Where now for farming on Bute?

WITHIN days of the publication of our first article looking at farming on Bute, a reader kindly lent us a copy of Scottish Field from the early 1950s, featuring a three page spread on 'Bute - the Island of Farmers'.

The article was written by Brandane Elizabeth MacDougall. In it she described Bute as "the garden of the west, a green island fertile and friendly to a man."

No change there in half a century, then. But Elizabeth also wrote that "more than 90 farms and holdings are spread over the island". As we discovered in our last article, this is twice the number which survive into the 21st century - meaning the island is losing the equivalent of one farm every year.

But the article also shows there are family names synonymous not just with Bute farming but with individual farms. Thus there was a Lyon at Drumachloy, as there is today - and Elizabeth alludes to a Lyon at the same farm back in 1841.

She included a picture of Alexander Macintyre, aged 84, and claims that he was the oldest farmer on Bute, with the Macintyres in tenancy at Dunalunt for more than a century.

As we reported in the first of this series, Dunalunt - now known as Dunallan - is still farmed by the Macintyre clan; in fact, Alexander was the grandfather of the present day occupant, Robert.

Also pictured are John Broadley, who worked at Bruchag while in his student days and who now lives in Coupar Angus, and Julia Craig, nee Hunter, who now lives in Troon. They are the only people pictured who are still alive.

Elizabeth's article made a number of astute social observations. Firstly she ascribed the lack of Gaelic spoken on Bute to the longevity of the farming families, but wondered why the farm names remain in their original lengthy Gaelic form.

"Langalbuinoch, Eskechraggan and Cranslagvourity," she observed, "how easily they roll from the tongue when spoken in the soft falling voice of Bute, but in the mouth of a stranger they are more awkward than pebbles behind the teeth."

The article was written in the heyday of post-war 'doon the watter' tourism, and the thousands upon thousands of visitors to Rothesay would hardly have ventured further than Ettrick Bay - and only then for sand, swings, ice cream and donkey rides. Rothesay was the visitor destination promoted by the Advertising Association.

How things have changed. Rothesay is now barely mentioned in tourism promotion, the emphasis now being firmly on the island as a whole, on 'green tourism' and on encouraging visitors to enjoy the island.

Back then it was also described by Elizabeth as 'green', though she also wrote that "The symbols of Bute's fertility are not those that fire the imagination of the tourist."

She also describes "heavy shining cans of milk for the mainland" being lugged on board the morning boat. There was an art form in the method by which two seamen could effortlessly carry them up the gangway of the paddle steamers Caledonia or Jupiter.

This would have been lost very soon with the opening of the island's first creamery, on the other side of Townhead from the one which operates and flourishes today.

One of the present day Lyons, George, is well known as the island's MSP, though his farming credentials extend far beyond Bute alone - before being elected to the Scottish Parliament he was president of the National Farmers Union (NFU).

We spoke to George recently and asked him to put farming on the island into context.

"Farming is a big economic force," he told us. "On Bute it is much more capital and financially intensive than in the rest of Argyll.

"There is currently a big shake up going on, and those who stick with the industry will become larger. On such a fertile island, farming will always be an important activity.

"Quality is key, with premium meat and high quality cheese produced on the island. With high quality, transport costs need not be a disincentive."

George went on to tell us how he views the importance of tourism to the future of farming on the island - and the role farmers need to play in tourism.

He explained: "Visitors see Bute as an 'upmarket' destination, and come here to walk, cycle and admire the beauty. They expect ease of access to the country and to the beaches.

"This may mean certain changes in practice, particularly if the range of wildlife increases. It may mean, for example, fencing off architectural sites."

We then asked George - whose continuing farming interest on the island, as a partner in A & K Farms, led to some recent controversy when it was revealed the company received nearly 70,000 in subsidies in 2005 - to look into the future.

"We need a long term development plan for the island," he said.

"Bute Estate has such an important part to play in any future planning.

"At present there is no incentive for tenant farmers to invest in tourism infrastructure, such as bed and breakfast, camping or caravanning facilities.

"A good caravan site should be in Mount Stuart's strategy.

"We need to secure adequate and appropriate housing to allow the island to attract people to live here and commute to the mainland every day."

Keeping it in the family, so to speak, we then went to visit George's brother, Duncan. A dairy farmer, Duncan is the present day Lyon, farming at Drumachloy, high above the northern end of Ettrick Bay.

Duncan obviously takes a great pride in his profession, though he does not feel in any way embarrassed by it.

"Some farmers would rather go bankrupt than get out," he observed.

His current bete noire is the power of the supermarkets. Difficult to disagree, especially since a Farmers Weekly study recently revealed that the most important figure in UK farming is actually Tesco boss Terry Leahy!

Duncan's concern is the absolute control exercised by the supermarket chains. "They have the power," he said.

"They hold down inflation so no government is going to face up to them. It is like banging your head off a brick wall."

He gave the example of strawberries supplied to a major supermarket. One word on the label was wrong, so the entire batch was dumped - and the supplier could do nothing about it.

"Farmers can hardly strike," he wryly observed.

However it would be very wrong to create the impression that Duncan is despondent - far from it. "I see a future," he told us. "I work hard seven days a week but I only earn money between six and eight in the morning and three and four in the afternoon - the rest of the time I spend it!"

Drumachloy curently supports a herd of 150 black and white Holsteins - not Friesians, as we, in our old fashioned way, had surmised. Because of breeding methods in Canada and sophisticated feeding methods, these animals are about two feet taller than their mothers were a mere ten years ago.

Every animal has its own stall, and its milk yield and feeding are computer controlled. Each cow will eat up to four kilos of a scientifically blended cake of molasses, wheat and product from the Loch Lomond distillery, as well as silage, and will yield approximately 27 kilos of milk each day - or up to 12 tonnes per annum.

The biggest threat to the animals is posed by the disease cystitis, and we watched Duncan tenderly sterilising his charges before starting to milk them. The whole milking process seemed effortless but we reckon it has taken years of practice to make it look easy.

As a dairy farmer, Duncan emphasised the need for the island's creamery.

"Scotland needs agriculture, needs to recognise its importance as an industry - to paraphrase the song, 'coal no more, steel no more' - however, as I said, the big boys determine the price per litre of milk.

"The costs of looking after a 150-cow herd, the tenancy of a large island farm and the purchase of a milk quota are no concern of the supermarket giants. That is the harsh economy of dairy farming."

Supermarkets can source their produce worldwide, never mind the environmental effects of long haul flights. Duncan pointed to New Zealand where animals can be kept outdoors all year round without the need for the upkeep of sheds and barns.

Food production now follows the supermarket ethos of absolute minimum storage time between production and shelf. At any one time there is only a two week supply of food in the country. This is actually a shorter period than during the black days of the Second World War, and dramatically demonstrates the supermarkets' marketing methods.

Changes in subsidy delivery methods will happen over the next eight years, by which time farming subsidies are likely to cease. Even the existing subsidies include up to ten per cent for environmental projects to encourage the reintroduction of wild life.

Duncan explained how 'subsidies' have changed over the years. Probably the best known are the ones which related to skimmed milk and butter 'mountains'.

"It (the subsidy payment] used to be so much per head," he said, "but now it's a single payment, which is reducing on an annual basis and is likely to cease in about eight years from now."

As he explained there is a benefit to the community in subsidies: "Farmers reinvest in fences, buildings and machinery."

Turning to Ettrick Bay, which has received such a bad press for its poor quality bathing waters, attributed to agricultural practices, Duncan described the micro climate in the area as unpredictable.

The prevailing weather is bad for the beach, but worse is the difficulty in accurate weather forecasting.

"The forecast can be for a dry day, then an inch of rain falls.

"It's a bit like the householder relying on Heather the Weather to tell him when there will be a dry day for his barbecue - and when he sets light to the charcoal he feels the first drops of rain on his head!"

This brought up the subject of tourism, and we reminisced about the 'golden' days of scout and guide camps and farmhouse bed and breakfasts on Bute.

As a tenant, Duncan does not see a viable return in investing in someone else's property to provide the type of experience which today's tourist requires.

Asked to look into the future, Duncan shares the same concerns of all the farmers we have spoken to so far. Young people have grown used to an easier life style and do not want to work in an industry which requires a 365-day-a-year commitment.

He fears that no guidance teacher would encourage a school leaver to go into farming.

"It's the mainland for a decent wage," he observed.

"Years ago I enjoyed allowing young people on to the farm. One time I had a group of wee neds from the city, who only wanted to play on quad bikes, but by the end of a day with me I had a bunch of wee dairymen.

"But with 21st century health and safety legislation it would be completely impractical to allow young people on to the farm nowadays."

Duncan himself is still relatively young, though, and intends to remain farming for a long time to come. And, in a rapidly changing world, there may well be willing successors to him when the time comes for him to retire and exchange his early morning stints in the milking parlour for a well deserved bus pass.

(This article first appeared in the March 24, 2006 issue of The Buteman.)