Our Asian Water Buffalo arrived in Deerness in Orkney in July 2013. But how did that come about? Neither I, nor Russell - my husband - can recall when we discussed and agreed to pursue his dream, but he recalls getting hooked on the idea in the mid-2000s, seeing the docile beasts on the televisio.
Back in the autumn of 2013, Russell’s rather simplistic view of our journey as a family so far is: vodka, blue eyes, babies, Eday, Deerness, buffalo… perhaps trying to work out the best configuration in which to house our 51 buffalo over winter was dominating his attention. And in fact it has dominated much thinking for the last 5 months that the buffalo have been indoors; moving things about to suit calving and weaning and the addition of more young stock over the period. Perhaps more on how I ended up in Orkney another time.
We moved out to Eday, one of Orkney’s outer north isles, in 2008, Russell being an Eday Scarfie by birth. After the birth of our first daughter – Dorothy – We moved to Russell’s family farm where, after being in the ‘toon’ for eight years, he got reacquainted with beef cows. I went shopping for my first ever pair of welly boots at the Aladdin’s cave that was Birsay Farmers in Kirkwall, and boy was I delighted by their green-grey, steel toe-capped-lovely-ness. So yes, I was a bit wet around the ears as to farming matters. I had much to learn.
Back then, however, I was generally pre-occupied with washing nappies and baby grows as Dorothy was joined, rapidly, by a brother and a sister – Wilbur now 4 and Martha 2. I left my post at Orkney Islands Council in 2010, returned to transport consultancy work, and was also appointed as a Non-Executive Director on NHS Orkney board that year.
Despite the flexibility that life on Eday gave Russell and I, it was at times also a challenge, and could be very isolating and forlorn with a growing young family. I do, however, cherish the friendships made there, and recall particularly fondly the Friday-night crafty sessions – aka “stitch and bitch” – through which the world (and Eday) was put to rights, and Maris Burr shared so many wonderful craft skills.
In addition to gaining a new passion for all things worsted and woollen - including the adoption of a small flock of piebald, polycerate, Jacob sheep - I learnt a few small, yet important, lessons on how to be a ‘good’ farmers wife, and some vital education in understanding Russell’s local lingo, which seemed to intensify on the isthmus isle.
There is a routine to the farming day roughly revolving around meal times. Gone were the sandwiches or Pret-A-Manger bloomers and double-shot, extra dry, cappuccinos of my office days in Edinburgh, to be replaced by something altogether more wholesome. Timing was critical, dinner (or is it lunch?) was at the “top of the day” – “the what” I recall asking? The “top of the day” – 12 noon, and best not waste any minutes by it not being quite ready I learned.
That, perhaps, makes us sound too accordant with gender stereotypes, and it would be an injustice to say that I did not welcome and embrace my new homely assignment, and indeed that Russell was a very willing and participative new dad.
Another favourite vernacular learning has been the use of “owur weel” in response to: how was that, or how is the calf or the lamb doing? I was told that “owur weel”, with its songful intonations, meant that the object in question is ‘overly well’, which wasn’t all that helpful for my sooth of the wall ear. Upon exploration and reflection, I now think that “owur weel”’ means that the animal is better than bad, but not quite great! Finally pinning down that meaning was quite a breakthrough.
Thanks to www.orknejar.com I have learned that the Old Norse language, remnants of which can still be heard in Russell’s vocabulary, died out around the middle of the 1700s, having been the main spoken language in Orkney from around AD800. Interestingly over that period Water Buffalos have remained virtually unchanged. In fact they are virtually identical to what they would have been like four or five thousand years ago when they roamed the Indian subcontinent rather than the East Mainland of Orkney planes.
In 2011, as my email records confirm, Russell and I invested in the www.orkneybuffalo.co.uk domain name, and spent a cheery, creative, dreek Saturday afternoon planning and exploring ideas for what we would do with buffalo meat in Orkney. Over the next year we spoke to lots of buffalo farmers, incorporated a training trip south with a buffalo farm visit, and as it fortuitously turned out, we found ourselves in the right place, at the right time a few months later to buy our first herd, or “starter pack” as it has been referred to, of fifteen in-calf buffalo cows in March 2012.
To be continued.....