Obituary: Rognvald Wood, hill farmer and journalist

Rognvald Wood, who has died at the age of 66
Rognvald Wood, who has died at the age of 66
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Rognvald (Rog) Sinclair Wood, farmer and agricultural writer. Born 9 December 1952 in Dumfries. Died: 8 October 2019 in Dumfries, aged 66.

Back in January, Rog Wood gave a spirited and memorable rendition of Tam O’ Shanter at the Scottish Agricultural Journalists’ annual Burns Supper.

Sadly, within days of that ­performance, he suffered a serious stroke from which he never recovered and which led to his death earlier this month.

He was in his element ­reciting the Bard’s epic poem, varying his pace as he moved from the ‘nappy’ to the ride on horseback and then to the haunted kirkyard, before the last gallop over the Brig o’Doon, Ayr.

As a Burns enthusiast, Rog’s diary was full in January with speaking engagements at various suppers and soirees. As a native of Dumfriesshire, he maintained only those from that part of the world had the right accent to do justice to the words of Robert Burns.

Rog had an empathy with Burns and he compiled a book of tales of ghosts and ghoulies around his native patch in Sanquhar; one of several successful books on country matters and local legends he wrote.

Although universally known as Rog, he always ensured that friends and business acquaintances knew his proper name was Rognvald and his family’s roots were in the Northern Isles and further back into Scandanavia.

First and foremost, Rog was a hill farmer and his determination to farm was demonstrated when he became the youngest ever tenant on the Duke of Buccleuch’s Queensberry Estate. He was just 22 when he first took on Auchentaggart, a hard hill farm near the village of Mennock.

There, he and his young wife, Carmen, whom he had met at the College at Auchincruive where he was studying for a diploma in agriculture started their married life. As a young couple starting in a sector that requires lots of capital, they faced huge financial uncertainties getting their business off the ground. To survive and succeed, both invested a lot of energy and time on non-farming incomes; Rog as a journalist and Carmen as a caterer.

In the same year they took on the farm, their first child, Elliot, was born, followed by daughters, Natalina and Claudia. However, when he was just 20, the family lost Elliot to suicide. This was to take an awful toll on Rog in ­subsequent years, causing great frustration and, later on, causing him to suffer from severe depression.

Using this experience of death in the family, he became a champion in raising awareness of mental health issues, especially in farming communities. Last year he, bravely, shared his feelings in an article on his struggles of coming to terms with Elliot’s death.

He said at the time: “There is still, in the farming community, a stigma with suicide and there shouldn’t be. It is a mental illness that can be averted. As a community, we need to open up and talk about mental health. Only then will be recognise and act upon early signs of suicide, only then can we lead to it being prevented,”

Through his energy and his undoubted ability, Rog found pursuits that took him away from the farm. He became a councillor for the local authority and soon became the chair of the planning committee; one of the most demanding jobs for elected members in local government.

He also became a board member of the British Wool Marketing Board representing wool producers in the South of Scotland. He held this position for 13 years until, in 2007, disgusted with the poor price the board was paying for wool compared with the six figure sum the chief executive was getting, he resigned.

He was not finished however with agri-politics turning to the National Farmers Union of Scotland where the director of communications, Bob Carruth paid the following tribute: “Rog’s reputation as a robust and knowledgeable debater saw him rise through the NFU Scotland ranks to chair our environmental committee in 2000, holding the chair for several years before being encouraged to stand as vice president.

“Although unsuccessful in his bid to join the presidential team, Rog’s time on the board of directors is fondly remembered.

“Not only was he a skilled lobbyist on environmental issues, but a staunch supporter of the many campaigns and demonstrations undertaken by the union at that time.”

As a prolific journalist, Rog could write couthy stories of farm life for the Sunday Post where, under the byline of Tom Duncan, he supplied hundreds of articles. Then, with hardly a pause, he would write trenchantly on the iniquities and complexities – as he saw them – of Scotland’s land owning system.

Some of his best writing came in the worst of times when in 2001, he found ­himself in the eye of the foot and mouth storm in Dumfries. He managed to convey the awful situation farmers, many of them friends and neighbours, found themselves in, losing all their livestock to a virulent ­disease where full scale slaughter was the Government’s course of action.

Later, he had the satisfaction of reporting how the industry had picked itself up after the scourge of that disease had swept through his part of the world.

His anecdotes of farming were well read in many newspapers where he succinctly reported on the broader ­picture of farming throughout Scotland as well as the changing countryside and ways of rural life.

Colleagues would testify that he was a complex character and when, in fine form, he exhibited a rapier-like wit. He was an original thinker, able to cut through the complexities of agricultural politics and he could be a contrarian, arguing just for the sake of it.

As a Nuffield Scholar, he had a deep understanding of the industry and this allowed him to give learned comment on many topics.

Away from the farm, he was a keen fisherman and apres-angling his storytelling was something of a legend. He could entertain his friends with diverse tales of sheepdog training or the vagaries of the lambing shed.

More surprisingly and ­never fully explained, he related how he had once made an appearance as a drag artiste. If that was not enough, he also claimed he had once been a boxing champion.

With Rog, anything was ­possible – and many things were.