Pan Ross Collage
Ann Yule is the wife of the late Dr Kerr Yule, founder of Ross and Cromarty Heritage Society website.  She lives in 'The Heights' above Dingwall and is very involved with the Neil Gunn annual competition for young writers.

Highland Culture

A Broken Link!

He would never forget that day, no never, not as long as he lived. Whatever happened to him, whatever life had in store for him, one thing he knew and that for certain, life would never be the same again. What happened on that momentous day changed his whole life, his parameters, the way he looked at the world forever.

The worst of it was, it had been a lovely morning: blue sky, not a cloud to be seen, birds singing in the bushes just outside his bedroom window. The morning air was filled with the sweet sound of birdsong. It should have been a joy to get up on such a day. It would have been much more in keeping with what lay in store had the skies been grey and threatening, the wind howling round the eaves of the house, birds silent, as if they knew.

He had slept poorly, if slept at all. More a kind of suspended animation. His mind would not rest, trying to come to terms with what was happening to him, trying to face what he now knew to be inevitable. Oh, for long he had tried to avoid it, tried to tell himself that he would be one of the lucky ones, that somehow he would be spared, but somewhere deep inside, his body, his mind knew otherwise. From the very beginning, even when the threat had been slight, so far away as to be almost dismissed, he'd had this heavy feeling inside him, a foretaste of what was to come.

He gently lowered his feet onto the floor, trying not to disturb Cathy, his wife, knowing that her sleep too had been far from sound. He'd heard her tossing and turning, muttering in her sleep. He picked up his clothes, lying discarded on the floor and quietly tiptoed out of the room. Down the stairs he went, trying to avoid the one that always creaked. Funny how you think of a thing like that on a morning such as this. He pushed open the kitchen door, lifted the kettle and filled it at the tap. Dressed hiumself as he waited for the kettle to boil. Then sat at the table drinking his steaming cup of tea. He didn't want anything to eat. The thought of food revolted him. For one awful moment he put his head down on his hands and almost wept. But tears would not come to relieve his agony.

Suddenly he felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise and he realised that he was being watched. David whirled round in his seat. A small figure was standing in the doorway clad in pyjamas, two round frightened eyes watching him.
"Jamie, it's you! What a fright you gave me boy. What on earth are you doing down here at this time in the morning. Come'ere, son, and sit on my knee. Your feet will be getting cold standing there on the linoleum. "
The child did not move, but just stood looking at his Dad, his eyes the colour of deep peaty pools.
"It's today, Dad, isn't it?"
The father sighed in spite of himself.
"Yes, son, it's today. We're going to have to be brave, you and I. But we'll manage it together. You'll have to help your old Dad today."

He'd taken every precaution. A thick layer of straw near the bottom of the farm entrance. Soaked it in disinfectant morning and evening. He had sprayed the wheels of the milk tanker each day, before it entered the farm and again as it was leaving. Cathy had met the postman at the fence next to the main road and had collected the mail, their daily paper and the news, so that the postman had never set foot in the place.

The worst of it was that his precautions had worked. His beasts did not have the virus, but they had to be culled just the same. Oh, he understood the arguments and knew that they were right. That this was the only way to stop the damned disease in its tracks and thereby protect other farms, other folks livestock. But it was hard! Oh, it was hard! His dairy herd, built up over the years. He knew every beast, its parentage, remembered the farmer he'd bought it from, the auction mart he'd attended, how much he'd bid for it. The bargains he'd struck.

His grandfather had been the first Johnston in the farm, rented from the estate in these days. The old man had started with a cow and a calf bought from his brother in a neighbouring farm. He'd built the herd up from there, spent many a hard day digging and putting in tiled drains, so that the land would lose its threshes and sourness and become fit to grow decent crops. And his efforts had paid off. His grandfather had lived to see a very successful field of wheat in the big field, east of the steading. Then his father had taken over and continued the good work. Now it was his turn. He'd managed to buy the place 10 years ago. At last the family was the owner of the farm, the laird of all he surveyed. They had won 1st. prize for their clean milk year after year. A credit to themselves and an example to others.

And now it was all to go. The whole lot wiped out in a day. He'd been milking cows boy and man for nigh on twenty years. What would he do tomorrow, and the day after with not a cow in the byre to milk. He'd often thought that it would be grand to have a holiday, a few days with no cows to milk or byres to hose down. Now he would have given all he possessed to keep his cows safe in the byre. To hear them munching away at the sweet hay he provided for them each day, before they came in to be milked. Each one knowing her own stall in the byre, always old Kirsty leading the way, her heavy udder swinging from side to side, milk dripping from her teats.

But it was no use. No point thinking like that. He had to face the inevitable. Somehow he had to get through this day without going under. Face it like a man. After all he was not alone. Other farmers were in the same boat. Had he not seen it on the tele. All these dead cows lying in heaps.

Mind you, seeing it on the tele was one thing, seeing it for real was another. He'd been coming back from Dumfries one eveing, just after the darkness had come down, driving along that twisting, narrow road heading for Castle Douglas. On the horizon, lighting up the night sky, he'd seen six different funeral pyres dotted across the countryside, the legs of the slaughtered animals stiffly sticking up in the air. The windows of his truck were closed, but the stench of burning flesh knew no barriers and was everywhere. He would never forget what he saw that night. It was as if the countryside had been bombed by enemy aircraft. Or, he'd thought, like pictures he'd seen as a child and never forgotten of Hell! It had brought it home to him that this land, this ancient land of Scotland, was under threat, under attack. A whole way of life being wiped out. Aye, and not just Scotland. For our neighbours over the Border were suffering terrible losses too. And all because of a piece of carelessness. A farmer not doing his job properly. Slipshod treatment of pig swill from hotels and restaurants. And now we were all having to pay for it, guilty or not.

As evening arrived at last towards the close of that awful day of slaughter, the pyre still burning in his big field west of the planting, David wearily made his way back to the farmhouse, his face smeaked with the smoke and the dust. He was weary! Never before had he been as weary as this in his entire life. The trench had been dug for the pyre as far from the dwelling house as possible to safe the little fellow as much anguish as they could. What had he left to hand over to his son now - an empty byre, silent fields.

As he turned the handle of the back porch door and stepped inside, shedding his boots and overalls, he could hear Cathy's voice crooning a lullaby to the little lad in the upstairs bedroom. Loving mother as she was, David knew in his heart, that it would take a visit from himself to settle the little fellow tonight. Oh, Cathy was suffering too, but this was a man's thing - from grandfather, to father, to himself and now on to his son. He'd try and drink a mug of tea first and then make his way up that stair if it was the last thing he did.

David picked up the kettle from the top of the Rayburn and poured boiling water on top of a teabag. Not the way Cathy made it, but tonight what did it matter! He lowered himself onto a chair and propped his elbows on the table in front of him. The weariness was right through to his very bones.

And then the mobile phone, lying on the table near his right elbow, started to ring.
He stared at the instrument and briefly thought of switching it off. He had no desire to speak to anybody, no matter who it was. However, habits are amazingly tenacious. He picked up the mobile and wearily transferred it in the direction of his ear.

"Is that you, Davie? Man you'll have had a hard time of it today. I just thought I'd give you a wee ring. It'll be all over by now, I'm thinking. Aye, aye!"

It was David's brother, Peter, phoning from Skye.
"Man, it must have been hard, boy, hard, but you'll just have to start again. If our Grandfather could do it, so can you. Give yourself a day or two, Davie boy, and then start planning. You've the wee lad to think about."

"The worst of it, Peter, was losing the beasts I've had for so long. Even old Kirsty had to go. Man that was a blow. All the old stock wiped out."

"Man, Davie, you've surely forgotten. No that I'm blamin' you on a day like this. Have I not got one of Kirsty's daughter's here on the croft! And it's the bonny calf she's just given birth to. I'll tell you what I'll do, Davie. When you're place is given the all-clear, I'll bring down the cow and the calf. Start you off again, just like our Grandfather did before us. At least it'll be something, a link with the past."

David had held up well that day, but he switched off the mobile, put his head down on his hands and wept.

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