Being presented with Visit Scotland’s Thistle Award for running the country’s most hospitable bed and breakfast is quite an accolade, but it is just part of what has become a diversified farm business for Louise Nicoll and her husband Graeme. Ewan Pate finds out more.
Until 2006, Newton Farm Holidays at Newton of Fothringham, Forfar, was being run as a typical arable and livestock unit with all income derived from farming.
And for Louise Nicoll, with a career in business consultancy, although she was interested in the farm, she was not overly involved.
But all that was to change, however, with the birth of twins Scott and Iona, three-and-a-half months prematurely.
It was obvious straight away that it was going to be too difficult for Louise to manage her consultancy and keep up those skills.
But an opportunity presented itself after a conversation with her parents.
“I needed something extra which we could run alongside the main enterprise,” she says.
“I was thinking of various schemes when my own mother and father, who ran a bed and breakfast in Forfar, phoned to say they were overbooked for the Glamis Transport Extravaganza weekend and asked if I could help.
I quickly turned around the spare bedroom, which was a bit of a furniture store at the time, and that was it.
I’ve never looked back.” The farm covers 222 hectares (550 acres), all tenanted, and runs 55 Limousin cross Aberdeen-Angus suckler cows; 70 breeding ewes with lambs all finished; 70 goats, mostly Boers for meat production; and grows spring and winter barley.
But the first step was to join Visit Scotland.
Then it was a case of bringing two rooms in the traditional farmhouse up to the required standard for an enterprise which was built around a high standard of personal service from the start.
Since then, as her twins have grown up and needed more space, Louise has cut down to one room in the family home but added a three-bedroom farm cottage.
This can either be used for self-catering or for accommodating larger bed and breakfast groups.
The breakfasts are all served in the farmhouse dining room where Taste of Angus produce features at all times.
The farmhouse room is now rated by Visit Scotland as four star gold and the cottage as four star.
Louise says: “To keep the distinction of having a separate business, Graeme and I registered the bed and breakfast as a limited company.
To begin with we kept the marketing effort separate too and didn’t really mention the farm.
Guests were often surprised when they arrived to find we were part of a working farm.
“When they did realise, they wanted to find out much more about what we did and above all they wanted to see the animals.
It was maybe a bit disappointing for them to discover we only had a cat, a dog and some cattle on distant fields.
To give people more to look at, I rehomed four alpacas.” This was followed by a phone call from Fife Animal Health to say a farm park was going to be closed due to welfare issues.
That resulted in three Anglo Nubian goats joining what was fast become a menagerie.
Lucy, a miniature pig, was a later addition, rehomed from a house in Dundee.
“This was about 2013 and it made me think we should be capitalising on the interest the guests were showing,” says Louise.
The date is important because the farm business had just been the subject of a cross-compliance inspection which resulted in an 11-month delay in receiving the 2012 Single Farm Payment.
On any farm such a lengthy delay in receiving a vital component of farm income is a serious business and for the Nicolls it was the trigger for some hard thinking.
"I was amazed and delighted at how many people took up the offer to see a working farm and hear our story"
The Covid-19 restrictions are affecting Louise Nicoll’s business in different ways, and her business has been hit by cancellations across the board.
Initially, the farm tours business had a boost as people looked for outdoor activities away from the crowds.
She says: “I initially decided to carry on with tours, keeping to small family groups but recent developments mean this is not possible.
“This week the reality has hit home and I am having to make difficult decisions.
For example, should I refund deposits or offer extensions for a future date? “I am determined to stay positive and I realise we are very lucky to live in the countryside.
I am enjoying having a long run with my daughter every day and, of course, everything on the farm is carrying on, including lambing.
We have plenty to do and compared to many we are very fortunate.
Louise says: “To make matters worse we had just bought a new tractor and the first payment of £10,000 was due that December.
“We had a meeting and decided there was nothing else for it but to all go out and think of ways of bringing in extra money.
My contribution was to start cashing in on the guests’ desire to see the farm.
I was amazed and delighted at how many people took up the offer to see a working farm and hear our story.” Initially the charge was £5 per person for the farm tours.
Now it is £10 or £15 for an adult with two children.
“It all worked,” says Louise.
“We started to attract other visitors as individuals and groups.
I guess about 80 per cent mostly want to meet the animals, but I tell them about the whole farm and how we produce food.” Just to add to the variety, Graeme has re-introduced breeding sheep and the farm now has 70 ewes.
This particular enterprise started in 2017 after a lady from Dundee phoned to say she would like to be able to bottle feed a lamb to celebrate her 80th birthday.
To help her fulfil her wish, Louise acquired Zeus, a pedigree Texel ram lamb, as a pet.
Bottle feeding pet lambs has now become a major attraction for younger visitors.
The farm tours enterprise has now grown to the extent that about 4,000 visitors arrive at Newton of Fothringham every year.
Alapaca walks have now become very popular and this summer there will be 11 of these exotic animals in the team ready to take their turn on duty.
The farm tours initiative has been such a success that last year Louise won the regional Visit Scotland Thistle Award for Best Outdoor Adventure Experience.
A 2013 visit to Tuscany, part funded by Scottish Enterprise, also provided a real inspiration.
It made her aware of the marketing potential of social media which she now uses heavily to advertise the business.
In addition to everything else, last year a bed and breakfast guest, Reverend Chris Blackmore, who is chaplain to Ayr market, happened to mention a carol service he had organised the previous Christmas.
Louise says: “I immediately thought there was no reason why it wouldn’t work in Forfar.
I spoke to some friends in the rural community and the Reverend Maggie Hunt at St Margaret’s Church in Forfar and, thanks to market operators Lawrie and Symington, we soon had all the plans in place for Carols at the Mart.
“It turned out to be a great event with more than 200 people, mostly farmers and their families, gathered in the market ring for an hour of carol singing followed by stovies and mince pies.
It was a real community event and made us all feel good in the run up to Christmas.
We also raised more than £1,500 for rural charity RSABI.
We mean to make Carols in The Mart an annual event.” All that might seem enough, but Louise is also either chairman, secretary or treasurer of eight different local organisations.
And just to expend any extra energy, she not only sponsors the Strathmore Ladies Rugby Team but plays in the second row.
“I only took rugby up when I was 45. I love a challenge,” she says.