MOST of the farms round here are getting up for sale," says Jackie Meikle somewhat pessimistically, "and even the ones still around are just declining." Up until about a year ago, Jackie lived on a farm. Now she and her surprisingly young-looking Mum and Dad, together with Robert, her younger brother (he's 15), live in a brand new suburban housing estate on the edge of the small coastal town of Crail.
The Meikles' 73-acre farm, which her Dad took over from his mother after his father died, had become no longer viable. The time had come to enlarge or sell. For Jackie's Dad there was only one option.
Today it belongs to a wealthy English couple who keep horses and have another home in Edinburgh. So Jackie can't understand why her brother is still keen to be a farmer. "In 10 years' time," she says, "farming might be nonexistent!"
The 505 square miles of Fife, just northeast of Edinburgh on the Firth of Forth, with its population of 344,000, has already seen the decline of other industries - mining, fishing. Although small-scale agriculture here grows increasingly hard financially, the visible evidence on every side - fields finely plowed, or green with new crops, or dazzling yellow with oil-seed rape in full flower - do not give the impression that this rural industry is on the rocks yet.
Nevertheless there is something characteristically Scottish about the Meikle family's abandonment of its farm. The history of Scotland has often been marked by the hardships of those trying to live off the land, and the rest of the world is, of course, full of Scots who have escaped from here to find better conditions.
The young, lively Jackie Meikle may soon be one more to go.
Strongly encouraged by her parents, she wants out - of Fife, at least. Her good marks at school mean she can go to college. She wavers between becoming a nursery nurse (child-care professional), a teacher of disabled children, or she's not sure what. It's choices that make it tricky being her age, she says. She is studying secretarial skills and taking a short course in computers at Waid Academy in nearby Anstruther. Here she enjoys working alongside a "mature student," farmer's wife Barbara Fleming. Ba r
bara appreciates Jackie - her humor, her openness.
And Jackie appreciates Barbara: "I can't believe her," Jackie exclaims. "She's a complete nutter! a high compliment. Barbara, while old enough to be Jackie's mother, is as much of a child when faced with a computer as Jackie is - though Jackie likes to try cutting corners on the computers. Her computer teacher, Sandy Webber, says Jackie's a good, quiet student, though "a little lacking in self-confidence."
Barbara and Jackie get on famously. "Quite a relief from other classes," says Jackie. m in stitches half the time with her. I'm amazed we get any work done! She's an adult! She's meant to be showing us an example!" She adds that she has just met Barbara's two kids Aren't they gorgeous!?" That's a favorite word. It is also liberally applied to the newest addition to the Meikle home - a three-week-old retriever pup.
Jackie is obviously fond of home, and of the new friends her own age she's gotten to know living in Crail. At the farm there were "no kids our age - just old people," she remarks. She is determined not to become reliant on these ties, however.
"I want to move out of this entire area when I leave school," she announces with determination. "Most people that have stayed here are stuck in the same job. They've grown old with their families around them. They've never got out. I want to get out and see everything. I don't want to go through life saying 'I should have done that, but I didn't.' Then," she adds, "if I decide to come back and settle, I'll be ready."
Though the Meikles' old home is only three miles from their new one - and also three miles from Anstruther, the larger town down the coastline - it is psychologically a thousand miles away. When they left it, Jackie says she felt "that's half of my life going away there." But this independent-minded teenager is philosophical; she laughs at the plaintive note in her voice as she says "I didn't want to go!" But the experience of this move may give her confidence for the larger moves she plans in her life.
For a start, her new friendships in Crail - including boyfriend Dougie Campbell - came more easily than she had shyly expected. And there are some things about the farm she doesn't miss at all - the farming, for instance. Farming is "not me!" she says. "Too like hard work! Not ideal in the winter, it's not." She confesses she used to hide from her Dad when he was trying to get her to do some work on the farm.
The worst was "having to get up early in the morning to go out and pick up stones from the fields in the freezing cold. I hated that!" (Her parents only recall two occasions when Jackie was press-ganged into this task, and add that she is rather keen on late-rising.) Jackie - her Mum describes her as "quite a character smiles knowingly but will only concede late-rising on Sundays.
Bales of straw full of wee beasties" - didn't appeal to her either: "There was everything in those bales - even a wasps' nest!"
What she does miss, though, "is the quietness." That was a kind of "security," she says.
It's hard for an outsider to appreciate just how isolated, particularly for a child, outlying farms can be. "We were kind of stuck. Couldn't get lifts anywhere," Jackie says. Her parents both worked: Her mother would be away with the car, her father out in the fields. (Today, though trying to get a job on the oil rigs up in Aberdeen, her father has for the time being a job as a City Council gardener and her mother works full-time as a receptionist at a hotel.)
Though she says she "mixes" with contemporaries much more in Crail, surely she already mixed at school? "Well," she replies, "in the first year, there were the ones from Anstruther, the ones from Crail, the ones from Pittenweem - and there were the country bumpkins." She was one of them. "Only about five of us. We stuck together really, didn't bother mixing, couldn't really stand all the hassle, all the micky-taking [teasing] about being a country bumpkin!" She was also teased for being a "swot too keen
on schoolwork - a label she disputes.
Jackie sees the advantages of town living: She's managed to get a Saturday job in a shop in Anstruther. She can get buses to different places with her pals. She and her peers are not keen on the disco near the school in Anstruther. ("Sweeney Todd: She reckons the only reason to go there is "to get drunk out of your skull. Half the time they're fighting, anyway.") But she likes to go somewhere quiet with people she knows - particularly, one suspects, with the amiable Dougie, an extraordinarily muscular l a
d of 17 with a gentle smile. Dougie is mad about cars, and a sports enthusiast (unlike Jackie) who works for a tire company. He wants to follow his father and brother into the Army at 19.
WHEN Dougie and Jackie can afford it, it's a bus "to the pictures" in St. Andrews. Jackie is money-conscious: "It costs 2.50 British pounds [$4.37] to get there and back, 2 British pounds [$3.50] to actually get into the cinema - and then you've got to get the food to eat while you're watching popcorn (she prefers the sweet kind) "that costs a lot - like 1 British pound [$1.75] for just a small bag."
What will happen when she makes her move away? Will she miss her parents? "Well, yes. But I've always been independent anyway. It's in the family."
And Dougie? "We've decided that if I do go away from Fife we'd see each other at weekends, but if it didn't work, we'd just call it quits. He understands - he doesn't want to stop my career or anything. He knows I don't want to get stuck in Crail. And," she concludes with a precocious practicality, "I don't want to stop his career, either."
One thing that makes Jackie throw up her hands in horror is the thought of settling down and having children. "Not before I'm 30! When you're still young, it's time to find out about yourself and what you can do." Going straight from school into "marriage and kiddies" is, she emphasizes, "not for me. Not worth it. No." But, she suspects, "not many people think like I do."