Reflections from Cape Town

We have been in Cape Town now for four days, having arrived via Glasgow and Heathrow on Monday.  It has been a wonderful experience – details to follow.  Our ship is due to leave next Thursday – the reality of what we are doing will catch up with us after that time.

I hope to put all manner of stories on this site – including our experiences with the islanders and the expats on the island, historical details that we come across, details of the various human activities, details on the bird life on the island, and of course information on the farming.

I have been pondering a comparison between farming in mainland Scotland and farming on a remote island.

No doubt, there are some advantages in a remote farming situation.   For example, there is a huge oceanic barrier against the possible entry of pests and diseases.  On the mainland, diseases of livestock and of crops can be brought in to a farm by many vectors, including wind, vehicle wheels, animals and birds.  Farmers have to be on the alert for problems on a continuous basis.  In addition, there is a well-developed infrastructure of vets, advisers, laboratories and suppliers, to help the farmer with any incident that may arise.  Clearly, in Tristan such a support infrastructure is out of the question and in the event of problems the farmers have to rely on support organisations that can take many weeks to access, and remedies can take many weeks to arrive.  The other consideration is that many livestock problems fall into the categories of conditions that are induced by feed or environmental conditions, and these problems can occur whether you are farming in a remote island or in a mainland situation – I am thinking of conditions such as milk fever, acetonaemia, bloat and of course calving difficulties.


In terms of all pests and diseases, and of introduced species such as invasive plant weeds, the oceanic barrier that serves to protect the island is only good until it is penetrated.  Great care has to be taken not to introduce problems, particularly with imported livestock and plants.  But also we need to have a clear picture as to what has come in through the actions of Man in the last 200 years.  There seems to be little point going to extreme lengths to prevent the introduction of a disease if that disease is already widespread on the island.

Within the farming structure of Scotland, farmers have a great inter-dependency largely so that specialist livestock production can be concentrated on the conditions for which it is most suitable.  Hill farmers will sell ewe lambs to upland farmers, who then cross them and then sell the resulting lambs to lowland farmers to be further crossed to produce the lamb for the butcher.  Equally, hardy beef cattle from upland areas are sold on to lowland farmers to be finished on quality grass, or to be used to produce a further generation of crossbreeds.  In the recent annual Bull Sales in Stirling, no fewer than 856 pedigree bulls were sold by specialist producers to farmers in other areas, including England, Wales and the Continent.  Clearly, these mutually beneficial trading relationships are not available to farmers on the Island.

There are other ways in which farmers in mainland Scotland can help each other.  This extends from the formal buyer groups and machinery rings, to farm contractors, to informal chats and the sharing of ideas.   It is only the last ‘informal chat’ category that is available to farmers on the Island.

It may be imagined that as I wait in Cape Town for the ship to take me to my new challenge, I find the conditions I am going to quite daunting. In the months since my appointment I have tried to carry out research and to develop contacts as much as possible, but I cannot prepare for everything.  I am also strongly aware of the necessary timescale for the implementation of measures of improvement – the sequence of advocacy – debate – decision making – funding – shipping could easily take 12 months – and we are only 24 months on Tristan!

The Baltic Trader, waiting for us in Cape Town Harbour
The Baltic Trader, waiting for us in Cape Town Harbour

Tristan da Cunha

I feel as if I have known about Tristan da Cunha all my life, at least since the islanders were evacuated to the UK in 1961, when I was 15.  That was the time of the most recent serious volcano eruption, when the entire settlement was threatened by a lava flow.  The people of Tristan were housed at the Air Force camp of Calshot in Hampshire and I remember clearly the two-way feelings of curiosity that were reflected in the British press on a regular basis.  The islanders came from a community which had seen few changes since it was formed in 1816, and they had built up a resilience, a resourcefulness and a community spirit that was strange to most Brits in the 1960’s.  Their strangeness was exaggerated by the Press, and I remember discussions at school that focussed on the way in which the Tristanians were treated as curiosity items.  The islanders were provided for in terms of essential daily needs, but little effort was made to integrate them into British society. Indeed any attempts made at integration were unlikely to succeed given the huge differences in cultural background, for the islanders had little understanding of shopping, money, employment, travel, and all the myriad of things that were part of everyday existence for the people of Britain.  A year after the evacuation, an advance party re-visited the island and it was found that the lava flow had not, as was feared, destroyed the houses in the settlement and that there was no reason why the people of Tristan da Cunha should not return to their island home, if they really wanted to.  The vast majority of islanders decided to return to Tristan, and the press in Britain continued to demonstrate that they had little understanding of the nature of the islanders with comments like “Ungrateful blighters”  –  the press viewed that the so-called generosity of Britain towards the Tristanians should have resulted in the people of Tristan unanimously deciding that the British lifestyle was so much more rewarding than life on the island.  They took the view that the islanders were making a big mistake in turning down all the advantages of living in a developed, civilised country.  And they failed to understand how these people could choose to return to their wet and windswept island,  that is distinctive for being the most remote inhabited island in the world.


Fifty three years later, early in 2016, the worldwide press latched on to an advertisement that had just been placed;  many articles were written about the fact that a two year job was being offered to a British farmer on an “island paradise”.   I liked the idea of an island paradise, and of course I read on.  The main responsibilities were to concentrate on food security, self-sufficiency and sustainability.  Existing farming enterprises such as cattle, sheep and potatoes were to be modernised and streamlined.  New enterprises such as apples and polytunnel production were to be introduced.  They were looking for a person with a wide range of farming knowledge and with experience of living in remote situations.  I read the advertisement through four times, it seemed that they were describing me.  I decided that the job had my name on it, and by the end of March I had accepted the job offer that had by then been made to me.


The following pages describe the challenges, frustrations and rewards that face my wife and me as the months go by on our ‘island paradise’.  The plan is that we travel out in November 2016,  and our sea-freight of personal effects is already on its way.