A few years ago I was at a Scotland Food & Drink event at the Birnam Arts Centre where one of the speakers was Mark Bush of Summer Harvest Rapeseed Oil. I know Mark from my Perth Farmers’ Market days and as is the way with artisan producers and their groupies, our conversation very rarely extends out with food, drink, where we’d eaten recently and what new ingredients we’d found on our travels.
And so it was, that when Mark stood up and gave a very brief history of his ‘Life Before Oil’ I was more than a little surprised. It had obviously lodged itself in the back of my brain, because when I started on my list of Big Personalities, that day’s revelation came flooding back to me. I email, he agrees to tell me everything and after a hectic couple of months trying to catch up we meet at Gloagburn (obvs!) where, over a cheese scone and several pots of tea I discover there is more to this passionate Perthshire producer than garlic mayonnaise and fruity dressings. Although, for the record, I think those are still my favourite parts!
Mark may be an honorary Perthite but he was born in Brynmawr in Wales, the son of a coal miner. After the Thatcher-era strikes, the mines closed and his Dad continued as an electrical engineer. Young Mark was keen to follow in his footsteps and on leaving school he headed off for Pontypool College to study engineering. At the age of 19, his girlfriend at the time announced she was pregnant and, as was the way back in the eighties, they married immediately and a few months later baby Daman was born.
“You know exactly what it’s like to have a baby when you’re young Nicki. It was all too much, too young and we split up almost as soon as we’d got together. At 21 I had lost my wife, my job and my house. Everything went a bit Pete Tong but at that age you just get on with it don’t you? Even when I look back now and I think, really, that’s all there was to do. Get on with it!”
Not long after his split, his Dad spotted an advert for a computer engineering course in Bath. Mark had always enjoyed computers and because he was a wise man, Mark’s dad knew that if he kicked him out and sent him to Bath, then he’d be too busy to wallow in the grief of his family splitting up. He loved studying again and after completing his HNC he was offered the opportunity to head to Bournemouth and complete a degree in Software Engineering. So he upped and moved again for a year, before heading to the bright lights of nineties Manchester to complete his studies.
“I had a great time. I had an Aussie flatmate at the time and suddenly I was beginning to see a bit of life. It was socialising, sports and sitting about the house playing cards to see who’d have to go and collect the takeaway pizza. I ended up with a 2/2 in Software Engineering Management and suddenly I was employable. We were the first year to graduate with this degree and it was so specialised and niche at the time, that at the age of twenty six I walked into an amazing job. I was part of the team developing a new air traffic control system for NERC in Bournemouth, so if you’ve ever flown over 26,000 feet in the UK you’ll have passed through my system. It was an incredible first job. I left when it went live and then worked as a civilian in the army.”
We don’t really get into this job; he signed the official secrets act and can’t tell me anything about it. He didn’t say the magic words ‘….but I’d have to kill you’ however all he’d tell me was that British Aerospace were great to work for and he’d had a good time….
It was around 1998 at this point and he felt he’d come to a junction.
“They were offering me promotion within the business but I just didn’t want it. I knew that I’d done all I’d wanted to do there and so I refused. They said ‘you can’t refuse’ and so I decided to leave. An old friend from Air Traffic Control was doing research at Bournemouth Airport and they were looking for someone to take on an 18 month contract to work with the controllers, coding and designing the next part of the system I’d worked on. That was the first of me being self-employed and running my own business.”
Mark talks about the guys at Air Traffic Control as a sociable crazy crew, all incredibly switched on but just a little bit left of centre. Concorde still flew out of Bournemouth and the Red Arrows trained from their airport.
“I’d always loved planes as a kid and there I was, working in this great job at an airport. I was like a six year old some days when the Red Arrows training was going on. But all the time, I had this niggling doubt that this wasn’t my path. It paid the bills, it was interesting and I was close enough to Daman to be home every other week to see him, but I was unsettled and needed a move.”
A change in legislation for self-employed people was the prod he needed and he decided to bugger off to Australia for a year.
“It’s funny isn’t it. I thought I’d go off and find myself. Work things out in my head. It’s only with a bit of life experience that you know the only way to work these things out is to stay at home and deal with it. Travelling is just running away, the easy option. Which is fine, but for some reason you have to go through this charade of convincing yourself you’re on some path to enlightenment.
Anyhow, I was meant to go for a year but after three months I came home for a friend’s wedding and just as I was leaving Oz I got a text from him telling me about a job in London. He’d sent me the details by the time I was in Singapore, I landed in London on the Sunday not knowing what I wanted to do and by the Wednesday I was interviewing for the Japanese Nomura Bank in The City.”
The interview was daunting and when they asked Mark what he saw in front of him, he looked at them and said
“Three bast**ds who’re going to kill my self-confidence.”
He came away from the interview knowing that this wasn’t his job. The role was working as IT support on the trading floor of the bank in The City; the fast-paced, high-octane rat race of the new millennium wasn’t going to stand for a cheeky Welshman who thought he was smart and swore in an interview.
“Wrong. They phoned me up and offered me the job. When you’re working in that environment you need to be calm and straight-talking. Guys would be screaming at you to get a move on as millions of pounds slipped away from under them but you had to be able to look them straight in the eye, make a decision and then give them an honest answer. They thought I’d be able to handle that. I’m pretty laid back, I don’t get flustered often, I make smart, quick decisions and I’m quite happy to deal with any consequences that come my way as a result of that.”
Mark was going in at 7am and setting up the computer systems before trading went live at 8am. Zurich, Paris and London all opened, the global orders would start to pour in, and the whole thing started up at a pace we probably never reach in Perthshire.
“The prices for equities would all come through our system and into the market and so if these guys were sitting with a £200K order and the prices stopped it was my job to get them on again as quickly as possible. This is where I had to be straight because they needed to make a decision about whether to go with a broker and lose their commission or risk the deal and lose their clients’ money. I know this isn’t a popular statement, but when I hear these people getting a hard time I always see the other side of the story and how hard they work. The work is unlike any other job I have ever seen. I’d leave at 10pm at night and when I got back in the next day I’d find them asleep under their desk. They are highly intelligent. Its maths, calculations, a bit of casino stuff and major adrenalin.”
I’m looking at this mild mannered, chilled out man before me and I can’t imagine him as part of that environment. This is the job he alluded to during his speech at the food conference and knowing him as I do, I had always pictured him hating this soulless work, unrewarded and disillusioned by the shark-like traders of London’s City Trade Floor. I could see him after a few short weeks of madness packing his case and heading for the hills of Scotland in search of a quieter life. How wrong I was. He had thrived on it.
“I was in work on the day of 9/11. I’d been in the gym and as I walked onto the floor there was a silence like I’d never experienced before or since. My mate tapped me on the shoulder and quietly said ‘sit down, you’re witnessing history.’ It was devastating. Eighteen minutes later, when the next plane went into the second tower some of my colleagues were on the phone to people we worked with in the New York exchange. The screaming that we heard coming down the phones that day will stay with me forever.
The London Stock Exchange had refused to close at first and I remember one of our traders standing up and saying ‘I don’t care’. He was prepared to lose his job, as were many, until they decided eventually to close trade. The silence was deafening – we weren’t allowed to leave the building because security had us in lock down. By then we knew there had been four planes hijacked and for all we knew, London was next. It was a dark, dark day.”
I’m looking straight at him; you can hear the weight of this memory in his voice and see it sitting at the back of his eyes.
‘So was that when you decided to leave?’ I asked him quietly.
“No. That was 2001 and I worked there until 2007. I had met Maggie not long before 9/11 and London was our home for our first six years together. I was seven years in The City in total, and to be honest, I lived off of the adrenalin and pressure the same as the next guy. ”
Ahhhh – yes. Maggie! A mood lifter to lift all moods. I want to know everything!
“Ha ha. I met her at a party in 2001 at my friend Kat’s house - it was Kats birthday, and we all used it as a crash-pad for the weekend. I’d met Kat in Oz and Maggie had met her in New Zealand. When Kat came to London she and I became friends and she asked me to help her organise this party. She’d invited Maggie to come down from Scotland and because she didn’t have a mobile phone – country bumpkin that she was – Kat had arranged for her to be met at Covent Garden Tube Station on the Friday and to stay at mine that weekend. That was me – I was smitten right away. By the time when she headed back to Scotland on the Sunday we had agreed to stay in touch.”
He’s smiling as he’s telling this.
So, Maggie had been looking for a job in London and about four months after they first met, she moved down to work and to find out if this romance was the real deal. You know it was!
“We got engaged in 2004 and in 2005 we came up to Maggie’s dad’s farm, Fernyfold in Madderty, to get married. Everything was perfect. She was working in Harley Street as a physio and her clients included some of the big shows like Mamma Mia. I was working on the trading floor in The City and life was as about as good as it gets. Except I was never really content.”
And then came the life changers. Maggie had applied for her dream job at the Scottish Institute of Sport. She didn’t get it. About two weeks before this Mark had had a blazing row at his work and had walked out.
“I called her up and said ‘I’ve just walked out’. And she said ‘Well walk back in again.’ When she didn’t get her job in Scotland we had a long discussion about why we were there, in London. We realised that although Maggie loved her job, I only liked mine. Suddenly we were both upset about her missed opportunity because it would have given both of us the excuse we’d needed to move to Scotland and now we’d lost it. So, realising how much we’d wanted it, we decided to quit and move anyway.”
Maggie was in touch with a friend who had a private physio practice and secured a job. They bought a house online that they’d never even seen, never mind stepped into and so, with the bare bones of a new life in place, Maggie moved up at the beginning of August 2007, closely followed by Mark at the end of the month.
“Luckily we quite liked it. The house I mean. It was just after that the big financial crash came and the whole thing fell apart. Everyone thinks it’s because Northern Rock collapsed but actually, it’s because I left…!”
He started work on Maggie’s dad’s farm while doing an HND in hospitality. He wanted to take his love of cooking into his job and felt this was a perfect move.
“I finished the HND, but hospitality was not to be my path! It was a small farm and if I was to be working there I was going to have to bring value. The farm specialised in tatties and I went round all the farm shops and restaurants with them. Then in late 2007 we joined Perth Farmers’ Market and I convinced Maggie’s dad to sell me a tonne of his rapeseed. I’d been using rapeseed oil in cooking in London but it was still a new product up here. The tatties were great, but they were seasonal, and I couldn’t rock up at Perth Farmers’ Market with an empty table. He grew rape on the farm to sell as part of the mix for vegetable oils and spreads but it was a commodity rather than a stand-alone product.”
He tells me at this point that he’s risk averse by nature and I’m surprised. The story doesn’t read like that of a person who’s frightened of taking chances.
“I am. I’m laid back but I have always thought through the pros and cons of everything. I need to push myself. And yet there I was, in Scotland, with a tonne of rapeseed and the only way I’d really know if it would work was to press it, take it everywhere and find out if there was a market for it. Our first bottles were ready in May 2008.”
Take it everywhere he did. Within a year he had hooked up with David Burberry from Dalchonzie Fruit Farm and they were promoting a combo of Scottish Rapeseed Oil and Raspberry Vinegar as an alternative to olive oil and balsamic. As he toured the farm shops and markets he was explaining how to achieve this amazing taste combination. People started badgering him to bring the two ready mixed and so, one Friday afternoon before a market he produced 27 bottles of Raspberry Dressing and it flew off the shelves!
“By that time we’d made headway with the oil and we were selling it in loads of farm shops using The Cress Company as a distributor. We needed to get the dressing right and so in 2010 David and I teamed up with Andy Hamer from Wild Thyme. He came up with recipes for a range of dressings, made them in his kitchen for us and it’s a collaboration that’s still going strong today. We nailed four flavours and it was from there that the Summer Harvest brand really began to blossom. We were becoming quite well-known on the Scottish Foodie scene and the oil was being asked for at events and shows.”
And how were you feeling now? Had your discontentment lifted?
Cue Mark nodding furiously.
“Oh, I knew within days of our first Farmers’ Market that we had made the right decision. You get a completeness with this job. The chat, the banter with customers. There is a journey as a farmer- producer that takes you from a raw product to the end customer. I love it. It was the missing piece for me. This morning I was at Perth and Kinross Council, then I drove the forklift round the farm, I did some marketing for the Country Living Fair we’re going to this month, took some photos for social media and loaded up the van for the market before coming to meet you. The day is multi-faceted and full of conversation, strategy, discussions on pricing.... I suppose sometimes it’s not that far removed from the trading floor…”
Now, I know all you razor sharp people out there are thinking ‘What about Daman? Where’s the wee boy?. Well, the wee boy is now 25 and the pair kept a strong bond going despite the distance between them. Just over a year ago, in September 2013, Daman came up to Scotland to work at the farm.
“He did a degree in automotive engineering. Then he went travelling. Then he met a Scottish Girl. And now he’s just started his own food business, Poporopo. He’s on my parallel path but has somehow managed to jump straight to the good bit! The last year has been amazing for us all – it’s the first time I’ve lived with him full time since he was one and a half and suddenly at forty four years old, I have my family altogether. He’s brought a youthful confidence to the farm and the work he’s put into getting his idea for this sweet, handmade popcorn off the ground has been inspiring.”
With Daman’s help Mark has streamlined the business a bit more and clawed back some of his time.
“I knew where everything was but I was the only one. It was all ok in my head but everyone else was left guessing! Now we’re more organised and I have a bit more time. People ask us out to these foodie events and to restaurants and nowadays we can say ‘Yeah. Why not!?’”
“I’ve been welcomed into this family of Scottish Food producers and have met some of the most generous and wonderful people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. We’ve won a Taste Award for the oil and the dressings, a Scotland Food & Drink Excellence Award and we now supply all over the UK and export to Dubai and Bahrain. It’s been an incredible journey so far and in many ways it’s only just started.”
In perfect story ending fashion, Maggie has also landed her dream job with The sportscotland Institute of Sport working this year at both the Winter Olympics and The Commonwealth Games. The unnerving decision to quit their seemingly-perfect, London power couple’s life of Harley Street and The City, in exchange for Maggie’s Perthshire fields had been calculated well by the risk-averse and now perfectly content, Mark.
“It was always going to end up as sport and food for us. But sometimes you need to see life in all its misery and glory to truly understand what really makes you tick.”
Mark, Maggie and Daman would love to see you at Perth Farmers Market on the first Saturday of each Month. You can also buy Summer Harvest Rapeseed Oil in Glendoick Garden Centre, Provender Brown and Maple & Thistle.
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