By Fergus Walker
We had been planning this tour for weeks – months, and it seemed hard to believe when we actually had the final bits of kit packed up in the back and we were ready to go. It seemed an auspicious start that our new Fife Diet apprentice, Darragh, was setting up a Project Broccoli stall outside the Fife Diet office as we pulled away. It was myself (Seed Truck skipper), and Marie Louise (also known as Mrs Mash the storytelling cook) who were on board, and we were due to pick up Iain MacKinnon (a journalist, food sovereignty ethnographer, and ship’s piper) at the train station in Garve.
Well, it’s a long journey from Burntisland to Garve, but we made it, albeit a little late due to a detour to buy a teapot, some tea, and collect some wheat from the Blair Atholl watermill (kindly donated by Rami Cohen). Iain isn’t the kind of man to take offence and we were soon merrily on our way.
Ullapool was our first stop: the west coast, the roots of Scotland’s original food revolution, you might say. For it was in the crofting counties in the late 1800s that the bitter battles for access to land were fought, until the Crofting Act of 1886 granted security of tenure and guarantee of fair rents.
We were made very welcome on our arrival in Ullapool, and our wee ceilidh in the famous Ceilidh Place gathered pace into a well-balanced evening of storytelling, discussion and music. We had a gardener from Langholm in the Borders (Ian), a seed saver and forager from Austria (Marion), and of course the good people of Ullapool, including those from Ullapool Community Trust and Jean Urquhart, the founder of the Ceilidh Place.
Ullapool has just started community allotments in the heart of the village, and there is a lot of work going on to set up community hydro-electric schemes. The evening seemed a good chance to mull things over. When we asked what advice we should take on to the other places we would visit, the message was: “If we can grow food here on the wet and windy west – you should have no trouble!” There was a general feeling that there is a positive energy in Ullapool, perhaps due to the diversity of the place.
We also learnt about a system in Austria where farmers rent out fields each spring, ready sown with rows of different vegetables. City dwellers without much time can then come out and rent a portion of the field, tending and then harvesting the produce they get at the end of the season.
The following day we saw a hive of activity, with Mary Mackay and Cathy Higginson of UCT doing an amazing job setting up a skill share on the pier with activities from a butter making, a garden produce surplus swap, talks on beekeeping, smoked herring, mackerel and skate made from fish caught by the ferrymen the night before.
Just up the hill was the Seed Truck tent, with the mill bike making fresh flour, Mrs Mash making pancakes and telling stories in our tent with wood-burning stove, Iain playing the pipes, and Maria Scholten (who had come from South Uist that morning) talking about the heritage grains of the Uists – Small Oats (Coirce Beag), Hebridean Rye (Seagal) and Bere Barley (Eorna) – which are grown and saved only on the isles by the crofters.
As we left on Sunday morning, Cathy handed us a great box of herb plants, and some freshly picked seeds of Red Russian kale, Hungry Gap kale, and yellow poppy.