gazing upwards. ‘I want to buy one of those!’ The tractor’s back wheels are five times taller than him, but his father isn’t looking at the tractor. He’s looking at the star of the arrangement, the combine harvester. It is hornet-yellow and as big as Liverpool. One by one, groups of young farmers detach themselves from the walkways and come over to look at it. One of the combine’s side covers has been left open, revealing its mechanical innards.
As they stand beneath it the men talk reverently to each other, as if the combine’s sheer immensity somehow makes it sacred.
This combine is 25 tons, costs £383,000 and is apparently the standard size for farms in the Cotswolds. New Holland and its competitors would be quite happy to make combines bigger than this; the only thing stopping them is that the roads can’t cope. It runs on tracks like a tank and it takes a thousand litres of fuel at a time. It’s got a fridge, a coolbox and is fitted with a satnav and autopilot system which allows the farmer to set the co-ordinates, plot the field he’s working on, sit back and forget it. The only thing he has to do is turn the corners at the top of the field, and with some models you don’t even have to do that. Several manufacturers are already at work on drone combines, unmanned machines that can be programmed to bring in the harvest all on their own.
Over on the western edge of the showground are the stockpens, sheep in one, cattle in another and pigs in the last, each animal waiting its time to be shown. Farming families sit on picnic chairs beside their animals, gossiping and sharing out packed lunches. Many of the individual pens have been decorated with plants and rosettes and most have banners describing the different breed qualities. Dexter cattle, for instance, are the Shetland ponies of the cattle world, small, native, hardy, dual-purpose (ie they can be both beef and dairy cattle), ideal sucklers, and good for conservation grazing.
Mostly, though, nobody wants small. They want huge. The current trend in some breeds is for ‘double-muscling’, meaning that one of the genes directing muscle growth has been suppressed so the cows have twice the lean muscle mass of normal cattle. In other words, they’ve got an arse like an airbus, great rich landscapes of flesh all quivering with potential rump steaks. Double-muscled calves are too big to be born naturally so their mothers must have repeated caesareans. Watching the cows standing here facing the walls or easing themselves down onto the straw, they look simaultaneously funny and sad. There is no money in a cow’s face so they’ve been left as they are, patient and delicate, thin cows wrapped in animate fat. Something in their eyes tells you they know exactly how obscene they look, and have chosen just to bear it well.
In the sheep section, it’s the sheer number of breeds which is striking – not just the usual Texels and Suffolks, but things with evocative names: Badger-Face Welsh Mountains, Rough Fells, Gritstones and Lonks. Unlike cattle, it seems the optimum size and shape for a modern sheep is that of a badly-designed coffee table. Many generations of careful breeding has gone into producing something with a back flat enough to balance a six-pack, a large rectangular rump, a squared-off chest, four ricketty legs and a face like an afterthought.
It probably doesn’t help that many of the dips used on sheep turn the wool a dodgy sort of stripped-pine orange colour.
Back out into the sunlight again. Despite the rows of shops and stalls here – the Tesco marquee, the Pig & Whistle, the Land Rover Experience – the Three Counties remains a proper old-fashioned agricultural show, albeit on a large scale. The reason it exists is to allow farmers to show off the results of all that lonely winter work, to have a pint and a chat or perhaps to arrange a spot of agricultural speed-dating: your bull, my cow, back of the shed in a week’s time. The former Environment Secretary Owen Patterson is here, glad-handing the men in the NFU tent and trying to look knowledgeable about sows. There’s a dog show and a goat bit and if you do want to buy any of the clothes on sale, then be aware that outerwear trends this year are more or less the same as last year: fleece, tweed, foul-weather, slightly fouler weather, posh foul-weather, Force 12, and novelty wellies.
Next to the shearers, they’re talking about succession in the Young Farmers tent: how to get into farming, how to deal with recalcatrient parents, how to find new tenancies. It’s always been a hot topic, but never more so than now. A decade ago you couldn’t give a farm away, now it seems like it’s what everyone wants to do. Courses at agricultural colleges were once closing down for lack of students, today they’re full to the brim. In 2001 farming was knocked sideways by the Foot & Mouth outbreak during which 6.5 million mainly healthy animals were slaughtered and 3,200 farmers left the industry. Now the figures are beginning to move in the opposite direction. For every tenant farm that becomes available, there can be sixty applicants or more. Land prices are rising and competition for a life on earth has never been stronger.
And there’s another big change. Farming’s turning female. Of the 2,500 full-time students at Harper Adams University in Shropshire, two-thirds are now women. They were always the backbone of farming – invisible within the statistics, but the ones who kept the business afloat, the paperwork complete and the show on the road. Now, as farms pass from father to daughter or from husband to widow, they’re rising up out of the shadows and into the figures: 5,000 fewer men in 2012, 6,000 more women.
The only trouble is that there’s often nowhere for all these new farmers to go.
At the moment, farming represents the ultimate closed shop. Because it takes a very long time and a great deal of money to set up as a farmer – buy the stock, invest in the machinery, build up the herd, ride out the slumps, deal with floods or disease or sudden switches in agricultural ideology – it suits a family succession. If you’re going to do all that work for all those years, then it stands to reason that you want to pass the results on to your children.
Currrently, the system is designed to encourage people to continue farming for as long as they’re physically able, which in some cases means well into their eighties. The average age of British farmers is still rising (59 at the last estimate), which in theory makes a young farmer anything below bus-pass. On farms where all generations get on well, that’s fine. But on many farms the younger lot want to innovate while the older don’t. So either the younger generation accept that things aren’t going to change and leave to work elsewhere or they remain where they are, locked into an everlasting bullfight with their father. Or, in some cases, their grandfather. No other industry is still run like this, unless perhaps you count the monarchy.
Which means that if your parents worked in medicine or the media and you suddenly decide that you’ve got a thing for organic beef, then there are three ways to find yourself a farm. Either you buy your way in, or you spend several years working for someone else before saving up enough money to buy a share in your own herd / flock / crop, or you apply for one of the dwindling number of council farms.
Mary McQuiston, feeding her chickens ©Bella Bathurst
Council farms are one of Britain’s great secrets. Everyone in farming knows about them, and no-one outside of it does. They were first established a century ago when the exodus of large numbers of workers to the cities led to the establishment of smallholdings designed to encourage people to remain on the land.
Giles and Mary McQuiston have the tenancy of a council farm in North Herefordshire. Both of them come from farming backgrounds – Giles in Northern Ireland and Mary in Wales – but neither were high enough up the family pecking order to inherit. Now in their forties and with three young children, they make a vivid partnership.
Giles is tall, measured and soft-spoken, while Mary is small and fiery, flitting from one strong thought to another.
Having made the decision to go into agriculture, the McQuistons applied to Herefordshire County Council for a holding. To do so, they had to prove they had five years’ practical experience, an agricultural qualification and £40,000 either in capital or as stock. Then they had to go for an interview. Mary: ‘The first time we went we weren’t married – we said we were engaged, but I hadn’t got a ring, so we ran down the town, bought a ring out of Argos, and off we go. Anyway. But we got in there, and they said, ‘we’d like you to give a ten minute presentation on why you’d like this farm.”
‘Well, we were both used to doing presentations, but not just as you go through the door. There were about six counsellors, and clerks taking notes, and you had to prove you had the money so they were flicking through copies of our bank statements. Because we wanted it so so much it was an incredibly intimidating procedure. Giles gets up, makes his speech, they ask a few questions. And we weren’t successful.’ They went through the same procedure five times with Herefordshire and twice with Powys. ‘Every time a farm came up, we applied. We were dogged – we just kept on and on.’
It took five years before they were given Cokesyeld Farm near Leominster. They started with 65 acres, and eighteen months ago they added another 42. The trouble is that they’re now stuck in a double-bind. Having spent the last ten years building up all the things that would make them farmers, they’ve been unable to save any money. Mary: ‘When we came here, we didn’t have one sheep. Now we’ve got 350. We had 11 cows when we came here, we’ve now got 30. And we’ve got 600 chickens. We didn’t have a hammer, a nail, a hurdle, a trow. For eighteen months, Giles fed the sheep with a wheelbarrow. He’d put all the sheep food on it and wheel it across the field.’
“Now, we’ve got a fancy-pants machine that we drive. It has progressed, but sometimes I feel it’s desperately slow.”
For the McQuistons, full-time farming has been full of violent highs and lows. The supermarkets refuse to look at them because they’re too small and and two weeks ago a fox got in to the hen runs. ‘He got 15 one night but he traumatises the rest, so they all lay funny-shaped eggs.’ More ominously, someone recently turned up to value Cokesyeld. Since land in this fertile bit of England can fetch £12k an acre, flogging off council smallholdings is a quick way for councils to make money. Scotland, Sussex, Buckingham and Kent have already sold off all their holdings, Somerset is getting rid of two-thirds and Gloucestershire is losing nearly half.
But surely the subsidy system must soften things for them? After all, isn’t this place – small, marginal, supporting the next generation of farmers, growing cheap food for all – exactly the sort of farm that the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy is supposed to protect? Not really. Like most farmers, the McQuistons are uncomfortable with subsidies, but go on taking the money. They realise that the CAP gives the good guys a bad name whilst working as a benefits system for agricultural incompetents, but the way the market works, it’s difficult to make a living without them.
Though it tends to be the huge agri-businesses which make the headlines, the truth is that very few people are getting rich from farming. Seven-tenths of Britain may be used for agriculture, but the industry employs fewer than half a million people and in 2012 a sizeable number of them – mostly the ones on small farms like the McQuistons – had a net income of ‘less than zero.‘ Besides, as they point out, even if you don’t take the money you still get the red tape. Some sense of the system’s peculiarity comes from the revelation that in order to receive the Single Farm Payment, farmers have to purchase the entitlement. So they pay two years’ worth of subsidy and after that they get it for free. In other words, they start off by buying the money.
Chris North’s herd in Herefordshire ©Bella Bathurst
‘Ten years ago, I thought we could change the world,‘ says Mary. ‘We were upbeat and we’re going to do this, but my God, it’s a lot harder than I thought. It’s hard, it’s hard graft. It’s all got to be positive and upbeat, but sometimes it isn’t. It’s bloody hard starting at the bottom as a first-generation farmer. You need to be in farming for such a long time and I feel one generation sacrifices for the benefit of the next.’
“We don’t have anything to give Jack, Fergus and Molly except our experience.”
But then something always happens to remind the McQuistons why they’re here. A few days ago, their childrens’ primary school classmates came for a visit. The kids were entranced by the sheep and the calves and the feel of a hen’s feathers in their hands, ‘And,’ says Mary, ‘I thought, yes, this really is great. I’ve been out there in the middle of winter when it’s pouring with rain and it’s windy and I’m like what am I doing here? But that moment, it just made up for it.’
Walking round the farm later, we pause by the lambing shed and watch the orphan lambs capering over the hay bales. The smallest one – tiny, barely the size of the farm cat – totters and shakes in a corner. He looks so keen to join in but he’s too weak to do so. The McQuistons have been hand-feeding all the orphans, an extra job in a cast of thousands. Giles looks around the yard. ‘I am positive,’ he says. ‘We will get through. It might be hard, but at least when I go to market, I don’t have someone looking over my shoulder telling me what I can and can’t buy.’
There are plenty who have. When things go wrong on family farms, they go very wrong; glowering Shakespearean dramas played out silently in front of the TV in houses full of guns. Farming is only marginally less macho than deep-sea fishing – why bother the doctor for anything less than a broken back? – so no-one likes to admit to weaknesses like age or pain or simple knackered sadness.
Tom Milsom is 35, and, had things been healthier, would by now have started taking over from his father at the family’s arable farm in Devon. He’s more than competent – degree in engineering, years of agricultural experience, runs his own business, represents Young Farmers at both UK and EU levels, passionate about agriculture – but instead he’ll probably end up moving away.
Back in the 1950s his grandparents bought the farm from the local landowner. At that stage it was a 300-acre mixed enterprise, but when his grandparents got divorced they split the land and divided it between their two sons. Tom’s dad got the arable and the farmhouse, and his uncle got the stock.
Since the land was divided by use rather than geography, that meant that Tom’s father was stuck in a farmhouse surrounded by fields now owned by a brother he couldn’t stand.
At the moment, Tom and his sister share the farmhouse. His father lives in the nearby village but still runs the farm on his own. Does Tom ever help his dad? ‘No. I don’t want to. He runs it and if I interfere I’ll be in trouble. He likes some help when he’s busy, but I’m not quick to volunteer.’ What’s the problem? ‘I think it’s largely to do with different ideas. I’ve got a different perspective because I want to farm the farm for 40 years or more and plan for the future, whereas he’s very much coming to the end of his 40-year career and he’s looking at this as a retirement fund.’ So he wants to let out his land to other farmers? ‘Yes.’ And he doesn’t want to hand it on to you? ‘No. Not really – he’s not planning to die, I don’t think.’ He laughs, though it’s not the sort of laugh with any humour in it.
Do they ever talk? ‘No. We say what we have to say, but the bare minimum. We could have blazing rows, but I don’t – I just avoid it. It might look a bit odd to the outside world, but we tend to just grunt at each other. The trouble is that you get my dad talking and he just goes on and on, and you think, oh God, I wish I never asked.’ What about his uncle? ‘We used to get on alright, but not any more. He’s done things to piss me off – being an inconsiderate neighbour, fairly obnoxious, and so I thought I’m not going to waste my breath.’
What effect does living in the middle of all these atmospheres have? ‘It’s uncomfortable at times, it’s like a weight, a ball and chain. I just feel limited by it, I suppose. But then to an extent that’s all I’ve known – it’s not like it’s a sudden change, so I just get on and do the best I can in the hope that one day these things will be sorted out or I can start afresh, even though I might have to wait for some people to die before that happens.’ So you’re waiting for your father and your uncle to die? ‘Yes.’ How old are they? ‘Late sixties.’ So they’ve got a while to go yet? ‘Yes. But it’s either that or sitting down in a room together to talk, which I would say is more unlikely. It’s been tried. There was a meeting, and a heated discussion, and lots of letters which cost a fortune went to and fro. And that was just over one issue.’
So what keeps him here? ‘I don’t feel the time is quite right yet (to go). Probably five or ten years ago I thought about nothing more than staying here forever, but now I really don’t want to. But to emotionally do that takes time. I can’t walk away tomorrow. Or I could, but it would be very hard. And for the time being I can live very cheaply here, and it’s a great base, lots of space. Although it’s not necessarily a joy to be here, if I’ve been on the road all day, I come back here and I watch the sun going down over this valley – you can’t beat that.’ So it’s the land that’s restorative, rather than the people?
“Yes. I’m attached to the land. Yes. Definitely.”
Chris North took a different route. Now aged 25, he’s the herd manager of a dairy farm in north Herefordshire. The cows here are small by modern standards, a mixture of British Friesian, Brown Swiss and Jersey bred for the high-protein, high-quality milk required in cheese production. Each one gives about 5,000 litres a year or 23 litres a day each – about half of what cattle in the big dairies would be expected to produce. ‘Someone once described cows to me as like someone autistic,’ he says, ‘The way they look at life. They see things in routines, and as soon as there’s something slightly different, ‘No, I don’t like.’’
Chris takes me round the milking parlour, explaining things as he goes: the system, the routines, the signs of contentment or stress. In two hours there isn’t a single question he doesn’t answer openly and knowledgeably. He’s not trying to sell me something; he just loves his job. Afterwards we return to the office. Outside, the last cows are moving into the parlour and below the sound of milk rushing into the tank are scribbles of swallow song. Chris looks round at his empire, the wall full of whiteboards detailing yields and rotas, a box full of woolly hats and a filing cabinet labelled Cow Passports. ‘To be a good stockman, you’ve got to be placid. If you’re rushing and stressed, the cows sense it. If you think, ‘well, if it takes an extra hour it takes an extra hour, I’m not bothered,’ they’re happier.’
His background wasn’t in agriculture – his father is a vicar in Hereford – but Chris knew from the age of eight that he wanted to farm. Not just farm, but one day to have a dairy farm of his own. Why? ‘Coming here, doing a days’ work, you feel like you’ve achieved something. You look back and think, I’ve milked all those cows, I’ve done that. And a lot of jobs these days, you don’t notice the achievement, do you? You don’t see the big picture unless you’re quite high up. But the way farming is, you see the whole lot. And it’s just such a nice working environment you don’t realise the time has passed.‘ Even in January? With a sawing wind down the back of your neck?
“Well, there’s always two of you in there, and a cup of coffee isn’t far away.”
But what about relationships? Don’t farmers always have to be with farmers? ‘Yes. You’ve got to be like a double-vocational partnership, someone who understands what it is to work with animals.’ Have you ever tried going out with someone who doesn’t? ‘Yes. It doesn’t last for long. I’m very fortunate that my partner at the moment is from a farming background back in Ireland, so he understands exactly what it’s like. He works for Bulmers (cider), so when they’re spraying they’re spraying, regardless of what the weather is or whether it’s five in the morning.’
Like many farmers in this part of the country, Chris got his degree from Harper Adams University in Shropshire, one of the UK’s oldest and largest agricultural institutions. Harper is exactly the same as a normal university, except that at normal universities you don’t usually get conversations between students that begin: ‘You know that armoured personnel carrier I was driving the other day? Yeah? Well, I broke it.’
The day before the Summer Ball, six students – Oliver, Matt, Grace, Sophia, Saul and Drew – are gathered round the table. Four of them are from farming backgrounds and all are doing BScs in Agriculture with various add-ons – Land Management, Engineering, Animal Science. Grace O’Reilly grew up on a big Suffolk arable farm and, aged 20, is now specialising in Developmental Agriculture. ‘I always struggled at school. I’m not particularly academic, and I’m dyslexic – a lot of people here are dyslexic. So I like the ability to learn practically, hands-on. With this, you do something, and straightaway you see the effects of what you’ve done.’
At home, ‘I have three older brothers and I’m the baby, so in reality, the oldest one should have had (the farm). But because we’ve all been pushed to get our own careers, my older twin brothers have never sat on a tractor in their lives. One’s in the RAF and the other’s in IT and music production. They’re not interested in farming at all. But if you’re around animals as a child, it really gives you a sense of responsibility. You have to look after them, you have to feed and water them in the morning, and for me, that was really important.’
“It does make you grow up quickly, but there’s also the innocence and the simplicity of it – even if you can only carry half a bucket of water, it’s something.”
How easy is it for women coming into the industry? Grace: The boys at home, they’ll pick up a cement mixer, lift it above their heads and run across the yard with it. I’m never going to be able to do that, but I can move it three times quicker because I’m not going to have this ego thing.’ Sophia: Women often end up doing the business side of things, but nowadays the technology does a lot of the heavy lifting.’ Grace: ‘And you know everything can still be fixed with baler twine.‘ Really? Even a £380k tractor? ‘Definitely. One of the combines, it cracked at the struts, I spent half a day running round it with baler twine, stuck a ratchet strap on and carried on combining for the rest of the day.‘
So what qualities do you need to be a farmer? It seems in the end it’s down to love, mostly. Grace: During harvest, you’d be working seven days in a row, you’ll be doing 20, 21-hour days, no person in their right mind is going to do that unless they absolutely love what they’re doing. Drew: Some days it is hard, in the winter or the spring lambing, but when you go to market and you’re stood there with something you’ve raised from birth, and it’s such a proud moment. I experienced it for the first time a few weeks ago – I had my first beasts go in through the ring, and it’s like a warm fuzzy feeling – it’s like excitement to start with because you don’t know what you’re going to get, but then when it’s happened, it’s like, yeah, I did that. It’s amazing, absolutely amazing.’
Matt: One of the farmers I’ve been working for this year, he’s 66, got no sons, no reason to carry on working, he’s still doing dairy but he’s given up beef. He’s got 130 acres and he’s probably got £150,000 worth of machinery sat there. He could sell that tomorrow, sell the land and he’d probably have a couple of million in the bank. He could live the rest of his life out in luxury. Not interested – he’s still perfectly happy getting up at five in the morning, going down to grease everything before we get there. Oliver: My grandad is 94, still drives the combine. He gave up one year when he knocked a wall down, but next year he was right back on it.’
Traditionally the urban view of farming has conformed to one of two mutually incompatible stereotypes. Either farmers are a bunch of feckless subsidy-junkies hosing the land with herbicides and milking the system, or they’re Cold Comfort yokels held together with nothing but hay and desperation.
Both and neither are true. Above all else, farming demands breadth. To do the job well, a farmer has to combine the skills of a vet, a botanist, a mechanic, an administrator, an IT expert, a chemist, an accountant, a bureaucrat, an arboriculturalist, a marketing expert and a high-stakes poker player. British farming is structured to encourage conservatism, land passing from hand to hand inevitably down the generations, but it also demands that its practitioners must be supremely quick to adapt and open to change. It’s a lot to ask of farmers, and it’s a lot to ask of the land. And since it’s this new generation of farmers who will be feeding us all, perhaps it’s up to us, the urban majority, to widen our view of what we want from our countryside, and why.
Observer Magazine, Sunday 6th September 2015
The island of Tiree, off the west coast of Scotland, is windswept and treeless. But venture there in August and you will bump into famous artists, Britain’s best chefs and a slew of politicians. Bella Bathurst heads to the smart set’s Hebridean hideaway.
The first rule of Tiree is that no-one talks about Tiree. Ever. It just doesn’t happen. Nobody talks about it so it doesn’t exist. An island 18 kilometres long with 650 inhabitants completely dematerialises. There is no Tiree so there is no discussion of Tiree; in the space west of Mull, there’s now only sea.
Perhaps once in a very rare while, if you happen to hang around in certain public spaces in Edinburgh’s New Town, you might chance on a couple of initiates trading code words (‘lobster’, ‘ferry charge’) on park benches. Otherwise, silence. Try bringing the subject up and people come over all peculiar. They stop returning your calls. If they do pick up the phone they give a stagey sort of gasp and say, ‘I’m not supposed to talk to you!‘ If you’re persistent, then they remember urgent holidays. Old friends advise you to drop the subject, or are conspicuously out when visibly in. Twenty-year friendships start to look a bit ricketty. This is the law of omerta: starts with ostracism, ends with baseball bats.
Naturally, all this secrecy does is make Tiree seem a whole lot more interesting. My God, you think, this place must be sensational! Last time I was there it looked quite like a Scottishisland, but maybe now it’s become a Bond-style arch-villain lair, or one of those rare geological anomalies warmed by hot springs with palm trees and crofters sipping mojitos. Maybe the island is hiding something, like gold, or roaming Serengeti-like herds of grazing celebrities. Whatever it is, it has to be genuinely astounding to be worth all this fuss.
The murmurings you do pick up are confusing, and none of them include anything about cocktails or gold. Instead, there’s stuff about crabs and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, a few ominous-sounding rumours involving foraging, and the occasional mention of dinner parties. Dig deeper and you draw a few unsubstantiated sightings of foodies and politicos – Fergus Henderson, Heston Blumenthal, Alastair Campbell, SNP Deputy First Minister John Swinney. There are encrypted warnings involving kite-surfing and a music festival which blew away. ‘It’s simple,’ one initiate confesses after prolongued rendition. ‘Nice people go, and they bring other nice people with them.’
So, as befits a totally secret island which doesn’t exist, Tiree is served by two scheduled flights a day from Glasgow plus the ferry from Oban. ‘Welcome to the island!’ calls across one of the airport ground staff, pointing at the sunny sky. ‘Today is summer!’ The summer of 2015 may have been ordinary in England, but in Scotland it’s been impressively bad, moving smoothly from winter to hurricane and completely ignoring any of the bits about warmth or spring.
The secrecy comes not from the inhabitants but from a few second homers who love this place
Still, since I’m lucky enough to arrive during the 24 hours when there isn’t an active storm warning, I get going. Strangely, Tiree looks a lot like it always did; a sort of Hebridean East Anglia. Looking out over the water, I can see the mountains of Mull on one side and Barra on the other, but Tiree itself is almost flat. It has some spectacular wild flowers but none of the usual heather-and-majesty stuff that tourists expect from Scotland. Instead, it has beaches, eighteen of them in total, fabulous alluring white-sand spaces which, on a day like this, look almost Caribbean until you stick your naked toe in the water and instantly shrivel to half life-size. It’s those beaches that draw the surfers. If conditions aren’t right on one side of the island, all they need to do is to shift round to another side and find exactly the right wave.
Driving around, it becomes clear that over last decade or so, Tiree has been completely Trip Advisored. Every one of the island’s distinctive black-roofed houses appears to have been restored, whitewashed, re-glazed and laid out for letting with the statutory national allocation of Emma Bridgewater crockery. There are other signs of a thriving middle-class tourist industry: the island’s only shop has an impressive selection of £35 bottles of Moet and 12-year-old single malts, down on the beach a man flies a camera drone over the body-boarders, and at the fish van a woman asks its owner if his chips are gluten-free.
In other ways, Tiree has kept its island qualities. The police station has its own flock of chickens, at the airport the keys to the hire car have been left trustingly in the ignition, and people chat. It doesn’t take long to discover that, far from being secretive, anyone who lives and works on the island is more than happy to talk about Tiree.
Dr John Holliday worked first with the Aboriginal health service in Australia before coming here over thirty years ago. A life-sized plastic human skeleton sunbathes by the window while Dr Holliday sits at his desk arranging pens into the shape of a triangle, placing his words with consideration. When he first arrived Tiree had only a handful of tourists a year. Now, ‘We get 26,000 visitors a year, we think. You see people coming off the ferry with huge 4x4s with four bicycles on the back, three surfboards on the top, and three hulking teenagers staring at their iPads – that’s the classic entry into Tiree. They’re not coming to look at the lovely beaches. The parents want something healthy and educational for their kids to do, which makes it very much a place for families to come for hormonal kids to let off some steam.’
Tiree is the windiest place in Britain (the local anenometer once registered a gust of 120mph before it too blew away)
As a holiday option, it’s not cheap. This month a return from Oban on the CalMac ferry for a family of five with an ordinary car is £184.10, plus the cost of accommodation (around £800 to £1,000 per week for a 4-bed self-catering house), plus the automatic freight premium added to all island imports, plus the cost of any activities on top of that. And those activities tend to be of the bracing, hooray-limpets-for-tea sort. There are two hotel bars but no pub, no restaurants, no cash machine, and Dr Holliday is the NHS: ‘There’s no x-rays, no blood tests, no hospital beds. So if you break a leg and you need to go to hospital, then I call a plane and you go. If you are very unwell, I can call a drill team – a consultant and an anaesthetist and they come here. But it can be foggy and the plane can’t get in, or it could be a force 10, and your broken leg would be stuck. That’s not uncommon – you can’t get people off, and if you have appendicitis or you have a heart attack and you can’t get to hospital, then you can’t go to hospital.’
So why this extraordinary level of secrecy about the place? Talking to Dr Holliday, it becomes apparent that the social radar system built into every Briton is calibrated to hair-trigger acuity on Tiree. Basically, it’s tribal. There are the native-born Tirisdeachs, many of whom choose to go to the mainland for jobs or education but who come back either periodically or to settle here when older. Then there’s the incomers who have moved here full-time and who throw themselves gladly into the ongoing life of the island. Then there’s the second-homers, many of whom have been coming here every summer for four generations or more. Then there’s the holiday homers who have been coming for only a few years. And finally there’s the blow-ins who rent a place for a couple of weeks over the school holidays.
The secrecy comes not from the inhabitants but from a few second homers who love this place, feel proprietorial about it, and don’t want the secret to become any better known. But as Steve Thomson, who moved to Tiree in 2004, points out, it’s a bit late for that: ‘I’ll tell you, from my experience, it’s them and about half of Edinburgh.’ Or, as Dr Holliday puts it, ‘That’s a perfectly understandable view to have about your pet location, but I think there’s a natural balance. To be honest, we’re approaching a tipping point. There’s a sense that Tiree has become full. If you want to get to Tiree in June, July, August, and you haven’t booked a place on the ferry six months in advance, you won’t get in. We have now got a situation where we’ve got an excess capacity of accommodation and people can’t get to it. Or they book it, they don’t take it, and the people who rebook can’t get here.’
Even when they do get here, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. On a good day this place may look like Rock or Croyde in Cornwall, but then there haven’t been any good days this summer. Michael Heseltine, whose daughter Annabel had her 50th birthday here last summer, is said to have looked round at the Hebridean splendour laid out before him and asked, ‘Why aren’t we in Tuscany?’ On a bad day, you either sit on the beach in a hurricane picking flotsam out of your sandwiches and pretending this is a whole lot more fun than being in a hot country like, say, England, or you end up stuck in a blackhouse complaining about the patchy mobile signal whilst trying to think of new ways to cook dulse.
As for winter, even islanders speak of it with awe. ‘Horrific,’ says William Angus, 38, born and bred on the island and director of Wild Diamond, Tiree’s biggest watersports company. ‘Seventeen or eighteen-hour nights and six, seven hours of daylight a day. When it’s force 10 round from the right and pitch dark, you’re pretty much stuck in the house. If you’re tied into a 9 to 5 regime as well, then that poses some serious issues for your general sanity.’ Steve Thomson, who moved himself and his family to the island in 2004, ran his Russian aerospace consultancy from there and managed eleven winters before he cracked. ‘It’s not that it’s bad weather,’ he says, ‘It’s that it’s bad weather for weeks. That’s what gets you down – gales and rain, day after day.’
Tiree is the windiest place in Britain (the local anenometer once registered a gust of 120mph before it too blew away), and Thomson says though he’s a big man – sixteen and a half stone – one gust knocked him flat last winter. Back in June, the Tiree Music Festival had a taste of that weather. Steve Thomson has teenage daughters who love and look forward to TMF every year. On the first night this year, the winds rose far past the forecast. ‘I was terrified,’ he says. ‘I got there at 2am, and it looked like one of those disasters on TV. It was pitch black because all the lights had gone out and I walked through this bomb site – all the tents had blown away or exploded and I got to our tent and there were my daughters just clinging on with these four lads I’d not met before. One of them had nothing but his shorts and a t-shirt because everything else he owned had blown away.’
He also realised that, on an island this small, there was no such thing as privacy. ‘It’s a bit like you’re in your own little drama.
As it was, the islanders rallied round. Tesco and Argos in Oban sent over their extra stock of camping equipment and the 2,000-odd homeless festival-goers were put up in the churches, airport, business centre, school and homes. Sam Lomas, protege of Hugh FW’s River Cafe, is chef at the pop-up Beachcomber cafe over the summer. He arrived just before the festival, and got hurled straight in. ‘I think they’re still scraping canvas off the fences, but we got through it somehow. It was almost like a refugee crisis – TMF asked us if we could make 300 sandwiches so we came back here, asked a couple of the refugees to help and started mass-sandwich making. It was quite exciting – we worked out that one of the days we pulled a 20 hour shift.’ The following day the weather improved, the festival picked itself up and the majority of visitors just kept on going.
And that sense of resourcefulness suits some people. When Steve Thomson moved here and discovered that there was no broadband, he didn’t hang about. He went into partnership, rented a satellite, bought the equipment for a wireless service from HIE, and set about assembling a network which now serves 140 island subscribers.
He also realised that, on an island this small, there was no such thing as privacy. ‘It’s a bit like you’re in your own little drama. I’m living in the city now and I just about know my neighbours, but I know absolutely utterly everything about everyone around us in Tiree. And they know everything about us – they’ve seen our children grow up, they know all the grannies, the aunties and uncles etc. So it is like living in a goldfish bowl.’
The odd thing is that Tirisdeachs and second homers and holiday-makers are all after the same thing. What each of Tiree’s tribes wants is an island just full enough of members of the same tribe, but where they can still exist completely without self-consciousness. Famous people do like this place but they also like other islands – David Cameron favours Jura, Elbow and Mumford & Sons prefer Mull – and it seems likely that, despite fears of total invasion, stalking John Swinney round the machair will remain a niche interest. Either way, the game is up. It was up a long time ago. Once you’ve reached 26,000 visitors a year, you’re an open secret.
First published in the Observer, 14th June 2015
Counting Penguins and Commuting to Antarctica: Global warming as seen through the life of a singular man.
I first met Ron Naveen in the dining room of an Antarctic cruise vessel. We were queueing for food, though since we’d reached the half-way point in one of the world’s most bad-tempered stretches of sea, and since the plates of ham and salad kept sloping 20 degrees to the right, the queue wasn’t particularly long. Beside me, a few other passengers lurched uneasily, bracing themselves with one hand and offering their plate with the other. I was staring at a basket of white buns and wondering if food tasted different if you were diagonal when you ate it when the man beside me turned, introduced himself and began talking animatedly about the early life of Robert Louis Stevenson.
Most of the other passengers on the Akademik Ioffe were dressed for the South Pole; two or three base layers, lots of high-quality outerwear. The man talking was wearing a very old pair of jeans, a baseball cap emblazoned with images of hairy penguins, a disintegrating t-shirt and a pair of sandals. I reckoned, with his afterthought hair and his warm eyes, he must be in his mid-seventies. He looked like a bum.
Over the next few days, I watched Harriet and Peter Getzels filming Ron Naveen in penguin colonies throughout the Antarctic peninsula. All the time, he talked to camera about the different breeds and the survival issues they faced. He talked about corners of the Antarctic continent where few people had ever been, the challenges posed by increased tourism and the temperamental life-cycle of the penguins’ main food source, krill. He talked about adelies and gentoos, he talked about chinstraps and emperors. He talked without ever losing enthusiasm or reaching the edge of his knowledge. All the time, he wore those jeans and that baseball cap with the hairy penguins beneath his parka. If the Getzels hadn’t reminded him, he probably would have worn the sandals too.
Ron Naveen counts penguins for a living. He and his colleagues spend a significant chunk of each year reaching difficult bits of the Antarctic and walking round with manual clickers, ticking off nests, one by one. He’s spent the last 30 years compiling a definitive record of the geological, botanical, and oceanographic features on 40 islands surrounding the Peninsula, and without him, this place would most probably have remained as scientific terra incognita.
…to have this little animal come running up and wanting to bite chunks out of your leg – you know, ‘gimme your passport, tell me who you are’
Unsurprisingly, his profession is not a crowded one. In fact, since penguins can now be counted from space, Ron and his colleagues pretty much hold the worldwide monopoly on manual nest-clicking. Over a 30 year period, he calculates that he’s probably spent more time in the Antarctic than almost anyone else alive, about five years in total. Partly because of that, he’s become the man who provides the data on which governments rely.
Why? What’s he doing this for? He was born in 1945, the only child of conservative Jewish parents in Pennyslvannia, and aged 14 discovered that an interest in birds was a great way to get out of the house. After twelve years of corporate law, he left, joined the US Fisheries Service and started a sideline in whale-and bird-watching from Ocean City in Maryland. And then in 1982 he went to the Antarctic for the first time. On Deception Island, ‘I came face to face with a chinstrap penguin, and it was like my life changed. I mean, Deception Island is a pretty dramatic place, but to have this little animal come running up and wanting to bite chunks out of your leg – you know, ‘gimme your passport, tell me who you are’, I was just totally into it. ‘
For three years he became a Polar expedition leader, hosting tables on the cruise ships.
For three years he became a Polar expedition leader, hosting tables on the cruise ships. He got seasick, he had people fall ill on him, and he once had to perform the Heimlich Manoeuvre on a passenger who choked on some lettuce. ‘I was a total wreck, but the guy survived.’ And then in 1991 when the Antarctic Treaty countries signed up to environmental impact statements, he realised that if visitor numbers to a continent without bureaucrats were going to increase, what those countries needed was data – facts about the Peninsula and its non-human inhabitants, environmental assessments and, more recently, information on climate change.
Ron’s belief – borne out by the data – is that penguins are the canaries of global warming. Since their populations are unusually sensitive to changes in the natural world, whether it be a decline in krill stocks or an increase in sea temperature, rises or falls in the numbers of penguins within one or other colony can give us clues to changes further down the line. Some breeds of penguin (Gentoo) seem to be thriving under the altered conditions, some (Adelie, chinstrap) are in steep decline.
You see the best and worst of humankind, and you see the best and worst of the weather
So far, Ron has done 23* seasons in the Antarctic. Which in turn means he’s made the trip across the Drake Passage more times than he can count. Every year in November, he escorts several box-loads of unwieldy scientific kit onto a plane from Washington to the port of Ushuaia at the bottom of Argentina, loads it onto whichever cruise ship has agreed to take him, spends three weeks in the company of passengers laughing at jokes about elephant seals he has heard countless times before, reaches a small hostile speck of land at the end of the world, loads all his stuff onto a smaller and more uncomfortable boat, spends a further two weeks standing in a blizzard with a notebook and a one-two-three clicker counting penguins or staring out of a steamed-up porthole at weather so filthy he can’t go on deck let alone onshore before then getting back on the same ship for another week’s worth of seasickness and bad jokes.
It’s a hard job both physically and mentally since all the counters have to remain hyper-aware of changes in temperature or pressure. When the weather changes, it changes fast. ‘It’s a dangerous place, the Antarctic. You see the best and worst of humankind, and you see the best and worst of the weather – storms, gales, howling winds. But you also have these quiet moments on the beach when a gentoo penguin crawls into your lap.’
Over the years, Ron has spent enough time there to see the variations between penguin breeds. ‘It’s anthropomorphic, but I believe there are differences. Chinstraps are very noisy, adelies will bite your leg off – I’ve grown to like them, and I’ve especially grown to like gentoos. They’re very gentle, curious. I’ve had them run up and sit down in my lap. The adelies will just attack you and the chinstraps just make a lot of noise. They’re like all bluster but no fight.’
Year after year, he’s pushed back and back to the Antarctic by a swelling sense of urgency. Partly because all the data he’s collected so far seems to point towards global warming on a catastrophic scale, but partly because he is aware that at some time in the future he will have to stop. ‘People keep asking me if I’m going to retire. No, I’m not going to retire. I’m not ready to let go.’ Of what? ‘Of the Antarctic. It charges up my batteries and keeps me thinking I’m on the right track. The best thing about it is that you’re totally on your own – no radio, no TV, no politicians, no noise, just you and the environment and the animals. You can feel your own heart beating through your parka. It gives you a chance to think a little more expansively about who you are, what your place might be in the scheme of things.’
Isn’t it lonely though? Doesn’t he miss his wife Ellen, working as a psychotherapist back in DC? She would come if she could, but the three or four weeks required to get to and from the Peninsula are too long away from work.
‘We’re both pretty much independent contractors – I love that I have the space and she has the space to do whatever we want to do, and then we get together and share the agonies and joys of it all, and it all works out pretty well.’
And if the Antarctic was taken out of his life, what would be missing? ‘I think I’d be kind of miserable. I would really really miss that guano smell.’ So it’s the smell of penguin poo in the morning that really does it for him? He laughs. ‘I’m not going to bottle it or anything, it is pretty gross, but there is something about that freshness which reminds you that you’re in the wild.’
‘And there’s something about the aloneness too. Those five years camping at Petermann, just three of us on this mile-long island, that ranks high as among the most special things I’ve ever done. We all had radios so we could keep in contact with each other, but I would get a jug of hot chocolate and walk down to the southern side of the island sitting among gentoo penguins and watching the sun set due south at 65 degrees latitude, and it was just special – something that very few people have seen. I’m an incredibly privileged person to have gone once, but to have had the opportunity nineteen times … I’m still watching birds, I’ve never stopped watching birds, and despite all these turns and iterations, I always keep coming back to birds.’
Published in the Guardian Weekend Magazine on 9th May 2014
It’s the young who will inherit the fallout from Scotland’s independence vote. So what do they want?
Bella Bathurst travels from the lowlands to the islands, and finds a nation on a knife edge Architecturally, the back of the Plaza shopping centre in Edinburgh’s Wester Hailes owes a lot to Guantanamo Bay. Big squat rectangular blocks covered in pipes and ducting, no windows, no doors, nothing to tell you what it is or where it stands for. It’s hostile and bunkerish and grey and it feels more like a place of punishment than of utility. It’s a drizzly Saturday morning in early April and no-one else seems to be about. On the road beyond, a bus goes past. ‘Try prayer,’ it says.
Inside Westside still feels like a detention centre, but at least there are a few people around and the shops are open. I walk out the other side. Standing on the steps by the front entrance, splayed against the correctional-coloured concrete, are a crowd, facing towards the Pentland Hills. They’re mostly male, mostly white, all different ages. The majority are wearing blue anoraks or carrying little flags printed with the word Yes. When I scan the crowd, the word is repeated over and over: Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes. Like a very polite orgasm.
One of the peculiarities of the coming Scottish referendum on independence is the effect it has had on language. The Yes campaign is led by the Scottish National Party under First Minister Alex Salmond but also includes the Greens, the Scottish Socialist Party and the Radical Independence Campaign. The No campaign includes everyone else. Its official name is Better Together, though it’s known to its friends as Bitter Together. So there are Yeses and and there are Nos, there are a lot of Unsures and – decreasingly – there are a few Not Bothereds. Which means that, whatever happens when Scotland votes on September 18th, the country will already have found itself in wild new semantic landscapes:
“‘So I’m a No, I know you’re a No, but your wife’s a Yes and your kids are half Yes, half No. Yes?’ ‘Aye. Kind of. No.'”
Anyway. Wester Hailes is the third of the Yes campaign’s Super Saturdays, big gatherings of local activists out to galvanise voters. There’s an impressive turnout for a wet weekend morning six months before the vote, over 100 people chatting under the windy gazebos. I follow MSP Gordon McDonald (personalised numberplate G2 SNP) out onto the streets. It’s a mixed area, made up partly of private houses and partly from the ubiquitous two or three-storey tenement council flats found all over Scotland. McDonald canvasses like the old pro he is, knocking on doors, polite and friendly, a wee joke here, a knowing local reference there.
Of those who are awake and prepared to do more than stand behind the curtains pretending they haven’t heard the doorbell, it’s a mixed crop, some undecided, some deranged. ‘I’m too old to be bothered,’ says a healthy-looking woman in her 60s. ‘I’ll be dead in five years, so what do I care?’ One person complains about 16-year-olds getting the vote. An elderly man with a combover says he would vote yes if someone could set his mind at ease over the currency question. Two women say they don’t trust Alex Salmond. ‘Well,’ says McDonald, ‘If we get independence, then by 2016 we’ll have our own government and you can vote in whoever you like.’ One man, busy wrangling kids and scooters, says he’s a Yes, adding, ‘If we’re going to fall flat on our faces, we might as well do it ourselves.’
Most people are happy to debate the points and most are well-informed. One woman mentions the deficit and another says she’s worried about Scotland getting into a second Darien Scheme, the disastrous 17th century colonial venture which pushed Scotland to the edge of bankruptcy and prompted its politicians to seek union with England. ‘Five Yeses,’ crows another activist, passing us. No-one on the doorsteps here rants, no-one shouts, and apart from a member of the Scottish Defence League who informs us that we’re all fucking scum, everything remains as cordial as an episode of Gardener’s Question Time.
For a politician, this place just might be the promised land. A whole country obsessed with politics. Not just taking a stand and thinking about the issues, but actually demanding more – more figures, more data, more information.
Families split down the middle, couples making contingency plans, arguments in the supermarket over taxation.
In six months time, the people of Scotland will decide whether they want to remain part of the UK or to become a separate country. Either / or. Nothing in between. Originally, there was the possibility of a third option, devo-max (greater powers but not complete detachment from Westminster) but after some lively horsetrading it was settled. Yes or no, stay or go.
It looks as if such a stark choice is doing what it was supposed to: concentrate minds, get everyone going. All the signs are for a high turnout. Back at the end of last year, the polls were holding steady. One-third of the country wanted independence, the rest wanted to remain within the UK. Now the gap is narrower and the numbers are tightening. Many of those who might refuse to vote in a general election see this as an apolitical issue, bigger than one party or one politician. The young are beginning to get involved, turning out to canvass or door-knock. The IndyRef, as the Scottish papers call it, is doing what party politics never could, and politicising a whole generation.
But whether it’s a yes or a no vote, it’s those young activists who are going to inherit the aftermath. They’re the ones who will define the future shape that Scotland takes. So what exactly do they want? Why is the question even being asked? And – since Britain is still a small island no matter which way you slice it – how come things look so very different in London and in Lerwick?
Roisin McLaren is 19 and in charge of running Edinburgh University’s Yes campaign. We meet in the Elephant House on the Mound, the cafe where adoptive Scot JK Rowling is supposed to have written much of the Harry Potter series and which still has some of the oddest loo graffiti in Britain:
“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry. But why on earth should that mean it is not real?”
McLaren is vivid and fierce, and comes prepared for battle. She’s from a political family – her mother was Scottish Socialist, her dad Revolutionary Worker’s Party, and her grandmother campaigned in 1979 for the devolution referendum. She says her grandmother remembers, ‘being laughed off the doorstep. Don’t be daft! It was a really left-of-centre, out of the box, loony idea. And now it’s a very serious possibility.’
She’s right – twenty years ago, the notion of independence seemed absurd. But since New Labour’s 1997 referendum on establishing a separate parliament, devolution has been introduced in stages. Which means that government in Scotland exists in a state of perpetual movement, with a parliament at Holyrood and a party in power but no constitution or control over things like energy policy and blowing things up. Westminster’s initial hope was that devolution would kill nationalism. Instead, the opposite happened. The SNP’s landslide victory in the 2011 Holyrood elections astounded even its leaders.
‘When I started campaigning a year ago, I didn’t think it was winnable,’ says McLaren. ‘I really didn’t. Because people weren’t really interested, right across the spectrum. But recently, even in the last month, I’ve seen a change in that. We hold a weekly stall and in the past you could barely give people a leaflet. Now they’re coming up to us and asking questions.’
She’s also had help from unexpected quarters. ‘David Cameron’s speech (at the Olympic Velodrome in February, during which he urged the rest of Britain to tell their Scottish friends to keep the Union), that was such a bad move. I got people that were voting No coming up to me and saying it went down so badly. So badly.’ Why? ‘Because it was an English twat telling us all what to do. It was a toff Tory politician who nobody here likes or voted for saying, ‘Oh, England please tell Scotland to stay in the UK because we love you so much.’ Fuck off!’ Yes, but is there anything he could have said that would have made a difference?
“No. If he’d had any sense he would have kept his gob shut. I know two voters that from that one speech are voting Yes.”
This view is echoed elsewhere. It seems it isn’t so much that the Yes camp are running a good campaign, it’s that the No campaign are seen to be running such a bad one. Their current strategy is to tell Scotland it’s a bad naughty country for thinking of walking out of the Union, and to remind it of its debts and of its debtors. At the moment that campaign is led by Alastair Darling, ex-Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer. Everyone agrees that Darling is a safe pair of hands, and everyone agrees that he’s great with sums. But since his most notable feature is eyebrows that don’t match his hair, no-one ever remembers him. He’s a charisma-free character leading a charisma-free campaign. Of all the people I spoke to, not one single person mentioned Darling. Instead they all talked about Salmond, and Cameron.
As McLaren points out, Cameron is a Tory, and the Tories are perceived as having no mandate in Scotland. The current joke is that there are more pandas here than there are Tory MPs. Election after election the Scots return Labour, SNP and Lib Dem MPs, and election after election, they get Westminster goverments they feel they didn’t vote for.
Like the mention of the Darien Scheme earlier, that old antipathy towards the Tories is a reminder that up here history isn’t like it is in England, a tame thing confined to the back of Telegraph supplements, but something still live and volatile. Cross the border and suddenly there are dates all over the place: 1314: Bannockburn. 1320: Declaration of Arbroath. 1469: Shetland dowry. 1513: Flodden. 1603: Union of the Crowns. 1692: Massacre of Glencoe. 1707: Act of Union. 1745: Jacobite Rising. 1746: Culloden. 1830s: Highland Clearances. 1988: Thatcher’s Sermon on the Mound. You can be going about, minding your own business and suddenly: bang! You find you’ve trod on a smouldering remnant of Jacobitism or fallen through an unhealed Tory cut.
So maybe that’s what this is about. Maybe it’s the desire to get away from all that contaminated history, to flit beyond the reach of two thousand years of remembrance. After all, if someone offers you the opportunity to make the world anew in exactly the shape you want it – no nuclear weapons, loads of new council houses, free prescriptions, free tuition, cheap green energy, stupendous wealth, oil, oil and more oil – wouldn’t you take it?
Wouldn’t you want to live your life full of hope and desire and excitement instead of dragging around the slag of all that past?
Even so, the Yes campaign has its weak spots too. Back in November, the SNP published its White Paper outlining its vision for an independent Scotland. Though it filled in much of the detail, it also left a lot out – like, for instance, what it’s going to cost to buy a whole new nation, and what sort of money those bills are going to be paid with.
So what does McLaren think about George Osborne’s claim that an independent Scotland would have to find an alternative currency? ‘We’ll be allowed to use the pound.’ Yes, but if you’re not? ‘The Bank of England want as many people to use their currency as possible. It’s a business, and it’s in its interest for Scotland to use the pound.’ And if it doesn’t? ‘This is the question the media keep asking. Why do you ask us that? We know we’re going to keep the pound, so stop asking us silly questions and ask us something interesting about what will happen after independence.’ But the money is interesting. ‘I don’t agree actually, I think it’s really boring. I think most voters think it’s boring too – most people are so fed up of hearing about the pound. Can we not get on to why we actually want it?’
OK, so why do you want it? ‘I don’t like the fact that we can be taken into illegal wars when every single one of our politicians voted against it. I don’t like the way Britain portrays itself on the world stage. I think an independent Scotland would be a lot more peaceable and a lot more reasonable. And I would like the chance to reform local authorities – they’re too big, so we don’t have a lot of local engagement. And we spend too much on the army. And God, it would be great to get rid of Trident.’
‘Mostly, I think often when something goes wrong, we go, oh, it’s Westminster’s fault. If we ran our own affairs, we’d make our own mistakes and find our own solutions. Of course we’d get it wrong, but we’d have ourselves to blame and no-one else – it would be a healthier situation than this slightly childish democracy that we have at the moment.’ So it’s about growing up? ‘Yes, basically.’ And have people taken on board that if you get it, you can’t go back?
“Yes. I think that’s why people are so concerned about it and taking it so seriously, because they know this is it.”
150 miles away on the Isle of Mull, Iain Mackay looks after 7,000 acres of one of Scotland’s most lucrative exports: scenery. Mull is beautiful and strange, and the light on the land does indeed do funny things to your heart. At Torloisk on the western edge, Mackay has considerately scattered Highland cattle – so photogenic, so ginger – all across the low ground.
The cattle might make excellent foreground, but it’s bloody hard farming here. Thin soil, patchy grazing, extreme wind and approximately neverending rainfall a month. Now 41, Mackay is living with his girlfriend in a caravan squelched into a corner of his farmyard. He’s friendly and thoughtful, involved in both the Farmers for Yes campaign and in attempts to make it easier for young entrants to get into agriculture. ‘You feel very removed from power here,’ says Mackay. ‘Even more removed than they do in the Central Belt. But in some ways that’s an advantage – just leave us alone and let us get on with it.’
Life on the islands is expensive. A ton of hay costs £25 on the mainland but with carriage charges it’s £60 by the time it gets to Mull. ‘Rural areas in Scotland used to be Liberal or even Conservative with the landed classes. My grandparents are Conservative voters and have been all their life. But if you talk to the SNP, they say Mrs Thatcher was the best thing that ever happened to the SNP because of the way she treated Scotland. Whether it was intentional or unintentional, it certainly accelerated the rise of the SNP.’
How does he feel the campaign is going so far? Mackay doesn’t read the papers or get the news on telly – ‘The only thing I get is the Scottish Farmer and I only got that because I got a free pair of wellies’ – so his experience is mainly from the research he’s done himself. ‘I was at a Highland Cattle sale in Feb, and an English chap came up to me. We usually get on well, but he was saying, ‘We support you guys. Look at the money we give you.’ I said,
“So why do you want to hold on to us? If we’re costing you that much, just let us go.’ All the other bits of the empire took back their independence a while back, and they’re doing fine.”
But Mackay’s English farmer is unusual. Even the threat of losing 59 mainly Labour MPs from Westminster, thus opening up the possibility of an everlasting Tory majority, doesn’t seem to be troubling the English much. In fact, the most visible signs that anyone is paying attention are from the business sector. Most large companies have contingency moving plans in place, though the SNP argue that they had the same plans before devolution and that never came to anything. In the meantime everyone’s playing a waiting game, and the market is showing it. Property sales from Scots to Scots haven’t been affected, but the top end has slowed as English or overseas buyers wait to see how this plays out.
‘What I’m saddened by is all this stuff about separation,’ says Mackay, ‘As if we’re going to take a chainsaw down the country and float off somewhere. That’s not going to happen. But we’re supposed to be a union just now, and a union is supposed to be two people getting together to decide what’s best for each other. At the moment, Scotland doesn’t feel as if it’s an equal.’
Back in Edinburgh, Anya O’Shea is 23, a seasoned Labour Party member, and involved in the University’s No campaign. She concedes they’re having trouble challenging the blissful picture presented by the pro-independence movement. ‘The other side can say, ‘if you vote Yes, there’d be no bedroom tax, no austerity measures, free tuition, you’ll never have a Conservative government again …’ We’re arguing for the status quo, and that’s not so easy. We know we’ve been promised more devolved powers after a No vote, but we can’t tell people what those are going to be.’
Out on the doorsteps of Leith or Granton, she finds that the votes usually divide according to age and sex. Men are more likely to be voting Yes, women No. And the newly-enfranchised 16-year-olds are mainly No – they live in a global world, so why would they choose to make it smaller? ‘Young people always ask about job opportunities. They want to be able to move around, to go overseas. And older people, particularly if they work in the public sector, tend to say that they’re voting No because they want job security.’
O’Shea is a very British mixture – father Welsh, mother Polish, Irish ancestry, originally from London, Scottish boyfriend, wants to stay here after she finishes her degree.
“I’m British, but Scotland feels like home to me. I’m campaigning because this is so important, and because it’s part of a bigger picture. I feel an increasingly emotional attachment to this place, and I don’t want to feel like I’m crossing a border when I go back down to London.”
She, like many others, has also picked up a couple of deeper faultlines in the debate. One, that not everyone has understood what powers Scotland already has under devolution. Two, that even the well-informed don’t always grasp that a Yes vote is not a vote for the SNP as the party in power for perpetuity, but a vote to establish a whole new government with as many parties as it wants.
And three, that very few people trust either the politicians or the media to tell them true. ‘I’ve had friends coming up to me in the library saying they’re confused about the issues and asking me where they can find a straightforward list of the pros and cons,’ says O’Shea. People are so accustomed to being spun to, they’ve stopped trusting most public sources of information. Those with the motivation to do so can scroll past the cybernat trolls and find some material online, but IMF or IFS briefing notes aren’t exactly easy reads. For the No campaign, that confusion is turning out to be an asset. As one Clydebank voter put it, ‘It’s fear of the unknown that will keep Scotland united.’
Far to the north, a plane is coming in over the sea. Nothing appears of the runway until, with no more than a few feet to go, the passengers find themselves looking down on a different land. Rocks and roads, a terminal, a few houses crouched low in the grass. The passengers who walk off the plane – just men, no women – are carrying holdalls marked Petrofac or Total. They wait for cars to take them into Lerwick, still disjointed by the weekly 760* mile commute from London to Shetland.
They and 1,500 other workers are currently employed either at the oil terminal at Sullom Voe or on the £800m construction site for the new gas plant nearby. At night, they come home to one of the huge ‘floatels’ moored in the strip of water between Bressay and the mainland, ex-cruise ships or barges now being used as accommodation blocks. One of them, known as the Zebra, has been dazzled in black-and-white camouflage paint. At night, it’s lit up and sits rocking softly, staring at the town as the town stares back at it. One economy stapled on to another.
Shetland is a country within a country, a scale model of the referendum’s main points. If this debate is all about oil, then here is where it starts and ends. Back in the ’70s Shetland cut a deal whereby in return for parking an oil terminal on the islands the industry would fund a charitable trust. At present, the Trust holds about £217 million – about £9,700 per person – which it spends on everything from folk festivals to bus services for the elderly. Salmond wants to do something similar for an independent Scotland.
The oil has been good in other ways. There are currently so many extra workers here that the islands are experiencing a full-blown housing crisis. The few hotels around Lerwick are always full and, since there’s very little private accomodation to rent, prices for the few places available are up there with the London suburbs: £1,200 a month for a measly two-bed halfway out of town. There’s 22,000 people in Shetland, no recession, and less than one percent unemployment.
‘The only way you can be unemployed is if you don’t want to work,’ says one college student.
Few people in Shetland are voting for independence. Why would they? Many of the oil workers come from England or overseas and don’t have a vote, the Union is working just fine for them, and besides, the majority of Shetlanders don’t see themselves as Scots. This place has always considered itself as closer kin to Norway than to Edinburgh or Westminster. You can hear it in the accent, which (unlike the broad Central Belt of the TV series) sounds like someone’s taken a handful of Norse, a handful of Icelandic, a handful of Aberdonian and gargled them round in salt water. As Lizzie Ratter, 29-year-old manager of the Jamieson knitwear shop in Lerwick puts it, ‘I’m a Shetlander first, a European second and a Scot not at all.’
Ratter’s grandmother used to knit the beautiful spidery Shetland shawls whilst walking round the island with a baby and the morning post on her back. Fish and knitting were the only way of surviving here, and since Shetland is still cut off from the mainland every winter, it doesn’t see any point in relying on outsiders. Whether it runs out in 20 years or 40, most Shetlanders know that the oil won’t last, the boom will end, and one day this will probably have to go back to being what it always was: a nation in miniature, looking out over the water.
In all the different Scotlands, one image always recurs: that of a marriage. So, just for the sake of it, let’s pretend that there’s this couple, Albion and Caledonia. They’ve been married for a long time – over 300 years – and it’s been a productive but troubled relationship. Albion is happy with things as they are but Caledonia wants to leave. Albion is often seen flirting with other countries and Caledonia feels bullied. When Caledonia threatens to walk out, Albion’s response is to remind her of all the things she’ll lose: the house, the furniture, the money, the security, the music, the pictures. Which only makes Caledonia more determined to go. Her blood is up, she’s made plans, she’s sure she’ll get by somehow. All of us – English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, whether we have a vote in the referendum or not – get to be counsellors on this. So what chance would you give them?
Thomas Joshua Cooper
Ingleby Gallery Exhibition Catalogue, September 2014
In September 2014, the Ingleby Gallery held an exhibition of Thomas Joshua Cooper’s most recent photographs. I spent an astonishing couple of days with him at his studio in Glasgow and on the road in the Borders watching him work. The result is this profile
TJC working by the Tweed ©Bella Bathurst
It’s a couple of days after the fire at the Glasgow School of Art when I first meet Thomas Joshua Cooper. Down on Sauchiehall Street people stop and look up the road, searching for the Mac’s familiar shape and seeing instead derelict window frames and the blackening imprints of flames on the brickwork. Cooper’s studio is a block along from the Mac, and to get there I have to skirt a cordon still sharp with the scent of smoking wood. On the doorstep, Thomas’s wife Kate Mooney is waiting with a mop and a bucket. She’s been cleaning off clots of soot and the pungent after-effects of pissed spectators.
Upstairs, I expect Thomas to be preoccupied with the fire and its after-effects. This place is part of him, after all; he founded its Fine Art Photography Department – the first of its kind in the world – he’s taught here for over three decades, and even if he only uses the actual Mac building for exhibitions, it’s still a kind of home. He may be one of the greatest of our living photographers and he may have wandered from the North Pole to the South in search of pictures, but all those wanderings have ultimately brought him back to this same street and these same rooms.
But when I get there, Thomas isn’t fussed by any of it. In fact, he doesn’t mention the fire once. What’s really bothering him is that somehow overnight the proofs for his next exhibition have been misplaced. He was going to show them to me but somehow overnight they’ve disappeared. This offends him on all sorts of levels. Partly because, in the unimaginable event that they’re really lost, that’s years of work to be redone. Partly because it makes him seem disorganised, and he’s not remotely disorganised. His life and work outside this studio may be operatic both in scale and in tone, but life inside is scrupulously controlled. And above all because he wanted to show them to me and not to do so seems rude. And Thomas, I very quickly learn, is never rude.
He has an old-fashioned, almost Southern sense of courtesy, and an absolute instinct for the placing of things.
Anyway, the proofs can’t be found, so until they reappear we sit and talk. This in itself takes a fair amount of rearrangement. There are three chairs in his office, but those chairs sit somewhere beneath 30 years of work. Since he spends more time here than he does at home, every corner of it is completely inhabited. The space is packed from floor to ceiling with materials – books shelved first vertically and then horizontally, old photos, school shots of his two daughters, Agfa photo-paper boxes used as a storage system, a shelf containing a cushion on which his 1898 large-plate camera sits shrouded by a black cloth, an electric heater, a filing cabinet, a phone, and a desk almost invisible below the weight of books.
Thomas, Kate and I shuffle penguin-style into his office and squeeze ourselves between the narrow paper canyons. Kate sits at the end, I am facing a well-used pile of maritime books and Thomas ends up sitting directly under the doorjamb, half in and half out of the room. When he gets up to show me some of his work, we all reverse out again in date order. Out in the hallway are pinned a whole series of maps and contacts of all the photos he’s made for each project, brightly categorised with flourescent tabs. In the room where he keeps the prints themselves, there are a further series of storage boxes on which are written the names of projects (Settlement, Sea / Land / Rocks / Tree / Grasses, Away From Home), and an old map of the Americas on which the entire Atlantic seaboard has been ringed with pebbly red circles of felt tip from Cape Farewell to the End of the World. The top and bottom of the map run out before the red rings do.
That map alone reveals an exceptional travelling. Cooper groups all his projects according to size and duration, so there are small (a short, concentrated work like Shoshone Falls), medium (the Scattered Waters project), and completely deranged. The Atlas project is Thomas’s attempt to circumnavigate the entire Atlantic Basin, all five continents, Pole to Pole, Old World to New. So far, it’s taken 24 years. Occasionally there’s a pause – other work, lack of funding – but then once again he gathers himself and resumes. With the help of a recent grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, he’s just returned from a three week trip to Repulse Bay to complete another corner of the project. Why? “Curiosity,’ he says instantly. ‘I’m interested in edges, and these were the most extreme physical edges that there are. And what happens when an edge has been reached but the desire to find something else hasn’t been stopped by the edge. Ideas can be halted, but they usually can’t be stopped.’
“I wanted to see if I could stand on all of the extremities surrounding the Atlantic Basin and what it would be like to imagine more, further.”
If Thomas were one of those sprightly TV explorer types with muscles and a camcorder and a genuine relish for camping or cold or humping huge quantities of heavy equipment over hostile terrain, perhaps all of this would make more sense. But he’s not. Instead he’s tall and shortsighted and wears himself like something he just hauled out of the laundry basket. By his own admission he finds the physical world so troubling that he regularly gets lost at home in Glasgow – ‘Fuck! It’s a disaster. I never know where I am. In fact, one of the pictures I’ll be showing is called Lost in North-East Scotland. I know it was on the Findhorn, but I have no idea where I was.’ And yet almost by accident, Cooper has gone further, seen more, than anyone else. In addition to being the best of our landscape photographers, he has also become one of our great explorers.
Scattered Waters contacts on TJC’s studio wall ©Bella Bathurst
BB: What’s it going to be like when the Scattered Waters project ends?
Kate: Thomas will think of something new. He’ll have added three more rivers, he’ll have made the day longer, he’ll have postponed the show, the book will be bigger, the frames will cost more – everything will be more than he originally agreed to. And he’ll then say oh, but I haven’t really finished it.
TJC: No, I’m done with the Scottish rivers. Once we get this book done, then we’re done. But I’ve committed a bunch of pictures on the Rio Grande …
Kate: If you offer Thomas breakfast, he’d say yes, that would be nice. And you’d say, do you want porridge? Do you want bacon? Do you want eggs? And he’d say, yes, I’ll have everything. And that’s exactly the same as making the pictures – yes, he’ll have everything.
TJC: So, your point?
The difficulties involved in reaching some of the most inaccessible, inhospitable or politically sensitive parts of the globe are only amplified by Cooper’s working methodology. A long time ago, having made the decision to be a photographer, he made a series of vows. One, he would only photograph landscape. Two, he would use only black & white film. Three, he would use only one camera and one lens. And four, in each place, he would only ever make one exposure. All those vows were made on April Fool’s Day 1969, and he’s kept to them ever since.
So devotedly that he has never made a single image of anything else, not even of his two daughters either at their birth or as they have grown up. It was Kate who took all the family pictures.
Conforming to those renunciations makes his working life as pure and hard as a jesuit’s. So to reach some of the places in True, his 2008 work on the Poles, took almost three years of forward planning, paperwork and permissions, the chartering of a special ice-strengthened boat, the collaboration of two assistants, and – for the South alone – 93 days away. When he reached Prime Head at the very topmost point of the Antarctic Peninsula, a place so often blocked by ice that only ten people have ever stood there, he made just four exposures. ‘After 45 years, I know what I want when I see it, and I’m really good at seeing what I want, because I only make one thing of what I do. That’s it, every time.’
BB: There are simpler ways of taking pictures.
TJC: No there aren’t. This is the simplest way possible. OK, maybe there are simpler ways of taking pictures, but there are no simpler ways of making them. Mine is the simplest, most basic way of making a picture that still exists photographically. There are simpler places to make them in, but there’s no simpler process. This is, you know, this is basic techology, big plate camera on a tripod, dark cloth, one snap, and that’s it.’
The point of course is not the travelling, but the places he brings back when he gets there. In almost all his images there are just two elements: water and sky, or earth and water. After all that time he has acquired the skill to make horizons cross the line between one dimension and another. His water – even normal domesticated water like the Water of Leith – smokes and twines, roars and silvers, rises like air or dissolves into myth. There are mackerel wavelets and Nessie humps, roaring buoys and smoking hazes. Water can hiss or sussurate, cleave or overwhelm, meet the great continents quietly or boil them away. It can slide back for a second to reveal what’s beneath or close right over, as finished as skin. By timing those single exposures perfectly, he reveals the pathways in a sea or makes it blacker than galaxies. These aren’t photographs of rivers or land, they’re paintings with a camera of the states between one World and another. Look at the prints – especially the medium-sized or large ones – and it’s impossible not to fall in.
He has a lifetime’s knack of being able to walk up to a patch of land or water, and to name it.
It would be nice to think it’s an ancestral skill. Cooper was born in California, the eldest son of a Jewish mother whose first language was Mandarin Chinese and a mixed-race Cherokee Indian who became a commander in the US Navy. ‘He was born Indian, and died white,’ Cooper says now. In other words, his father might have fought for his country, but he was never really acknowledged as a part of it. Despite his father’s exemplary war record, discrimination against Native Americans was then so bad that the family ended up moving further and further away from the centres of population. When the family were right out nowhere, his father began teaching Thomas and his sister about plants, and about land, and about how to recognise things. Above all, he taught him how to notice.
Thomas’s mother died suddenly when Thomas was sixteen, leaving his father to look after his siblings. Thomas got himself to college in California and was mentored as a post-grad in New Mexico by the godfather of American landscape, Ansel Adams. But Cooper never really identified with Adams’ sublime technical sterility. As far as he’s concerned, he’s not a landscape photographer, he’s someone who makes pictures outdoors, and what he liked was the messier, freer work of landscape artists such as Richard Long and Hamish Fulton. And so, when the Glasgow School of Art offered him a position, he came to Britain and stayed.
Or rather, came to Britain and then went away again. Overall, Thomas must have spent years in the air or at sea or bumping along unmarked tracks in unnoted corners of the globe. Which is funny in itself, because he doesn’t much like boats or the sea – ‘my preferred mode of travel is helicopter.’ The sea is cold and difficult to traverse; it’s not what he belongs to or where he wants to be. But maybe it’s exactly that friction which makes him so good at describing it, and so at getting it to describe something about us.
We’re talking about the pictures he made of Corrievreckan, the strange, almost supernatural whirlpool between the west coast islands of Jura and Scarba.
BB: How did you get to the right spot?
Kate: The only way to get there is to walk there. And Thomas isn’t a particularly good traverser of objects.
TJC: My camera weighs probably about five kilos. And the tripod weighs about 25 kilos. And then the film can is about seven kilos.
BB: So if you’re travelling alone …?
TJC: I have the tripod on my back, the camera in my left hand always and the film box in my right. So if I need a hand free, I tuck the film box against my body with the left hand and use my right for climbing over heather and rocks. It was awful trying to get there with all my shit, being a human camel.
Kate: That was not the problem.
TJC: What was the problem?
Kate: The problem was the box of wine.
TJC: (laughing sheepishly)
Kate: They went out with someone called Julie Brook who was living in one of the caves on Jura, and Thomas went with Graeme Murray. They went for a weekend and Graham brought supplies. The first night was a disaster because they both snored so she had to sleep further away, and the second night she found she’d been carrying wine the whole time …
TJC: It wasn’t me, I promise you!
Kate: … And the third night she got so pissed off she moved into a B&B.
All that journeying means that Thomas has amassed a truly world-class collection of traveller’s tales: of camping in polar bear territory in Greenland or seeing a saint’s possible Paradise on the Gulf of St Lawrence, of making pictures on Russian nuclear icebreakers and being piloted by a nine-year-old boy using celestial navigation and butterflies in Venezuela, of being so long at sea in the Antarctic that they ran out of food and water and drank icebergs instead, of falling into sinkholes on the Trail of Tears and of almost drowning down a quicksand on the Rio Grande. In fact, quite a lot of his stories involve near-death experiences. This last triphe fell ten foot off a cliff, dislocated his knee, broke a couple of ribs and had to be medivacced out. The reach of his imagination extends far beyond this earth – ‘There are pictures of the Sea of Tranquility (on the Moon) that I really truly need to do’ – but the gravity of time, money and physical wear-and-tear keeps bearing down on him.
He’s nearly 70, and he keeps breaking things.
Even getting through airport security is fraught. High levels of radiation either damage or wipe film negatives. In the past, airline x-rays weren’t as penetrating as they are now, and besides, staff were used to photographers carrying film through as hand-baggage. Now, with increased security paranoia, levels of radiation are turned up high enough to nuke Moscow.
BB: (Pointing to the three stacked black heavy-duty plastic boxes lined with foam and containing slots for each neg slide) Do you get a lot of hassle?
TJC: Oh fuck! It’s just unbelievable. I have to go before the airport opens and then try and negotiate, because they often want to pull the slides, so I have a blank one – this is what the holder looks like, this is what the film looks like, this is what’s there, don’t x-ray them individually. It’s just one monster hassle.
Kate: In combination with being American, which means you’re not welcome most places anyway.
TJC: I was beaten in trying to cross by land the Columbian – Venezuelan border. I carry baby powder for skin weirdness, so I had sealed Johnson’s baby powder. The guard sees me trying to cross with a bunch of baby powder, sweating like a dog. He looks at this: cocaine, baby powder, cocaine, baby powder. Fuck, man! So he takes his knife and he chops the top off and dips it in and has a giant snort. And of course it’s baby powder. And he starts choking.
TJC: And that’s exactly the instinct – I grinned a little. And he absolutely cold caught me – bap! Hit me as hard as he could. Knocked me down, took all my shit and dumped it all out, and then kicked me back across the border
Though he knows the stories fascinate people, Cooper won’t trade in anecdotage. And while every one of his pictures is always captioned precisely, the details of where a picture was made, and how, and when, and all the mishaps and serendipities which put him there at that exact point at that exact moment are both incredibly important and totally irrelevant.
“The stories are potentially more interesting than the pictures, but they’re autobiographical in a way that I’m not interested in. My work is being a picture-maker. And the stories are what happens when you try and work. So last time I broke my ribs and whacked my knee, but they fixed my knee so I could continue to work. And no matter what, I don’t let anything get in the way of the work.”
Those missing proofs turned up the following day – they’d been taken away by his assistant for safekeeping. In the month or so since, Cooper has been working on the images for the Ingleby exhibition. There’s still space, he thinks, for a couple more pictures of the Tweed, but Kate and the girls are away on a trip up to Durness. Before she leaves Kate sends me an email suggesting I drive. Thomas has offered to, ‘but I would not accept if I were you. He can’t see.’
So, on a fresh Sunday in early July, I pick Thomas up from outside the studio and head down the road towards Kelso. He’s been awake for 41 hours straight, printing. With most film photographers, this would mean they’d come tottering out coked on chemistry and reeking of fix. But Thomas’s darkroom is an altogether more wholesome experience. Along with the usual basins and sinks, what dominates the room is his vast collection of CDs – blues, African, jazz, country, everything from Leonard Cohen to Afro Cubism. So does every photograph have its own music? ‘It’s funny that you should say that – each print has its own music. And I work in total darkness so I can see better, if that makes sense. So I find something that I can that has a move to it that I can wiggle my hands to while I’m dodging and burning, repetitively, over and over, so it becomes a muscle memory.’ When he gets to the end of the CD he presses the repeat button and listens to it all over again. A medium-sized print takes him eight hours and a big one takes twelve hours, non-stop. When he moves onto another print, he chooses a different album. ‘And then there’s certain music I always do the toning and washing very late at night to. I need loud rhythm to keep my concentration up with the toning, because if I miss, I overtone it and then I’ve ruined everything.’
Like all photographers who maintain an analogue practice, Thomas is finding it harder and harder to get hold of materials. Agfa, who made the paper he likes, went bust in 2006, so Thomas and a couple of other photographers bought up all the remaining stock. It’s enough to last for maybe six or seven years, and once that runs out, that’s it – ‘I’m done. I’m done. I’ll quit.’ He uses two toners: selenium, which gives a deep rich red-brown tint, and gold chloride, which is a faint purply-blue. Selenium has been banned in the EU as a carcinogen and gold chloride – well, it’s gold, so it’s expensive. And his standards are ruthless.
Though he’ll make between eight and twelve prints of each individual image, he’ll discard three-quarters of them. Everything, always, has been done in editions of four – three to sell, one for Kate.
None of this would have been possible without her. It is Kate who, despite her own work as a silversmith, acts as intermediary and translator between Thomas and the world. They met in 1986 when Thomas knocked her sideways. Literally. He was hurrying across the street near the School of Art one day and collided with her so hard she fell over. He helped her up, apologising. ‘And then I looked at her,’ he says, ‘And thunderbolt. Really. Just a thunderbolt.’ By that stage, he was in his late thirties and had just assumed he’d remain single. A few weeks later he held a barbecue for a group of students, and Kate was there. She stayed to help him clear up and somehow they started seeing each other. Every week for five years, he asked her to marry him. She always said no. No reason, just ‘no.’ After five years, he stopped asking, and she said yes. They got married on the summer solstice in 1993.
In Kelso, there’s a biker’s convention in front of Floors Castle. We go scouting at the base of the bridge, looking for the point at which the Teviot joins the Tweed. After an hour or so, we’ve wandered around the town but found nothing more inspirational than a caravan park and a burn full of traffic cones. So we get back in the car and drive north. As we drive through Stobo, it starts to rain. Not normal rain, but huge punching drops, smashing into the metal, turning the view from benign summer pastoral to shining waterworld. Rain is sluicing down the roads, pooling in the dips, the deluge too sudden and too severe to allow it time to drain away. As we turn up the little hillside road to Dreva, it changes from rain to hail, tiny little white stones coming down so hard on the windscreen I wonder if it might actually break. Ahead of us, the road foams. And in the passenger seat, Thomas is overjoyed. He’s clapping and high-fiving, whooping and peering down the hillside to where the Tweed – which until a couple of minutes ago was meandering along doing its placid thing under a placid sky – is now rousing and swelling into something completely other.
It takes us a few further watery minutes before we find the perfect spot. By the time we’ve transported Thomas’s kit down the bank, the rain has stopped. But in the place where two waters join, there’s a change. The water from the smaller stream is thickening with sediment while the water from the Tweed is still flowing clear. Thomas fits the camera up on the tripod, disappears under the dark cloth, makes several adjustments and presses the cable release. One chance, one exposure. Before he packs up again he takes a note of the place, the aperture and the exposure length and then shows me the view through the back of the camera; upside-down trees, the reflection of the sky in the water, the dark and the light at the exact point where the rivers meet. It will be a little picture, he says, with a lot of silver.
There’s still time for one more, so we drive back down the road to the bridge over the Tweed at Dawyk. This time, it’s instant. I look over the bridge and I see water, a few mossy rocks, the scrubby green detail on the river banks, the ripples left by birds or fishes or wind. Thomas looks over the bridge and recognises something. All of a sudden, just like during the hailstorm, he’s lit up, on fire, filled with creative avarice. For an instant, everything he needs and wants is there, and all he has to do is put out his hand to catch it. Since the access here is pretty easy, the camera is all set up and ready within five minutes.
Afterwards, we pack his kit back into the boot and turn the car round away from the river, heading back to Glasgow. ‘Fuck!’ he says happily, as we drive away. ‘It’s a picture!’
Great Boars of Today
This is the original version of a piece published in the Observer Magazine on 4th March 2012
As wild boar have returned to Britain, our attitudes to them have grown increasingly capricious. Bella Bathurst investigates.
Andrew Johnson, wild boar farmer in Perthshire ©Bella Bathurst
There have been storms recently in Scotland, so at first the January drive up the stone road to Bamff House seems normal. Beyond the little lodge are signs of fresh damage – a big broken-backed Douglas Fir, a scattering of spruces, the marks of chainsaws. A little further on past a stand of rhodedendrons are ponds loaded with trunks, their limbs silhouetted on the ice, and rounding the final corner there’s another scattering of new tree stumps. But these ones haven’t been razored by saws; they’re rounded off to a pencil point. And they’re all covered in fresh tooth marks. Tooth marks? Blimey, I think, and brake. That’s not gales. That’s beaver.
I didn’t come here looking for beaver, I came here to find wild boar. But Paul and Louise Ramsay who own the 13,000-acre Bamff estate in Perthshire have spent the last decade staking their reputation on a one-family environmental and wildlife regeneration scheme which currently includes both species. Many centuries ago, beaver and boar were native to Scotland. And so back in 2002, two Norwegian beaver were released on the estate, followed a few months later by six wild boar.
Both species liked what they saw. And since both also had very specific exterior design requirements, they immediately embarked on an ambitious relandscaping plan for Bamff. Boars – the rotavators of the natural world – generally favour a Somme-style ambience, while beavers, whose hobbies include heavy engineering, dam-building, large-scale forestry operations and novelty woodwork, prefer a really large stage on which to work. In the decade since they arrived, both species have worked hard to convert large sections of the estate back from 18th Century parkland into late Pleistocene swamp.
In gardening terms, their efforts are an acquired taste. Just beside the track is a mossy old birch tree. Its trunk has been bitten three-quarters of the way through; only luck and lack of wind have stopped it toppling over onto whatever might happen to be beneath at the time. ‘Do you like it?’ asks Louise as we walk past three vast new water features and a plantation of birch saplings interestingly re-imagined as lunch. Well, I say, it’s certainly got drama. As their daughter Sophie puts it,
“It’s sort of like Jurassic Park, isn’t it?”
But Bamff’s example also provides the sharpest possible illustration of the issues involved in reintroducing species to the wild. Beaver and boar were hunted to extinction in Britain over 400 years ago, though elsewhere both continue to thrive; three quarters of a million boar are culled every year in mainland Europe. In many areas, boars have become a public menace – in Berlin alone, 2,000 are killed every year. Like foxes, they’ve realised that there are excellent pickings to be had from the bins of urban Germans. But unlike foxes, boar also have a habit of smashing through shop windows, rooting up football pitches or trashing cemeteries.
Back in the mid 1970s, a few farmers in southern England began importing wild boar from Eastern Europe to farm for meat. After a while, some of those boar escaped. They in their turn were joined by boar dumped by illegal importers, set free by animal rights activists or released by hunters for sport. By the Millennium they were flourishing, particularly in areas like the Forest of Dean which offered ideal conditions: rich deciduous woodland, plenty of interesting agricultural land nearby, the occasional bin to raid.
For a while nothing was done, and while nothing was done, the boar settled in. Separate breeding populations established themselves in Kent, Sussex, Dorset, Gloucestershire and Scotland. Their fans cited their charm and their regenerative effect on the soil. Their detractors pointed to the havoc they could cause and their enthusiasm for reproduction: a mature sow can produce two litters of between six and sixteen piglets a year.
Now, having established themselves, the wild boar find themselves accused of everything short of satanism and cross-dressing. Farmers complain of thousands of pounds’ worth of damage done to crops, fences flattened, maize laid waste. Walkers say they live in fear of boars attacking themselves or their dogs. Homeowners have their lawns rearranged and their gardens destroyed. And Foresters fear what inevitably comes with boar: poachers, hunters and men with guns.
So what exactly is it going to be? Is it realistic to bring back an animal that hasn’t lived in Britain since Henry VIII was prancing around in pink tights? Are boars better managed by Defra and the Forestry Commission, or by private landowners with high ideals and land to spare?
Should they be hunted, should they be farmed, and can they ever just be left to get on with being themselves? And what exactly do we want boar for?
Since a full-grown sow can weigh over 150 kg, they can be an intimidating presence, even if no wild boar will attack humans unless provoked. Most domestic pigs, bred and interbred over centuries, end up looking like office furniture. But a wild boar looks more or less like a pig ought to look. They’ve retained their original shape – rounded back, sticky-up ears, long delicate legs – as well as much of their individuality and their intelligence. A mature sow is front-loaded, all power in the head and chest, a miniature Picasso bull.
Defra and the Forestry Commission spent three years producing an ‘action plan’ which established that the boar were in fact wild boar rather than pigs in fur coats and laid the responsibility for dealing with them on local communities and landowners. Defra also maintained their classification as dangerous wild animals, a category which also includes Tasmanian Devils, death adders and Brazilian wolf spiders. That classification means that owners must hold a licence for wild boar, and that owners or farmers can be prosecuted for boar which escape.
In the Forest of Dean, a cull was introduced – 30 boar the first year, 60 the second, 122 in 2011. The only trouble is that no-one, not the Forestry Commission, not Defra, not the scientists or the experts, have any idea how many boar are actually out there. Despite the use of increasingly sophisticated military thermal imaging equipment, no-one has yet managed a definitive count. Talk to the landowners and the hunters, and there’s a boar bristling behind every shrub. Talk to the Foresters, and there’s no more than an oppressed handful remaining.
Either way, the boar certainly maintain a conspicuous physical presence. Foresters describe watching families of boar rooting through ground that had been snowed over and deep-frozen for several days, overturning the hard earth with their snouts as easily as if it was sand. Josh Theobald, head keeper on the Lydney estate, has seen the boar at work. ‘If they find something they like, they hammer hell out of it, snuffling and rooting, knocking up turf. Their nose looks soft, but they’re hellish strong. They’ll eat anything, pretty much. I’ve shot one three years ago and while I was trying to shoot it, it ate some some corn out of a feed-hopper, a squirrel out of a trap – ripped that out and ate the back end – and when I actually shot it it was pulling up a tree root. I mean, they’re impressive.’
‘The one I shot, it was huge, eight and a half foot long hung up, so I’m just over six foot and when I was stood up, its toes was the height of my fingers and its nose was on the floor. It took four of us to lift it into a truck. There’s a layer of fat about two inches thick all over, and when you shoot them it’s a bit like shooting a concrete block – they are solid.’ And it’s good meat?
“Oh, very good meat. I mean, everything we shoot, people are crying out for it.”
Anything that Josh shoots gets tested for TB and trichinella worm and certified by Defra before being sold on through a game dealer. But others are not so scrupulous. With the increase in interest in the boars comes a corresponding increase in poaching. Pepi Barrington, who breeds Irish Water Spaniels in the Forest, is constantly aware of their presence. ‘The number of boar have definitely gone down. That’s not because of the Forestry Commission, it’s because of poachers. There’s been been so much publicity with Autumnwatch and Springwatch and all these TV programmes, poachers come from far and wide – there’s a lot of money in boar meat, I believe.’
Barrington is as alarmed by poachers running around with guns and dogs than by the boar themselves. ‘Absolutely. Poaching is a major problem in the Dean. The FC and the police don’t do anything about it. I can guarantee it, there will be poachers out tonight. I see the lights and the tyre tracks. The police know who they are and they won’t do anything. Their resources are tight and unless it involves someone being injured, poaching is not high on their list of priorities.’ The poaching isn’t old-style stealing for the pot; it’s large-scale indiscriminate killing to order, and the poachers aren’t picky. They take all sizes and ages, including lactating females or fresh roadkill. Boars killed in traffic accidents often have a habit of vanishing before anyone official gets there. They’ll be cut up and sold on to restaurants or individuals faster than anyone can keep tabs on.
Beaver tracks, Bamff ©Bella Bathurst
‘The problem,’ thinks Barrington, ‘Is that the local community is so divided – some people think they’re wonderful and that it’s a great privilege to see this animal that was hunted to extinction back in the forest, but those people who actually use the forest find them quite dangerous.’ Two of her dogs were attacked a couple of years ago while they were out walking, though both have subsequently recovered. ‘Poor Marmite took the full brunt – this boar just shot past me towards the dogs. Marmite ran off, but when she turned round to look at me, the boar got her. I don’t know whether he got her with his tusks or bit her but she had a huge chunk out of her rear end. It was horrendous.’ She now puts bells on the collars of all her dogs so a walk in the woods below her house sounds like a stroll with a flock of alpine goats.
This then is the reason that wild boar have been tolerated for so long in mainland Europe; not because they’re likeable – they are – but because they’re tasty. Back in Scotland and an hour down the road from Bamff, Andrew Johnston has been farming wild boar commercially for 17 years. On a hillside just outside Perth he has 40 breeding sows providing a steady supply of meat for the domestic market. A decade ago, eating wild boar was a novelty; now it’s part of our rising appetite for game. The taste is not what you expect – not rich and porky, but lean and very flavoursome, almost like venison. In Johnston’s view, the British are getting a taste for wild boar. ‘There is a demand,’ he says,
“But it’s specific. Mostly it’s repeat customers who come to the farmers’ market week in, week out. They want something better than normal pork, something more interesting and exceptional.”
It was one of his boars, McQueen, which in 2002 escaped from a holding pen at the local abbatoir, swam the Tay river, scampered across Dunblane golf-course and, despite a full-scale hunt involving the emergency services, an armed response team and a televised plea for McQueen’s life by the actors Martin Shaw and Jenny Seagrove (‘this pig wants to live’) evaded his captors and fled into the Highlands. ‘I’m not sure where he ended up,’ says Johnston. ‘Probably in someone’s freezer.’
What does he think of the boar? ‘I like them. Of course. I like their company and I have few enough that I can get to know them individually – whether they’re grumpy, whether they like to be photographed, whether they’ll be good with the kids. I’m not soppy – there’s no names or anything, but I do get to know them. I couldn’t do this without having a bit of a passion for it – it doesn’t generate a huge income.’
Up in Bamff, the Ramsays are also farming their boar. When Paul first decided to introduce boar a decade ago, ‘I understood that I was getting three gilts – virgin females, I suppose you’d say. And then it turned out that far from being three gilts, there were six of them, three females, two males, and an intersex.’ Intersex? ‘Yes.’ Hermaphrodite? ‘Well, yes. It was slightly awkward, because this boar, which definitely thought of itself as the alpha male, would knock the other chaps off the job, and then of course he couldn’t serve the females himself.’ He didn’t have the equipment?
“He didn’t have the equipment. He was also rather aggressive, so he got shot.”
Louise has been impressed by the boars’ intelligence. ‘One rutting season (in November*), our old boar decided he was going to visit all his wives. So he just lifted the gate off its hinges and quietly removed himself from the enclosure. He was a very dignified old creature, and you would pass him on the drive he’d just walk past you with this, ‘oh, hello,’ expression. Sheep when they’re not in their enclosure look very guilty and rush off, but he wasn’t like that, he was just, ‘oh, hi.’
So what do the boars make of the beavers? ‘The boars love what the beavers do because they love to wallow, so they love wet muddy places.’ Despite this display of ecological harmony, both boar and beaver are under threat. ‘Just over a year ago in November 2010 we learned that SNH (Scottish Natural Heritage) intended to trap and remove all the wild beavers (in Scotland),’ says Louise. ‘We thought, no, that’s a daft idea because they’re a native species, they do a huge amount of good, and also, while they’re pretending to have a trial reintroduction in Argyll, there are so many dark forces moving against it. So I started a campaign called ‘Save the Free Beavers of the Tay’ on Facebook.’ I laugh. Lots of people would happily join a campaign called Save the Free Beaver, I say. ‘Yes,’ says Paul, ‘We did get quite a lot of people. Not all of them were interested in animals.’
It’s hard not to root for the boar. They’ve done nothing more or less than behave as boar are supposed to behave, but they’ve found themselves staring down the wrong end of our bipolarity towards wildness. It’s us – photographers, dog-walkers, hunters, poachers, landowners and experts – whose behaviour has been divided and erratic.
So what kind of Pandora’s Box have we opened? Can any reintroduced wild species really hope to coexist with a world full of agribusiness, mobile phone masts and 4x4s? Where, in this crowded island, is there a space for the boar? And besides, what exactly do we want them for? Like it or not, all of these questions are all here to stay.