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Caithness Field Club Bulletin
JOTTINGS FROM A FACTOR'S SCRAP BOOK
Taking a none too serious look behind the scenes of a rural estate.
It has been said that in his office the Estate Factor as an harassed creature, combining uneasily the roles of accountant, solicitor, architect, farmer, forester, clerk of works and major domo. His desk presents a depressing vista. Undigested Acts of Parliament mingle with unpaid bills, plans for cowhouses with telephone messages and builders estimates.
A paint merchant and a disgruntled tenant lurk outside while the secretary is anxious to discuss the horrors revealed by her latest foray into the content of his so-called pending tray.
But wait. There is another side, because if it were not so, there might be no factors or land agents outside of the graveyard.
This side begins when he throws down his pen, whistles up his dog, strides off into the sunset and recalls diverse occasions.
Despite much having been debated on the pros and cons of rent increases, little or nothing appears to have been written concerning the methods of actually raising farm rents and the traumas which can come about and which can affect human relationships in most odd ways.
By tradition, there are two main methods of approaching the subject and as with most good chess games, the moves should be thoroughly mastered.
(a) The first move, or attack, opens from long range with a letter composed by the factor and heavily edited by the owner. This takes a quick, if hair raising glance at the economic scene in general, the devastation caused by the fiscal system and of course the folly of the government in making life impossible for the landowner, is thrown in for good measure.
The letter concludes that, in these circumstances and with the greatest reluctance, we have to ask for a rent increase throughout the Estate.
This first move is known in military parlance as the softening up procedure and must quickly be followed up by the factor deciding where and when to launch his second and main attack.
He can either go for the large tenants first (when victory will have profound moral effect) or else wade into the small fry on the "divide and conquer" principle.
At all events he gives the letter time to sink in and then makes an appointment to discuss the position, either at the farmhouse or the estate office. If the former, he is ushered into the little used and rather musty front room. He then goes through a well rehearsed routine by first of all sinking into the preferred chair and sighing several times whilst delving into an enormous file from which he takes one small piece of paper. This he starts to study. In fact all that's on it are three figures. That which he intends to start with, that which with luck he hopes to get, and that which he cannot possibly go below.
Attempts at small talk follow and at last the factor manages to throw the conversation onto the manner in which society in general appears to be crumbling. Obviously therefore, it is the duty of all to make sacrifices on a noble scale. The factor warms to this theme. The tenant stares gloomily out of the window.
There is a pause in the gloom and doom theme allowing the tenant to pose the long awaited question "Well what do you suggest?" At point blank range the factor fires the highest figure and the fun begins.
(b) The second approach has become known as the feather bed method and is very different in all respects. The factors falls upon his man unexpectedly, treating the whole business as trivial and mildly amusing. Protests are brushed aside with laughter and jovial hints at his obvious financial reserves and ability to run three cars. Any farmer, it seems, can make a profit compared to which the rent asked is ridiculous.
This method has the advantage of tactical surprise and has been known to give remarkably good results. It's disadvantage is that, if not immediately successful, it involves considerable regrouping of forces and it is not every factor who is capable or has the nerve to carry it out.
So much then for the factor's side. We turn now to the tenant, who has a much more varied repertoire when faced with a request for more rent. So much so that it is only possible to clarify briefly the better known reactions:
a. The Financial Genius. This tenant will produce reams of accounts purporting to apply to his holding and defies the factor to show how he can pay more without going bankrupt.
b. The Cattleshed Lawyer. He will solemnly appraise the factor with the information that it is illegal to ask for an increase in rent at this time. Following the factor's somewhat abrupt retreat, this tenant will rush around to his solicitor to find out whether by chance he could be right.
c. The silent. By far the most difficult to cope with. He would come to my office looking the picture of dejection. Sitting bolt upright his eyes would never waver from the telephone on my desk, while his hands would appear to wring his already frayed cap into a pulp. Despite my best endeavours I could rarely get anything out of him with regard to the vital repair work which his wife, in arranging his appointment had made me aware of. I would become alarmed and agree to follow him back to his farm and have a look at the position myself. Not only does he get immediate attention to what turned out to be a fairly minor problem, but I take leave of my senses and point out other defects which in my opinion we as landlords should carry out.
On reflection perhaps they weren't so stupid, since by saying nothing my alarm bells rang wildly and the tenants ended up in achieving more than any of the more vociferous of their brethren. I often look back at this particular tenancy entry in my reports and especially at one short sentence: "Agreed to reduce rent". Ah well, I was very young then.
d. The devious. With this type one thing leads to another. The cracked doorstep with which one starts at the front door, leading to the damp patches in the hall, the faulty tread on the stairs, the decayed floor board on the landing, the crack in his bedroom ceiling and, of course, the need for a new water tank in the attic.
As it transpires, these are all subsidiary gambits apparently intended to make my visit interesting, since the bombshell has yet to be delivered. "Remember" he says; that word always switches on the red light with me, "remember when you said that if nothing was done to the cattle court roof it would fall down?" I stupidly acknowledge having made such a comment. "Well it has", he says.
e. The apoplectic. Upon hearing of my proposed increase his face would alternate between white and blue, and whilst verbal abuse was attempted, no words would exude from his rapidly moving lips. Arm flapping resulted in his cup of tea being spilled over the cat which had until now been observing the whole scenario with feline contempt from the hearth rug, but now exploded onto my lap with all weaponry exposed.
I am on the verge of defeat and about to make an immediate surrender, when he uttered those world famous lines, "That's O.K. by me Jimmy. Get out". My exact recall of the words used are somewhat different, however we need not dwell upon that.
Exhausted, I flopped into my car. That whole experience had taken all of seven minutes.
On thumbing through these now long since signed agreements of which the foregoing eventually culminated in and are but a sample, I stop to ponder. Each one held a story in itself; how sad that they now remain as just another entry in yet another file.
ON DOGS AT SHOOTS
The aim was as usual, quite to perfection, and just above the rim of the green welly. My dog Widdle had struck once again and by the time the recipient owner of the target leg became aware of that feeling of warmth trickling down his leg, our Setter was already seated by my side innocently observing the result of his latest foray.
His prowess was such that he was seldom if ever seen perpetrating what he obviously considered to be his function at a shoot. At least that was the case initially and my own embarrassment was therefore short lived for a time. As the season wore on however the reputation of the oft times phantom waterspout became more widespread and my circle of shooting friends seemed to diminish.
His every move, from his joyous exit from my car in the morning to his jaded return that evening was observed with military precision. Conversations became disrupted by sideways and downward glances.
Only when the next mighty oath erupted and a considerable shaking of wetted leg ensued, would something like normality reign in the knowledge that there would be a respite for perhaps ten minutes.
As invitations to shoots became fewer and further between, other targets became of interest to Widdle. An afternoon nap on our local park bench became a thing of the past as those lovely inviting legs were homed in upon.
Sadly he never did learn the real purpose of lamp posts and trees.
ON THE ORIGIN OF WOODLANDS
This particular flying visit by the Laird, Sir Jeremy Notting-Badley, had already taken on its usual breakneck pace as I endeavoured to fit in a variety of business projects amidst his somewhat more important social calls. At last we had reached the final site for inspection, and Sir Jeremy and I, accompanied on this occasion by the Head Forester, Burke, stood on a barren windswept stretch of land about to make the momentous decision as to what trees should be planted in order to provide an attractive amenity wood.
I had already had the temerity of prejudging the situations and stating that it would be a mixture of Scots Pine and oak. In my mind's eye I had the vision of several thousand transplants which had been languishing in our forest nursery for several years awaiting such a chance as this since I couldn't think what else to do with them. Burke was beginning to cloud the issue by appearing to wish to preserve an open mind whilst the matter was given further consideration.
We all stood about gazing at the wilderness around us and Sir Jeremy having now taken his place on a shooting stick, hip flask at the ready, eventually remarks that as it was oak last time it really should be conifers this time. I applaud this solution heartily since after all that would take care of half of my problem and no doubt the oaks could surreptitiously find their way here too. To my amazement Burke bends over an adjacent rabbit hole and scoops up some of the soil. It is passed from hand to hand and sniffed occasionally. No one seems quite clear as to the merits of this process although Burke refers to it as a scientific soil test. Sir Jeremy confines himself to knowledgeable grunts. He then looks at his watch and informs us that he must be pushing off now so what was the decision to be. "Thuja Plicata", came the astonishing reply from Burke. Until that moment Sir Jeremy had considered this to be some form of notifiable disease and rather than look foolish appeared to agree vigorously. Fortunately his enthusiasm was short lived when he became more concerned with moving rabbit droppings from his breast pocket, blown from the soil sample by an inconsiderate gust of wind. "That's it then", I said, "oak and Scots pine, don't you agree Burke?"
After all, what are we going to do with the transplants in the nursery? It was inconceivable, but I was almost certain that he mumbled something about being in favour of burning them. Sir Jeremy finally decides to push off but instructs us not to decide upon anything that won't give a bit of holding for the birds later on.
And so it came about that after such careful planning and deliberation there was planted a woodland of Scots pine with, here and there, some oak.
But this is the Notting-Badley Estate. Perhaps it couldn't happen anywhere else. . . .
In closing these ramblings from a factor's notebooks I am reminded of the following jingle -
In boyhood days I woke from sleep,