Scottish beef farmer
still has bone to pick
Jim Sutherland was an
everyday sort of chap, a
Borders farmer and small
businessman, until his stand
on beef ended him up in the
Scottish courts. Meet the
man who decided to keep
beef on the bone
ITS made me go bald, says Jim, laughing, remembering the events of the last couple of years.
For much of that time, though, laughing was the last thing on the 46-year-olds mind. Hauled before the courts, he incurred a £20,000-plus legal bill before seeing the case against him dropped.
"I could go to prison for this," Jim remembers thinking on that fateful evening in December 1997 when he and his wife, Jo, served a beef-on-the-bone banquet for 180 people at their hotel, The Lodge, Carfraemill.
It was just five days earlier that the government had outlawed the practice and – in fighting mood – the Sutherlands held the event to highlight the new laws nonsensical nature.
The politicians and so-called scientists had, decided Jim, gone too far this time. And, as a farmer with 607ha (1500 acres) of hill land, he knew only too well what a perilously fragile state the beef industry was already in. "I was absolutely livid."
But there was another reason, too. Jims father had committed suicide 20 years earlier, after encountering farming-related money troubles. "I was convinced the new law would spark a further downturn in the beef market which could precipitate other farmers getting into the same situation."
The banquet at the hotel – which the Sutherlands had bought in 1996 – was, he remembers, going well. Those present, among them many local farmers, were settling down to enjoy their meal. Then two uninvited guests arrived: Environ-mental health officers.
"I had a choice whether to throw the beef in the bin. If I had done that, the environmental health officers would have walked away. I chose not to do that."
So, as the guests tucked into their food, Jim Sutherland was read his rights. And not long after, the summons arrived. "Id never been charged with something like that before, and, hopefully, never will be again. Apart from minor traffic offences, my sheet is clean."
The original idea, he says, was to have that main event followed by a series of "sniping" dinners. "I wanted to show that it was possible to defy the regulations and hopefully draw the laws ridiculous nature to the publics attention.
"You can change the governments mind by people pressure," says Jim. "If the government passes an unjust and unreasonable law, sometimes the only way for people to make their protest is to break that law."
* Poll tax refusal
It was the same sentiment that led the father-of-three to refuse to pay his poll tax for two years. "It was ridiculous that a lord in his castle should be paying the same as someone in a council house. If everyone had meekly paid up, the poll tax would still be here today."
But surely taking a pick-and-mix approach to the law undermines the whole point of a democracy? "True," Jim says, "but sometimes you have to make a stand."
And the beef-on-the-bone issue was, he says, worth making a stand over. It was, he felt, a "just" cause. "By putting up a fight, I was continually asking the question: Is the government right?"
It also generated a lot of farmer-friendly publicity, he says. "The bit of film footage shot here, when we had our dinner, must have been on the news 100 times. Over that two-year period, the MLC didnt get anything like the television coverage we got."
TV news stories became illustrated with scenes of appetising-looking roast beef meals – in marked contrast, says Jim, to the negative image of the wobbly cow which had been habitually used as footage for BSE-related stories.
So was he prepared to go to jail for this? For this just cause? It would probably have never have come to that, he reckons with hindsight. "But I asked the environmental health officers just to prosecute me rather than me and my wife so if I did go to jail there would be one of us left at home to look after the kids."
So, no regrets then? Well, maybe one. "We could have run a much more effective campaign if we had involved more hotels at the beginning. The effect of what happened to me meant everyone else was scared off.
"I certainly did not want to be prosecuted," says Jim. "And in that respect, I suppose I failed completely."
As a result he had to re-think his plans, though beef-on-the-bone did stay on the menu at The Lodge, Carfraemill, throughout the court proceedings. "But we were fairly careful about who we served it to," he admits.
Fighting the case, meanwhile, occupied much of his time in some weeks. Donations and messages of support from the public came flooding in. "I was hugely grateful and never felt that I adequately thanked people. While the money didnt cover the legal bill, we couldnt have managed without it."
* Clean sheet
And Jim tried to carry on with life as normally as possible, with the farm and Lauderdale Engineering, the business he founded in the early 1990s.
Just before Christmas, however, the beef-on-the-bone ban was repealed and the case dropped. And the 10-bedroom, four-star hotel slipped out of the national news headlines as quickly as it had entered them.
Its a big weight off his mind. His sheet is still clean. But hes unrepentant and unmoved. "I didnt start it," he says. "Jack Cunningham started it. Where is he now, by the way?
"The regulations were a gigantic joke. They are one of the things that will go down in British legal history – when people want to make fun of the government, they will talk about the beef bone regulations 1997."
Theyll be talking about them in The Lodge, Carfraemill for a long time, too.
Well worth beefing about… Jim dubs the regulations, which he challenged, a "gigantic joke."