BY JAMIE FOSTER
Red Rag to a Bull by Jamie Blackett is a delightful read. It tells of the rural life experienced by Blackett when he leaves the army and comes home to take over the family estate in the lowlands of Scotland. Every aspect of rural life is covered from the frustrations of rodding the drains to the joys of raising cattle on his farm. The chapters follow the seasons, starting in Summer and moving through Autumn and Winter to Spring. The wildlife and birdlife that live on the farm are a constant backdrop to the narrative. As a conservationist Blackett keeps them to the forefront of his mind at all times. The trials and tribulations of farming in the modern age are well documented, with the dead hand of EU regulation on his shoulder throughout his daily life. It is clear that Blackett would like to have something beyond the current round of subsidies but realises they are the price of farming cheap food.
Blackett writes of re-establishing the hunt on his land and the difficulties of hunting under the ban. As a countryman he is sure that predator control is essential for the protection of species that would otherwise be overrun. Tradition is right at the forefront of everything he does as a landowner, but he still keeps up with the most modern farming methods. The frustration of dealing with the state are beautifully illustrated in a section on Blackett’s conversation with the Department. Maps he submitted of his land were being rejected months after submission and his rural payments were not being paid as a result. Blackett excellently captures the angst of aligning with a bureaucracy that will not listen or adapt.
Blackett describes establishing a herd of Luing cattle as the result of a daydream. He has always loved cattle but the farm had not had a beef herd on it before. Being an autodidact, Blackett read up on Luing cattle and bought himself a herd from a man in Yorkshire. He describes feeling like a Zulu king when his herd arrived on the farm.
The run up to the Scottish independence referendum is covered in some detail. Blackett considers the different arguments but comes down on the side of the Union. This troubling time for Scottish people is dealt with a warmth and humanity that underpins the whole book.
It is in passages like his description of hedge management that Blackett really comes to life. He describes his frustration with farming neighbours who cut their hedges at the onset of autumn before the fruit has been eaten by the birds. Blackett himself will only cut his hedges every second year in February when the birds have had a chance to feed fully on the bounty that his hedges have to offer. This holistic approach to wildlife on his farm is typical of the philosophy Blackett espouses.
Blackett devotes a chapter to dealing with his tenants in the cottages on his estate. Some relationships are excellent and provide a healthy symbiosis of landlord and tenant. Others are less harmonious. Like all landlords he has to put up with non-paying tenants. He describes phoning Crimestoppers to report some tenants who are claiming housing benefit and not passing it on to him. Crimestoppers think this is a civil matter and are not helpful. Blackett describes how the Scottish government has come down on the side of the tenants, treating landlords like potential criminals.
As a beef farmer, Blackett is depressed about opening the newspaper to find beef derided as bad for the planet and for health. He makes a powerful argument that it is not true to say beef produced in Britain is bad for the planet and it is particularly good for the health. He recognises that he is fighting a rear-guard action at a time when beef is a politically incorrect food. Nonetheless it is good to see that someone like Blackett is fighting for beef at a time when so many are decrying it.
On the whole Red Rag to a Bull is an engaging read that is full of optimism and gentle wisdom. It paints a picture of rural life in these modern times written from the viewpoint of a true countryman. It is well worth a read and is thoroughly enjoyable.
Red Rag to a Bull is published by Quiller Publishing and can be acquired here.
Jamie Blackett was born in 1964 and educated at Ludgrove, Eton, the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and later Warwick Business School (MBA). After working in South Africa he joined the Coldstream Guards, serving in Northern Ireland, the First Gulf War, Hong Kong, the Falkland Islands, Zimbabwe and Germany. He returned to his roots in Galloway where he is now a farmer, forester, bed and breakfast and holiday cottage host, gardener and odd job man and occasional freelance journalist writing on farming and the countryside. He is a Deputy Lieutenant for Dumfriesshire and a member of the Queen’s Bodyguard for Scotland Royal Company of Archers. He is married with two children.