OPINION: Let’s challenge farming’s ‘last male stronghold’

By the time you read this I’ll have had my “cultural booster jab” for the year.

January is the month when the life and works of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, is celebrated. Village halls everywhere will resonate with recitations of his poems and communal singing of his songs. There is the additional benefit for farming in that haggis, neeps and tatties will generally fly off the shelves in January to feed the culture vultures.

Burns has pretty much got global appeal, but the fact he was a farmer means those who live and work in the country often experience a special connection with his works. The thought of great hulks of farmers sitting, dewy-eyed, listening intently to poetry and love songs might be hard to imagine but believe me, if you’ve never been to a Burns’ supper, it does happen.

However, although Robert Burns has universal appeal and he was never more powerful than when he was writing about love and lassies, I’m not sure that women are as enthusiastic about him as men.

Eighteenth century Scotland was very much a man’s world where women would be kept in their place. Unbridled sexism would be part of the culture of the period and Burns would do nothing to help change that.

It is well documented that Burns was a founding member of the Tarbolton Bachelors’ Club where the young men debated the big issues of the day. One subject for debate at the club was: If you were a poor young man, was it better to marry a wealthy woman with a bad line in chat and a bit short in the looks department rather than get hitched to an articulate uber-babe who had no money?

It’ll come as no surprise that the penniless poet argued in favour of marrying the eye-candy with no money. But the point is, there was no similar organisation for women at that time and they certainly would not have dared to have had the same debate.

It would be 140 years later, in the early 20th century, before The Women’s Rural Institute sprung up. And, I would bet my single farm payment the ladies didn’t openly debate the advantages of marrying a man for money or for any other hidden attribute.

Another hundred years on, and women have a confidence about them that has broken the culture of just being there in a supporting role in what was once a male-dominated world.

Leading roles are now being filled by women in most organisations that either service or support the farming industry. I would be tempted here to make a long list of successful women to prove the point. However, it would be embarrassing when it eventually became evident that I was only doing it to grovel unashamedly to the dynamic ladies that have powerful positions as editors of major farming newspapers.

So it appears there is now only one last male stronghold left in farming: the top positions in our national farming unions. They have been dominated by men long enough.

There will be cultural reasons why men have dominated those positions for the past 100 years, but those reasons are surely not be valid any longer.

It’s encouraging to see there are three women challenging for positions in the up and coming NFU leadership elections in England. I sincerely hope the glass ceiling gets broken and the ladies get a chance to make their mark. Gentlemen, please charge your glasses and join me in the toast – “tae the lassies”.

Neale McQuistin is an upland sheep and beef farmer in south-west Scotland. He farms 365ha, much of which is under stewardship for wildlife, in partnership with his wife

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