Taking the Bait: In a conversation with place and with the past
Posted 9 months ago by John
TAKING THE BAIT
Farming was the work of my father and the countless fathers which came before him...What kind of life was it for those hard people, fighting and grinding and inching the world to better suit their direction of travel?
We all work together in the shaven field. The time has come to stack bales of hay into the trailer and cart them home to the shed. This is slow and grinding labour for one man alone; it takes an hour to gather forty bales. But farming was never meant to be lonely - share the load with other folk and those forty bales are home in fifteen minutes.
One of our team is up in the loft; he’s building the bales into a platform twenty feet high. It’s dangerous to smoke up there in the rafters, but he's on his seventh fag and going like a train. There are five more of us on the trailer, swearing and breathless in the heat, and a steady purr of conversation runs between us. I’m the youngest here by thirty years.
It’s an odd thing to have neighbours in this place. I see these men every day, but never at less than a mile’s distance. I watch their vans and wagons working just as they look across the moor and see mine. It’s too far to wave, so the weeks roll by without any gesture of contact. Distant lights prickle in the darkness. I know that Tormannoch is in bed by ten; Dalscone by half past on weeknights. Each man bears the name of his farm, and he transacts his business in isolation, quietly clocking the routines of others. We feed cattle, chase grass, wait for the sleet to pass.
But some jobs call for collaboration. The weather held all last week, and now machines have spun the grass into bales for the winter. This is chancy work, and it could be ruined by rain until the very last minute. The job is only done when the bales are in the shed, so we work together to beat the rising clouds and win away with something like victory.
I want to keep more stirks this winter, so I’ve asked to buy in three hundred bales from Auchenshaw; the man and the land beyond the river. It’s a fun transaction which breaks the group into halves; some of us think I’m getting a bargain – others say I’m being fleeced. We battle and fray to make this final delivery in the heat, and there’s laughter in the clear sky. It’s my duty to shout a rolling critique of every bale. Auchenshaw defends every complaint and matches it with a boast. “Christ, the heaviest part of this bale is the string!”; “It breaks my heart to see fine stuff like this wasted on your lousy stirks”; “The way you talk about these bales, we should all be paying you for the pleasure of hauling them…” A man spits on the ground and it sizzles like egg white.
None of this chat is wildly funny, but now I have to stop because I’m laughing. And that's bait to this team of old hands - no sooner have I stopped than there’s a hail of abuse. “What’s that lazy bastard doing now?” “Less use than a Leester tup, so he is”. Some of the words and pronunciations are centuries old – I am the “boy”, which they say as “buy”. The bales are being loaded from stacks, which they call “stowks” – “stowks a beels”; the words flit around me like swallows. After weeks in my own silence, I’m drunk on this stuff and I fight to remember how it goes. The voice in my head is not easily aligned with these old rhythms – I was born in 1985 and my accent is clipped and English by comparison.
I try some elision by way of practice; “you have to” becomes “you’ve to”; “she won’t” becomes “she’ll not”. And when they tell me something I didn’t know, I say “is that right?” instead of “really?” I don’t think I’m being dishonest in this. So I begin to slide and chisel my burrs, and the company conjures old sounds out of me like a memory. Perhaps these words would die in me if they lay too long unspoken. I wonder that on days when I do not speak at all.
And if you were being pragmatic, you’d say my laughter was a surge of endorphins brought about by hard physical labour. If you chose to see it otherwise, you’d feel a surge of joy at how fitting this is; sweat and shared labour in the place we call home; the unexpected pleasure of visiting a neighbour's field and looking back to your own. There are blue shadows and yellow birds in the roses. And I’m parched; so dry and crisp that if a bale fell upon me, I’d crunch like slater.
We lounge in the grass and smoke when we’re done. The neighbours clasp at their ankles and sit cross-legged like kids. They rock with laughter, then someone comes with coffee and cake. That brings us into something like silence. The cursing is gone and the chat slumps to a new angle because “someone” is a woman. The flex of the day has shifted, and now there are new things to discuss. We thank her meekly for our mugs, and talk turns to other folk. I look again to the old boy who just half an hour before had earnestly told me a wild (and wholly improbable) story of a child that was hunted and killed by a badger. "Is that right?", I’d said. Now he stands and brushes the hay from the seat of his breeks; crisp and inscrutable; no longer a man for fancy or folklore. Our chore is over, and the team begins to crumble.
Farming was the work of my father and the countless fathers which came before him. Every man was Galloway born, and my boots are small in their dinosaur tracks. What a place they made for me; a hand-me-down land where sweat runs in the ditches and the boulders mound in bings like a bunch of muscles. What kind of life was it for those hard people, fighting and grinding and inching the world to better suit their direction of travel?
There was a time when this grass would’ve been cut by a team of thick-fisted men with scythes. It would’ve been turned to dry by horses, then carted home so that gangs of folk could build ricks in the stackyards. Every link in that process called for some knack of wisdom and power, and I wouldn’t know where to begin. I don’t know how to sharpen a scythe, and I’m a little scared of horses. And I’m soft and tubby around the middle; my fingers have cracked and will bleed for days because my skin lacks the callus I need to survive in those busy old ways.
But there are new skills in modern farming. I do know how to record the details of my cattle on a computer spreadsheet; I drive tractors and administer medicines in a manner that would have baffled my grandfather. The big fields are cut and mowed into silage by contractors in half an hour. The visiting labourers crouch in big machines and then a bill comes in the post. It turns out that the hardest trick to master on a modern farm is isolation. Loneliness and patience with your own company don’t come easily, particularly in a place which used to be crowded with chat and banter. Maybe I’m tougher than I give myself credit for.
Now the men have gone and the evening falls. A hare comes up the close and stands tippy-toed like a pusscat. The yard is quieter for having been shared, but it’s sweet with the smell of the new hay. The forecast said that rain will come in the night, and it’ll be a pleasure to watch the water pissing down off the gutters tomorrow morning. We’ve cheated failure and kept ourselves on track for another year. And having rescued ourselves, we diverge again. I ponder on the badger story and I replay it into a new shape. It’s wrong, but it’s a fine idea. Perhaps that’s how it started out. And I laugh again at Falturra and his mucky jokes, which he tells so badly in his hurry to start the next one. There’s still a smell of fags in the shed.
I’ll take the bales in batches to the beasts when ice bites into the ruts and the myrtle stands up like claws in the snow. Each stirk will grab all the hay he can handle; he’ll stuff himself in a frenzy because Galloway’s a cold, hungry place in the winter and cattle know to fill their bellies when they can.
And when the rush is over and the beasts disperse again, each one will cud the goodness at his leisure.
Farmer, conservationist and writer Patrick Laurie was brought up in the rough, granite hills around Dalbeattie. Having trained as a gamekeeper, Patrick studied Scottish Language and Literature at Glasgow University and now runs a series of conservation projects based around hill cattle and moorland birds in Galloway. Patrick's book Native will be published by Birlinn in March 2020.