Vice President and founding member of the Heather Trust, Mervyn Browne, passed away in November aged 95. We asked his dear friend, writer and conservationist Polly Pullar to describe Mervyn's impact on nature, the environment, and us.
words and image by Polly Pullar
Mervyn Knox-Browne of Milton of Ardtalnaig Farm, south Loch Tay who was a much-loved and revered member of the Highland Perthshire community, passed away in November at the age of 95. Until slowed by the vagaries of old age, he was brown as a nut and usually dressed in dungarees and upturned tackety boots. I met him nearly 40 years ago with a cheery group of shepherds and stalkers at a ceilidh at Meggernie Castle in Glenlyon, a place he knew well. Everyone relished Mervyn’s stories and friendship, for there was no finer gentle gentleman.
To spend time with Mervyn was to step away from the stress of our media-bombarded lives and to revel in his wit, wisdom and kindness, and contemplate the essential things in life: nature, the changing seasons, rural life in remote communities, and stories and legends associated with the hills and glens. He could predict the weather from watching the hills and his close affinity and understanding of the lunar phases, and he knew the Gaelic names of every notable hill in Scotland and could translate their meanings. There in the peace of his farmhouse on long winter evenings, a dozing collie at his feet, Mervyn epitomised the importance of retaining the oral tradition. Mervyn loved people. He also valued what some might see as isolation.
Born in Glenfinn, County Donegal, his childhood was spent exploring the 16 miles the family owned on the River Finn, one of the finest salmon rivers in Ireland, as well as 20,000 acres of hill and moor. Later his father took on Aughentaine, the family estate in County Tyrone, and sadly Cloghan would be sold. Mervyn always struggled in his relationship with his strict disciplinarian father;
"We never got on, though I always had a strong relationship with my mother. My father had big ideas for how my life would shape up and sent me to boarding school at Glenalmond. I missed home terribly, particularly my old keeper friend from Donegal, Donal McGlinn, a real character who chewed tobacco and had a unique take on life. He taught me to fish and to 'guddle' – lying on a riverbank trying to catch salmon and trout with your hands. We netted silvery fish and packed them into fern-lined boxes to transport them to the railway station using a wheelbarrow fitted with a bicycle wheel, minus tyre, so that it could run over the narrow-gauge railway line. However, I quickly discovered that, though I hated lessons, the bonus was the glorious hills and the river Almond surrounding the school, where I could escape. Due to my father’s continual pressure, I had a brief, unremarkable spell in the Army (RASC) before I broke free and forged a life working on the land."
Mervyn would never return to live and work on the family estate and instead chose the life of a hill sheep farmer, leaving the trappings of his previous world far behind.
Mervyn worked blackface sheep and beef cattle with his beloved collies and was always happiest on the hills with his fellow shepherds. Patient and kind, many of the younger generations acknowledge his mentorship and its influence on their lives. Mervyn worked on various farms before securing a full-time job on a remote farm on the Braes of Balquidder. In 1954 he acquired Milton Farm and 500 acres, having asked the sceptical banker in Killin for a loan. In 1956 he married Catherine Ferguson (Kate), and together, they farmed Milton.
He understood the need to improve the land while farming sensitively with nature. He also built up a successful shoot and was considered an excellent shot. His diaries included detailed records of the weather, and he understood the phases of the moon, stars and planets and their interconnectedness to everything else. He worried that we were losing these vital connections. He said we were witnessing far more wild, erratic events due to oncoming climate change.
One of his weather-related stories caused amusement when a group of shepherds and their collies regularly met above Balquidder, where the Hydro Board's rain gauge was situated. Officials were baffled as to why there was an exceptionally high rainfall in that precise spot until Mervyn pointed out that the dogs were lifting their legs against the gauge.
In 1957 there was an opportunity for Mervyn to take on an auxiliary weather recording station on Loch Tay for the Met Office and the Climate-ological Observations Link. He kept data on the monthly rainfall, frost, minimum and maximum temperatures, hours of sun, wind speeds, and the densities of cloud cover. His view of the dramatic Munros of the Ben Lawers group helped him provide data on snow patches too. After 60 years, the Met Office presented him with an award as one of their most valued and longest-serving Scottish recorders.
A former president of the Perth Area NFU, Mervyn also logged the arrivals and departures of avian migrants, the dates of the first frogspawn, and various critical flowering plants, providing valuable information known as phenology for the Woodland Trust. His records revealed a story of demise – numbers of swallows, house martins and swifts were crashing; gone were the haunting cries of the curlew and the annual arrival of lapwing, and the call of the cuckoo was becoming rare. He knew that this was due to man-made changes.
Like many farmers on marginal land, Mervyn diversified. He was closely involved in the forerunner of The Heather Trust - The Joseph Nickerson Reconciliation Project, alongside his friend, the late John Phillips, assisting him in early tick research. He loved his role and later with the Heather Trust, which led to several years as the Scottish and Irish representative of Man Friday Helicopters – (MFH), controlling bracken and advising landowners on how to carry out effective aerial spraying. As a founding member, Mervyn remained Vice President of The Heather Trust - the authority on the subject but nicknamed himself the 'revolting peasant', especially when the Trust, as it had to be, became ever more scientific.
In 1999, Mervyn was awarded an MBE for services to the community and conservation. During his lifetime, he had 22 beloved collies – all were buried high on his farm overlooking Loch Tay, and each grave was marked with a red hawthorn. "You never forget your dogs", he said. Then, in a profoundly moving ceremony, appropriate to this gentle soul who loved the land and his animals with all his heart, he was laid to rest beside them, surrounded by the elements and nature in the raw.