Think you're tough? Try herding a Galloway cow

Think you’re tough? Try herding a Galloway cow: Author reveals the challenges of farming in a little-visited area of Scotland

  • Patrick Laurie documents life in Galloway, Scotland, in a new nature book
  • The farmer revealed he’s driven to tears by the sheer hardness of the land 
  • He’s seen a decline of the curlew and Galloway cattle have become a rare breed

NATURE

NATIVE   

by Patrick Laurie (Birlinn £14.99, 256 pp) 

Patrick Laurie is a native son of Galloway, that little-known, little-visited corner of Scotland tucked beside the Lake District — or, if you’re Scottish, down in the far South-west.

‘It’s been overlooked for so long that we have fallen off the map,’ he says. It has a rich history of saints and monasteries from the days of early Christianity, and a landscape of which he says: ‘I can hardly bear to spend a day away.’

Laurie did leave to go to Glasgow University — ‘language and literature’ — but finally came home to work as a farmer with his wife on a small farm. He was determined to toughen up, learn something of the old ways, raise Galloway cattle and wring a living out of this beautiful and unrelenting country.

Scottish farmer Patrick Laurie, documents life in Galloway in a new nature book (file image)

Yet, as someone who has delved deeply into Galloway’s past, he is acutely aware of how things have changed. Open windy moorlands have been steadily colonised by ‘a rising flow of dark industrial conifers’, and if it’s not conifers it’s wind turbines.

Galloway cattle have become a rare breed.Saddest of all is the decline of the curlew and its haunting cry. A true symbol of Britain’s wild uplands, its disappearance ‘feels like a death in ourselves’. The Galloway cattle and the curlew used to live perfectly together, their chicks fattening ‘in a fairyland of insects and spiders which hummed around the dark pats’.

But modern farming can’t be bothered with small, slow-growing Galloways, preferring fat Continental breeds, quick profits and dull-as-cardboard supermarket beef, even though Galloway beef is often reckoned the finest in the world. Galloways are feisty little beasts, with curly rain-repellent hair made for all weathers, but they don’t like to be pushed around.

Among the hardy hillmen who raised them, ‘arms and legs were broken as a matter of course’. Laurie also loves the company of those last hillmen, most of whom seem to live into their 90s — Wullie, who lived to 92, only got electric light in his house 20 years ago, ‘and pumped his water from the well by hand’.

NATIVE by Patrick Laurie (Birlinn £14.99, 256 pp)

In place of this tough old breed there came renewable energy experts, ‘in impractical shoes. They parked their shiny cars in stupid places, and then unboxed new wellies for the short walk across the farmyard’. They offered Galloway farmers a fortune to convert their loved and tended acres into white plastic forests of giant wind turbines, and left the air ‘honking with expensive aftershave’. What a picture he paints!

There’s nothing easy about the farming life, which for Laurie means ‘weeks of pale solitude in the middle distance’. He is driven to tears by the sheer hardness of the land. But it consoles him, too, with its timeless indifference: ‘The old, dumb hills stand above me; they’ve seen all this and worse.’

A farmer with a poet’s eye is a rare thing indeed, and this is a rare breed of a book: an elegy to a vanishing landscape but one not without hope, and to be greatly treasured.

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