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13 March 2000

It’s not just a place for hillwalkers

New Statesman Scotland - While farming has long ceased to be a horse-and-plough idyll, farm

By Alan Massie

The Scots Thesaurus published ten years ago by Aberdeen University Press was designed, wrote its chief editor, Iseabail Macleod, “to display the vocabulary of the Concise Scots Dictionary in a new way” by arranging it thematically. The book is a browser’s delight. But it is more than that; nobody interested in Scots language and culture can fail to learn from it. Most importantly, as the great historian of rural Scotland Alexander Fenton wrote, it gives “a picture of a non-industrialised countryside, whose occupants knew their environment, their stock of domesticated animals and the ills that could befall them. They knew wild creatures that impinged upon their lives as good to eat, or as pests, or simply as starlings that nested in their chimneys . . . ”

The farming section takes up 43 pages, almost 10 per cent of the thesaurus. To it must be added the 14 pages of the section devoted to domestic animals, and the 24 pages of the environment section. The 33 pages of words relating to food and drink also contribute to the picture of rural life.

Almost all the words – at least 90 per cent of them – are obsolete. They are obsolete because the society that formed them, and needed them and used them, no longer exists. Some linger in a few parts of the country – Aberdeenshire, the Borders, the glens of Angus, Galloway, Ayrshire. But, in general, the Scots Thesaurus is a record of a vanished way of life, keeping the vocabulary of a language that, if not stone dead, is moribund. Most of what passes for Scots today – talked up but rarely spoken by cultural nationalists – is an urban demotic which differs from standard English in accent but only here and there in vocabulary.

In 1997 a small London schoolboy, visiting an open farm in Hertfordshire, contracted the bacterium E-Coli, the source of which was traced back to a goat. Children under the age of five are more likely than older children or adults to suffer from complications of E-Coli; and this child unfortunately did. His brain is irremediably damaged, and he is unlikely to walk unaided again. This case prompted Professor Hugh Pennington of Aberdeen University to recommend that children under the age of five should not be taken on visits to farms.

The Scotsman still has a farming page, giving mart prices among other things, and it is the favoured newspaper in farming households in the east of Scotland and the Borders. But on 21 February, the day after Professor Pennington delivered his warning, the first paragraph of its second leader read: “The rural idyll, such as it ever was, is at an end. The British attachment to the countryside and all it symbolised, romantic as it may have been, is all but gone. Salmonella, E-Coli, BSE, GM foods, battery farms, phosphates and the rest: whatever the truth of each scare, we are left disabused. The images of pure, reliable, wholesome sustenance – of a natural relationship with the earth and its creatures – no longer persuade. As farm incomes plummet, and young people leave the land, a tragedy is unfolding.”

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The Sunday Post, once the most characteristic of Scottish newspapers, has a perennially popular comic strip, “The Broons”. Town-dwellers representing social types now obsolete, the Broons are never happier than when they can treat themselves to a weekend in the country at their cottage – their “but’n’ben”, their version of the rural idyll. That version still exists: country cottages have never been more in demand. But many of the weekenders who occupy them are not only ignorant of everything to do with farming, but even hostile to it. For such people, farming is an activity that spoils the countryside they feel entitled to enjoy. Likewise, leaf through Who’s Who in Scotland and you will find that one of the most popular of listed recreations is hillwalking. Indeed, hillwalking is the most politically correct leisure activity in modern Scotland. Although I know farmers who enjoy it, and other country people who relish nothing better than a day in the hills, the landscape that many hillwalkers delight in is an empty one. They would be happy with a countryside devoid of economic activity; and farming is nothing if it is not an economic activity. It always has been.

Some Frenchman once remarked that the garden he liked best had good vegetables in it. Quite so; I like a hill with sheep on it, and the most beautiful landscape has black Aberdeen Angus cattle knee-deep in the grass. No farmer myself, but of farming stock, and with a brother, brother-in-law and several nephews all farming in Aberdeenshire, I am just old enough to remember when nobody talked of agribusiness, and when dung was the only fertiliser the ground knew. When I was a boy, we still had Clydesdales and no tractor on my mother’s farm; I have walked behind the horse-drawn binder at harvest time, and helped, unhandily, to stook a field. A field of stooks in pale-golden September evening light is one of the beautiful sights that has gone from the countryside.

That world was beginning to pass away even a half-century ago. It is preserved now only in song and literature. The songs are the bothy ballads, but perhaps the best of the literature and the most complete picture of that vanished world is offered by David Kerr Cameron in his marvellous trilogy: Ballad and the Plough, Willie Gavin and The Cornkister Days. They tell how it was: “They are gone from the land, those men I once knew . . . Theirs was the society of the Clydesdale horse and the hired man. It was a society of folk dominated by hard work and the six-monthly Sacrament Sunday, though, for all that, the man who travelled the stallion round the spring [farm] touns crept quietly into the maidservant’s bed and was not made unwelcome. Its folk were never the dull stoics of Jefferies’s English landscape . . . Most, in fact, were damnably contentious, loquacious within the limits of their own, known world, and not a few lifted their horizons beyond it. They were part of a rural society more complex than might now be supposed, one of strange subtleties and almost undetectable nuances: that of the fee’d loon [single man], the wandering cottar, the crofter, the tenant farmer and the landowner, in that relationship of rising order. Its stresses and divisions were at times fearsomely real and sometimes desperate.”

Gone, now, utterly; only faint echoes may be heard, and only books such as Cameron’s keep memories alive. Today a young man may farm 600 or 1,000 acres, but he will spend his days often entirely alone, doing all the work by himself. There will be a few employees on larger farms, and these will be highly skilled technicians.

The irony of the present time, which sees farming experiencing its most severe depression since the 1930s, is that in the past half-century farmers have done everything that a management consultant might advise. They did, of their own accord and seeing the necessity, what the British manufacturing industry had been urged, but failed, to do for years. They modernised. They shed labour. They invested in machinery. They raised productivity astonishingly. They achieved yields of crops, milk, meat, of all kinds to a level that their fathers and grandfathers would have thought utterly unattainable. Part of what was beginning to be called an industry – the part that received no subsidies, the pig and poultry producers – achieved efficiency gains that were almost inconceivable. The subsidised part – that is to say, the part that governments, in pursuit of cheap food, drew away from the market – nevertheless defied economic laws that would relate production to the market by also raising production to unheard of levels. If your standard of measurement is efficiency, then farming in the past half-century has been far the most successful British industry. But now it is in trouble, dire trouble.

It is in trouble because it was taken away from the market a long time ago, and even further by the Common Agricultural Policy. Farmers came to depend heavily on structural subsidies, but now opinion is swinging heavily against them. When miners and shipyards are not subsidised, why should farmers be an exception?

There is another reason for farming’s plight. Farmers are primary producers, and few are anything more than that. Primary producers have it tough today. The disparity between farm-gate prices and those in shops and supermarkets is grotesque. One solution is to bypass the middleman and sell directly to the public, or to become food processors themselves, making the likes of ice cream, yoghurt, pies and sausages. For a few farmers handily placed close to big towns and cities, these options are sometimes possible, but for remote sheep-farmers they are a non-starter.

EC subsidies will, we are assured, be shifted from production to conservation. Farmers will be paid for maintaining footpaths, growing things that are not for sale, maintaining habitats for wildlife. A seductive prospect for some; less so for those who think of themselves as stockmen not park-keepers.

We are likely, I think, to see even larger and thoroughly efficient farm businesses. These will produce most of the food, and make profits. In the hills, farms will be amalgamated to create sheep ranches, with ill consequences for employment and animal welfare; nevertheless this will be the only viable way of farming the high country. And other farmers will become, in effect, salaried park-keepers or country rangers, while, especially within a couple of hours drive from the city, farms will be the delight of businessmen, bankers and lawyers who will require only that their hobby doesn’t cost them too much.

It is not an agreeable prospect, but it seems the most likely one. Rural life will be impoverished. The valleys and hills will no longer have resident populations with an economic interest in their prosperity. Many, indeed, will be emptied of people – to the great joy of bodies such as the RSPB. But that is how it is. Just as mechanisation and the demands of the market destroyed the farm touns and the way of life our grandfathers and great-grandfathers knew, so now the family farms devoted to high levels of production and ever-increasing yields are sliding into obsolescence. In 20 years, they will seem to belong to the past almost as completely as the world described by David Kerr Cameron and the vocabulary of the Scots Thesaurus.

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