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As with our letter from Glasgow, the title of this letter is somewhat incorrect, as we never actually went into Edinburgh, the capital of Alba. Unlike Glasgow, we had every intention of visiting Edinburgh; there are a lot of historical sights to see there. Unfortunately, because it is the Queen's Golden Jubilee weekend (and because we had telephoned so late), we were unable to find any accommodations within the city itself.. We fell back on our "Stay on a Farm" book, made reservations at Eaglescairnie Mains near the town of Gifford (about half an hour east of Edinburgh), and arrived on May 30th. It turned out to be one of the nicest places that we've stayed at, and we ended up barely leaving the farm during the two nights that we were here.
Barbara Williams inherited this 350-acre farm from her grandmother in the late 1980s. Her husband Michael, a former Major in the Royal Tank Regiment, was a 20-year military man with absolutely no farming experience. At the age of 38, he took a one-year course in farming and hired a consultant to help him plan what to do with the farm. The rest is a truly amazing story.
As the farmers around him looked on with skepticism and amusement, Mike Williams ended up pioneering environmentally-friendly farming in Alba. For example, in today's modern age, traditional English hedges are no longer necessary for marking boundaries, and the farms around had pretty much let them die off. Mike replanted hedges at Eaglescairnie Mains, specifically to restore the ecological environment that had existed in the area for hundreds of years before. He knew that he had succeeded when he saw the lapwings and wild hares return. And with the return of insect-eating predators, the need for chemical pesticides diminished.
Mike completely immersed himself into his passion for the countryside. He has used income from timber sales and grants from the Forestry Authority to plant 15,000 new broad-leaved hardwood trees on 40 acres of the property (the three Williams children, their families and neighbors, and school field trips have all participated in this effort). 30 acres are set aside to grow wild bird cover crops (including wild grass meadow), while 40 acres of grass are used to graze sheep. On the 240 arable acres, Mike has established a basic crop regime of biscuit wheat, with a spring crop of malting barley, and a break crop of fodder peas.
Eleven years later, the farm is now a self-sustaining and thriving business. More than 200 finished lambs are marketed each year. The farm raises ponies for their horse livery business. And in addition to the Bed & Breakfast, they rent out the former farm workers' cottages. Eaglescairnie Mains has won an award as one of "Scotland's Finest Woodlands" from the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society. Mike has won two awards from Country Life magazine for his eco-friendly methods, and is now Chairman of the Lothian Farm and Wildlife Advisory Group. And a year ago at the age of 56, he was made an MBE -- "Member of the British Empire" and one of the UK's highest commendations -- by Queen Elizabeth.
Our room had a binder full of articles and press clippings about Mike and the farm. In one interview, he said, "I do what I call sympathetic farming. I am not an organic farmer, but try to fit modern technology farming into the countryside -- to soften the edges of crop areas and create different habitats for wildlife and only putting pesticides and fertilizers on crops, nothing else. I try to create habitats around the production areas." In person, Mike is a very unassuming, bespectacled man. When he wasn't out driving a tractor (with his dog sitting in the cab beside him), he was helping Barbara to serve our breakfasts and collect our dishes. Both Mike and Barbara are extremely friendly, and the farmhouse itself is beautifully kept.
Needless to say, there was a lot to see and explore just staying on the farm. When we arrived on the 30th, Cameron and Joss immediately got out their swords and went exploring on the grounds. Gail and Russell drove to the nearby town of Gifford to the Co-op market for some dinner groceries. In shades of "The Prisoner," the clerks kept referring to Gifford as "The Village." As we drove through the small town, we saw signposts marking "The Avenue" and "The Square."
May 31st was Gail's birthday, and she celebrated by trying haggis for breakfast for the first time. (A traditional Scottish dish, haggis is made by taking all of the "leftover bits" of a sheep and stuffing them into a sheep's stomach. Surprisingly, Gail liked it.) Cameron and Joss each made her a birthday card: Joss' card made her an honorary Turbo Trooper; Cameron's card contained a comic strip of "Things You Need to Pack" in order to travel around the world.
Gail's birthday (note the official birthday hats, hand-made by Joss)
The rest of the day was whatever Gail felt like doing. We spent a lazy morning relaxing inside until the weather cleared up. In the afternoon we took two long walks around the perimeter of the farm (one with the boys and one without), where we saw the Lammermuir Mountains in the background, wildflowers in bloom; hares hopping around in the meadows; and a neighbor's bird pen filled with chickens, ducks, geese, and peacocks.
Our intention was to have a quick dinner in "The Village" at a local pub -- we have been eating out so much lately that we are starting to get burned out on restaurant meals that end up taking two hours out of every evening. We went to the Goblin Ha' where Cameron and Joss were able to play outside on a playground. Unfortunately the staff lost our first order, and the meal ended up taking two hours anyway.
But overall, the day was a nice way to celebrate Gail's birthday and a nice finale to our adventures in Alba -- we didn't mind not going into Edinburgh at all. Tomorrow, we will cross the Scottish border for the last time and return to England.
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