Same Land Same Work
/ Same land, same work, same people, but different bus passes /
While waiting in the reception we can hear the distant maas and moos and a strong stench of ammonia, from the hundreds of animals inside, fills the air. Eventually one of the auctioneers, with an hour off, comes to meet us. He brings us to a large open shed where old sheep and young lambs are crammed into little pens. When their turn comes, the gate is lifted and they pour out, running along the track, with the younger ones jumping excitedly over each other, towards the next stage of the auctioning process.
Longtown farmer’s mart is in the north-west of England, with punters coming from all over to buy and sell animals. But most who come are local and, located two miles from the border, ‘local’ means both Cumbria in England and Dumfriesshire in Scotland.
Walking around, I make a crude attempt at trying to distinguish English from Scot. This is not easy. What strikes me instead is the distinction between the farmers and the buyers. Farmers: older, worn tweed, solemnly looking to their animals. Buyers: younger, fresh barbour, barking into mobile phones.
The auction starts so we take a seat on the bench that goes around the ring. One animal after another is brought out into the pen for a fleeting moment in the spotlight before being sold and taken away.
Sat back from the inner ring, where buyers are nodding their heads or raising a finger to the auctioneer, are a group of men in their seventies or eighties. They beckon us over.
Beside the chorus of moos and maas, the clanging of the metal pen gate being opened and closed to release the animals, and the fast ramble of the auctioneer – we attempt a conversation.
The men are all retired dairy farmers and have been coming to the mart since they were boys. Now retired, they still come every Tuesday, to look at the animals, check prices, and finish with tea in the canteen.
They explain farming is changing and that supermarkets have made life difficult for farmers by driving down the price of meat.
“Here’s someone you might be interested in,” gruffs Kenny, a weathered man with a strong Scottish accent gesturing towards a man walking towards us. “He’s the director of the auction mart.”
“No I’m not!” the man they call the ‘director’ protests.
“He tried to move the border doon to Longtoon so he could claim himself a Scotsman. Didn’t ya?” Kenny jibes as they all let out a roar of laughter.
“They think they’re gonna get my grandson in a kilt, but that will never happen!”
“You’ll not live long enough to stop us trying,” says Kenny.
“I’ll live longer than you. Have you ever seen such a wide parting?” the ‘director’ says, pointing to the Scot’s bald head.
Joe, a Cumbrian man, tells me, “They’ll have to build a wall for these two!”
Kenny lives, and was raised, just 6 miles up the road, but his accent couldn’t be more different than the others men who grew up just a few miles away.
“That’s cos’ he is different. Can’t you tell?” Another roar of laughter. “There’s not many like him.”
Kenny tells me he gets “more abuse then the lot of them put together.”
As the conversation goes on, so does the heckling back and forth.
“I don’t know what he’s complaining about. He can go from here to John O’Groats for nothing, but we can’t go from Longtown to Lands End,” Joe tells me about Kenny. “He gets a free pensioners' bus pass in Scotland.” “Aye, he’s right about that,” Kenny says.
I ask them what they think about the possibility of Scottish Independence.
“Well that’s probably the only thing we all agree on!” says Kenny.
“Do you think it’s a good idea?” I ask.
“No, no, no!” they all reply at once, for the first time not at odds.
“The land is more or less all the same” says the director. “Same work. Same people. There’s no difference,”
“The only problem with Scotland is that he’s there,” says Joe, nodding at Kenny amid another blast of laughter.