Oh, deer! What happened when we moved from Dubai to a hill farm in Scotland

Suryaveer and Bonita Rathore decided to start again after living in the UAE for 17 years, but freezing Scottish weather provided a rude awakening for the Indian family

Family leaves Dubai to run a farm in Scotland

Family leaves Dubai to run a farm in Scotland
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Five winters ago and armed only with their suitcases, an investor visa and a lot of hope, Bonita Rathore and her young family left behind the glitz of Dubai for a remote spot in the west of Scotland.

It was the first stage in a plan the long-term expats hatched to start again, trying something entirely new.

Bonita and her husband Suryaveer, who are originally from India but lived in Dubai for 17 years, built a successful business maintaining desalination plants, but had set their sights on becoming red deer farmers.

They had absolutely no idea what they were letting themselves in for at the time.

Blue hands

For one, Ms Rathore was the only one who could cope with the cold. They soon discovered her husband and their two children weren't built for the Scottish weather, because they all suffer from Raynaud's disease – something that came as a complete surprise.

The disease, which can be caused by the cold, anxiety or stress, causes the body's blood vessels to go into a temporary spasm, blocking the flow of blood.

"They used to get blue hands in the winter and they couldn't work," Ms Rathore told The National. "They would be running in and putting their hands and feet in hot water. So it was just me left who could actually work outside in the winter.

"That was something that we never expected. It kind of restricted our first two winters for everybody. But now they seem to have acclimatised."

We came to an agreement that we could shoot the animals on the farm
Bonita Rathore

The weather they left behind in Dubai could not have been more different, with endless sunshine to match Scotland's seemingly perpetual dreary weather.

"Dubai is beautiful," Ms Rathore told The National. "It had given us a lot, but I think we were ready to move and we wanted something that was closer to nature."

The couple initially thought about bison farming in Canada, but settled on the idea of raising red deer in Scotland to be close to Ms Rathore’s sister, who lives in Glasgow.

Finding the farm was not easy. They had no idea where to even start looking, but they eventually found one in Ayrshire, south of Glasgow.

Yet buying Whitehill Farm was only the start of the hard work. Their convenience-friendly life in Dubai proved to be very poor preparation for deer farming.

The Beast from the East

The family moved to the farm in 2018 during the infamous Beast from the East winter storm, which brought unusually low temperatures and heavy snowfall to large areas of Scotland.

"We had come right from beautiful, lovely Dubai, with air conditioning and [comforts, during] the best of the weather in January and February. And we came here and our water pipes [between the house and the meter] froze," she said.

So they ended up fetching water from the stream to boil in the kettle and then use it to defrost the meter and pipes. "We didn’t know how it worked. We didn’t know anything. But that’s how we started."

Working in the desalination industry in Dubai meant work had to be completed quickly. In Scotland, they had to adjust to a different pace of life, and work.

“In Dubai, you know how it works. You call up security or you find a guy. You could find anybody. I think it took us time to get used to the UK, in the sense that things need to be planned," she said.

And even though red deer meat has been consumed since the Stone Age in Scotland, the farming sector for for it is still undeveloped, Ms Rathore said. There was no abattoir anywhere in Scotland that could handle red deer, which meant they had to send them to England to be slaughtered.

“The whole point of coming here and wanting a sustainable food source was getting it right,” she said. “So we spoke to people and we came to an agreement that we could shoot the animals on the farm, clean them and have a butchery [on site] and sell from it.”

They were worried their children would struggle to settle, and promised them the option of returning to their life in Dubai in the early days if it did not work. But there was no need.

"Luckily for us, both my kids settled in very well," she said.

The farm has now built a reputation in the local area and wider food industry. They were recently visited by the British celebrity chefs, the Hairy Bikers, who were touring the region.

“They were going around looking for food sources that were sustainable and lovely,” she said.

She said since she arrived in Scotland, she has appreciated the benefits of locally produced food.

“It is something that has just dawned on me in the UK, not even in India where we are used to eating seasonally," she said. “Dubai has such delicious food and it’s so easy to get. You don’t even think about the source of it.”

The farm also has sheep and pigs. And the fact every day is different is one of her favourite aspects of life in Scotland.

"I don't know how my day is going to go," she said. "I could have a cockerel who's messed up everything around the barn.

"I could have the sheep going crazy and running all over the road. I had my pigs who used to just wander off the road and my neighbours calling me to, 'come get your pigs', and that was my day.

"I could be cutting antlers of the deer. I could be checking hooves. I could just be lazing around by the fire. I don't know how my day goes the minute I wake up and I think that's what's interesting."

It was hard getting to where they now are and she has long since stopped missing the glitz of Dubai. But there was once a time when she thought she was mad for leaving it all behind.

"I initially thought, 'Why would I want to leave Dubai?' I have a maid. I have everything sorted. We have got good cars. We have got a beautiful place. I can step down to Sheikh Zayed [Road], go to Emirates Towers and have a cup of coffee," she said. "Everything was within reach and in five minutes I was anywhere."

Despite that, she decided she wanted something different, and now spends her time appreciating the often beautiful Scottish skies and breathing in the always crisp, clean air.

"I think it's amazing," she added as a hard wind hurried through, carrying another drenching blast of rain.

Updated: February 02, 2024, 6:00 PM