The wheel turns…

…and five years have passed.

We’ve been working this farm together five years this month. Although Donald and his family moved here when he was 11, he never saw himself as choosing a farming life, and it wasn’t until his mum needing someone to help care for her coincided with a transition in his own life, that he came back to the farm about seven years ago. He figured he might as well fix the drainage in a couple of fields while he was here…and became hooked. I joined him two years later, and since then, time has flown.

While posting on our Facebook page recently, about our upcoming Ram Sale, I discovered a collection of pictures suspiciously similar to those I was trying to add to the post. This year’s photos of our saucy boys are nearly identical to those I took almost exactly one year ago: a selection of solo shots showing off each of the animals up for sale, and a group shot or two, attempting to show them in their native element.

Of course, this shouldn’t come as a surprise: farming is a repetitive business, with lambing, sowing, harvest, and tupping seasons all coming around annually, and with other tasks – like taming the thistles in the hay fields, and trying/failing to keep the snails from eating my lettuce – repeating themselves on a regular basis. This is the wheel of the farming calendar, and ready or not, it will turn.

It’s not for everyone, this farming gig. It’s dirty and smelly and often wet and cold, and sometimes heart- and backbreaking. But for those who live it and love it, it’s also invigorating, and peaceful, and a reminder of our place in the cycle of life on this planet. The repetitions are welcome, actually: once you go through a few cycles, there’s no need to ‘invent the wheel’ every time, and you can get on with other quandaries, such as whether to breed that trusty old ewe again, or to retire her. Or whether we can afford a new baler, or will have to nurse this one through one more (“the last one, I promise!”) harvest. And how in the world we can keep the piglets in their paddock, using 10 year old bits and pieces we’ve got lying around.

Not supposed to be there.

It’s nice to finally have our list of lambing supplies complete, and the design of the footrace figured out (for now). Lambing – and the resulting ram sales – come and go like summer following spring. Although this year, it’s almost as though Autumn got into the middle of July and decided to mess things up a bit.

There’s something reassuring about the wheel turning as it always does on this old farm…while the rest of the world seems to spin out of control all around us. Plagues, fires, floods, wars, and despotic rulers in countries that used to be considered havens for democracy…the sheep truly do not care. They will have their lambs, and no gloves or face masks will save you from having to go elbow deep to help them deliver a stuck lamb, with everyone ending up covered in birth fluids. The wheel will turn, we will laugh about (most of) it, and another constant is that, among all the repeating rituals of the year, there will also, always, be a new challenge coming at us next week, or next month. And that’s okay too. It’s just another way the wheel turns.

No, it’s not for everyone. But after five years together this month, working this land, and rejuvenating this old farm, we look with hope (again) at this year’s crop of handsome young rams high-stepping through the tall grass, nursing high hopes for their futures… and we know that it is definitely for us.

Turn wheel, turn. And we’ll be right here, steering a course into the next five (and more) years.

Still smiling, five years on.

Progress looks like this

So, this came today. Our ‘authority to start work’. Basically, the final step in our approval for the Agri-Enviroment Grant we submitted last year. And it changes so much for the farm – we are so excited!

It’s not just about the money either, it’s what that money will do, and what our success in receiving the grant means about our approach to farming.

You see, much of the work projects this grant requires of us were in our plans already – because they make good sense for the health of the flora and fauna (and people) that live at the Hirsel. We will be plowing and replanting a field: this grant instructs us in what to plant and when to graze or cut it, and neither instruction is far off from what we wanted to do anyway…but this grant gives us a budget that we’d have to otherwise scrape up somehow.
To do the work on that field requires more fencing work – but we had to do it eventually, and now we have a budget for that, too. Our little bit of wetlands will be grazed, and our pond brought back into life…again, work we meant to do some day, but now we have guidance and…yes, a budget.

All work we meant to do, as we continue our efforts to bring the farm back into production after 30 years of neglect. The fact that so many of the tasks tied to this grant are things we meant to do anyway, means our focus on regenerative, flora-and-fauna-friendly methods are bringing us support and vindication.

There are challenges that come with this grant, changes to the timelines of other projects… we were going to build a holiday hut for our guests, in the spare (ha!) hours in between lambs over the next couple of months, but fencing, grazing and planting deadlines now mean that the build won’t happen until later in the year. But it – and other postponed plans WILL still happen. So that’s all good.

This grant, and another we hope to submit for plumbing and electrical upgrades, will have huge implications for some of the dreams we have for the Hirsel’s future as a sustainable farm and community asset. We are indebted to SRUC/SAC for their assistance in submitting it – we can’t recommend them enough. We’ll be back in their office soon, working on next steps.

Stay tuned, and thank you for joining us on our amazing adventures at #thehirsel! We hope to see you in person sometime soon.

Happy 2019!

So, here we are, at the start of a new calendar year, and for the Hirsel, a new year too. Different farms will count the year from different starting points, but for us, it begins now, as we start planning for the next life-cycle to begin needing our care. Seeds need ordering, delayed indoor tasks can be done while it’s unpleasant to work outdoors, sheep need feeding if there isn’t enough forage, and in any case, we’ll start giving the breeding females a little extra starting next month. Donald is doing the morning rounds, as it’s too cold outside for my fingers and toes, and I’m playing with calendars, feeding and breeding schedules, and long term planning for the farm projects.

2018 was a big year for the farm – we sold our first sheepskin rugs, taking another step forward in ensuring that the lives we take from our animals are honoured by using the ‘whole beast’ approach whenever possible. It’s also a step forward in the effort to increase the value of everything we produce on the farm: we love our Hebrideans, but they don’t pull as much at the auction as other breeds, so we have to be sure we find other ways to earn from them. Speaking of this, and of rugs, this year will see my renewed focus on finding ways to work with the shorn fleeces to create felted and woven rugs, and to get our fleeces into the hands of other artists and crafters.

We loved seeing our rugs dressing up such a stylish home in 2018! Photo credit to Elizabeth Banks, who purchased rugs #2017-2 and #2017-5.

And speaking of selling… 2018 saw a Gillies from the Hirsel selling sheep at the Dingwall auction mart for the first time in over 30 years. Another milestone, in our efforts to renovate the farm!

After lambing last year, we had reached the number of breeding females our farm can support.

Hirsel Agnes, our firstborn female (2016) with her first set of twin boys in 2018.

Because Hebrideans are slow growers (one of the reasons hogget meat is so good for you!), they live with us for 18 months – instead of the mainstream industry time-frame of just 6 months – before going to the abattoir or auction.  So they overwinter with us, and need regular care, no matter the weather. In addition, we keep ‘companions’ (male castrates who can be used as company for sheep that must be isolated from the rest of the flock for one reason or another), and more rams than usual for a farm this size, due to our particular breeding program. So we’re always carrying a high number of animals through the winter, and they all need to eat, which can put a lot of pressure on the farm’s resources, natural or bought in. This means we have to limit the numbers where we can, and for the Hirsel, that means limiting our adult females to around 30. So this year, we looked at parentage, conformation and personality, and their chances of having a ‘career’ on another farm…and chose 16 females to take to auction. We also chose some of our best boys to go, but they sold privately beforehand. (We do not take the boys destined for your kitchens to the auction – we take them straight from our farm to the abattoir ourselves, saving them the transition to a different care regime than they’re used to, and holding ourselves responsible for as much of their end of life journey as we can.)

Our first trip – as sellers – to the auction house was a real learning experience…and a big success for the farm, as we earned the best prices of the day for female Hebrideans. It all came together for us when our first girls entered the ring, and the auctioneer described them as ‘well fed’. We walked out of there in a state of shock, but also feeling vindicated for the way we care for and love our animals. The fact that they earned what they did, was frosting on the cake. And it paid to sit with the girls all through the day, waiting for their turn in the ring, as we got to meet and talk with lots of other farmers, and answer questions as they came by. We’re pretty sure we know who bought our girls that day, and that they will be well cared for in their new homes. Which goes a long way to soothing our grief at having to let them go.

Our girls, waiting their turn in the ring. At Dingwall mart, November 2018

Other challenges and successes have been highlighted throughout the year on our Facebook page: the lessons learned from our first attempt at setting up a campsite on the farm; getting through the Beast from the East, and the toll that took on the health of our mamas; losing the first of our original flock to a leg injury that refused to heal; harvesting the first delicious apples from our little orchard, and cooking up some magnificent potatoes from the crop we saved from a long summer drought. We learned a lot, through many challenges, failures, and successes. And those lessons will help us and our little farm through whatever 2019 throws our way.

Saved from the drought! These beauties were worth the work it took, to get water to the field.

We ended 2018 with the news that our application for an Agri-Environment grant had been approved. This grant will make possible some much needed work for grassland, bog, and woodland improvement, as well as further encouraging wildlife to make their home on the farm alongside our domestic animals. This work needed to be done anyway, but the financial pressures of doing it will be greatly lessened by the grant. It’s the first large-scale grant for the farm, and we hope it’ll be the first of many, as we have big plans.

We started 2019 with a gathering of the neighbors at our farmhouse. This was the first time we’d hosted a social event in the house since mum passed away in 2017, and we moved into it a year ago. We were honored that so many folk came, that old connections were renewed, and new ones begun. The place was filled to the rafters with people, laughter, and plenty of food and drink. It felt like – and was – a true house warming for us. And a great start to the year.

Yesterday, we went to a couple of meetings that will kick-start some much bigger plans for the farm, which you’ll hear about in the months ahead. So buckle up, and stay tuned, because it promises to be a full and exciting year at The Hirsel…again.

Finally: thank you for taking this incredible journey with us, as we continue working to make The Hirsel a sustainable family farm again. Our mistakes are our own to learn from, but our successes are in no small part down to your support and encouragement. We hope you’ll have a chance to visit the farm sometime in the coming months, and meet all the critters you read about online. In the meantime, all the best to you and yours for a bright, love-filled and happy 2019!

– Donna (DuCarme) Gillies, January 2019

PS: watch this space for Donald’s annual newsletter, coming soon.

The Tatties (just in time for the) Holidays

The tatties are here! The Hirsel’s first vegetable crop available for sale, these Cara’s are great all around tatties, and are available in sizes from small to ginormous. They were grown without pesticides, herbicides or chemical fertilizers…but we’ve skipped the ‘certified organic’ paperwork, saving us the extra hassle, and saving you money: you get them at an affordable £1/kg, regardless of size. Mix it up!

December farm shopping hours are Thursdays – Saturdays, 10am-2pm, and other times by appointment. The postcode for your SatNav is IV24 3DJ, on Kincardine hill (east), in Ardgay. The sign at the gate reads Gillies. 

UPDATE: We won’t be holding ‘shop hours’ at the farm anymore (for now), because…. Swordale Farm Butchers, in Ardgay, is now carrying our tatties for us! This is a great local business, selling meat, dairy, and veg as locally sourced as possible – sometimes right off their own farm! We’re proud to become one of their local suppliers, and hope you’ll extend your support for #theHirsel to them, as well.

Of course, you can still come ’round the farm for tatties, too, if you wish. Just MESSAGE US via our Facebook page or via to make an appointment – and to make sure we’re not out playing with the sheep when you come by.

Tatties grown the way Mother Nature intended, straight from our farm to your table…yum!

The other side of the coin

It’s amazing how time flies on a farm – it’s been nearly 7 months since Donald wrote ‘The Yorlin’s Sang’. I laugh – a little wryly – when I read that he was looking forward to the snow melting …we were to be hit by the ‘beast from the east’ the following month, and buried under snow for weeks afterward.

The Beast taught us a few things, one of which was how truly committed to this farm and our animals we are. You have to be, to get through the winter and summer we just did, because otherwise, you’d just chuck it in. But it also reminded us to laugh, and have a little fun too: yes, there are memories of slogging through the snow to feed the sheep, or standing for hours with the sound of the generator grating in my ears, pumping water to the potatoes. But there are also memories of sledding down the snowy slope of our east field (who says we’re too old for such silliness?), and the awesome snowman Donald built. There’s knowing the birds who frequent the farmyard survived in part because we made sure they had food and water. Winter afternoons coming in to sit by the fire for our lunch. And hot cocoa. Lots of hot cocoa. Weighing the good and the bad of the past seven months, I’d say the biggest lesson has been in learning to see both sides of life’s coin.

Like many farms, we’re still recovering from a winter the UK hasn’t seen in many years. The snow was deep and lasting, and the spring grass was late coming in, afterwards. Added to a thin harvest last year, due to family events and a wet autumn, we were forced to buy in hay for our Hebs, when we can usually feed them from our own stores right through lambing, with some left over. And then came the summer drought… and we’ve been toting water from the bore holes to fill the tanks usually fed by a spring, so we can have water in the farmhouse, the fields, and the drinking troughs. But we do have water, and that’s a blessing some others who supply their own water don’t have, so no complaints here! And the other side of the coin? Now we know how to do it. We won’t get caught out again – at least not on the water issue!

Even before the drought came, hard on the hills of that brutal winter, with the breeding ewes in poorer shape than usual, we were tested, with a lambing season so difficult that – if it had happened in our first year, instead of our third – would’ve made us question our desire to be shepherds. But on the other side of that coin, we are now very good at administering injections, which we started out being extremely hesitant about. And we more quickly recognize the signs signalling the necessity to ‘go in’, and trust ourselves to choose the right course of action. I think we can be pretty confident about our abilities, going forward – this lambing was nothing if not empowering. And unlike many shepherds this spring, all of our ewes – and every lamb born alive – stayed alive. We only lost one set of stillborn twins, and saved a couple of ewes we thought might be goners, including our beloved Agnes. The horror stories we’re hearing from other farmers, of their lambing seasons, send us back to the counting table to tally up more of our blessings.

And thanks to the zeal of our tups, and the good mothering of our ewes, we’ve reached the number of sheep this small farm can support, just three years after bringing the first dozen onto the farm. So this year, we’ll be going to the market to sell some of our ewes. Up until now, we’ve kept every female born, building up to a core breeding flock of 30-ish. We’ve reached that number and then some, so we’ll have the luxury of picking from the best of our gimmers this year, when it comes time to choose. A milestone for the farm, too, as it’ll be the first time Hirsel sheep will be going to market in over 30 years.

And all our ewes will look especially good, when they go to market, thanks to the excellent skills of Donald J Macleod. He shears the old way, with hand shears, rather than electric ones, a calm and quiet way of doing the job that delivers excellent fleeces and undamaged sheep. It was a pleasure to work with him, and if you have a small flock, we can’t recommend him enough (his number is 0773.037.7137); he came at a moment’s notice, and stayed till the job was done. Doing it this way isn’t cheap, time or money wise. But getting someone to come to our farm, for such a small flock, is near impossible. And you can’t beat the quality of the resulting fleeces – important for the Hirsel, and my own efforts to ‘up value’ our fleeces by turning them into rugs. But he didn’t just shear our sheep, he taught me how to do it, too. Donald and I have now both learned how to shear, Donald through a course, and me thanks to the excellent, encouraging, and patient instruction Macleod offered. Money well spent, and another skill under our belts. If you’re looking for a shearer, Macleod’s your guy.

So now, seven months on, I’m looking out my office window, past our new campsite, to our east field, where the grass is finally growing tall – better late than never. We’ll have a decent harvest this year, after all. The Yorlins and the rest of the winged visitors to the farmyard are busy at the feeders, and have taught their fledglings the way here too, as we kept the feeding going this year, to help them through the rough spring and summer. And though we lost the bulk of the pollywogs (tadpoles to some of you), when almost all the standing water on the farm dried up, it seems a colony survived by taking refuge in a small, mucky pool left behind in one of the ditches …and I nearly stepped on a frog, on my way home from the poly tunnel last week, after the drought finally burst in a sustained and welcome downpour. So it seems we’ll have the croaking sounds of mating season back on the farm. The bumble- and honey bees are busy, we’re starting to eat some of our own produce from the fruit and vegie field, and the spring is finally trickling into the tanks again. The drought is over … and those clouds scudding across the sky just now look suspiciously like they have silver linings.

So, yes, a busy seven months. We’ve spent a bit more coin than usual, metaphorically and literally, in order to get through them. But these days, we’re seeing both sides of that coin more clearly than ever.



The Yorlin’s Sang

One of the wonders of the Hirsel is the growing population of birds that are attending upon us through all the seasons.

Through the decades, Mum had made a habit of planting trees and bushes, here and there, to encourage our feathered neighbours and visitors. It was a part of her life that entertained her lately, as she became more housebound, watching them feed outside her windows, looking them up in the bird books to check identity.

It’s a practice we have continued, in fact we have extended the practice by actively farming towards “Bird and Bee” friendly environment.

A surprise visitor this morning, brightly standing out on the bare branches, apart from the rime of snow, ice, and our feeder “hanging decorations”, was a cock Yellowhammer. He was gamely standing his ground among the aggressive wee Robins and the multitude of Tits – Blue, Coal and Great – as they jump from branch to feeder and back.

No sign today of our invasion of Long Tailed Tits, that mob fed on the hanging fatballs, prompting us to stock up on that commodity when we visited the feed store for another supply for our sheep. The snow is sticking around yet again, promises of an imminent thaw still hanging on the weather reports and frosty air, yet with blue sky after the first light snowfall, the air is clear and beautiful, the blue reflected in the waters of the Dornoch Firth as it meets the Kyle of Sutherland.

I knew we had a grand growing population of the little “Yorlin” as their sweeping swirls, acrobatic in the air, swooping from the flowering broom and gorse where they hid their nests, down onto the reseeded field we cry “Middle Earth”! Their song filled the air, morning and evening through the summer, especially along the “bog walk” as it runs by the open drain, between arable field and the peat moss, reed and heather of the wetlands in the middle of the farm.

Yet it’s not such a common bird around here in winter, preferring to winter south, indeed according to some sources, the little bunting is less often to be found even in UK as a whole because of “modern“ agricultural practices.

Fortunately, that’s not so much something we can be accused of around here, our way lends itself back to a time before petroleum based fertilisers became popular, and our land is so diverse in habitat, we can allow the growth of the seeds and berries that supplement the diet of all our birds, resident and visiting!

Aye, we can worry about our fruit bushes, but we also need the birds to help control the insects, and for visiting swallows and swifts, the summer feasting of these visitors may just help reduce the midge population.

“Yorlins” will feed on caterpillars and other small insects while nursing their young, all we need to do is encourage them to protect the brassicas, though the timing and mild winters of the last few years haven’t helped protect us from the Diamond Back Moth and its hungry offspring!

Donna sits watching the “Tree of Life” as she refers to the wee Goat Willow with its multiple offshoots, as if it was a tropical fish tank, the birds coming and going, feeding and squabbling, yet totally ignoring her as she sits in communion.

That Willow brings another connection to my mind, as I hum the wee tune, one of my favourite songs, as recited by many friends in the musical fraternity through the years, my good friends Gaberlunzie , Gordon and Robin, among others, as they cover Adam McNaughton’s beautiful musical tribute to Betsy Whyte’s tale of life in the Travelling Folk between the wars!

It’s hard to ken whether in these days, we could comfortably exist in the way they did – the land, the people, the attitude, has changed so much. Yet when the Planting or Harvesting was on, so many farms would have once relied on the “ gang aboot fowk” knocking on the door!

I’m young enough to remember stopping at the roadside, at Spean Bridge, where Mum and Dad bought a picnic basket and a dog basket, from the wee encampment there, on the hill below the Commando Memorial.

Woven from willow, that picnic basket lasted a long time, sadly I think it was left behind by accident during one of my own many moves before I returned to the place I call home!

And I well remember how so many folk I was raised alongside once, would look down disparagingly at those that preferred the hooped tent to a brick and mortar house! Yet once this parish of Kincardine would have seen them passing as often as the drovers and shepherds taking their beasts to market, along the main route south which runs at the foot of our land.

Indeed, once when the glens all carried a far higher population than they now do, the visit from these craftsmen, visiting craftsmen, would have been the moment that the pots would be repaired, the knives sharpened, and much more besides.

One often forgets the old Highland name for the Travelling Folk, indeed the word we use disparagingly now is derived from the Gaelic sound, like so many words that the Scots/Saxon dialects have robbed from a language of poetry, the word tinker itself comes from the Gaelic “tinceard” or tinsmith, but the even older word was Ceàrdannan (“the Craftsmen”).

So, as we watched the brightly coloured wee bird feed, and my mind turns to thoughts of the snows departing and fewer worries for the feeding of our flock of sheep, I am humming to myself about how we are so lucky here, to be able to hear “the Yorlins sang”, see “the Flax in bloom” and look forwards to the time when winter is over and “The Yellow’s on the Broom”.

-Donald Gillies


Looking toward the hill known as Cnoc na Quaiche, and the farm’s single remaining Noble Fir. The gorse and broom on the left is preferred nesting for the Yellowhammers that share the farm with us. Photo by DFGillies.

View from the cottage door of the office trailer, and some idle equipment. An idle Donna, too, as she enjoys the community of birds sharing brunch at the Tree of Life…or, as others call it: the Goat Willow. Photo by DFGillies.

For more information about the Yorlin, visit the RSPB’s website.

For more information about how to encourage the Yorlin to set up house on your farm, vist the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust.

The handsome Yorlin. photo credit: the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust

What We did this summer.

I can honestly say that I haven’t worked this hard since I left New York for a new life in the Netherlands. Oh, I’ve worked hard since then, nobody who knew/worked with me during my time in Amsterdam would say otherwise. But my life in NYC meant regular 72-hour work weeks, with 4am ‘dinners’ after a night of hosting multiple performances and/or concerts in the arts centre I managed with a boss/colleague who worked even harder than I did. I used to spend the occasional Sunday afternoon off in my local park, watching ‘normal’ people play with their kids, and think ‘some people do this every weekend’.  (He spent Sunday afternoons in the office, watching golf on the telly while balancing the books.) And NYC wasn’t unusual for me – just more intense, personally and professionally. I’d been juggling ‘day jobs’, rehearsals, workshops, and relationships (when they could stand the stresses of my career choice) since college, when I started pursuing a career in the arts. I continued trying to do the same in Amsterdam, and in my first two years in Scotland, before coming to the farm. Actor, dancer, stunt fighter, writer, director, stage hand, producer. I’ve done it all, and happily. But it took a toll. On my personal life, on my financial and physical health.

Once, in my late 20’s, I fell into a cycle while on a theatre tour: I’d get sick, be down for a couple of days, start feeling better, go back to work, and get sick again. My stomach pains got so bad at one stage, that my sister threw my protesting self into the back of her pickup truck and drove me to the hospital emergency room, where they jumped to the conclusion that I was miscarrying (I wasn’t). Eventually, I found an intelligent doctor at a local free clinic, who had gotten through med school on a football scholarship. He diagnosed me with extreme exhaustion, something he’d experienced himself, a pure physical breakdown that meant that my body would pick up an infection, fight it off, and then, having used up all of its limited resources to fight the infection, collapse again upon being asked to withstand the rigors of the tour. I’ve had varying levels of that kind of exhaustion since then – everyone in my field knows about the ‘post-show breakdown’ phenomenon – but until these past few months, fatigue hasn’t held on for so long, or through so many versions of cold and flu. Farming has replicated two things from my former life: how exhausting it is…and how much I love it.

One of my friends, someone who has known and supported me through almost 30 years of adventuring, theorizes that one of the reasons I love my new life as a farmer so much, is that it is as demanding, as all-consuming, as anything I’ve ever done before. It demands 100% of me and my husband – we live and breathe this place. She says such focus is a central need of mine, for me to be happy in a pursuit. I think she’s probably right. Like the geeks I tend to be drawn to in my personal life (Donald is a Scottish independence/history geek, my first husband was/still is a film geek), I get obsessed with the thing I feel passionate about. I ‘lean in’ so far, I often risk tipping over. I’ve been leaning a lot, in the past couple of years. We both have.

I joined Donald on the farm a little over two years ago, as, thanks to being the primary caregiver for his Mum, he couldn’t join me in my home. (And in the meantime, had found a new love for the family farm he’d eagerly left so many years ago.) And it’s been full on since then. The first gift he ever gave me was a pair of wellies, and I tried them out that day, helping to clear a drainage ditch. Two years ago this month, we bought 12 sheep; we now have a flock of 64. We’ve brought four fields into production for hay and other crops. We planted an orchard in the week before Christmas, knee deep in mud, because that’s when the trees were finally delivered, and they needed to get into the ground. Up until June of this year, we were on 24/7 duty as the main caretakers for his Mum, who lived in her own cottage across the steading from us here on the farm, with help from a team made up of a combination of D’s brother and sister-in-law, and the Scottish government’s health- and social care service. We were busy. And then we decided to get married.

Because I live in Scotland, and my blood and non-blood family lives in my former countries of birth and residence, scheduling the ceremony was a challenge. Trying to find a time that fit into the farm schedule, and coincided with the godchildren’s school holidays, was one part of it. But the other was that I had an intuition that we should do it rather sooner than later, so that Mum could be a part of it. At close to 97, deaf, blind and housebound, she’d been getting weaker over the past year…

We eventually scheduled it to coincide with the end of lambing, as the children could be here on their spring break; their next shot was in October, and I was afraid to wait that long. Events were to prove me right, sadly.

All but one of our ewes were finished lambing by April 17th, our first guests arrived on the farm on the 20th, we were married on the 23rd (we hired a local lad to watch the final ewe, fully expecting to be called out of the ceremony at any minute), put our final guest on the train on the 28th, and helped the ewe through a difficult birth on the 29th.  Then we bottle fed one of her lambs for two weeks, in a fruitless attempt to keep it alive. In the midst of all that, we got our potato, oat, and vegetable crops planted, while helping some of our nursing mamas through their udder issues.

Then, on June 6th, that early morning call came that every family member dreads. It came in on my mobile, as my husband takes his hearing aids out at night; when I moved in, my number moved to the top of Mum’s call list. Within the next hour, she was being airlifted to the hospital in Inverness, an hour’s drive away, where she would stay for the next two months, one or more of us by her side for most of that time. Until the day she shooed my brother-in-law out of the room, sending him home to his bed, and went to sleep for the final time. We miss her. The farm is …different…without her presence in the cottage. But we take solace in the memory of her dancing and singing (she said she didn’t want to waste a captive audience!) at our wedding, and the pleasure she took from hearing our daily reports on bringing the farm back into production.

Since then, while going through what every family goes through at such a time, plus dealing with the farm estate/inheritance issues that some families go through, plus trying to save whatever crops we could from the effects of a dry start to the growing season, the neglect of those two months, and a wet harvest, plus the surprise of a couple of unexpected lambs (found in the field the day before Mum’s passing) from when the ram got into the gimmer enclosure in February, plus juggling the outside work that brings money in to support the farm…we’ve both been nursing one cold after another. As we go into autumn, we are not yet recovered from the summer.

Is it any wonder? No. Is it unusual? No.

In the evenings, when we’ve collapsed onto our collapsing couch, if we’re not binge-watching a post-apocalyptic zombie/alien series – because we think nobody works harder than farmers, except people fighting aliens and zombies 😉 – we watch BBC farm programs. We’ve just finished another season of ‘This Farming Life’. It’s like a little busman’s holiday, without ever leaving the farm. Watching what the other farmers go through is enlightening, educational, and a relief. A relief, because it assures us that what we’re doing here, how we go about it, isn’t so unusual after all – in spite of tradition telling us not to name or fall in love with our sheep, it seems a common practice among at least some of the farming community. The daily struggles, the story of one couple who actually did have to leave a wedding (not their own) to deal with a troubled birth, the 24/7 struggle to balance everything: finances, family, time, skills, and the weather. We sit on our couch, watching other people’s stories, and sigh a sigh of relief, knowing our own story is not unique. We are not alone. I wonder how many farmers have colds today, and a long day of foot trimming and dosing in the field shelter tomorrow? Probably a goodly number of them.

So why do we do it? Why does anyone?

Because we love it. It’s gotten into our blood. I think, at a deep level, you’re either a farmer to your core…or you’re just not. And we both are. We’re a little surprised at this, as we both spent many years happily doing something else before we came to this. But we love every blade of grass, every sheep and bird and frog on this place. We love the evenings, when the dog demands his daily ballgames, and the tups want a little cuddle too. If we’re lucky, there’ll be a clearing of the skies, a bit of a breeze, and no midges. We really love that! We love the few blueberries coming onto the bushes planted in pots this year, because we had no time to get them into a field before they blossomed. We love the manky little plums we got from Mum’s old plum tree, finally coming back to life, just as she was leaving it behind. The single rose, like a reminder of something, on the bush I bought her last year. We love the potatoes coming into the field, scabby as they are from that dry spring and wet harvest. When some of our sheep go into the food chain for the first time this month, we’ll learn to love that too. Because – as I counselled young artists once, in a long ago life, if you can’t take the hard parts, choose another career. If you can be happy in any other career – choose that one. Because in farming, as it was my former career, it’s all part and parcel. And I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. I’m also content, for the absolute first time in my life. And I think the hubby would probably say the same. We are content with our lot. And our farm. It’s gotten into our blood, and under our skin. And it’s stronger than any flu bug.

So, that’s what we did this summer. And spring. And that’s what we’ll be doing in the seasons ahead.

So yes, I can honestly say that I haven’t worked this hard since I left my show business career behind in New York. But I can also honestly say that I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Neither of us would.

But I think we need to take some more vitamins. 😉


warming the lamb 2016

Going with the flow

We had the Paul the vet out yesterday, to help us trim Hookie’s horn. Hookie, our Hebridean ewe named for the horn that curves down and into her cheek is one of our starter ‘muggles’, the name we’ve given to our non-pedigree sheep. She is one of those who took a little longer to trust us, after we brought her and her 11 ‘sisters’ – some of whom may actually be her sisters, though we will never know, because we don’t know her/their lineage – from the farm down the way, where they ran feral all year long.

The trimming went better than expected: Paul cut up higher than any of us were comfortable with, trying to get above the point of curvature and encourage straight new growth, and there was none of the bleeding he expected from doing so. Huge relief all around, and now we know how to do it, and safely, and will be able to care for her and her horn ourselves in the future.

Hookie isn’t one of our youngest ewes, and along with a couple of other old gals who are missing teeth or have nursing/teat related problems, would be – on many other farms – under consideration for culling: being pulled out of the herd and sent to market or the butcher. But as she’s one of the first 12 (who we’ve agreed will ‘retire’ here until the day they can’t feed properly anymore, or start to lose condition), and gives us at least one well-mothered lamb a year (so far) we will happily pull her in for a trim now and again for the next while. She gets angry with us for an hour or two afterward, but a handful of treats and a little time solves that.

Pet, with her bad feet, has a sweet temper and gives us healthy twins with the same temperament; Good natured Elly (full name Elephant – don’t ask us, we didn’t name her) has only one functioning teat, but raises sturdy twins on the single working one, and watches over her sisters’ lambs while they’re all out grazing. Even if we didn’t recognize her in the distance from her colouring and shape, we’d know her from the gaggle of lambs following along behind her. When the time comes when her teat problems outweigh her ability to raise her lamb(s), and we have to stop breeding her, she’ll make a great ‘auntie’, staying with the lambs at weaning time, so they have a surrogate mother when forced away from their own for a time (something, again, that many farms would’nt worry ). Greenal is a little less wild than she used to be, but will never be tame. But she’ll take a treat from our hands now, and gives us white lambs – throwbacks from before selective breeding, when Hebs were multi-coloured. They will give us some rare white Hebridean wool one day. Missy (named for arriving with an infected ear, requiring removal of an ear tag), has a much better fleece this year, and both ears are doing fine. The day she began trusting us enough to take a treat from our hands was a big one on our farm. She is a fantastic mother.

Every one of our starter muggles, as well as our four pedigree ewes that joined them a few months later, and the tups and their companions, have names and individual personalities or ‘skills’ that make them special. And those with problems that would get them culled on other farms, have their place and function here on the Hirsel – whether it’s giving us big strong lambs, serving as a leader in the herd (Queenie will never trust us, but she keeps the herd together like a champ), or simply helping to graze back the overabundance of broom and goat willow. We’re comfortable with our ‘softie’ approach to shepherding, as well as with the knowledge that someday, our boys will go to the butcher, as will even our most beloved old ewe. That’s life on a farm, even ours. As much as we love our animals, they are animals, they are ‘produce’, not pets. We may cry on market day – and don’t let anyone tell you we’re the only shepherds who do, we’re not that different than other farmers – but if we couldn’t stand the heat…we’d get out of the pen.

There’s a balance we’re working with on the farm: balancing practicalities, harsh realities, and the fact that we are both – though I may not show it as much as Big D does – sappy softies when it comes to much of life, in the pen or outside of it. He had me in the mud puddle we call the frog pond (because it will be a proper pond one day) rescuing frogs on the day he was terraforming the ground around the pond, in order to flatten it and put up our wedding tent. And I, without question, was out there floundering around in the mud, chasing frogs for the first time since I was a child.

How do we keep that balance? And why this long diversion about how much we love our sheep? What does it have to do with trimming Hookie’s horn?

Well, yesterday, while Paul was here, he and Big D were having a wee blether about the flock, and the fact that they are still coming in to the lambing field at night. Paul asked if we were still feeding them. Yes, we are. A few cobs in the morning, as we lead them out to the grazing – part of our ongoing ‘bucket training’ of the new generations. And a bucket of mixed grains and beet shreds when they come in at night. As we said to Paul, there will come a time when the ewes won’t feel the need to come in at night anymore – a combination of the variety of grazing that the turn of the year will be offering them, and them no longer needing the feeling of safety the lambing field offers them, with its netting and gate to keep their lambs in and predators out. The point when they stop coming to the gate, bleating to be allowed in, will coincide with us starting to ignore them if they come home too early in the day, or at all. There will come a point – hopefully sheep and shepherd will agree on when this is – when we will need to be free of the daily routine too. Then they will only come in for their monthly exam and foot care, except for when we pull this year’s lambs in for weaning, until it’s tupping time. But tupping is another tale all together.

This easy approach to encouraging their detachment from the lambing field helps us to detach from the lambs too, after the high emotions of the lambing season. It’s a little more work, but it feels right for us.

I thought of Pauls question about feeding, while walking with Big D up the eastern boundary fence this morning, where the neighbour’s bracken is trying to push into our hayfield again. Some is coming in, but not so much, and we’ll be able to handle it. This is, in large part, thanks to the fact that our neighbour’s sheep are using the path we cleared, to repair the fence, as a trail. The benefit of this is really visible further up the hill, where we pushed the gorse back from the fence. There’s a distinct path there, and we often see his sheep using it. His sheep are keep our fence line clear for us. And that is a perfect example of how we work our farm. We go with the flow – influencing it where we can, but fighting it only where we must.

When we cleared the fence line, we created a path for his sheep, who prefer taking the easy way down to their grazing at the bottom of the hill. When we take the soft approach to our sheep detaching from the lambing pen, they stay tamer, calmer, and more easily handled when we have to bring them in for treatment. When we create drainage ditches near where the water wants to flow, instead of where it would be easier for the digger to work, we have a better shot at a dry field. Taking the time to thin the overgrowth along the fence on the other side of the field, instead of taking the easier, quicker path of cutting it all down, gives us a lovely line of trees along the farm road – and a windbreak for the field. We clear some nettles, and leave some for the butterflies who help pollinate our fields. We feed the birds through the winter, and in return they live here all year round and help patrol the fields in the summer. The bog wants to be a bog – so we will not drain it for crops, but will fence it off and resuscitate the old pond at the edge of it. Later, when the waterfowl return, safe from our dog and visitors, thanks to the fence, we may build a viewpoint for bird watchers. The bird watchers may want to buy some white Hebridean wool, or stroll the rugged paths along the ditches that have twisted and turned and sprouted ferns and flowers over the years, looking more like burns, now, than ditches – though they still do the work of a ditch for us.

Easy does it, go with the flow. Water wants to flow downhill; wildlife and farm animals want a peaceful life. As do we.

I don’t know if how we’re working our little hill farm is unique to us – or to hill farms, in general. But I know it suits us. As I sit writing this, the oats and potatoes are growing in the fields; the Rams and their castrated companions (chosen for their tempers as much as for their condition and form, as their companionship will help gentle the Rams again after the testosterone laced days of tupping time) graze outside our office window; the girls and their lambs from last year and this, are out in the north grazing; and the male lambs from last year (hogs) most of whom will go to the butcher, are fossicking (as Big D calls it) in the western woods. The farm is quiet under the late spring sun…and I hear the creaking of Big D’s chair in the other room, as he shifts, trying to find a comfortable position in which to tackle his deskwork.

Desk work awaits me, too, when these musings are done. Because desk work is a bigger part of farming than my city-self had ever imagined. But that’s part of the flow too, and it’s nice to be inside, in a dim cool office, on a hot day; that, too, is part of the flow of life on The Hirsel. Of life itself, I’m guessing. At least: the life that brought us here, to our little hill farm in the Highlands, where we’re learning to go with the flow.




Welcome to The Hirsel, a small family farm located in an area of outstanding natural beauty in the Scottish Highlands, near Ardgay on the Dornoch Firth.  The Hirsel is managed by Donald and Donna Gillies, and we raise Hebridean sheep, as well as an assortment of crops – choosing Scottish heritage breeds and seeds whenever possible, with an emphasis on living and working with our animals and resident wildlife in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way.

This site is a work in progress, check back often for news and updates!

Donald and Donna. Photo by Michael Graham. Hats by Jan Solomon.