OUR monthly Lifestyle columnist, ROSEMARY FLETCHER, from Islay, is a modern Hebridean farmer’s wife who encapsulates what it’s like to bring the many strands of living on an island together to help make a living from a diversified farming business.

A former teacher, and now a ceramic artist and regular blogger, she has been captivated by the ways of Hebridean life. Married to an island farmer and mother to three, she tells us this month about some of the characters that make up a typical farming day.

A WEATHER-BEATEN old farmhouse, in which central heating was yet to be a feature, glass hanging precariously in decaying and rotten old wooden frames.

Draughts became gales whipping under the rafters and chasing through the hallway in those early winter evenings. Huge open fires and an old range provided some comfort but on crisp, sharp mornings, it was often warmer outside than in the shelter of the thick, old stone walls of the damp farmhouse. No wonder the Happy Farmer was up at the crack of dawn.

A lot of people are born into farming life. It’s in their very bones. Those farming ways, that innate connection with the land. The close relationship with the elements, as the weather chops and changes.

At times it can be so forgiving and kind, then turning harshly with little warning, changing the landscape into a cruel, hard environment in which to live and work. The understanding, respect and bond between man and beast, nature, and the seasons.

Marrying into farming and island life has been an eventful journey. Transported from city living to a life of facing the elements, on the edge of the land, without so much as a backwards glance.

There were those sharp learning curves when heating at the switch of a button was replaced with roaring fires and solid fuel stoves. No amount of rubbing two sticks together would start a fire and damp matches were little help either.

In the fields and on the hill, those ‘residents’, the sheep, the cows, the horses, the pigs, the dogs and the cats, they could spy an ‘incomer’ at the drop of a hat. The Happy Farmer made it all look so easy, lambing, calving, feeding rounds, clipping, dosing, dipping, fencing, ploughing, re-seeding, mowing, baling.

However, once his back was turned, I could be found clumsily fumbling through those adventures as they unfolded and the fun, and games began.

There was Tuppence, the hardy hill pony, not much bigger than a dog. He would take great delight in positively galloping across the hill if he spied me in the distance. He would trot alongside me, as I made my getaway, enjoying a cheeky wee nip of my arm.

There were the piglets, who never missed an opportunity to take chase. My downfall? ... I took to my heels every time. It would appear a game of ‘chasey’ was far more fun than following a Happy Farmer and a bucket of feed.

When an angry herd of bellowing cows came rampaging off the hillside, there was my gymnastic adrenaline-fuelled flight, as a sprint led into a high flung pirouette over a nearby deer fence, in my bid for freedom.

The escapee Limousin bull, who, when I looked to my left, just happened to be bouncing alongside me on my morning jog, which quickly turned into a high speed spring on my part. When the Happy Farmer appeared, my big and bouncy, meaty, beefy jogging partner just plodded ever so gently, like a huge teddy bear, back to his field.

The beauty of spring and the promise of new life and good weather. The cruelty of nature as ravens and crows attacked ewe and lamb during the birthing process, leaving mauled carcases, bloody and ravaged, lying abandoned.

The tiny lamb tucked in a rug, warming in front of the range in the farmhouse kitchen, being gently cared for, until its cold, lifeless body was filled with spirit again, as it lifted itself onto wobbly hooves, bleating softly once more. The wonders of a stomach tube, some colostrum and a jag of glucose, plus shelter from the wild gales and hailstorms that tore across the fields just as lambing season began.

The meowling cats that would hiss and spit if you got too near, as they gathered at the farmhouse door, for a pot of scraps.

The sheep dog, lingering at the farmer’s heel. Watching his every move, ready for his next command. As his coffee cup was put down, she would be up and out the door, eager to get going. From the hub of the tractor, she could be seen, sat bolt upright, ready to take charge, the Happy Farmer’s ‘right hand man’.

Then there was the pack of ‘pot lickers’, those sheep dogs who didn’t quite make the ‘mark’, living out in the old stone byre. The old ‘retiree’, would lie, scrawny and bony, with matted fur, contentedly curled, like a rug, in the warmth of the farmhouse. Half blind, and deaf, her spirit long out living those old bones.

The kettle was always on the boil. Fresh baking, home-made soups and stews were at the ready as the farmhouse kitchen went like a fair and there was always a seat at the table for whoever happened to be passing.

Out at the fank, with the rain lashing down, the Happy Farmer and old Hoot could be seen, head to toe in sodden waterproofs, rain drops dripping from their noses, as they worked with the beasts.

A transition from a life of appointments, checked diaries, doorbells, and closed front doors, to island living, where ‘front doors’ barely existed, their purpose simply to keep the draughts at bay. There was always welcome at every home, and the door was always open, day and night, and whoever arrived would be taken into the heart of the home.

Farmhouse kitchens are a busy hub of community, from early starts, to late breakfasts, brunches, lunches, afternoon teas and suppers. A place for gatherings, debates, news and banter, ceilidhs and craic, an important part of the lifeline of the island communities.

There were the island’s characters, they kept me going in those early days.

The pier master and his wife, whose door I wasn't allowed to pass by at ferry time, when the Happy Farmer would head to the port to catch the ropes of the Calmac ferry as she sailed in. Nettie would be there with copious amounts of delicious home baking, the kindest of hearts, the warmest of welcomes, which lifted the spirits even on the dullest of days. Heading back to the farm and my pockets would be filled with tablet, a tub of smoked fish to hand.

There was Hughie, who farmed just along the single-track road. His old stone byres were home to 10 or so ‘pot lickers’, such was his big heart.

His day’s catch of mackerel would be hanging from a washing line across the farmhouse kitchen – a fishy slap across the face as you entered, should you forget to duck. The mackerel drying, ready to be preserved and stored for the winter months.

A large frying pan always on the go, thick with dripping, ready to feed whoever called by. Fraoch, his sturdy little Jack Russell, ready to take a nip at your ankles. Happy to pounce on any mice that might happen to be lingering in the farmyard, but proving to be the fussiest of little eaters, when Hughie, not enjoying my home-made coleslaw at all, delighted in the fact that his Jack Russell also turned his nose up when the plate was placed at his feet for his dog.

Hughie had such a wonderful way with words, his own ‘metaphoric’ language, with that island lilt, a twinkle in his eye, as he referred to young women as ‘heifers’, who became ‘coat hangers’ as they went up in age.

There was Jimmy Hoot, the Happy Farmer’s right-hand man. Always there, a roll-up stuck to his bottom lip, cap covering his thick mop of hair, huge blue beady eyes, with Dan, his faithful sheepdog at his heel.

Hoot knew a thing or two about farming. Practical and ‘knacky’, he turned his hand to everything and was always there, an unwitting teacher, with his timely advice and wisdom. He understood the ways of the countryside, having fenced the length and breadth of Scotland.

When the day’s work was done, he would sit at the fireside, mug of tea to hand, carefully rolling tobacco, from a small tin, between his fingers, as he put the world to rights. Always ready to indulge in a bit of ‘tail pulling’, as Hoot called it, he would wind someone up then delight as they took the bait, hook, line, and sinker. A wry smile on his face, he would bid his goodbyes.

Teamwork and ‘tail pulling’, ‘banter and craic’, where a ceilidh could happen spontaneously, out of nowhere. As an accordion was reached for, a large dram poured, and suddenly an unsuspecting farmer would break into a beautiful Gaelic lilt, in the fiercest of weather and on the brightest of days, keeping the community spirit alive.

These characters, with their knowledge of the land, their respect and understanding of the beasts, their welcome and patience, encouraged and guided us along on our journey.

Have I made the ‘mark’? No amount of ‘years of learning’ will ever equip me to be as practical or knowledgeable in the ways of farming as these islanders who have welcomed me to their shores.

As old Hoot would say, I’m still ‘laaarnin’, but when I look around at the young ones coming up, I can see that farming blood in those ‘very bones’, as the cycle continues.