In his new book, Red Rag To A Bull, author Jamie Blackett arrives home from the Army to take over a small family estate on the Solway Firth in Dumfries and Galloway, and finds a rapidly changing countryside.
In a humorous and occasionally moving tale, he describes the return of the native to grapple with the intricacies of farming, conservation and estate management, telling the story of founding a pack of foxhounds and a herd of pedigree beef cattle. Part childhood memoir, part biopic of rural life, readers are transported to a remote and beautiful part of Scotland and acquainted with its wildlife, its people and its customs.
Set over the first two decades of the 21st Century, through the Scottish independence referendum, Brexit and the hunting ban, the result is an enlightened review of the challenges threatening a vulnerable way of life and an emerging philosophy about the directions Scotland, farming and the countryside might take in the brave new world of Brexit.
In this book extract, Jamie is keenly following his pack of hounds on a day’s hunting, when suddenly, disaster strikes…:
Then from the depths of the wood there comes a single, deep, excited note, and then another. Then a breathless pause and several more as other hounds hit on the scent.
‘They’ve found.’ The field goes quiet as we all strain our ears. Paddy is dancing on his toes now, waiting for the off. We edge closer to Piet, the Field Master, so that we can get away in the first echelon.
The scent must be as good as we dared hope. The woods now echo with a riot of noise that goes first this way then that, as it hurtles around the covert like an express train.
Moments later we see hounds tumbling clumsily out of the wood and then back in again. They appear to be heading uphill onto a long bracken bank.
‘Come on, we’ll get round the other side,’ says Piet, as he kicks his horse into action and we speed towards a gap in the wire fence where there is a solid timber hunt jump. Paddy takes it in his stride and I let him have his head, so that he flattens out rhythmically into a fast canter across the springy turf, and I stand in the stirrups, crouched forward to keep my weight off his back. Above us, still in cover, hound music soars and crashes like the 1812 Overture.
Next comes a wall – a tall, solid, unforgiving Galloway dyke made of granite boulders. I check Paddy so that his hocks come underneath him, and we bounce twice before I let him go two strides out. He clears it by a foot and at the top of our flight, in a burst of exuberance, kicks his hind legs up behind him like Nureyev, so that I am nearly pitched out of the saddle. Our blood is up now, as we race away downhill towards the next fence, a low rail down onto a steep bank of bracken and whins.
We need to do a small, neat jump here, so that we can immediately turn right-handed onto a sheep track that runs along the top of the bank. Battling with Paddy on the run in, I shift my weight from side to side to unbalance him and slow him down, but we are still going too fast. I should circle him away from the jump and come back in at a trot, but I hold him, seemingly motionless, as he pauses, then jumps.
We take off like the 11.30 New York flight from Heathrow and go up, and up. Below us the ground falls away with alarming rapidity. Then we are coming down again and I feel him stumble on landing; his head seems to disappear from in front of me, and I am being scraped over the pommel of the saddle and down his neck. The ground rushes up towards me.
‘Oh God, this is going to hurt.’
‘Is he dead?’
‘I don’t like the look of it, he’s not moving.’
‘Has someone gone to catch the horse?’
‘Yes, Malc’s gone.’
Fragments of conversation come and go as if overheard in the street.
‘He’s got a pulse anyway.’
‘Don’t move him, in case he’s broken his back.’
I can’t tell whether this is a dream or whether it is real, and I just can’t wake up.
‘Can you hear me, my love?’ An angelic voice. ‘Can you open your eyes for me.’
I open my eyes and promptly close them again; the world seems confusing and I want to go back to sleep.
‘Listen, Jamie, I want you to wiggle your toes. Can you do that for me?’
Good idea. I wiggle my toes and nod. Thank God, I am not paralysed.
Gradually I come to and my rescuer, fortuitously an off-duty nurse, says, ‘Just lie still, poppet, the ambulance is on its way.’
Soon Malc appears with Paddy. I start scrambling to my feet.
‘No, you are not getting back on, you were out cold for several minutes. You are going straight to hospital,’ says my rescuer.
‘Well, I might as well ride Paddy then,’ ventures Malc, ‘so at least he doesn’t miss out. Can you pass me his hat?’
I told you the Bells are descended from horse thieves.
‘Might as well pass me his flask as well. They will only confiscate it in hospital. And better have his car keys.’
Shameless! Malc and Paddy set off and I go back to sleep again.
The ambulance crew want to know where my hat is.
‘We would have cut the straps on it if you had it, so that you couldn’t wear it again.’
I nod and think of my mother. In the vanity of youth, I had always hunted in a top hat until I got married and then Mum and Sheri had ganged up and forced me to buy a jockey’s crash hat. Maternal instinct is a wonderful thing; I would be dead had they not done so.
When we arrive at the Dumfries Royal Infirmary, the ward sister wants to know what I have had to eat and drink.
I rack my brains.
‘Porridge at about eight, then a few sausage rolls and a slice of fruitcake at elevenish.’
She nods, ‘And to drink?’
‘A couple of glasses of port at about eleven.’ A slight frown plays across her features. ‘Then just the odd swig after that: bramble whisky, cherry brandy, damson vodka, maybe some sloe gin, that sort of thing.’ She looks concerned and scribbles something down on a clipboard.
I have my brain scanned and then I am put to bed and sleep like the dead. Hours later, Malc comes to pick me up. The same ward sister discharges me.
‘Now you are to go straight home and have a good night’s sleep.’ Then her eyes seem to moisten and a gooey maternal look comes over her. ‘And do try and stay off the alcohol, if you can, dear.’
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