Kate Richards

Kate Richards is originally from Scotland and moved to London in 2000. Kate is currently working on a memoir which covers her life as a farm animal vet in the north east of Scotland, followed by working as a Civil Servant in Whitehall, London. Family and working relationships are integral to the narrative of her career and these are interwoven through the writing.





The First Six Months


I AM WEARING a green hat, his is red. I am sitting at the opposite end of the table, beside his daughter-in-law. He is standing at the head of the table wearing a sleeveless rabbit-coloured jumper, which his wife hand knitted, and a green checked shirt, which his wife hand washes along with the rest of his clothes. She has no washing machine. She also darns his socks. The normally bare, square kitchen is adorned with a few cards on the low window ledge. The Formica topped kitchen table sits in the middle of the room and has the extra leaf in, to seat 10. This central leaf is darker than the rest of the table. The Aga warms the room and the turkey has just come out of the oven, resting on the table. Roast potatoes sizzle in the tray’s spitting fat. It is sub-zero outside. The Cairngorms loom in the distance, capped in white against the blue sky.

I’ve been working for him for six months. My first job as a vet. The first time he has employed a woman. The first time I have not been home for Christmas. He, Frank, has put me on duty and invited me to his family’s Christmas lunch. He clashes the carving knife against the long steel to sharpen it, metal on metal. The knife flashes, click clack, click clack, click clack, reflecting bright blobs of wintry sun around the kitchen, before he carves the first slices of turkey. I can sharpen a knife on a steel too, the men at the venison factory taught me.

‘Sharp as a scalpel. Mother, this is yours,’ he said, handing the plate to his wife, Joan.


I grew up in Bearsden, a Glasgow suburb. I was determined to be a vet. Every year the family spent the school summer holidays in Tomintoul, the highest village in the Scottish Highlands. My mother had written to Frank, the vet in a nearby village, asking if he would take me out with him on his rounds, to see what it was really like to be a vet. His practice included the Cairngorm National Park and he took me out on his rounds for a week. He did not put me off, although he tried hard. I was certain I wanted to be a vet, a farm vet. I would not be put off. He wrote me a reference when I applied to study at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, in Edinburgh.

At school we were each summoned to the Headmistress’s study to discuss our choices on our UCCA forms. I stood at the end of the long dark corridor, waiting for the green light to come on. Once summoned I walked down and knocked on her dark wooden door.

‘Enter,’ she said.

I stood before her in my purple uniform; purple jumper, lilac shirt, purple skirt, purple socks and purple pants. Brown indoor shoes. She sat behind her big desk in her black gown, pearls, short wavy black hair and glasses. Yes I wanted to be a vet. Yes, I had bracketed Edinburgh and Glasgow together as first equal choice on the form, but I really wanted to go to Edinburgh.

‘You haven’t a hope in hell of being accepted,’ she said.

I walked back along the dark corridor determined to prove her wrong.


During my five years studying at vet school, I spent many of my summer holidays at Frank’s practice. I watched as he calved cows, lambed sheep, tested livestock for various diseases and treated horses, cattle, sheep and the occasional reindeer. When I qualified, he offered me a job. I was surprised, as Frank’s views on women in veterinary practice were very traditional.

‘Women are more suited to small animal work, not farm work,’ he’d said.

In rural communities, women were still mostly in domestic roles, keeping house for their farming husbands. Joan, Frank’s wife, kept the house and also supported the veterinary practice. She answered the phone, cooked, washed and knitted, only leaving the house to go to the Co-op, fishmongers and drapers on Upper Street, or to visit their son in Stirling.

‘I’ve interviewed two boys who are interested in the job, but you’ve more flesh on your bones,’ he said.

The practice operated out of a lean-to at the side of the large, stone built house. In through the back door and turn right for the practice, with its small waiting room, consulting room and surgery, or turn left for the family kitchen. Straight ahead was a small, wood panelled cupboard, with a heat lamp suspended above a cardboard box lined with sheets from the Financial Times. This was the recovery room for post-operative cats and dogs.

‘It’s the best newspaper for soaking up pee,’ Frank said, unfolding the pink sheets, before placing a cat recovering from a castration, into the cardboard box.

I was given a car for the job, a Mini Metro, B121 TST. It was a shitty brown colour with a one litre engine. Inside the passenger window, along the bottom of the glass, I stuck a sticker with a yellow smiley Mr Happy and strapline ‘Glasgow’s Miles Better.’ In the boot, I arranged 100ml bottles of chloramphenicol, streptomycin and local anaesthetic, as well as 500ml brown glass bottles of magnesium and calcium. The magnesium bottles had ridged glass and red metal tops, as a warning of their toxicity. I was given two 20ml and two 10ml syringes, a thermometer and a few needles. Joan handed them to me in the kitchen. I had no access to the cupboard off the hall, where they kept all the drugs, syringes, needles, suture materials and bandages. I was given various homemade powders, pessaries, bottles of multivitamins and 500ml of lubricating jelly. The yeasty smell of the multivitamins soon impregnated the fabric of the car. On the back seat I had a gas dehorning iron, my brown stockman’s coat, stethoscope and green waterproof jacket. In the footwell, behind the driver’s seat, I stowed my wellies and waterproof trousers. Also tucked in there was a five litre container of Jeyes Fluid, Frank’s disinfectant of choice.

‘It’s not the farmers you have to worry about, you’ll get on fine with them. It’s the wives you’ve got to watch,’ he said on my first day. This was good advice, if rather bluntly delivered to a 22 year old. As I was to discover, being a vet is about much more than treating animals. I was working in a male environment – the first female vet any of the farmers in the practice had come across. A rare breed, I had to prove myself as a newly qualified vet, as well as managing suspicious farmer’s wives, unhappy that I was spending hours alone with their husbands in farm sheds.

My first casualty was a roe deer. It suddenly leapt out of the forest on my left, as I was driving back to the practice one evening. I saw the dark body out of the corner of my eye and felt the impact as it collided with the car’s passenger wing. I pulled over and walked along the verge to look for the corpse, swishing my feet backwards and forwards as I walked through the long grass to feel for it. The roe had vanished, only leaving its imprint in the crumpled brown metal. My routine at the end of each day, before leaving the practice, was to go through to the kitchen, to write up all my visits and the drugs I had dispensed, in the big black day book. This book was left out on the kitchen table. When I got back to the practice that night, I went through to the kitchen and told Frank about the deer, and the car.

‘You need to drive more slowly. Be more careful and take that sticker off,’ he said.


The practice covered a large area along the Spey Valley. Each day I headed, either north or south, with a list of farms to visit and animals to examine. Frank told me the diagnosis for each animal from his discussion with the farmer on the phone, the treatment, which drug to give and how much. At fixed points on each round of visits, I had to phone Joan at the practice from a red phone box, to find out if there were other calls in the area, before I headed back. Each morning I was given five 10 pence pieces. I kept them in the little ashtray with the sliding cover, in the dashboard of the Mini Metro. If a visit came in that missed one of these phone-ins, Joan phoned a farm on the route ahead of me. She would ask them to send someone down to the farm’s road end and flag me down with an old feed bag. Seeing the flapping white plastic I’d stop and phone Joan from the farm, to get details of the extra visit, before leaving the area.

One morning in September, I had finished the calls on my list and parked on the main street of the Boat of Gairn, opposite the Post Office. The village is a single row of low cottages, built along both sides of the long main street with a hotel on the corner, where the road drops down towards the bridge over the river Spey. The hotel is popular with fishermen, golfers and skiers. Outside the Post Office stands a red phone box. I swung my feet, in their wellies, out of the car. I pulled up my waterproof trousers, which were rolled down over my ankles for ease of driving and walked across the empty street to the phone box. I pulled open the heavy door, cupping my four fingers into the chrome oblong handle, and stepped into the cold, damp box. The door thudded dully behind me. I wedged the receiver between my head and shoulder, while my index finger wound round the sprung, black Bakelite dial three times, 3 – 6 – 3.

‘Speytown 363,’ Joan said. Pip – pip – pip and I pushed a 10 pence piece into the slot. It rattled as it settled on the other coins inside the metal container below the phone.

‘Hello, I’ve finished the calls I had to do and I am at the Boat.’ As I said this, I turned to face the road. As I looked through the little red rimmed rectangles towards the car, I saw the Mini Metro slowly, very slowly, rolling backwards down the main street, towards the hotel and the river. I leaned against the heavy door with my shoulder and ran out of the phone box, leaving the receiver dangling on its black snaky cord. There were no other cars parked behind the Mini Metro to stop its descent and, as I reached the driver’s door, it was picking up speed. I jumped in and pushed the brake pedal, hard, with my right foot. Once the car stopped, I ratcheted up the handbrake and sat in the car for several minutes, my head resting between my hands on the top of the steering wheel. I returned to the phone box. Pip – pip – pip and I pushed another 10 pence into the slot. Rattle.

‘Sorry Joan, Ali from Abernethy Home Farm passed the phone box and wanted a word.’

‘Alright, nothing else Kate, you can go home for lunch now.’


In early November I was dispatched to blood sample Willie McLeod’s herd for its annual brucellosis test. Willie had nearly 400 Aberdeen Angus cattle on a remote hill farm, high up in Glenlivet. The Ministry of Agriculture had sent instructions to the practice, with a list of which herds were due. All adult cattle on the farm were to be tested. Frank gave me eight boxes of blood tubes for the test, plus a few boxes of needles. Each polystyrene box contained 50 glass tubes with a vacuum and sealed with a red rubber top. Each tube was held vertically, in a cylindrical hole, in the polystyrene. Labels for the tubes were issued by the Ministry and had the practice code, followed by an individual tube number. I had to use each tube, in the labelled order, from IV369 0001 to IV369 0400. Tubes were not to be wasted. To collect the blood I used either the tail vein or the jugular, my choice depended on which end of the animal it was easiest to access at the farm on the day. The jugular end was much less shitty.

I had not been to the hill farm before. Willie met me at the Home Farm to show me the way. I followed behind his Land Rover, in my Mini Metro, as we drove 15 minutes up the frosted, rutted, forestry track through serried ranks of evergreen, interrupted by an occasional balding silver birch, clinging onto a solitary orange leaf. Once at the hill farm, Willie disappeared to help the men gather the last of the cattle into the steading, while I parked my car and carried in the boxes of tubes. I found a couple of straw bales left out for me, beside the handling crate and arranged them a few feet from the crate, close, but at a safe distance, as my office for the day. I had a clipboard with several sheets of lined A4 and a pen to record the ear tag number of each animal tested.

It was a good system, the race was well constructed, decent metal gates tied with orange bailer twine. There were plenty of men to move the animals into the long race, which held six at a time. From the race, each cow was pushed into the handling crate. I stood to the side, out of sight, until the head poked out of the gap in the front door of the crate. As soon as the cow’s head was through, Willie pulled a rope which closed the gap, trapping it firmly. Putting the halter over the cow’s ears and nose and under the jaw, he tied the head round tightly to the side. Kneeling to the side of the head, I pressed my left thumb low in the jugular groove, raising the vein like a big soft, warm and wobbly hosepipe, and collected 7ml blood in seconds, into the tube in my right hand. Over at the straw bale, I inserted the full tube into its polystyrene hole and wrote down the ear number that Willie’s wife shouted at me, over the bellowing of hundreds of agitated black cattle. Once I nodded to him, Willie took off the halter and lifted the catch at the side of the crate, allowing the cow to run free, out of the steading. This was repeated 157 times before stopping for lunch, just after midday. Willie’s wife had brought beef sandwiches and flasks of coffee, plus some Club biscuits, mint ones. I ate mine sitting on a straw bale. The men leaned against the race. After they’d eaten their sandwiches, some of the men sat down on the ground for a smoke, before disappearing for a pee round the back. I packed up the three polystyrene boxes that were full of blood samples and carried them out to the safety of the car, before the afternoon sampling session.

I had parked the car round the side of the steading and, as I walked out into the foggy daylight, saw that it was in the field where all the sampled cattle had gathered. The car was surrounded by a group of cattle with steam rising from their backs, the clouds of warm droplets hanging suspended in the frosty air. The group parted as I approached, revealing the car with a broken wing mirror, one windscreen wiper bent drunkenly over the bonnet and the windows covered with slobbery saliva trails. I cursed as I placed the three boxes safely on the back seat and returned to the steading.

‘Willie, the cattle have been rubbing themselves against my car and licking it. Is there somewhere else I can leave it?’

‘Aye, vet, drive it round the back. Leave it beside the Landy. It’ll be safe there.’

It was dark by the time I’d finished the rest of the herd, Willie’s wife had a torch which she shone onto the necks of the last cattle to be tested, so I could see the jugular groove, to raise the vein. Finally the last cow was sampled and ran free. I packed up my boxes and paperwork and carried them out to the damaged car. I followed the Land Rover, back down the track to the main road, as the men dismantled the race in the steading. The fractured wing mirror clanged against the door as I bounced over the ruts. Frank was out on a call when I got back to the practice. I gave Joan the eight boxes of tubes to put in the fridge, wrote up the day book on the kitchen table, and went home. I’d tell Frank about the car tomorrow.

‘Why did you not park it round the back like Willie?’ Frank said as he walked round the car, inspecting the damage. ‘Always make sure it is parked away from the cattle. On the other side of a fence, a gate or a wall. And will you take that bloody sticker off.’

Frank had a green Subaru estate 1.8 litre. In early December he went to the farrier and returned with an old anvil in the back. This was to give him more weight over the rear wheels, more traction for driving in the snow. It was cheaper than buying snow tyres.

‘Christ Frank, that thing’ll tak yer head off if ye skid on black ice, ye ken,’ Arthur was rumoured to have said over a whisky one night, after Frank had calved one of his heifers. Frank’s enjoyment of apres-calving was well known throughout the practice. The anvil disappeared and was not mentioned again.


One Sunday, three days before Christmas, I had just finished the evening surgery. It was half past six. I had seen the Minister’s Westie for its booster vaccination and a cat that needed some ear drops. I was at the table in the kitchen, writing up the day book, when the phone rang in the hall. Frank emerged from somewhere in the house, to answer the phone sitting under the lamp, on the small hall table.

‘Speytown 363. Danny, what’s the problem? Sounds like it’s pneumonia. Needs some antibiotic. I’ll send Kate on her way.’ He opened the kitchen door, closing it quickly behind him, to keep in the warmth from the Aga.

‘That’s Danny from Achindean, he’s a couple of calves with pneumonia, go and give them 8ml chloramphenicol in the vein.’

I asked for the directions to the farm and Frank circled the farm on my OS map.

‘Watch the roads, it’s black ice out there. It’s bloody slippy so drive slowly.’

I went out to my car, the cold air stinging my nostrils. I drove up Cairngorm Avenue, turning left into Upper Street. At the High School I turned left, heading towards Cromdale. My headlights pierced a hole through the pitch black. Driving at 20 miles an hour, through the silent, frosted wood, I felt the car beginning to slide across the road. My first reaction was to press the brake with my right foot but I tried not to, just touching the brake quickly, on off, on off, but it made no difference to the flight of the car. I tried to turn the steering wheel into the spin, to get some traction on the road. I’d been told that was the best thing to do in a skid. But no matter which way I turned the steering wheel, hard to the right, hard to the left, hard to the right, the car kept gliding and spinning.

‘Oh God.’

Despite the frantic movement inside the car, outside the vehicle slid gracefully round, executing a 360 degree turn, before crashing into the solid trunk of a fir tree. The passenger side absorbed the impact. The engine was silent, the road was silent, the wood was silent. The impact had thrown me, not wearing a seat belt, across the car into the passenger seat. My trousers were wet. I felt the seat beneath me and realised that the open carton of orange juice, wedged between the handbrake and passenger seat, had dislodged in the collision. I sat looking into the darkness and the outline of the tree trunk wedged hard against the car window beside me. I felt the passenger door, buckled inwards, beside my left knee. I started to shiver. I lifted my right hand up to the Mr Happy sticker and slowly picked away at the corner of the plastic. When there was enough loose sticker to grip, I pulled his yellow smiley face gently off the window. I crumpled up the plastic strip and shoved it into the ashtray, jamming it in with the 10 pence pieces.

A car came slowly towards me and stopped in front of me, lights dipped. I could not open the passenger door because of the tree, so I wriggled over the gear stick, into the driver’s seat. As I stepped onto the road, my feet shot out from underneath me. I grabbed onto the door frame, to stop myself from falling onto the glistening tarmac.

‘Are you ok? I’m a nurse,’ she said.

‘Yes, I’m fine.’

‘Are you from Speytown? I can take you back,’ she said.

‘I can’t. He’ll murder me.’

‘You’re the young lady vet aren’t you? Frank will be glad you’re not hurt.’

‘No he won’t, he’ll kill me.’

Not knowing what else to do, I leaned into the car my knee on the driver’s seat, to get my keys out of the ignition and locked up the Mini Metro. I slid across to her car, one foot at a time, arms out-stretched, a moth towards the light. She delivered me back to the practice. Frank was still in the kitchen. Through the window I could see him writing up the day book at the kitchen table, with a whisky by his hand. He looked up, startled.

‘I told you to drive carefully. Go home and come back tomorrow. I’ll go to Achindean.’

The next day when I turned up at the surgery, Frank was already out on his rounds. I was left in the surgery, with instructions to mix up the ingredients for a batch of 100 calf powders. Joan gave me the red recipe book and 100 plastic bags, and told me that all the ingredients were in the garage, along with the old butter churn. She said that my car had been towed to the local garage. I spent the day measuring out quantities of baking soda, salt, glucose and yellow food dye into the butter churn. I cranked the handle, round and round for 15 minutes, to mix the ingredients, before measuring out 80 grams into each of the plastic bags and labelling them, ‘One sachet in two litres of warm water, to be given twice daily.’ It always took days to get the yellow food dye off my fingers.

In my six months at the practice, I had been given apothecary duties on the days when there were not enough visits for me. Before Frank headed off on his rounds, he would hand me the red recipe book, with instructions to make up various quantities of cough mixture for dogs, calcium and magnesium solutions for cattle and sheep, and calf powders. The mineral solutions were made by measuring out calcium and magnesium into a big black cauldron kept in the drugs cupboard, and adding four litres of water to the salts in the pot on the Aga’s hotplate. If it boiled over, the solution crystallised hard, in seconds, on the hotplate. When this happened I’d manoeuvre the bubbling cauldron off the heat and spend the next 15 minutes scraping the white deposits off the hotplate, before Joan reappeared with a full wicker basket from her outing up Upper Street.

When he got back from his rounds on the day after the car accident, Frank called me through to the kitchen.

‘Kate, if you don’t think you can cope with the driving you should find another job. Go home now and think about it.’ It was two days before Christmas.

My car was returned from the garage, it was still fit to drive, though I could not open the passenger door. The wing mirror had been repaired but all of the dents, old and new, were still there. On Christmas Eve I spoke to him after the evening surgery.

‘I will try harder with the driving. I’ve not driven much before now as I have been a student and not had a car. I will be more careful.’

‘Right then, see you tomorrow for lunch, two o’clock.’

It was the last place I wanted to be for Christmas, with him and his wife, his offspring and their families, 200 miles away from home. He brandished the knife again. Blobs of reflected light danced on the walls.

‘Kate, here’s your plate. Help yourself to sprouts, Mother grew them in the garden.’

A month later I was offered a job in another practice, 100 miles away. Two months later I was driving a bright red Golf, D61 TGO. I had a new job, a new boss and a new car. Three months later Frank wrote off his Subaru, I heard he’d crashed it into a wall. He bought another green one.