Mike Shaw, the miller of Golspie, is a north island New Zealander, and along with his wife Becky and his mentor Fergus, he is part of a green revolution quietly overtaking Golspie.
This sounds like the plot of a novel or B-movie, but it is in fact the real life tale of Golspie Mill, which is at the heart of a succession of new environmental projects in Sutherland.
The mill is itself a green success story. It fell into disuse in the 1950s, was renovated in the early 1990s by Fergus Morrison, and is now a thriving business venture, taken over by Mike and Becky Shaw in August last year. It is inherently environmentally friendly as it is a water-powered mill, but the management style is also as green as possible, with the mill waste-products fed to pigs and chickens and their manure in turn fed to worms. Were really committed to sustainable management at all levels, explains Becky, and this includes finding ways to turn our waste into a resource.
Another form of rubbish being turned into a resource is waste paper, which thanks to the Golspie Recycling Environmental Action Network (GREAN), is being shredded to produce bedding for animals and livestock. The project, another brainchild of Fergus Morrison, and developed by GREAN, goes on-stream this week. The shredder will be based at the mill, as Fergus is still nearby and playing a vital role.
Mike and Becky have officially taken over the mill business, but Mike says Fergus is still really important at the mill, giving me training and acting as quality control. He is modest about his ambitions, saying, I need to concentrate on learning the ropes. Traditionally an apprentice miller would take seven or eight years to learn the trade, not five or six months.
So how did a 31-year-old antipodean find himself a miller in East Sutherland? Ive been coming to Scotland for sheep shearing since 1996. Being self-employed suits me. I heard about the mill through Ferguss daughter who was at university with Becky. I liked the idea of working with the water wheel, and Golspie seemed like a nice place, though being a miller isnt exactly the kind of thing you expect to be when you grow up!
The mill is driven by the Big Burn, which feeds the mill-pond. Each milling day begins by pulling the plug on the mill-pond to release the water along a built-up lade, and over the water wheel on the side of the 3-storey sandstone building which was built by the Sutherland Estate in 1863. When you pull the plug on the mill-pond you get a maximum of four hours milling, so I spend half the day milling and the other half packing.
Traditionally the local crofters and farmers would have brought their oats and barley to the mill, and the miller would have taken a percentage, but nowadays only a small proportion of the grain comes from local farms. We try to source grain locally wherever we can, but its difficult to get the kind of grain needed for strong bread flour, explains Mike. We were hoping to grind local bere from Rogart this year, but it was flattened by storms. The mill grinds wheat flour, pease meal, bere barley from Orkney, oatmeal and locally grown rye, aiming for niche markets for high quality, locally produced meals and flours. We cant compete in the livestock feed market. This kind of milling is very labour intensive. Fortunately there seems to be a good market for locally stone-ground products, and the bulk of it is sold in the Highlands.
What with water wheels, worms and waste paper shredding, Golspie is bursting with green ideas. And we can expect more before long, perhaps including green labelling of croft-grown meat. Supporting environmentally sustainable initiatives is the job of Mikes 27-year old wife, Becky, who is the environment officer with the Scottish Crofting Foundation. She joined the then Scottish Crofters Union in July of last year, and works from the mill. She had previously worked for the Highland Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) based on the Black Isle, and although not a crofter, she is from a hill-farming family on the Isle of Bute, and has a masters degree in Rural Resources from Aberdeen.
There is a big opportunity for marketing croft produce as high environmental quality, says Becky. She believes that people need to recognise the high quality of products produced in the crofting counties, and that crofters need to target niche markets for environmentally sound meat. Were exploring the possibilities for an environmental assurance scheme and branding of croft produce.
An important part of her SNH-funded job is to raise public awareness of the environmental benefits that crofting land management delivers, and to encourage crofters to take advantage of grant schemes for habitat management. But its not about telling people what to do or what not to do. Crofters are not anti-environmentalist and they need support and encouragement for positive management of the environment. Her job also involves a lot of policy work, such as lobbying to improve the opportunities for crofters to gain access to funds under the Rural Stewardship Scheme. The scheme was biased towards habitat creation and gave low ranking to people like crofters and farmers who are positively managing existing good natural habitats.
Both Becky and Mike are clearly enthusiasts about the environment in many forms and will be sure to be at the forefront of new projects. Theres a lot going on, what with bio-fuels, vermiculture, community forestry and sustainable timber management. If its sustainable management, then it ties in really well with the mill, says Becky. Long may the mill flourish as an inspirational example for the Highlands of the partnership of traditional food production with the latest in green management thinking.