When the land is empty

6th April 2001 at 01:00
It is hard to think of farming without a sense of elegy yet tomorrow's children may never know the natural wonder of the countryside, says Tom Pow Last Sunday, my son and I cycled along the towpath beside the river Nith to the Swan at Kingholm Quay. In the mid-afternoon of the first day of summer, for the three tables of customers and Billy, the owner behind the bar, there was only one topic of conversation. "That's the shooting - knackered. The fishing - knackered." Someone halfway through building on farmland had been told he would have to abandon his shell of a house.

That morning we had heard the American State Department was giving advice to travellers that Scotland was on a par with Macedonia as a dangerous destination. And here we were, under siege, in the heart of it all: "What passing bells for these who die as cattle . . ."

Most of my life has been lived on the edge of the country. Childhood family holidays were spent on farms; most memorably for seven summers on a farm six or so miles outside Campbeltown in Kintyre. My greatest wish then was to be a farmhand and I hated it when the farmer's wife introduced me as "Tom, on holiday from Edinburgh".

Returning 10 years ago, I was struck by how unkempt it had become. The old farmer had died, leaving a will which treated his children equally. His elder son had been forced to sell the milk herd to pay off his younger brother."The heart of the farm went with it," he told me. That, coupled with farming's more recent misfortunes, was the basis for "The Farmer's Son", which I wrote last year for the Scottish Poetry Library's Holyrood Link Scheme.

Both morning and evening - the watery slap

of a length of thick rubber on a cow's

shivering flank, urging her down the slope,

hooves slipping on skitters. Rowan,

Princess, Scarlet, he can still name them all.

With the sheep it was different. Their lives

were at one with the nameless crops, a dull

ripening; though at fairs they were almost loved -

their fleeces chalked, fluffed as dandy's wigs;

their copper horns burnished for sacrifice.

Now he tramps over his desolate rigs,

the milk herd gone - een names have a price!

What's left? Two cottages for let; a thin

flock on a white hill, not worth bringing in.

Growing up in the fifties, in Edinburgh in my case, the natural world was mediated to us through the farm. Farm animals were the first ones we could name, the ones who first talked to us from picture books. Our understanding of landscape was of fields and hedges - a cultivated, "man-made" landscape.

And at the heart of this rich imagery lay the farmyard - a vibrant place of strutting cockerels, pecking hens and farm cats. Now such memories are part of the heritage industry. The visitors' farm that opened outside Dumfries last summer boasts no sharn in the yard, only slightly antiseptic-smelling wood chip and animals now deemed too dangerous to touch.

And beyond the farmyard itself? At the very start of the outbreak, I managed to get lost in the maze of country roads somewhere between Ruthwell and Eastriggs. In 20 minutes of driving, I couldn't see anyone on road, in field or at farm to ask for direction. Most of those bearing the brunt of this present tragedy are bearing it alone.

I work very close to the Swan on the Crichton campus of Glasgow University. I look out on the Crichton Farm, created to provide therapeutic work for male "lunatics", and beyond it to the smooth swell of Criffel. Between the farm and Criffel is the long, breeze-driven drift of smoke from a fresh funeral pyre.

Those of us who have lived tangentially with the countryside find it hard not to think of farming without a sense of elegy. But it needs something a lot harder-edged than either nostalgia or elegy to support those who live and work in rural areas.

The council has a website (www. dumgal.gov.uk) where one may at least offer messages of support. One of these, from a Kirkcudbright farmer's daughter now resident in Atlanta, is addressed to all farmers: "When the land is empty this summer perhaps the rest of the country will see why you as caretakers of the countryside must be a priority."

Tom Pow, a former schoolteacher, is in the creative and cultural studies department at Crichton campus of Glasgow University, Dumfries.


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