This week we meet Rachel, a former service woman and teacher farming on Britain’s most remote island. Rachel has such a fascinating story to tell, I’ve actually split this interview into two parts to make sure you didn’t miss out on anything!
I hope you enjoy the first ever #FollowAFarmer two parter!
James: What’s your farming background?
Rachel: My farming background is precisely zero, I’m afraid! My daddy’s family farmed in Ireland and I used to be a member of North Holland Young Farmers Club in my teens, but never had any experience of hands-on farming. The closest I got was riding & looking after horses! Being brought up in rural Lincolnshire, I was surrounded by farming families, both arable & livestock, so seeing the turn of the seasons through farming eyes – albeit vicariously – is something I grew up with, however unconsciously!
J: So, like me, you grew up in a rural area surrounded by farms. Did you grow up wanting to farm?
R: No, although I loved growing up where I did, farming as a career had never even crossed my mind back then. From a young age I wanted to be a teacher – I did a music degree then a PGCE but the reality of teaching didn’t match my romantic, Enid Blyton-fuelled expectations. In a complete change of career, I served as a Warfare Officer in the Royal Navy and then as an Educational and Training Services Officer in the British Army, before going back into teaching when I left the Forces.
I did that for four years before getting thoroughly disillusioned with the profession. With my only qualifications being education-related, I didn’t know what to do so did a three-month cookery course at Ballymaloe in Ireland, which led to me working as Assistant Cook at the Fair Isle Bird Observatory in 2014, and the rest is history!
J: That’s quite the career path! Teacher to armed forces back to teacher to chef to agriculture! How have all those experiences been of use since you began farming?
R: Yes, I used to get a bit of stick for not staying with one career choice, but if you’ve not found the thing you love doing then I don’t see why you should stay in a job in which you’re not 100% happy – life’s too short! When I did the cookery course I’d no intention of it being a new career path, I just decided to do something for myself, because I thought I’d enjoy it – it was only afterwards when I thought ‘help, I’ve got to get a job’ and had no idea what to do, that I started looking at short-term cooking jobs & hence the six-month contract with the Bird Observatory here!
Running a croft with only about 50 head of sheep doesn’t provide enough of an income on its own, so I have several other jobs – having the cooking experience helped me get the job of Relief Cook for the primary school here, I also provide all the catering for the 12-15 cruise ship visits we get in the summer with usually between 80-120 people coming ashore to visit the island, and last winter we had a fab team of workmen from Raeburn Drilling & Geotechnical staying & working here out of season, so I provided their evening meals for them over the couple of months they were based here and the money I earned went towards my winter feed & heating bill!
I would say perhaps more relevant to farming, however, has been my experience in the Forces – crofting/farming here is a very male-dominated job, the same as in the Forces, and you do feel a certain desire and, dare I say, need to prove yourself. When my ex-partner and I split up it would have been very easy to walk away, to sign the croft over to him, and just try & support myself with my admin, cooking & knitting jobs. Couple that with the number of people that said ‘but you won’t be running the croft yourself, will you?’ when they found out we’d split up. But if I learned anything whilst serving it was that you have to have an element of self-belief – oh, and that quitting isn’t an option! So I run the croft on my own now and, yes, my neighbours help out with certain jobs, but it works both ways and I’ll then help them with other jobs – we really are a community here, in every sense of the word.
J: How did you find life on Fair Isle at first? It must have been quite a change?
R: I think working for six months at the Bird Observatory here in 2014, before moving here in May 2015, was of huge benefit: it meant we knew all the islanders, we were familiar with the island’s ‘quirks’ -for example electricity available only between 7:30 and 23:30 and if the weather’s bad then there can be weeks with no planes/boats so no supplies coming in – and so although, yes, it was a complete change of lifestyle, I think it was one that we were as well prepared for as we could be, rather than having never visited the island and moving here with rose-tinted glasses thinking living here would be a relaxing island idyll!
That said, life always likes to throw a few curve balls, and I found the first few months quite quite tough, although not necessarily in the way I’d perhaps envisioned. A couple of weeks after moving here I started working for one of the knitwear producers as a ‘finisher’ (putting together the knitted parts of a garment & finishing them off – all by hand). I was also helping out with the cruise ship visits and then the Assistant Cook at the Bird Observatory left and I was asked to stand in. This was fantastic in terms of having a source of income, but left so little time to try & unpack & actually settle into the house.
I’d get up & do the animals, walk the dogs, then be ready to start at the Observatory at 07:30, work through till 14:00, home & change & straight down to the studio for finishing ’til maybe 16:30, home & change & back at the Ob for 17:00, finish there at 19:30, come home, make supper for us & try & do some unpacking, six days a week! On my days off I’d find I was just trying to catch up on laundry & household tasks & more unpacking, rather than spending time with my then-partner, who was working 3 days a week on the boat crew, and making time to enjoy settling in to life here.
I think moving here in the May was a blessing as it meant we weren’t thrown straight in at the deep end with the sheep – it was the quiet time of year when there wasn’t that much to do with them! Seeing as my only ovine experience to date had been the previous year when I helped out with the hill caa (round-up of the hill sheep), plus a bit of clipping, there was a lot to learn! Luckily the community is incredibly supportive and gave us so much help and advice. It’s not a case of you move here & off you go, you’re on your own, the island wants long-term residents so people want to help you make your croft a success, they don’t want to stand by and watch you make mistakes, have the croft fail & then leave. I think also because there are so many ‘incomers’ on Fair Isle, they remember what it was like when they moved here & had to learn everything from scratch and are happy to help you.
J: How did the move to the croft come about?
R: While we were working at the Bird Observatory the family that lived in Barkland left Fair Isle, so the house and croft became vacant. In our days off and free time we’d helped out with various jobs round the island & tried to get as involved as we could with the community, simply because we enjoyed it & it was great to learn some new skills, but then folk started asking us if we’d considered making the move permanent & suggested we applied for Barkland. As the island and all the housing stock is owned by the National Trust for Scotland, we had to go through a lengthy application process, which took several months. Luckily for us, as Barkland was in a pretty poor condition, I think only one other person applied for it and we got chosen!
J: So you had an idea of what the Crofting life had in store for you before you made the move?
R: I’d say we had a very general idea in terms of the yearly cycle of when things get done – lambing, hill caas, clipping, baling, lambs to market, etc. – but not necessarily a real appreciation for the many other jobs and obligations that come with crofting. I had no idea about applying for rural payments or completing self-assessment tax returns, for example!
J: You say Barkland was in poor condition. How much work have you had to do to the Croft?
R: In one respect we were lucky that Barkland was at least physically habitable – thankfully there were no structural repairs or anything too serious that we had to tackle initially. The Trust (National Trust for Scotland – our landlord) had identified a big list of repairs and improvements that needed doing to the property and had advised us that it could take the best part of a year to get them done, before we could move in. That seemed like it was going to be a huge setback to us, as what were we going to do for a year? But then the Trust suggested that we could move in in the May, as long as we agreed to a schedule of works to be undertaken over the next five years, for which the Trust would provide the materials and we would do the work.
There has been a catalogue of disasters along the way however – last April my upper kitchen units all fell off the wall, as they’d been incorrectly fitted by the previous tenants – destroying 90% of my crockery & glassware, including all the china that had belonged to my grandparents. It took the Trust 8 months to supply new units (which actually got fitted 3 days ago, to much celebration!) and I’ve still had no insurance settlement from them in order to replace the items. From September in our first year we had horrendous problems with damp and thick black mould in two of the bedrooms. No one could find the source & I just kept being fobbed off with ‘oh every house is like that, it’s just the climate here, you can’t do anything about it’.
In December the ceiling started leaking in the back bedroom and within hours was so bowed that I was scared it was going to collapse. An investigation by a neighbour discovered a 10-litre bucket that had been placed – presumably by previous tenants – under a very slow leak in a pipe in the attic, then covered up under mounds of insulation. Over months and months the bucket had obviously filled up and started leaking into the insulation, to the extent that apparently the entire insulation covering that ceiling was sodden….this despite the Trust saying that, allegedly, the house had been inspected from top to bottom before we moved in! It then took the Trust until October of this year to finally approve the work needed & provide materials to replace the entire ceiling, plasterboard, insulation, etc.
So it’s not all plain sailing, but I feel like I’m turning a corner with the house and there’s some light at the end of the tunnel. The Croftland is probably one of the worst on the island, unfortunately! I have about 26 acres, but half of it has very poor grass growth and is just waterlogged almost all year round and full of moss. I’ll keep my 11 gimmers on it over winter, but they’ll have to be fed blend & silage as well which, of course, all costs money. I’m looking into getting the soil tested to see whether there’s anything I can do to improve it, but it’ll definitely be a long-term project.
Check back for part 2 next Friday, where we chat more about the day to day life on Fair Isle, the differences between crofting and farming and what it’s like to have the National Trust as landlords.