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Scotland’s Larder: Selina Cairns from Errington Cheese

In our latest in our Scotland's Larder, we talk to Selina Cairns from Errington Cheese near Lanark about artisan cheesemaking and standing out from the crowd.

Published: January 29, 2021
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Selina Cairns was born in Dumfries but moved to Walston Braehead Farm, Lanark when she was two.

Humphrey, her father, went into dairy sheep in the early 80's. She tells us that her father didn't have a farming background, he studied History at Cambridge then worked in shipping, before he realised that he wanted something else out of life and bought a farm.

He discovered some historical connection to milking dairy sheep in the area, and so he decided to diversify and make cheese.

Selina said: "if you come from another industry you look at things a bit differently. We were always seen as bit different and I think the neighbours still do think we are a bit crazy, for milking sheep."

Growing up she loved life on the farm, but admits she was less keen on cheese making and recalls the joys of waiting for the bus at the end of the farm road.

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She left Biggar High school at 16 then worked with horses but she said "I soon realised that I couldn't make a proper living."

She then studied Construction Management at Heriot Watt University before working for Edinburgh Airport.

Sheep garazing on the farm where Selina Cairns makes Errington cheese.

Sheep on Walston Braehead Farm. Picture by marcmillarphotography

On the farm

She and her husband Andrew live on the farm with their two girls, Flora (8) and Caitlin (10).

Andrew looks after the farming while Selina focuses on the cheese,  she said "it helps the balance in our relationship, if we have separate things to do."

The farm has a flock of 350 dairy sheep, Lacaune ewes, a french breed that they use to make Roquefort which are milked from lambing time until September.

They recently introduced 130 dairy goats to the farm, a mixture of Saanen, Toggenburg and Alpine, this is because goats can be milked most of the year which keeps everybody employed.

Selina explained, saying: "the goats are quite naughty, and very different to handle than sheep.

"They won't be forced into anything, sheep you can kind of chase but nothing rushes the goats they kind of do things  at their own pace.

"The goats are kept inside during the winter and are milked twice a day which can take about one and a half hours.

Naughty goats

Naughty goats at Errington cheese. Picture by marcmillarphotography

"We need quite a lot of people to milk during the summer when there are four milkings a day. So we don't intend to expand the flock, as we have got the numbers we can milk comfortably," she said.

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The flocks are used to being handled and they get fed when they are being milked to keep them relaxed. The farm operates a grass feed system with silage for the sheep in winter and hay for the goats.

At the moment the day starts with milking the goats about 6 am and they begin to make cheese at 7 am. They finish at 4pm in the cheese room and then goat milking begins again 4.30pm.

She is however keen to stress, that they have separate people working with the animals on the farm and in the cheese room.

In the spring the sheep get milked first at 5 am and then goats time get pushed back to at 7am to ensure that they can wash down the milking parlour and then have breakfast.

Selina said in summer with four milkings, "it is relentless. So we make sure we have relief milkers in so nobody is doing to much. If it was just me and my husband,  I don't think you could sustain that."

In the dairy they use milk from evening and the morning to make cheese.

She said, "we pump the unpasteurised milk straight from the bulk tank in the parlour into the cheese rooms, where we warm the milk and then add starter cultures and the rennet.

"Next the curds are cut but depending on what cheese we are making it changes after that point.

Goats

The milking parlour at Errington cheese. Picture by marcmillarphotography

"Then the cheese is moulded and salted and then it is left to mature, the 'Corra Linn' cheddar style cheese takes about a year to mature while the blue cheese only takes about 8 weeks.

"The hard cheese are wrapped in muslin cheese cloth and then during the maturation process they are turned weekly for the first few months then every two weeks after that and then rubbed down.

"While blue cheese salt is rubbed on to the cheese after it is demoulded and then after a week we pierce it with a metal skewer just to let the blue mould develop evenly through the cheese and then it is turned for a few weeks before  we wrap it in foil to mature it on a bit further."

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Say cheese

Selina added: "I don't think you can make cheese successfully if  you didn't love making it, you need to have a passion to make something like that, otherwise it doesn't really turn out well."

She works alongside her sister in law, Angela, so she said, "I don't do the same thing every day and that is the nice thing about it being a small business it does give you a really good variety of tasks.

Making cheese she said, "is sort of a  combination of using the technology; PH acidity and temperature mixed with what it feels like.

"We obviously try and make it as consistent as we can but it is never going to be standardised because the sheep milk changes a lot during the season. If you have done it for a few years it becomes a bit like second nature"

Selina Cairns

Selina Cairns from Errington cheese. Picture by marcmillarphotography

They no longer make the Dunsyre Blue Cheese, it was linked with an Ecoli outbreak in 2016 which saw a three-year-old girl die and 23 people become unwell.

The Crown Office said there would be no criminal proceedings because of a lack of evidence linking Errington to the death of the girl.

There was however a court case regarding whether their remaining cheese stock had to be destroyed.

Selina said, "I'm trying to focus on the future but I don't think I will really get over it. It does make you think differently about governance and that kind of thing."

"We had 100 per cent faith in what we were doing, if we didn't I don't think we couldn't have defended ourselves. We would have just closed up and walked away."

"Our QC told us before we got to the point of representing ourselves, said it was the most complicated case he had ever come across. People say if you are representing yourself then 'you never win', but obviously we did.

"But it was a bit of a gamble, but we had no other choice than to do it."

The three week case was heard at Hamilton court with her father Humphrey acting as QC while she acted as the  solicitor.

Selina said,"I think it is amazing what you can absorb if you need to. I was always interested in some of the scientific stuff  but I would never have got into in the depth I did if I hadn't had to."

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She said, "it was just a relief when it went our way.  I want to forget about it."

The process of making Errington cheese

Cheesemaking at Errington cheese where they make Lanark Blue, Corra Linn, and Lanark White, Biggar Blue, Elrick log & goats curd. Picture by marcmillarphotography

Bright future

Selina said: "we had quite a lot of requests from people wanting to see the cheese being made and we can't really look after them properly."

Because of this they are planning to refurbish old farm buildings to create a 70 seat cafe, where visitors can see the cheese being made through windows she said, "Everybody seems pretty positive, so I'm hoping  that everybody will come."

Especially after a difficult few years she said it is nice to have a new focus on she said, "and it does diversify the farm more and make us a bit  more self sufficient.

"I think I realised in March last year that just about everything we made was sold to the hospitality trade. It was quite  frightening, because nobody was ordering so we started our online shop."

Which has been a great success and as a result, she said, "we have found different customers not just wholesalers, and we are now supplying more independent retailers."

She said, "actually it is quite nice because you get more contact with people and you can build relationships."

The cheese maturing room.

Errington cheese maturing. Picture by marcmillarphotography

Selina continued: "my heart goes out to the hospitality industry, because they are not really getting any support.

"This lockdown is a bit of a different from before, because the smaller retailers are geared up to make the most of it and the restaurants are doing takeaways but it is really tough for them."

They supply cheese to Michelin starred kitchens including: Stevie Mclaughlin at Gleneagles,  Tom Kitchin,  Geoffrey Smeddle at the Peat inn, and she said, " It is really nice to hear what a Michelin starred chef has been making with our cheese."

Eyes on the prize

They won the best Scottish artisan food award, in the Scottish rural awards unfortunately the award ceremony was cancelled but, "we got a trophy delivered in the post on Friday," she said.

'Corra Linn' voted also  'Best Scottish Cheese' at the 2019 World cheese awards, and declared 'Best Scottish Cheese.

Speaking of the awards, Selina said: "you can't enter everything, but it is good for a bit of publicity especially when you get a nice award. It reminds people that you are making a good product and it is good for staff moral."

Some of the cheese made at Errington

Errington Cheese

Walston Braehead Farm,
Lanark ML11 8NF

01899 810257

 

• READ MORE: Katy and her daughter Helena, from Katy Rodger’s artisan dairy

Scotland's Larder: Katy and her daughter Helena, from Katy Rodger's artisan dairy

 

 

Catriona is based in the Scottish Borders and works as part of the audiovisual team at the Scotsman but she reviews restaurants for Scotland on Sunday and writes for Scotsman Food and Drink in her spare time.

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