Shepherd's delight: an interview with Jim Fairlie
Like many of Scotland’s newest politicians, it was 2014’s referendum that ultimately led to Jim Fairlie’s name being on a ballot paper.
Dejected after his side lost and unable to get his head around the reason why, John Swinney told him that if he really wanted to do something about it, he’d should get elected.
Growing up, his dad – also called Jim – was a high heid yin in the SNP, rising to the position of deputy leader of the party in the early 80s. The constitution and the state of the nation was regularly debated around the dinner table.
“Politics was in our house constantly,” Fairlie tells Holyrood. “Which is why I wanted nothing to do with it.”
“I would engage and I would listen but I was the second youngest of five. By the time you get to the fourth down the pecking order your input is usually pretty limited.”
All the teenage Fairlie wanted was to be outside, working with animals.
“I had a dog, I had two pigeon lofts full of racings pigeons, I had bird books galore and my entire interest was what was going on outside the door rather than the newspaper reports my dad was cutting out because some politician someplace else had said something. I could never see the attraction.”
Despite his best efforts, politics, throughout his life, has had a way of finding him.
He stayed on in school to do his sixth year, because, he says, he “literally had no clue what I was going to do with my life.”
All he knew was that he wanted to work with animals, so before he left school, he penned around 50 letters and sent them off to everyone he could think of with a connection to animals – vets, farmers, gamekeepers, livestock dealers.
Had things turned out slightly differently, he could have been in Edinburgh, mucking out the penguins in the zoo, rather than sitting at the bottom of the Royal Mile as the MSP for Perthshire South and Kinross-shire.
It was the reputation of an unknown great uncle – another Jim – who helped secure him work on the farm of George Sinclair. That relative, a cattleman, had done Sinclair a good turn many years before, and now the farmer did the same for the eager youngster.
He was, by his own account, pretty rubbish at the job. Always in the wrong place, a “spindly wee laddie” who’d as likely be knocked over by sheep if he tried to shear it.
He almost got paid off after six months, with Sinclair’s son keen to replace him, but the old farmer took a gamble, and kept him on.
And he learnt.
“I started to grow, got physically stronger and started to learn properly and see things the way a sheep man should.
“Every day I knew exactly what I was doing when I got up in the morning. Some days it was sore. It’s a bloody hard job. But there was a purpose to it and it felt right.”
That purpose led to him shepherding, happy to tend his flock, sell the best of his fat lambs at market every week, bringing up his kids and spending time with the family.
But then along came the mad cow disease panic of the early 90s and the knock on effect that had on the whole sector.
“What that started in motion was that whole period of time where the media were knocking lumps out of farmers right across Britain. You had the ‘Frankenstein foods’ headlines, and ‘farmers are poisoning our families’ and all that sort of stuff. The farmers were taking the brunt of the abuse because of BSE, and we were getting these predictions of half a million people dying. It was a horrendous time to be involved in the livestock industry.”
“After the beef price collapsed so did the sheep price. We were at the stage of literally taking less than half the price of what we would get previously. I took it almost as a personal insult that the graft, the effort, the time, the energy, the stockmanship that I was really proud of was going into the market and being trashed by the poor quality prices.
“Obviously, as a young man and at that stage in my life, I wasn’t seeing the bigger picture you know, the national politics. I didn’t look at any of that. All I looked at was what was happening on my farm with my peers.”
The job was tied to his house, which meant if he couldn’t work, he, wife Anne and young daughters Caitlin and Mhairi, could be homeless. At the time, the Blair government’s Scottish Office agricultural minister, Lord John Sewel, said farmers would need to market their way out of the crisis.
“How do you do that if you’re a farmer? You grow the food and somebody else sells it for you. That’s not our job. You can’t go to the supermarket and say will you buy my lamb for me? That’s not how they work. Local butchers were going out of business because of the BSE panic, because of the power of supermarkets, the collapse in the red meat place. All of these things were conspiring like this perfect storm.”
Sewel’s words played on Fairlie’s mind, even as he and Anne and the girls drove to France for a caravaning break, arriving at a half closed, out of season campsite where it rained for days.
Desperate for something to do, he took the family to a nearby farmer’s market. It was a revelation that he freely admits changed his life.
“And I remember saying to Anne, ‘this is it’. And she goes ‘what are you talking about?’ I said, ‘look at this, they’ve got hams, they’ve got bacon, they’ve got bread, they’ve got cheese.’ I said this is how we’re going to do it. We’ll do this at home, farmers’ markets. So that’s where it started. That was the idea behind it.”
It was, he said, probably the start of his political career. Especially dealing with the “obfuscation and stalling” as he tried to get things done.
It took time to persuade the council, to convince farmers, and to assure butchers that this wouldn’t be bad for business. Eventually, the local authority enthusiastically agreed to a pilot market, backed up by a hefty PR campaign.
It was, however, an instant success, with stall holders selling out within a couple hours of opening.
“It was a big, big day in my life. And it started a whole ball rolling in terms of food culture in Scotland,” Fairlie says.
Scotland’s food culture was set to be tested again a few years later when the G8 summit came to Auchterarder, and the then French president turned his nose up at the prospect of what he might be fed.
Standing alongside Vladimir Putin and then German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, Jacques Chirac joked: “You can’t trust people who cook as badly as that. After Finland, it’s the country with the worst food.”
He recalled how the former Nato secretary-general George Robertson once insisted he try haggis.
“That’s where our problems with Nato come from,” the frenchman said.
However, the menu was being prepared by Fairlie’s brother, the late, Michelin starred chef, Andrew. The G8 leaders were fed roast fillet of lamb. Fairlie’s lamb.
At the end of the meal, Chirac asked to see the chef and stood up and said, “That was fantastic food.”
“He was made to eat his words,” Fairlie said, “which was largely, well, all down to the fact that Andy was such a brilliant chef.”
His brother died three years ago at the age of 55 after suffering from a brain tumour. He wasn’t just one of Scotland’s best chefs, but someone who, in part thanks to that Chirac moment, helped transform Scotland’s culinary scene.
Andrew was far more gung-ho when it came to politics than his little brother, serving on Yes Scotland’s advisory board.
Jim, while he was always sure he was a supporter of Scottish independence, caught his wife of 30 years by surprise when he told her he was going to go and campaign ahead of the 2014 vote.
By that time, the two of them had, almost accidentally, ended up in outside catering, offering quality rather than quick food at festivals and events throughout the country. It’s not so much the animals or the outdoors that he misses now that he’s in parliament, but that he doesn’t get to spend so much time with Anne.
One voter he was quick to win over at the last election was his dad. Jim snr had fallen out with the SNP back in 1990, leaving over the party’s pro-EU stance. He’s been a strident critic ever since, and still takes to Twitter to make clear his displeasure.
However, he put all that to one side, and for the first time in 35 years, voted for the SNP, voted to send his son to Holyrood.