Thursday, 31 December 2009

Today I plan to tie my own shoelaces

Seriously. The pig farmer's comedy knee is up to its old tricks and, in football parlance, I'm sidelined.

Mick McCarthy's plans to reshuffle the Wolves' back four and Ireland's defence of rugby's Six Nations championship are being rethought as I write.

The knee had been growling at me for some weeks, never quite wanting to bend as far as I wanted it to.

Then the horses got out. The pig farmer, in an act of extreme stupidity, didn't bolt the gate quite firmly enough last Sunday and the next thing we knew our neighbour June was on the phone asking if we'd mislaid any livestock.

Rounding them up was the usual sorry sequence of running about, tripping over and general incompetence - hard on the knee and, sure enough, later that night it was up like a balloon and throbbing gruesomely.

The following day I was banished/helped to the sofa, Mrs Pig Farmer threatening me with dire consequences should I try to do anything around the farm. Still, regular cups of tea, full remote control privileges, a tin of Quality Street and a good book made the whole situation bearable.

I finally made it down to see Dr Karl who gave me that "we've been here before, haven't we?" expression, got me some industrial strength painkillers and promised to fix me an x-ray just as soon as I'm strong enough to get to Kirkwall.

So, now I'm down to the toffees and coffee creams/cremes (does anyone really like coffee chocolates?), I've started Magnus Magnusson's history of Scotland (fill in the next bit yourself), wondered what would happen to the BBC if David Tennant was killed in a car accident, watched Wolves concede five goals without scoring one over 180 minutes and fretted about the piglets.


Although they seem to be getting along just fine without me.

And, Mick, I'll let you know just as soon as I'm fit again. Anywhere across the back four will be fine.

Friday, 25 December 2009

Cum On Feel The Noize

Christmas just isn't Christmas without a bit of Slade - not in our house anyway.

But rather than put up Merry Christmas as last year, here are the lads in all their magnificence with THIS absolute nugget from the early 70s when Wolves were winning the League Cup and getting to UEFA Cup finals.

Dave Hill had just been to the souvenir shop at the Tutenkhamun exhibition.

Happy Christmas again.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Ho ho ho

"What do you fancy doing on Christmas Day," asked the pig farmer, imagining long, atmospheric walks along lonely Westray beaches, mulled wine in front of the fire and a dinner from the pages of Dickens.

"Well," said Mrs Pig Farmer, after some thought. "I was thinking about eating as much food as I can fit in and getting shit-faced."

I love it when we have a plan.

Happy Christmas everyone.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Patented Odour Elimination Technology - it says here

Owen the nice-but-dim collie-spaniel cross loves the beach. He likes nothing better than to chase stones the pig farmer sends skipping across the shallows. In Owen's world, a walk just isn't a walk unless it involves a trip to the seaside.

So, after a few days confined to the farm because of poor weather and the pig farmer's busy schedule (really), Owen was delighted to get down to the wide expanses of Tuquoy Bay.

Stones were thrown, splashing was made, tail was wagged manically - life was good.

We turned to go back and were 20yd from the car when the day took a turn for the whiffy. Owen found something long dead and deeply unpleasant. What's a boy to do? That's right, roll in the bloody thing.

I hurried the lad back to the car, stuffed him in the back with the two terriers and - a green fug rapidly filling the car - set off for home, a little under two miles away.

After a couple of years dealing with pigs, chickens and ducks, the pig farmer is used to all kinds of nasty smells, but as I turned onto the island's main road I was weeping like an England footballer while desperately suppressing the gag reflex.

Back at Pig Towers, Owen was puzzled and disappointed to be left outside while I went in to warn Mrs Pig Farmer. A bath with Dettol was run, special dog shampoo was dug out from the back of a cupboard and the lad was led in.

He was remarkably good as I soaped him down from head to toe - twice. Wash, rinse, repeat. He emerged from the tub a little subdued, but lovely and fluffy. Seriously girls, if you want to add body then I can't recommend Bob Martins highly enough.

The trouble was, he still stank. Another bath seemed way too much trouble, so Mrs PF had a rummage under the sink and found just the thing.

Has anyone else's dog ever been dosed in Febreze?


The Steenyha' Stench forces Westray residents to take desperate measures

Friday, 18 December 2009

Unlucky for some?

I'm not a superstitious man, so I'm not worried in the slightest that Molly has just produced 13 piglets.

You have to hand it to pigs, they make next-to-no fuss about the whole giving birth thing. Maybe they're just better designed than humans.

I checked Molly about 10.30pm at which point she was only too happy to tuck into a snack of raw tatties. A further inspection at 1.15am revealed six piglets already getting stuck in to the milk and an hour later Molly had fired out another seven.

The pig "farmer" fussed around with warm water, Dettol and towels. I tried steering the piglets towards the teats, but gave up when it became apparent they were finding them quicker when I left well alone.

So now it's coffee, a very quiet kitchen, half-hourly checks and wondering how Molly's going to cope when they're a bit bigger.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Horse

I'm never too sure whether I like horses. Of all the animals on the "farm", horses are the ones I haven't really got the hang of.

I'm always painfully aware that the whole human-horse relationship is based on nature's most gigantic confidence trick. Horses are big (even the small ones) and, by and large, pretty strong. People tend to be much smaller and less powerful, especially, it would seem, in the case of those who ride horses. You don't see many jockeys playing prop for Harlequins on their days off, do you?

That's why I struggle to like and respect horses. If they had the brains of, say, a pig or a Jack Russell, they'd probably be standing for Parliament by now. . . well, county council at least.

Another reason I'm iffy about horses is that they're unpredictable. Dotty the mare is from the darkest bandit country of South Armagh, which probably explains a lot. All those late-night raids by the SAS can fray the nerves of the strongest among us. Why they can't turn up at a reasonable hour (11am for coffee, perhaps?) is beyond me.

Anyhoo. . . Dotty's also in foal, which explains even more, but only up to a point. I recall ex-Mrs Malc being a tad on the kranky side while pregnant, but she never tried to remove my head with a well-aimed hoof. Maybe she just never thought of it.

All the old goalkeeper* reflexes have come in handy just lately, especially at dusk (about 3.45 here at present) when Dotty is in a hurry to get at the dinner-pail.

I quickly realised that chasing her wasn't going to work, even if my knees had been up to it. Stalking her proved to be a pain in the rear and gentle persuasion was a dismal failure. We have a professional horseperson in the family and Amy even tried to talk me through it over the phone in the manner of a 70s disaster movie. "Use the bridle, show her who's in charge," she said. "If I can get f**king close enough, and she knows exactly who's in charge," I thought.

Yesterday, in a change of routine, she gave up trying to kick me with her back feet and tried bucking and rearing in the style of Champion the Wonderhorse, alerting the townsfolk to a landslide in the pass.

"What's up Champion? Is there trouble down at Broken Wheel Ranch?"

"No, I'm just worried those two shortarse Shetlands will get to my tea before me."


I then pulled my masterstroke. Bribery. A quick visit to the veg garden later, carrots were handed over, bridle was applied and the pig "farmer" was leading herself in like he knew what he was doing.

You never have this kind of trouble with pigs.

* Shrewsbury hockey club 3rd XI 1982.


Dotty and Amy in action before some big competition winner had his way with her (Dotty)

Thursday, 3 December 2009

High eggs-citement

So the barn needed reorganising and that involved moving a stack of about 50 bales from the dampish bit near the door to a drier area and making the whole thing a bit neater.

I'm on my own at the moment with Sal and Pat currently south on their pre-Christmas visit, but no problem. I reckoned on a couple of hours and the exercise would be good for me. Bob the hen seemed very interested in the proceedings.

The first dozen or so came from the top and round the edges - easy. The next few proved a little more difficult. I was trying to avoid using a ladder and that involved gently moving bales out from the side of the stack.

You can see what's coming - I find it hard to believe I didn't.

I shifted the wrong bale, looked up to see the edifice tottering, cried "oh bollocks!" and stepped aside smartly as bales bounced to earth around me.

And there, right in the middle of the chaos, was a bale with a pale brown egg sitting on it. Bob, from the safety of the stable door, looked quite pleased with herself.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Words eaten

Credit where it's due - part 1.

A couple of weeks ago I lampooned Orkney Council for giving us wheelie bins along with instructions on how to make sure they would never wheelie again.

But this evening I spent 20 minutes sorting out cans, bottles and plastic into different coloured bags, ready for Westray's first collection of recyclable stuff. It's a big step forward, I believe, and I'm happy to do my bit to make it a success.

Still don't get the wheelie bin thing, but there you go.

Credit where it's due - part 2

I'm still sore after Ireland's scandalous elimination from next year's World Cup by the "hand of Frog", but that didn't stop me from sitting back and marvelling at Barcelona's (Henry and all) 1-0 win over Real Madrid.

It was a breathtaking game that I just didn't want it to end. It was almost perfect. When football is played like that it's so much more than a game - it's art.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Vehicles

I've always disliked cars. I've driven any number of them and, in my previous life, spent many years charging around the country, eating up thousands of miles in pursuit of men (and occasionally women) playing silly games.

But I've never ceased to hold them in contempt - ride a motorcycle for five minutes and you'll know why - and now they're getting their own back.

Mrs Pig "Farmer" has bought herself a Vauxhall Corsa for her work in Kirkwall which means the family workhorse - an eight-year-old Astra estate - has been put into semi-retirement with me in Westray. That's just as well considering Lennox the Land Rover* (big, black, way past his best, but you still wouldn't pick a fight) has become electrically challenged. Alternators don't half smell when they burn out.

So the Astra, which can comfortably fit half-a-dozen bales or 20 bags of pig feed in the back, was useful. At least it was useful until it refused to start the other morning. I should have read the signs. It had been a little reluctant to get going for a couple of weeks and had twice needed the jump leads, but I reckoned it'd been wet and cold.

I retrieved the £300 Ford Fiesta which is our last resort - an "isles car" too decrepit to venture off Westray. It started first time, but wouldn't jump start the Astra which, along with Lennox was blocking it in at the side of the barn. And the Fiesta had next-to-no fuel in it.

Bugger.

Have you any idea how heavy a diesel Astra is, especially if you're pushing it by yourself and trying to steer at the same time. . . and you hit a slight gradient?

I'm not as young as I once was.

I got the thing out of the way just enough for the Fiesta to squeeze past, cadged a lift into the village for a can of petrol, returned home, got a duck out of the freezer, started the Fiesta, made sure nothing (else) had fallen off it and nipped round to our neighbours.

Long story slightly shorter: Tommy reckons the battery on the Astra is banjaxed, while the Land Rover is. . . well, where to start? Both are now being attended to by someone who knows what they're doing.

I hate cars.

* Lennox is one of the few cars I have any regard for, especially since 'the incident' with the burst tyre and the concrete post.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

The bonnie bonnie banks of. . .

Can pigs swim? I dunno, but we nearly found out today.

We've finally paid the price of feeling a bit smug about the relatively kind weather this November here in the far North.

Pig "farmer" and wife were on Mainland last night and it hammered it down with real ferocity. With a couple of pints of Scapa Special and a homemade pizza on board, a cosy bed and a good book, I didn't really give it much thought.

Then, as I blearily made my way onto the 7.20am ferry back to Westray I had a call. "Malc, we're flooded out," said my stepson Pat, never one to understate a case. I feared the worst when he met me at the boat (he and Sal are heading south for a couple of weeks) and handed me a pair of wellies.

Sure enough, we weren't flooded out, but it was bloody wet. Loch Steenyha' had formed in the top field (one of the highest points on the farm), pouring water into a delta near the pigshed, which in turn sent a steady flow down past the barn onto the lane towards the main road and - in the long run - the Atlantic.

After a quick coffee and a think, I checked the horses and the pigs in the shed before having a quick look out to the back where Molly and Little Kim are lodged. Molly was up to her shoulders in mud as she sent frantic "breakfast" signals in my direction while Little Kim was peering out of a hut which appeared to have developed a moat overnight.

I gathered feed bucket, dry bedding and a trenching shovel and having checked the insides of the huts were dry I set about digging a few small drainage channels to move the water away. Not having thought it through, I quickly found myself up to my ankles and being reminded that the stitching on the side of my left boot has given way.

I squelched back through the Rio Steeny, gave extra helpings of hay to the horses who were not at all happy to find themselves confined to quarters, and went in to steam gently in front of the fire.

I could be worse. We could be in Workington.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

The pig "farmer's" cock


Our senior sow Kim is back up to fighting weight and ready for a transfer outdoors - and I'm guessing she'll be glad to get away from the cockerel chorus that has played havoc with her plans for a nice snooze in the morning.

The pigshed is currently overrun with young chickens and Adam the cockerel has some serious competition. It's like backstage at the X-Factor in there.

Adam, the father of the clan, remains king of the crow, but he has serious competition from his chief rival - a hefty, grey and black fella born early this year. Jarvis is as enthusiastic a waker-up of the neighbourhood as his dad and is proving to be something of a ladies' man too.

Those two are regularly joined by Glenn (late 70s Third Division football reference) and the other younger cockerels for something as close to a male voice choir as we get in Westray.

The plan had been to put Jarvis in the freezer, but these things never seem to work out here and he's somehow been given a reprieve. He can't stay on the "farm" as he's related to almost all the other birds and is already showing far too much interest in his mother, aunts and sisters (is that banjos I can hear?).

So he's off to disturb the sleep of our neighbours up the road, while the younger birds will all go to the freezer. There are only so many reprieves you can hand out.

Which leaves us with Adam, our dandy highwayman. He has to go too as he is both father and grandfather to several of the young hens and we can't let the in-breeding go any further. There's no way in hell that Mrs Pig "Farmer" will let me wring his neck so we need a home for him.

If any of the eight regular readers of The Edge of Nowhere can give a very decorative cock a little corner for a not-so quiet retirement, let me know.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Hands off

After all these years I can't believe how angry I could be over one game of football. Too angry, in fact, to write anything coherent about it.

This is the bit where I tried to put a video up, only to find it had been pulled off Youtube - something to do with copyright, they say. Read this instead.

Anyway, if you saw it you'll know. If you didn't, let's just say he might as well have picked the ball up and thrown it in the goal.

Cheating, cheating bastard.

Sorry, I know it's another one about football. We'll get back to 'animals do the most mildly amusing things' in due course.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Processing

If you're easily upset, squeamish or vegetarian, I'd press on to the next blog if I were you.


I cupped my hand around the duck's head, holding its feet tight with my other hand. I lifted the head back and pulled down hard, but not too hard. I felt the neck break.

The flapping that followed - the body's nerves reacting after death - was disconcerting, but I did as I was told, put the wings between my legs and started the laborious task of plucking.

Marcus, our neighbour, had agreed to come and help me 'process' some of our flock of ducks (flock?). We got all the ducks into the stable and, not for the first time in the last couple of years, I found myself having to stop being a big fat Jessie and get on with things.

I'm scared of birds. All that flapping sends me to jelly, but there was nothing for it but to grab a bird, hand it to Marcus who immediately pulled its neck.

Quickly and quietly, we repeated the process four times before Marcus suggested it was time I had a go. Well aware that there could be no practice run, I fetched the sixth duck, Marcus told me exactly how to hold him, I took a deep breath and killed him.

Plucking was a pain. I had plucked one and a half in the time it took Marcus to pluck four, but the six ducks are now hanging up in the little caravan in the barn, waiting to be gutted and put in the freezer, ready for Christmas.

And I'm not about to get all philosophical about the killing - the first time I've dispatched one of my own animals myself. I'm not overly happy about it, nor am I particularly upset. It's part of the job, that's all and, if anything, I'm glad I now know how to do the job very quickly with the minimum of suffering for the bird.

Pass the plum sauce someone.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

My heroes

Yesterday was a pretty normal day on the "farm". Animals were fed, a bit of work clearing a space for all the roof slates was done, tea was cooked. Usual stuff.

As a result I completely forgot Armistice Day. The world didn't stop, gentle winds blew occasional showers across Westray, the tide rose and fell.

And I forgot my grandads.

Hubert Cinnamond and Harry Winters, being Irishmen, didn't have to join up, but they did. They fought for Britain in the First World War almost from the start, right to the finish in 1918.

The pair of them could hardly have been more different. Hubert was 6ft 4in, 17 stone of bone and muscle and straight out of a storybook. Born and bred in County Antrim from hardline Loyalist stock, he lied about his age to escape the boredom of a clerk's job in his father's bank.

With a lieutenant's pips on his shoulders he revelled in the mayhem of the trenches, twice earning the Military Cross for ludicrous heroism and finishing the war with a captaincy and a backful of shrapnel.

He then took on the IRA in the War of Independence as a member of the Auxiliary Cadets, later joined the colonial service in East Africa, organised "native" troops at the outbreak of World War II to fight the Italians before accepting a commission in the Indian Army, hoping for a chance to have a "crack at the Japs".

He died in 1970 at his retirement home in Madeira, having met his only grandson once. There's a picture of a huge man with a military moustache holding a small baby - and that's it. Me and Grandad Cinnamond.

Harry was a country boy from Mullingar in County Westmeath. War broke out not long after he had moved to Birmingham, eager to make a fresh new life for himself. He'd deliberately avoided living in Brum's Irish ghettos, doing his best to fit in. And fitting in included signing his name on the recruitment sheet.

His ability with and love of horses helped find him a place in the Royal Engineers where Private Winters did his best to survive, mending telephone lines and ferrying equipment while he watched his friends smashed to pieces or simply disappear out of the saddle without trace.

He emerged from the war a quiet, serious man, but he had met May Bews and they made a home in Dublin, had one daughter who became one of only a handful of women to earn a place at Trinity College. She graduated and left for England with her Ulsterman husband, coming back a couple of years later with Harry's little grandson.

Harry spoiled me rotten. He took me anywhere a Dublin Corporation bus went. Howth Head, Killiney beach, Phoenix Park Zoo. We fed peanuts to the elephants, walked up the Big Sugar Loaf, stood on the pavement in O'Connell Street to see George Best go by.

He visited us at our home in Ely, Cambridgeshire, one November and I recall nearly bursting with pride when my grandad marched in the front rank of the Remembrance Day parade. He died when I was nine and he never knew how much I loved him.

I never wear a poppy, although I always buy one, and I fervently support any anti-war campaign, but that doesn't mean I don't fully appreciate what soldiers are forced to do in the name of politicians' ambitions. The parade of hearses through Wootton Bassett this week was one of the saddest things I've seen in a long time.

And it made me grateful that my grandads - the swashbuckling hero of a hundred family stories and the steady, quiet, loving man with the bushy eyebrows - lived through it all.

POSTSCRIPT: Before anyone points it out, I'm aware of the role of the Auxiliary Cadets during the War of Independence. They were murdering bastards who made the Black and Tans look like an under-11 netball team. My views are completely different to my grandfather's so I feel no need to excuse or apologise.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

The wheels on the bin don't go round and round

When is a wheelie bin not a wheelie bin?

Orkney Islands Council's development and environment services department obviously had a lot of our cash to spare so they've given everyone on the island a big green wheelie bin.

With the bin came a set of instructions, telling us in seven fairly detailed steps how to secure it. Obviously, given that it's November and it gets a little breezy here at this time of year, it would be madness to leave a plastic bin just hanging around.

So everyone, old folks included I assume, has been given a wooden fence post and a length of blue rope and told to hammer the post into the ground to a depth of 2ft. No small task for a pig "farmer" who happens to be the owner of a large sledge hammer - can't imagine what a peedie Westray wifey will do.

The bin is then lashed to the post using a clove hitch (don't ask me) - no doubt while whistling a sea shanty. A bungee cord to prevent the lid heading off towards Norway is the finishing touch.

Which brings me to the big question. What the bloody hell are the wheels for?

Correct me if I'm wrong, but the whole point of a wheelie bin is that it's mobile. You can wheel it around the place - the clue's in the name.

When we lived in England we had a wheelie bin. We kept it by the back door and wheeled out to the front of the house on bin day. The bin men hooked it onto the back of the cart, the rubbish was tipped in, the bin parked outside the house to be returned round the back.

Up to now in Westray, we have been given a year's supply of black bags, leaving the filled bags at the end of the lane to be collected and thrown onto the back of Geordie's wheezing wreck of a lorry.

The new system involves leaving the bags at the end of the lane where they'll be collected and thrown onto the back of Geordie's wheezing wreck of a lorry, although we now have the choice of leaving the bags in the bin if that's where we've left it.

I much prefer living in Orkney to England and I firmly believe Scotland is a far superior country (only one Tory MP for a start), but I have to admit that England is way ahead when it comes to the 'understanding what a wheelie bin does' department.

What the council seems to have done is (out of the goodness of our own council tax payments) handed out a few hundred bins - the type we used to go to the hardware shop and buy ourselves - with no discernable improvement in the service.

On the upside, the Westray wheelie bin racing season gets underway next week. Entries to the usual address.

Friday, 6 November 2009

It's a gas

Rain was dripping off the roof and down the back of Pat's neck as he manhandled the big orange gas bottle into position.

The pig "farmer" was on torch duty as his knee had inflated like a Montgolfier brothers invention after too much driving the previous week followed by a piglet-related incident. He wasn't about to risk the "I told you so" of Mrs P"F".

Next job was to take the attachment off the empty bottle and put it on the new one. "Have you got a spanner?"

Search through tool box followed, revealing any number of spanners. Guess what. Not one of them would fit. Resisting the temptation to have a rant along the lines of "why the hell does nobody, including me, put anything away?" I searched the workshop and found a monkey wrench. Couldn't get that to work either. Presumably it's great for monkeys, but not so good for gas bottles.

With the rain trickling down our backs, we skipped straight through to plan Z - ring Electric Eric and borrow spanner. The "farmer" took a few minutes to get his unbendable knee into the car and drove very carefully (it was taking several seconds to switch foot from throttle to brake, making any kind of emergency stop impossible) down to pick up the spanner.

On return, the job was done in seconds, tea was back on the stove, leaving only the question: "Why the bloody hell does the gas never run out in daylight?"

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Fitbaaa

The referee raised the red card and the sheep behind the goal went mental. Four of them left their seats and rushed to the front where they grappled with the stewards in an attempt to invade the pitch.

The rest roared their indignation and at least one missile landed on the pitch. The appearance of Lothian and Borders Constabulary's finest calmed things and Hibernian were able to get on with proving they were a little less hopeless than an Aberdeen side reduced to nine men by disciplinary issues.

A hundred yards or so away, in the back of the West Stand, a pig "farmer" from Orkney was commenting to his son along the lines of "there's something you don't see every day", "I think pitch invasions by farm animals can only improve the game" and "why do you suppose a dozen grown men would dress as sheep and travel from Aberdeen for football?"

This was the first time I'd been to a football game for about three years. The last ground I visited has now been demolished. I've always had a sneaking regard for Scottish football (quality issues notwithstanding) in general and Hibs in particular.

We had pints, went to the game, had pints again and mixed with the locals before calling it a night with a Chinese at around nine - a happy evening.

The same can't be said for the sheep. A man was taken to hospital in Kirkcaldy with burns after someone set his sheep costume on fire on the Edinburgh-Aberdeen train.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Camping out

Little Kim was having a lie-down. Nothing unusual in that, except she was outside, behind her hut in a force seven south-easterly with intermittent, heavy rain.

Strong winds have swept the length of Westray for most of the week and, despite the temperature hovering around eight or nine degrees, you get the feeling winter is upon us. The sea has changed from blue to grey, the grass from bright green to dull grey/green/brown and the ground from dirt to mud.

All our pigs are indoors now except for Molly and Little Kim who have moved to new quarters in the top field after spending the summer over the road.

Marcus brought his tractor to move the pig arc to the top field and I positioned it facing the direction from which we get the fewest winds - south east.

This morning Little Kim emerged from her hut soaked down one side where the rain had blown in through the door all night. She wasn't happy at all, but was cheered by the arrival of breakfast and chowed down while I found an old mat which I attached to the arc as a sort of flap to keep out the worst of the rain.

It was later I saw her lying outside. She wandered over to me, gave me a welcoming shove and, as I gave her the obligatory back-rub, I worked out the problem. Little Kim is a lovely pig, a real sweetheart, but clearly she's not the sharpest chisel in the woodwork set. She hadn't worked out that she could push the flap aside to get in her hut.

I lobbed a few spuds inside the hut and held the flap open while the penny finally dropped, just in time for another wave of heavy rain.

Just before dark, I nipped out for a quick look and she was snuggled up in some new bedding - nice and dry.

Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em

I was in the workshop, cutting wood for the fire, when I heard a commotion from the barn.

When I say 'commotion', I mean a bloody great snorting, banging and general kerfuffle - a bit more than the average duck or chicken would create. A bit more than the average herd of wildebeest would create.

I patiently laid down the axe, wandered through and there was Molly the sow. Having fought her way past the straw, she was doing her best to overturn my concrete mixer en route to the bulging feed bins. That'll teach me to leave the barn door open.

Molly, who has 'previous' in the escapology department, had grown tired of her paddock and walked through the electric fence and over/under/around another fence before working out exactly where the next two weeks' dinners were.

As she engaged in hand-to-hand (trotter-to-trotter?) combat with the mixer, I got hold of a bucket, put a scoop of feed in it, got her attention and led her back to her paddock.

I shut the door and tidied up, then set about improving security with the help of an old gate, two sheep hurdles, an extending ladder and a damp fence post which I managed to split while banging it in. (Tip: use another piece of wood, lay it across the top and hit that with the hammer).

Did I mention it was blowing a gale?

And it was raining.

Ten minutes later Molly had broken through the electric fence again and, denied access to the barn by my makeshift barrier, was eyeing up my leeks.

The bucket-feed-back-in-the-paddock routine followed. I had a look at the fence and thought: "I really must get one of those tester thingys that check if there's any charge in the wire."

There was nothing for it but to resort to a quick tap with the back of my hand.

Nothing. No wonder she was getting out.

I reached up to the energiser to check the connection.

SNAP! "Ow! Bollocks!"

Forgot to disconnect the battery first. Still at least I knew where the problem was and a couple of minutes later a new piece of copper wire was transferring lots of lovely current into the fence and I was walking back towards a fresh jug of nice hot coffee.

SNAP! "Squeal! Bollocks!*" The fence was working.

An hour later, it was time to get the horses in. Dotty - pregnant with "a future Badminton** winner" (so I keep being told) - came over and allowed me to clip on the lead rope. She took two steps and stopped dead, deciding there was no way she'd go past Little Kim's paddock.

I pulled and Dotty pulled back, pulled harder, wrenched the rope out of my hand span round and kicked out at me, contact being avoided by a dive that would have won a round of applause from any Premiership football squad.

I gave her ten minutes to calm down, then managed to grab the rope and, with a lot of very gentle persuasion, got her as far as the gate where she decided progress wasn't fast enough, wrenched herself free again and charged off, skidding to a halt just outside the stable door. By the time I caught up with her she was inside and tucking into Teddy's tea.

Women, eh?

* She didn't say "bollocks". Pigs can't talk.

** I wasn't previously aware that horses played badminton, but I'd pay good money to see it.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Size doesn't matter

You see, the thing is, the camera on my trusty Samsung phone doesn't work any more. The phone hasn't been at all well since I sat on it heavily while climbing over a wall in the pigshed, the phone dropping out of my pocket in two pieces where it was given a bit of a chew and a slurp by Kim the sow.

If the camera was working I could bring you pics of the whacking great spuds that are appearing from the ground (I'm lifting them, they aren't miraculously rising from the earth and dumping themselves in bags - I bleeding wish!).

You'd also see Colin the carrot, so big it just had to have a name. I'd say it was as big as a babbie's arm, but actually it was as big as a pig "farmer's" forearm. And don't believe that guff about big veg not tasting good - it was terrific.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

The power of life and death


I've been worried about Kim. Our senior sow has struggled with her latest round of motherhood and I'm having to get used to the part of the job that I find far and away the hardest - deciding who lives and who dies.

At the age of five-and-a-half, Kim is getting on a bit as breeding sows go and, at many farms, she would have been "retired" to the cheap sausage counter some time ago.

Kim's trouble is her size. She's big-boned, to say the least. She comes up to the 6ft-tall pig "farmer's" hip and you could stand a rugby fifteen's pints on her back.

But time and hard work (my records show Kim has had 79 piglets in her time) have taken their toll. She grew steadily more lethargic through her pregnancy and was exhausted after she had farrowed, taking the best part of a couple of days to get up and eat properly.

Added to that, she was having problems with her joints, her huge shoulders putting such pressure on her front legs that there was a series of uncomfortable clicks every time she lumbered forward.

I was rapidly coming to the conclusion that she would have to go. The trouble being that I'm very fond of the old girl. She's a pal. I thought about allowing her to retire to a quiet corner of the "farm", but a conversation with Mrs Pig "Farmer" went along the lines of "what about when it's Molly's turn - or Little Kim?"

"I'll wait and see," said the pig "farmer", for who decision-making has always been a bit on the tricky side.

I moved a relieved and grateful Kim out from her seven piglets last week and she's now resting in a small pen indoors and will go back outside in a couple of weeks. The good news is that, having lost a lot of weight while feeding her litter, she's moving around far easier and I reckon that, with careful management, she will still be with us this time next year.

If only she knew.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

The pitter-patter of webbed feet

I left the pigshed with an empty feed bucket, turned the corner whistling a happy tune before becoming aware of the 'slap-slap-slap' growing closer. They'd found me.

By the time I reached the barn they were almost on me. It was all I could do to dive through the door and slam it shut behind me. Safe for the time being.

I've never had much to do with ducks. At least not since my Grandad used to take a three-year-old Malc to St Stephen's Green in Dublin with a loaf filched from Granny's kitchen.

Since then I've led a pretty much duck-free existence (unless you count pancakes and plum sauce). Nothing that's happened in the last 45 years qualifies me in any way to be a duck-keeper. So, guess what? I'm learning on the hoof again. Or on the webbed-foot, if you like.

What have I learned so far? Ducks aren't as good mothers as hens. . . or pigs. . . or some humans even. We lost some little ducklings in the early days, but most have survived and now live in a world where it always seems to be mealtime.

That's the other thing I've learned. Ducks eat an enormous amount. Our 13 eat at least as much in a day as a fully-grown sow and it didn't take them long to realise that the pig "farmer" was the man to come to for second helpings.

Every time I poke my nose outside the door there's a whole lotta quacking* and flapping until I give in and get the grain scoop out. I've tried sneaking away and avoiding them, but they are crafty and persistent, dogging my tracks all over the "farm".

That's all very well - nice to be popular and all that - but it got ridiculous the other day when I set off for the village. As I took the car down the lane, I glanced at the wing mirror and saw 13 ducks thundering along in pursuit. Anyone that desperate for elevenses deserves a little extra, that's what I say.

Anyhow, all these meals are making them all big and bonny and they'll be 'ready' any day now. Get the plum sauce ready.

* An early working title from Led Zep's second album. They made a minor alteration and the rest is rock history.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

What we did on our holidays

"Oh hi, Malcolm and Sally. We've booked you into the Love Shack."

"What? Seriously?"

"Yes, that's why we called earlier to check you were a couple. Here's the key."

"That'd be the key with 'room 3' on it."

"Yeah, that's right, room 3's the Love Shack."

"Good grief."


We were enjoying a crafty long weekend away on Skye, celebrating Mrs Pig "Farmer's" birthday. We opted for cheap and cheerful and were just about tolerating the terrible, enforced jollity of hostels.

The Love Shack turned out to be a small, clean room with a double bed, sink and broken window latch. Some of it was painted pink, so I suspect that's where the 'love' bit comes in.

Anyhoo, the irony of two Scottish island-dwelling folk going for a holiday on a Scottish island wasn't lost on me, but we've always liked Skye (indeed, we considered moving there) so who cares?

"Timbres! Timbres! TIMBRES!" shouted the very small French woman at the bewildered fella behind the counter in Portree's Post Office.

"Stamps," said the pig "farmer" helpfully.

"Oh right, thanks," said Post Office Fella. "How many?" he asked very small French woman.

"France."

"Eh? No. HOW MANY?"

"Combien?" said the pig "farmer", butting into the Eurovision Shouting Competition with his O-level grade C French.

"France et Belgique."

"HOW MANY?" persisted POF, waving his fingers around in the manner of Ted Rogers.

"Un pour France, et un pour Belgique," said VSFW.

"Two," said the pig "farmer", interested to learn it's not just the British who can't be arsed to learn anyone else's language, even when visiting their country.


At a time when Orkney is getting all set for the winter, there are still a lot of holidaymakers in Skye. The island is very much geared up towards tourism, the main road into Portree lined with a forest of B&B signs, most with a 'no vacancies' added. By all accounts it's been like that all summer.

It's hardly surprising. A certain fame from the Bonnie Prince Charlie thing (and that godawful song) and a relative proximity to major cities (relative to Orkney, that is) make the island a major highlight on the Scottish grand tour.

And there's the landscape. Skye has scenery to spare. The mountains crowd around, pushing everything else towards the sea - spectacular. It's just a shame it rains 361 days every year.

The hostel at Flodigarry was full of wiry, thin men and their ruddy-faced partners, the kind of people who are genuinely interested in what sort anorak you wear. The pig "farmer" was enjoying a hearty breakfast. Easily the fattest bloke in the place, he was becoming uncomfortably aware he was the only one who hadn't been up for hours wrestling a Cuillin into submission.

Not to be outdone, the pig "farmers" pulled on boots and waterproofs and walked the few miles to Duntulm Castle on the northernmost tip of Trotternish peninsular. Perched on a rocky outcrop, the ruins of the McDonald stronghold provide fabulous views over the Minch towards the Western Isles.

On the return walk we stopped to buy eggs, swopping notes with couple who ran the croft, the pig "farmers" casting envious glances towards the polytunnels and strawberry plants.

Next day, the rain eased as the midday train left Kyle of Lochalsh, following the shore of Loch Carron on its way to Dingwall where we would have just enough time for a pint before changing trains for Thurso and the ferry back to Orkney.

Sal's phone rang. The evening sailing across the Pentland Firth was "under review" due to high winds. Winter is on its way.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Football - the next generation

I'm 48. I don't think it's so very old, although my children will have their own opinions.

I am, however, becoming used to the sons of former footballers forging careers of their own - Frank Lampard the obvious example.

What I wasn't ready for was the sight of Motherwell's Tom Hateley receiving the man-of-the-match award at the end of Saturday's 0-0 draw with Rangers.

Tom is son of former Rangers and AC Milan (among others) striker Mark Hateley and the grandson of ex-Liverpool and Coventry forward Tony Hateley - who I recall being one of the prized, rare cards in our playground swop sessions (you could exchange two Jeff Astles and any number of Joe Kirkups for a Tony Hateley).

Suddenly I felt very old indeed.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

The revolution can wait. . . until after the post-match interviews

I have a dreadful confession. The pig "farmer" has sold out. My membership of the Tipton Young Communists' Afternoon Tea Dance Club has been withdrawn.

We've got SkyTV.

We've had all kinds of costly trouble with BT, so we flounced off, not being too sure where to flounce.

It was Mrs Pig "Farmer", who has a sensible job and therefore pays the regular household bills, who suggested Murdoch's evil empire, prompted no doubt by the almost daily mailshots which we have taken to using as loft insulation.

"You could have the sports channels," she said, half-seriously and very unwisely.

"What, really?" said the pig "farmer", the idea burrowing its way deep into his brain.

I was surprised how reasonable it all was, how helpful Rupert's stormtroopers were and at how little guilt I felt. Sorry, but there you go. Maybe I'm not so right-on and funky after all.

So it was that I found myself last night attempting to watch four football World Cup qualifiers and a one-day cricket international all at once. I felt like I'd played by the end of it.

Scotland did what they did best - gallant defeat - Northern Ireland's promise fizzled out good and proper, and Wales came a distant second to Vlad's boys, which leaves the rest of us having, for the next nine months, to listen to rednecks telling us how Eng-er-lund are going to win in South Africa.

Bet John Terry's blubbing come quarter-final day.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Next: the pig "farmer" unicycles up a hill backwards

The pig "farmer" tried not to look down and ignored the slight swaying motion of the stack of bales as he eased the top off the large wooden box.

Twenty feet below, the concrete floor of the barn looked hard, very hard, harder than a gang of Millwall fans after a 4-0 defeat.

Then the phone went.

"Hi mum, lovely to hear from you, but can I call back? Bit busy right now trying not to fall to a grisly death."

Ten minutes later I started bagging up the barley.

Philip, a neighbouring farmer, had warned me that, although there was plenty of barley, it was "quite high up".

"I'll come and give you a hand if you're struggling."

But he was in the middle of his tea and my stupid male pride and all that sort of thing. . .

The barley was in a number of wooden chests, stacked on top of each other next to the aforementioned stack of bales. I found a ladder and, grasping my bucket and some feed sacks, started to climb.

Steadying myself at the top, I knelt on the straw and filled the first bag. The next problem presented itself - how to get a 20kg bag of barley off a 20ft stack of straw bales to the ground without spilling the stuff everywhere.

I gradually got into a lying position and, with one hand clinging to the wooden chest, I leaned over the edge and eased the bag down, swinging it onto the top of a couple of old oil drums, keeping a firm grip until I was satisfied it wasn't going to fall over.

I repeated this twice before deciding I'd had enough. My knees groaned as I whiteknucked my way down the ladder, my legs wobbled ever so slightly as I reached terra firma.

I hope those pigs appreciate the lengths I go to to get their tea.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Bingo Bros

It was Mr Hotel Proprietor's birthday. Strong drink had been taken.

"Whatever happened to Bros?" he asked.

"Eh? Whatthechuffineck? I've got some ripped jeans," slurred the pig "farmer", unhelpfully.

"No, it's just that their granny used to go to bingo with my mum and I wondered how they were getting on, that's all."

"Errr. . . not bad, I suspect. They'll be due for a reunion any time now, fingers crossed," I added, rallying bravely.

"Pint?" said Mr HP.

"Smashing, thanks."

Sunday, 30 August 2009

What? Already?

There was a large pool of watery mud where no pool of watery mud should have been. What had been hard, dry ground only 24 hours earlier was now the kind of brown sludge they put on the roast dinners at my old school*.

Chas and Dave**, the two Saddleback porkers, looked like rugby league players from the depths of a 1960s winter. The pool in question just happened to be inside their hut.

"@%£^," I said. Loudly.

"@%£^ing hell. It's not even September yet."

A glorious summer in Orkney has given way to spell of unsettled weather. Unsettled is something the weather in the Northern Isles does exceptionally well and this week has involved some warm sunshine, heavy showers, strong winds from the west, north, then west again, more sunshine, lots more rain and a bit more wind from the west. . . and the north.

One night's rain had churned up Chas and Dave's paddock quite impressively. I had anticipated this and we had dug a trench around their hut and filled it with rubble and chips (that's gravel to you in England).

The drain had failed to work spectacularly mainly because Chas and Dave had dug it up, spreading the rubble far and wide. . . the little scamps.

So. I put enough food down to keep the boys occupied for 20 minutes or so, ducked inside the hut and, bent double, started to shovel mud out. It didn't make a massive difference, but it was a start. Two barrows of sand and chips went in, followed by the wooden base of an old bed I use as a temporary barrier here and there.

I bunged in a whole bale of straw and, for the next hour, watched as the lads helpfully spread it all around the paddock. Idiots.

They spent a chilly night in the hut, but seemed none the worse when I arrived, feed bucket in hand, at what I now think of as The Baseball Ground*** the next morning. I peered inside the hut and it was a mess. The bed was in danger of sinking and a move into the main pigshed was a must for the boys. The hut was due a concrete base.

Mrs Pig "Farmer" was - at 11am - still in dressing gown and jammies as she pottered around the kitchen, singing along to Al Green.

"I'm tired of being alone with these pigs. You ought to be with me," I might have said.

"Oh me, oh my. Just let me get some clothes on," Sal might have replied.

Now Sal's never been too confident with the pigs, but she was a star, tempting two lively young boars with the feed bucket from paddock to pigshed in a matter of minutes while I played backstop.

"Look What You Done For Me," I should have said.

* A lower/middle-ranking private school whose motto was Aut Vincere Aut Mori - either to conquer or to die. Jeez!

** They don't "oink", they "gertcha".

*** Derby County FC's Baseball Ground was a notorious mudheap in the 1970s. There was barely a blade of grass on the pitch come mid-November. Funnily enough, Derby were champions twice in the early 70s and never came close before or since.

Monday, 24 August 2009

The peedie* brat

We're having a cup of tea and then we're off on a rescue mission.

We have to rescue Teddy the Shetland pony. Not that he's being mistreated or anything, not by humans anyway.

He and Merlin are still with the neighbours where Merlin is covering their two Shetland mares. Ted, not having the appropriate equipment, is kind of left out and is spending his time on his own, looking a little forlorn.

So Mrs Pig "Farmer" approached June (our neighbour) this morning and before she could say anything, June came out with: "Oh that peedie brat, he won't let poor Teddy get anywhere near the mares."

So Ted is coming home this afternoon and already has a load of carrot tops and apple cores and peel (Sal's been making chutney) waiting for him. He can keep Little Kim company while Molly is over in Orphir getting it on with The Boss.

The peedie brat will be left to get his jollies for a while longer.

* Peedie - Orkney dialect for small.

Swine

"Hi Malcolm, I've got swine flu. I've been in bed for several days," said our friend from down the road.

"Oh no. Are you OK now?," said the pig "farmer", wondering whether the "swine" part of the conversation had any significance.

"I'm much better thanks and the kids haven't caught it fortunately. Anyway, what I'm ringing for is to ask if you have any bales of hay to spare."

Hay deal done, I was left wondering why I get jumpy every time someone mentions "swine" flu and why it's called "swine" flu. I looked it up here and as far as I can fathom, it's a bit like infections that circulate in pigs in America and Europe.

The word the site uses is "similar".

"Similar". Not "same".

I shall now start referring to Manchester United as "Arsenal" because their red shirts are similar to Arsenal's.

I'm not saying that anyone in the UK is going to suggest we take anything like the horrific, shameful, brutal and unnecessary wholesale slaughter of the pig population by the Egyptian government highlighted by Compassion in World Farming earlier this summer. However, the UK government webpage on the outbreak uses the word "swine" 43 times.

Now, I haven't heard of any backlash against pork by the level-headed British public. Indeed, the price of pork is higher than it has been for some time (still far too low for pig farmers to make anything like a living), but associating pigs with a potentially fatal infection is hardly helpful.

So, on behalf of pigs and pig farmers everywhere, can we knock it off? If you get the bug, you've got flu. Get to bed, consult a doctor if necessary and when you feel better, treat yourself to a big bacon sandwich (from a free range British pig of course).

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Pig "farmer" in shock transfer swoop

Here at Pig Towers we like to concentrate on our youth policy, but, having said that, we are always open to a dabble in the transfer market.

So, with deadline day approaching, here are our two new signings. . .


Tristan and Isolde are Tamworth/Gloucester Old Spot crosses - with a lot more Tamworth than Gloucester if you ask me - brought over from the neighbouring island of Wyre.

We're not exactly farming's answer to Manchester City, but they're valuable additions to the squad, especially as they'll be ready for slaughter just before Christmas. They're cute enough and getting used to us, but I much prefer Saddlebacks who are considerably more laid-back and easy to handle.

Kim's piglets are doing fine, putting on weight and trembling a lot less than they were a week ago.

video
Soundtrack courtesy of Adam the cockerel and Francis the drake.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

The seven-day itch

We forgot all about the midges.

I can't believe we went to the Highlands in August and forgot the midges.

Bugger, bugger, bugger.

Mrs Pig "Farmer" is covered head-to-toe in bites, although my offers to rub in something soothing have so far fallen on stoney ground. Her loss.

We have two bottles of Avon Skin So Soft in the bathroom, stored for the two days a year when the wind drops enough for midges to appear in Westray. How hard would it have been for me to chuck one in a bag?

Still, scratching aside, we had a decent enough time. Scotland is lovely, the kind of country Ireland could be if it wasn't for the mad bungalows all over the place.

The pig "farmer" even went clothes shopping - one of the most depressing and frustrating hours of his entire existence.

A pack of socks and a plain black "going to town" jumper should have taken all of five minutes. I had a thorough look at everything on offer, made my selections and decided I'd better stop wasting time in Waterstones and get on with the clothes shopping.

I found socks - packs of seven for £10 (probably two months' wages for the eight-year-old who made them). I ignored the ones with Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday etc - there lies the path to madness.

"Hello, NHS Direct? I can't leave the house, I've got one Wednesday, one Friday and it's Saturday. What should I do?"

Armed with a pack of seven in different shades of grey I went in search of a plain, black jumper. Easy, right? Wrong. Pursuit of the Holy Grail would be simple by comparison.

Modern shopping centres, even in somewhere as otherwise pleasant as Inverness, are dismal, airless places flogging the kind of tat that would have embarrassed the Steptoes.

After an hour spent dodging the Stepford shoppers, bouncing from one bunch of corporate shysters to another, wondering just which idiot thought to sew together a jumper and a shirt and then sell it for more than £20 to other idiots, I gave up. "Life's too short" and all that.

I had seen one jumper I liked - a Marks and Sparks one in schoolboy grey with a couple of buttons - but it was £30 and, despite the price indicating it may have been made by someone older than 12 and on something approaching a living wage, it was outside the budget (£30 is more than 100kg of pig feed).

I found solace in Inverness's Victorian Market where there is a real rarity - an independent record/music shop. Not very Victorian I suppose, but that didn't stop me rifling the shelves before buying a British Sea Power album for my daughter (as long as she lets me download it first).

Of course, I should have left the jumper shopping to Sally in the first place. This morning as we waited for the ferry back to Orkney, I strolled along the shore at John O'Groats sipping a cup of builder's tea and enjoying the midgelessness of it all and Sal went to the Edinburgh Woollen Mill and bought a plain black jumper, size large, the kind pig "farmers" wear when going to town.

Nice one.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Shakin' all over

Kiwi the piglet (she's all black) couldn't stop her head wobbling. She couldn't stop her whole self wobbling as she tottered around the pen.

Further examination by the pig "farmer" revealed that all but two of the seven were shaking to one extent or another. This was something entirely new in a so-far untroubled pig-keeping career.

Were they mentally damaged? Were they differently-abled? Were they just a bit chilly?

They seemed to be feeding well (they hardly stopped for the first 24 hours), so there should have been no reason to panic, but I'm a worrier and consulting the internet is rarely a good idea - one Australian website convincing me that the whole herd would have to be slaughtered.

I slept on it. Next morning I considered calling the vet in Kirkwall, but it was Saturday, the day of Orkney's County Show and the piglets were, shaking aside, lively enough. They were getting out and about, running around and there were even a couple of fights. In many ways they were progressing quicker than previous litters.

Still worried, I stuck a query on the British Saddleback Breeders' Club forum and was guided to an article that described Congenital Tremors - a condition that occurs sometimes in Saddlebacks. The piglets' nervous systems have been damaged and will take a short while to heal. As long as they are feeding normally they should be right as rain in about four weeks.

Phew.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Nature's other miracle

The piglet shoved his brother out of the way, latched onto the teat and began sucking greedily. I relaxed, happy to hear the slurping sound of a young pig getting his first milk.

Once again we are celebrating nature's miracle. No, not Wolves' promotion to the Premier League*, but the arrival of the Kim's litter of seven piglets.

Ten minutes earlier the same piglet had been upside down while I swung him from side to side in an attempt to clear his lungs of the mucus that had damn nearly drowned him. He wheezed a bit, spluttered, coughed and then. . . not much.

I shoved a finger down his throat, explained the 'no dying without written permission from the pig "farmer"' rule and hauled out a great glob of goo. His nibs gave a great big "ahehehem" and looked altogether brighter. I snipped his cord and pushed him in the general direction of the milk bar.

Two o'clock in the morning is hardly the best timing, but it's a relief to have the birth out of the way, not least for Kim who has had a rough time of it. She's a well-built girl, if well-built means 'along the lines of HMS Ark Royal' and the added weight of pregnancy has made life very difficult over the last couple of weeks.

Mercifully, that bit's over, the seven seem healthy enough and, for Kim, eight weeks of motherhood follows. For me, it's time for boiled egg and soldiers and a few hours sleep.

* The real miracle will be if they stop up.

Friday, 31 July 2009

Bobby Robson

Sometime early in 1981 a cub reporter from the Shrewsbury Chronicle, eager to help out, was pointed in the direction of sports editor Stan Hall who was preparing for the local team's big fourth round FA Cup tie with Ipswich.

Then Shrewsbury were a middle-to-decent Second Division side and Ipswich were in their pomp, already FA Cup winners in 1978, firmly established in England's football elite and on their way to a UEFA Cup triumph. So it was a big game.

"Ring Bobby Robson and ask him what he thinks of the Town team," said Stan.

I rang Portman Road and was startled to be put straight through and greeted with a warm, Geordie "Hello Malcolm, how can I help?"

Twenty minutes later I had a notebook stuffed with his views on Shrewsbury ("lovely place, must take the family there"), Town ("well-organised, hard to break down"), football ("I love the game, there's nothing like it"), life, the universe and everything.

I had enough for three good pieces, including one for the front page, and earned a rare "well done" from the Editor. The truth was that I had done very little except regurgitate the views of one of the finest men in football.

Bobby Robson died today. He played for West Brom, but I won't hold that against him. He was a rare man in the game, more interested in the simple joy of playing football than in the accumulation of silverware or money - the last of a simpler, more honest age.

I wish he had managed Wolves, but he did - as England boss - give Molineux folk hero Steve Bull the chance to represent his country as a Third Division footballer. I can't imagine any Sven or Fabio having similar imagination or courage. And I'll fight anyone who reckons Robson was wrong about Bully.

The last time I saw Robson was on Newcastle station a couple of years ago. The train south had been delayed for half-an-hour and only got going again when a big, elderly man was helped on board. I like to think we were all waiting for Bobby.

Anyhow, the world of football is short of one honest man tonight. Rest easy Bobby.

Kim

Kim is expecting. . . and, heavens, isn't she making a song and dance out of the whole thing?

We moved the senior sow from her spot in the bottom field into the maternity suite last week. She's due to farrow on Wednesday.

She lumbered up the lane easily enough, but, by the time she had snuffled through the bedding that was lovingly prepared by the pig "farmer", she was obviously knackered and in need of a large G&T and a lie-down. Being a pig, she got only one of these.

So, she rummaged through the staw I'd put out for her, tried not to look disappointed at the lack of a bed with clean sheets and then snuggled down. Right down. Lots of deep breathing. Is that panting? Can't tell? You don't think. . . ?

As a result, The Big Eeejit (that'd be me) sat up most of the night, making checks every 20 minutes and was completely banjaxed by the time he came to deliver breakfast to pigs, ducks and hens the next morning.

Kim, on the other hand, was refreshed from a good night's sleep and bright as a button - well, as bright as a 450lb pig ever gets.

I swear I heard chuckling as I left the pigshed.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Wearing badges is not enough

We were having a clear-out - or rather Mrs Pig "Farmer" was. It was best to keep moving or find yourself stashed away with the mops and broomhandles.

An old shoebox revealed, among other nick-nackery, a couple of badges.

"I had that when I was 12," I said.

"I had mine when I was 12 too," she said.

"What's yours?"

"Anti-apartheid, what about you?"

"Bronze life-saving."

Our childhoods were very different.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Merlin goes on a date

It's been a long time since I first went out on an assignation with a real member of the opposite sex, but I seem to recall that running around a field with my sexual desire only too plain to see was not an option.

Maybe things have changed since the 70s.

Or perhaps I shouldn't judge Shetland ponies by the standards of my inept early attempts at courtship.

Yesterday Merlin (3ft high, but with an ego the size of Champion the Wonderhorse) went off for the first time to "meet" a couple of Shetland mares just down the way from us.

Mrs Pig "Farmer" pulled out all the stops, got the brushes and gave the lad a groom-and-a-half - even adding baby oil fercrissakes. With that and the surfer, highlighted look in his mane, what mare could resist?

There was a snag. Remember when you had to turn up at a school disco with your big, dopey mate? Remember when you were the big, dopey mate? Merlin had a "plus-one". . . Teddy.

Now, don't get me wrong. Ted is a fine looking lad, especially now that he's completely over last year's bout of laminitis (look it up) that would have had him staring down the wrong end of a gun had he lived pretty much anywhere but Pig Towers.

Ted is in the finest of fettle - a mini-version of the winner of the 3.30 at Haydock last week. Only thing is, he's not good on his own, so he had to go too. Oh yeah, and he's a gelding.

Still, the ladies seemed pretty pleased to see Merlin and Merlin was very, very pleased to see them. So pleased the bloody thing was bouncing along the ground.

Ted, bless him, was left cantering along behind, happy to be easily the biggest horse in the field, but looking like he'd rather be somewhere else.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Can we fix it?

The well filled all by itself (over the course of a couple of days instead of the usual couple of hours), the toilet was unblocked (Pete the plumber/landscape artist tied a old towel to an old mop and used it as a mega-plunger).

So everything was hunky-dory? It was, until a certain nameless person put a pickaxe through the pipe that supplies water from the well to the house.

Wasn't me.

I went off to a far corner of the pigshed and swore a bit - for about five minutes. Then I had a look at the (very old and imperial) plastic pipe, rummaged around some of the spare joints and fittings (recently bought and metric) we have and decided to go to bed and worry about it in the morning.

The plumbing pixies were clearly otherwise engaged overnight, so I had to deal with it, waking with that feeling of not having done my homework. I thought about ringing Electric Eric (good man in a crisis) or the aforementioned Pete, but that seemed a bit pathetic.

The pipe is one-inch, while I had a 25mm connector. Are you thinking what I was thinking? Not much diff. Worth a try anyway.

I cut the pipe, filed the bits off and cleaned it, then tried to push the push-fit connector on. It wouldn't go. I looked at the pipe and compared it with a length of the metric. . . anyway. . . long story short. . . I managed to get the two ends of the pipe connected and we had water again. Hoo-effing-rah! I was pretty damn pleased with myself.

"So what?" I hear you cry. "So this," I reply. Two years ago when I moved to Orkney I had nothing in the way of DIY or handyman skills - I must have been out of my tiny mind - and a small problem like that would have me pogoing in the panic button. I've come a long way since.

And 'Pickaxe' Pat owes me a pint.

While I'm telling everyone how great I am, I'm chuffed to bits with the little kitchen garden I've got going at the front of the house.


It was very much an afterthought, laid out in April on previously derelict ground and hastily sown/planted with onions, carrots, cabbage, broad beans, butternut squash, beetroot and spinach beet - all of which seem to be doing just fine.

Few things in life give me as much satisfaction as a healthy-looking display of veg and this lot cheers me up every time I go out the front door.

The only problem seems to be these fellas. . .


They hang around in gangs and give the cabbages a Gruyere look. Removal by hand seems to be the only solution - I took more than a hundred off today - any other ideas would be gratefully received.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

We're in the. . .

Rearrange the following words into an hilarious blog post about idyllic life on a small Scottish island.

Toilet, blocked, arm, elbow, Dettol, thorough, wash, flexible, rods, bucket, outside, dig, tank, septic, nearly, full, still, find, blockage, can't, borrow, proper, drain, rods, a, bit, mystified.

I just hope Mrs Pig "Farmer" doesn't remember the words: Pig, "Farmer", wetsuit.

Still, on the upside, the well has mysteriously refilled, despite an almost total absence of rain.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

How much for the beard?

"What about twenty quid?" said Mrs Pig "Farmer".

"That's far too much. How about ten?" said her friend Toni.

"Oh no, that'd be robbery. Tell you what, let's split the difference and make it £15."

"Hold on, haven't we got this the wrong way round. I'm selling the ducks TO YOU."

"Oh, right."

Unbelieveable.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Water, water everywhere

We have a heatwave in Orkney. It's bloody lovely. Clear blue skies, hours and hours of warm, even hot, sunshine.

The real farmers are rushing around at all hours getting the hay/haylage/silage in. The pig "farmer" is keeping an eye on his "herd" of five, worrying about his cabbages, beans and carrots, weeding in between the tatties and wondering if it's too dry to be planting out leeks.

There has still been time for a little R and R, yesterday it was a trip over to the north beach with the lads and a swim - the first of the year. Sadly the water was flat so there was no chance of a surf.

This evening myself, the dogs and The Boy - who leaves tomorrow to take up a new job in Cornwall (I suspect he's trying to tell me something) - had a leisurely walk along the shore by Rapness cemetery, shoes off, toes in the warm sand, paddling in the water. . . all that stuff.

It has been idyllic, absolute confirmation that we did the right thing moving here. I really love this place.

Of course there's a down side, as I found this morning when I ran the bath. Our water comes from a well in the bottom field, brought up to the house by a pump which is controlled by a switch in the kitchen.

I lurched into the kitchen this morning, slurped a little coffee and flipped the switch. That should have been followed by about five minutes of gurgling and hoowooshing as the tank filled. I listened and there was nothing bar the sound of a gently snoring Spike. Not a gurgle nor a hoowoosh anywhere. The tank had run dry.

Bugger.

I dressed quickly and went to the bottom field where the pump was whirring happily. I called Pete the plumber who diagnosed a missing valve that meant the self-priming pump was no longer priming itself.

So it's fixable, but what isn't fixable is the alarming level in the well. We're down to the last couple of feet - at least a yard and a half lower than normal. I'm told the well has never run dry before, but also that this is the driest spring/summer Westray has known for many years.

As a result there's a bath ban in force, I'm growing a beard, the once-a-week smalls wash is now fortnightly and we're buying barrels industrial strength Lynx.

Glass of Evian anyone?

Friday, 26 June 2009

A girl named Bob

We were a hen short. There were only five pecking around Molly's feet as she got stuck into her evening meal. Bob was missing.

For a few days I kept an eye out for her and had all but given up hope when she appeared in the pig shed, very defensive and hungry enough to think boiled tatties and rhubarb were delicious.

Then she was gone, appearing again three days later, puffing her chest out and spreading her wings wide at the other hens - she obviously had something to hide. The pattern continued for some time until the other day when The Boy said: "Come and have a look at this Dad."

There was Bob with five. . . no, six. . . seven. . . hang on, nine. . . hell's teeth, ten. . . eleven, we've got a football team. . . twelve, and a sub, chicks.


The next problem was to get them out of the open air where they would be prey to gulls and, maybe, cats. Easy - The Boy got a box and we gathered up the chicks, putting them in the old stone shed recently vacated by Molly.

Then we ushered Bob around to the shed before erecting a barrier which she could hop over, but the chicks couldn't. The trouble with that was that Bob and her sister Leroy (don't ask) look almost identical and, you've guessed it, we'd got the wrong hen.

So we hurried back to where Bob was frantically searching for her chicks and, after she had attacked The Boy's feet a couple of times, swopped her over with a now very confused Leroy. Mother and chicks are doing just fine.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Ray

The small, unassuming accountant quietly unlocked the front door of his semi-detached Wolverhampton home and went inside. It was about 6am, some time in the early 70s.

"Where on Earth have you been?" asked his wife.

In a fairly befuddled state, honesty seemed the best policy, so the accountant said: "I've been out drinking with Slade."

"What? All of them? Noddy Holder, Dave Hill, Jimmy Whatshisface and the other one?"

"Absolutely. I've got these albums they brought back from America. Look."

"OK then, what do you want for breakfast?"


I may have taken a liberty or two with the story (it could have been 5.30), but it makes me smile. The accountant was my father-in-law Ray who died in Kirkwall's Balfour Hospital last week at the age of 80, having taken his battle with Parkinson's Disease to extra time and penalties.

There was a wee bit of the devil in Ray. As recently as last month, he raised one last defiant fist against his failing health, ignored a Sally-imposed ban and went on a treacherous, cliff-top walk with his eldest son Stephen to view the puffins at Westray's Castle Burrian, grinning all over his face on his return.

I first met Ray properly one Boxing Day maybe ten years ago. As a family gathering wound to a close, Sally disappeared out of the room with the words "my dad doesn't really do small talk." Left alone, we eyed each other warily before I burbled something of little consequence. I was 38 years old and I'm not sure which of us felt more awkward.

What I didn't learn from Ray himself, I quickly learned from his family. He was man of rock-solid principle and political passion, a lifelong standard bearer of the communist cause, campaigning against injustice and inequality in his own quiet way all his life. He was devoted to his wife Marion and, in hindsight, he never got over her death from Alzheimer's disease three years ago.

Partial to a pint and a glass of malt, he was keen on his music with a taste that ran from Tom Paxton to The Dubliners, Bessie Smith to Cabaret and then, more alarmingly, Dr Hook (he is the only person I've had to ask to 'turn that bloody noise down'). A big believer in audience participation, Ray wouldn't exactly sing along, but he certainly liked a good growl in time to the music.

Ray didn't believe in any kind of existence after death, but he and Marion live on through his children Stephen, Martin, Alan and Sally and an ever-growing family of some of the best people I've met.

I'm glad Ray decided to make our move to Orkney his last adventure, even if there was rather more 'last' than 'adventure', and glad that we got beyond the 'awkward' stage and got to know each other. I'll miss him. Cheerio matey.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Pintus interruptus

I was settling down for what I felt was a well-deserved pint. Perched on the bar stool, I lifted the glass to my lips when the phone behind the bar rang.

Mr Hotel Proprietor had a kind of "mmm, aha, yes, yes he's here" conversation. He put the receiver down, turned to me and said: "One of your pigs is out and heading north at speed."

"Oh testicles!" I exclaimed and hurried out, jumped in the car and set off. A mile or so down the road, Squeaky waved me down and pointed to the field where Molly the sow was wandering around in an agitated state. Our neighbour Neil had put her there while Squeaky had kept an eye out for traffic.

Molly has been a bit skittish ever since she was taken away from her piglets a few weeks ago, trotting around her pen, spreading her bedding all over the place, digging enormous holes, but this was the first time she'd got the wanderlust.

As luck would have it, I had a feed bucket in the car and, although it was empty, Molly knows the routine and trotted happily after me as soon as I started rattling it. Tailed by Mr Hotel Proprietor in his very big Jeep she followed me the half-mile up the main road to the "farm" where I discovered I had forgotten to switch the electric fence on. Duh!

A quick scoop of feed and an armful of fresh straw settled Molly back down. I plugged the fence in and returned to the abandoned pint the phrases "insurance claim" and "new gate" rattling around my head.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Democracy in action

The ladies at the polling station hurriedly put away the cheese and dabbed oatcake crumbs from their lips as the pig "farmer" and entourage swept in.

"Hello, I'd like to decide who gets to stick their snouts in the great trough that is the European Parliament," I should have said. Instead I made light chit-chat about what good weather we've been having, although the ground could do with the rain and so on.

The first polling officer looked at the four of us (me, The Boy, stepson Pat and stepdaughter Amy) and apologised for the fact there was only one booth. Apparently we were an unexpected rush.

As the queue built up behind me, I marched into the booth, trying not to trip over the several feet of yellow sheet that was the ballot paper. For the first time in my life, I hesitated before putting my X in the box. I really wasn't sure.

I was a month too young for the May 1979 election and, as a result, Thatcher got in. I've voted Labour ever since and look where that's got us.

The pencil grew slippery as my palm sweated and I scanned the lists. I dismissed the Jury Team (?), the Christian Party (oh please), the Lib Dems (what do they stand for this week?), UKIP (racist nutters), BNP (racist uber-nutters), Tommy Sheridan's latest ego-trip.

I made up my mind, scrawled an X in the box (don't get cocky Alec, I'm just trying it out) folded the paper into a big yellow dinosaur, put it in the slot and strolled out into the sunshine which was exactly the same as when I went in.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Pipes


The City of Kirkwall pipe band* were out in force in front of St Magnus' Cathedral, watched by a crowd of around 150. Somebody must have told them the pig "farmer" had just got off the Westray boat.

Seriously everybody, you shouldn't have. . . you know I don't like the fuss. . . bit disappointed there wasn't a buffet.

I'm told the Duke and Duchess of Rothesay/Cornwall (name changes depending on their location) were also in town so it's nice the lads had their pipes out anyway.

* Orkney isn't all that Scottish so they go easy on the tartan and shortbread (unless there's a game against England). The pipe band appears to be the one exception to the rule.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Trev's travels

Trevor's nose was out of joint. He was exceptionally grouchy, even for him. Mrs Pig "Farmer" had a new cat.

The little black and white cat appeared on the croft last autumn. It survived an encounter with Spike the terrier, took up residence underneath the ever-growing scrap heap before, for a short while, sharing digs with Kim the sow in the pigshed.

By the time the worst of the winter had set in, the little cat was snuggling up in the hay loft in the barn and Mrs Pig "Farmer" was in full "aaawww" mode. I, of course, assumed it was male (I hadn't been close enough for a really good look) and, considering its moustache, named it Salvador. It's not often I name anything after a fascist, but there you go.



Mrs Pig "Farmer" got on speaking terms, stroking terms and built up to cuddling terms. I was beginning to take notes.

Then we found out she was female so we had a "d'you know any famous women with moustaches" conversation. The list is short and amounts to Mexican artist Frida Kahlo whose self-portrait has a little pencil moustache. . . unless it's been vandalised. . . but then there would surely be spectacles too.

So, anyway. . . Frida turned out to be what they call in Orkney "frecky". She can't get enough fuss and she certainly gets plenty.

It should have been no surprise really when Trevor decided enough was enough and - in the words of the Knights Who Say 'Ni' - he buggered off.

He was last seen on a Thursday. Friday, Saturday and Sunday passed - a long time for a cat who insists of his five regular meals a day - and I was having to reassure Mrs Pig "Farmer" that, by my reckoning, the lad had at least four, possibly five, lives left.

We made a poster and stuck up in the shop. I checked with the neighbours and took to wandering about the place shouting "Trev, Trev, here puss" like some barmy old biddy.

I'd pretty much given up hope by the time Alicen called by to say she'd seen him at the former school half-a-mile away. Pat and I jumped into one of the wrecks we like to call a car and spluttered up the road.

Having persuaded a yowling tabby into the car we returned, Pat looking nervous as the last time the two of them had had the pleasure of sharing the front seat of the car, Pat had ended up covered in cat vomit and diahorrea.

Trev chuntered and, once home, he grumbled about the place for 24 hours before remembering he's allowed on the electric blanket and Frida isn't, he's allowed in the house and Frida isn't and he gets meaty chunks and Frida gets a bit of dried food and is expected to catch mice. Life's not so bad, after all.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Faray


The ladder down to the boat felt precarious, despite being firmly bolted to the side of the pier. Stomach lurched and knee ligaments tugged hard as I stepped aboard.

Passengers loaded (five of us), Roy fired up the Golden Way's engine and we rumbled away from Rapness in the warm Orkney sunshine into Weatherness Sound, water smacking gently an arm's reach away against the side of the boat, towards the island of Faray.

"It's my last year in Faray," said Marcus last March as we cut up a leg of pork. " Why don't you come over and have a look round for a day."

Faray lies tucked neatly between Westray and Eday, about a mile from each. The island was noted in the 16th century as being excellent for grazing cattle and supported a population of nearly 90 in the late 1800s, but declined rapidly in the 20th century.

By the end of the Second World War, the school had closed, families had deserted and the last inhabitant left - not without some persuasion from the authorities - in 1947. Faray was left to seabirds, seals and an increasingly wild flock of sheep.

In 1971, Marcus took up the lease and has knocked the sheep side of things into shape. He has 600 ewes on Faray and Faray Holm (connected by a causeway at low tide) and he spends the whole of May there each year seeing to the lambing. His daughter Ruth and some Westray folk go out to help, many leaving their mark on the sheep sheds - "JHS was here May '07".

Back on the Golden Way in May 2009, we found our way around the north end of Faray Holm, chugging down the rocky east coast, past shags, black guillemots and a large grey seal colony in Lavey Sound between the islands. The seals not hauled out on the rocks bob up in the water to get a view of us as we pass. The binoculars were out.

Ten minutes later the boat turned and we headed for what seemed to be a cave, stopping just short as the Golden Way crept up to a rocky outcrop. . .



The pig "farmer" stumbled ashore and took some time to regain his balance, earning a mild reprimand from Marcus for not helping Sal off the boat. We clambered up the rocks and trudged a few hundred yards to the old school. . .


. . . re-roofed and kitted out as a basic home for one month a year, where we were offered coffee, home-made biscuits and a potted history of Faray.

A tour of the sheep pens later, we headed south to the far end of the island, pausing at this perfect, sandy beach to admire the arctic terns and a lone arctic skua. . .


. . . before wandering off up the west coast where fulmars clung to the ledges and tussocks and shags stood guard over eggs laid in nests made of seaweed and marine scraps. . .


A couple of hours was enough to take us round most of the island and back to the schoolhouse where we arrived as Marcus and Ruth were hurrying in with two ewes in the trailer. One was ready to lamb and the other was right in the middle of lambing, the youngster's head sticking out, but its legs tucked back, preventing any further progress.

Not long after, the lambs appeared. . .

. . . a bit messy, but healthy. . .


A conversation between Marcus and the pig "farmer" is much like an encounter between university professor and first-year primary school pupil, and it's impossible not to admire his knowledge and his passion for the animals.

He also knows the pig "farmer" well enough now to realise he's just a big kid and, as I admired his ATV (quad bike), he said "ever been on one? Get on."


Perfect. Guess what I want for Christmas.

Thanks to Marcus, Ruth and Roy for a fantastic day. Sometimes one outing is worth two weeks' holiday. It's good to know the farmers from Eday taking over Faray next year will continue much the same way as Marcus has for the last 38 years.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Twitchy

We have visitors. Two of Sal's brothers and one sister-in-law. It's great to see them, not only because they are fine examples of the human race at its best, but because it's a great excuse to get out and about on the island.

Today was a glorious day and the tourists - keen birdwatchers all - decided a long walk was a fine idea. I packed them all into what's left of Lennox the Land Rover and set off for Noup Head on the northwest tip of Westray, the plan being that I'd pick them up six miles south later in the day.


Around this time of year the cliffs at Noup become a seabird city. Numbers have dropped in recent years - global warming has shifted the sandeels further north, apparently - but it's still a remarkable sight and you don't need to be a twitcher to appreciate it.

Guillemots, fulmars, kittiwakes, razorbills, gannets and puffins cling onto the ledges. . .


Some of the best views come when you defy the vertigo and peer over the edge. . .


It's more than worth it when you find these two on a ledge a couple of feet below. . .


Just for the record/ticklist we saw all the previously mentioned seabirds plus a couple of great skuas, any number of oystercatchers, eider ducks and arctic terns and later in the afternoon arctic skuas.

There's bird action back at the "farm" too. I collected the trailer that took Sock to Orkney Mainland on Tuesday and there were three ducks in it. I know less about ducks than I do about hens, but they produced this on the first day. . .


. . . and have come up with several more since, so they're very welcome. The drake is, of course, already Charlie.

And in the henhouse (my father-in-law's old shed) Patty and Selma the broody hens have produced three chicks, two black and this little fella. . .



Cute.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Moody

Little Kim was worryingly quiet. There was none of the usual grunting, none of the cheery biting of the pig "farmer's" feet, none of the jovial attempts to turn the "farmer" upside down*. She seemed ill.

Now I know what you're thinking and I'd appreciate it if you'd stop. You've all been watching too much "news" on the telly.

I put some food outside her hut. I put some food inside her hut. She ignored it, yawned a bit, slumped back down in the straw and looked very miserable.

I called Mrs Pig "Farmer" at work. It seems I'm an "insensitive pig". Didn't I realise that being split up from her sister and lifelong companion and then moved to a strange field would upset her? And had I considered it could be the time of the month (every three weeks for pigs)? And it's a surprisingly windy day for this time of year.

Sure enough, yesterday she was outside investigating, bumping into the pig "farmer" and exchanging GRUNTS with her mother Kim in the next paddock.


A chip off the old block

* Little Kim has all the attributes of a second row forward for a middle-ranking Rugby League side, Wakefield Trinity for instance. Superleague clubs can contact us at the usual address.