Humphrey Errington: the man who created Lanark Blue and saved Scottish cheese

Humphrey Errington

Nearly 15 years ago Humphrey Errington’s tiny but highly regarded cheesemaking operation was threatened by closure under a harshly enforced health regulation. Nicki Holmyard recalls his landmark battle.

Lanark Blue is a firm favourite on Scottish cheeseboards and without it, there might not be such a thing as a Scottish cheeseboard at all. Certainly not one where terms such as ‘farmhouse,’ ‘hand-made’ and ‘unpasteurised’ could attach themselves to the best of the selection upon it.

The man who created Lanark Blue, Humphrey Errington, farms 400 sheep near Carnwath in the Lanarkshire countryside and began making cheese in the mid-1980s as a diversification exercise to add value to his flock. In doing so he created the first new Scottish blue cheese for centuries. ‘Cheese making in the past was always a part of farming and I wanted to revive the tradition,’ he says.

By the mid-1990s, having perfected his unpasteurised cheese and found plenty of regular buyers, Errington fell foul of the local environmental health authorities, who wanted him to produce a ‘safe’ pasteurised cheese.

Problems escalated when Clydesdale Council claimed to have found Listeria monocytogenes in a sample and demanded all produce be recalled. Devastated by the news, Errington had his own tests done, the majority of which failed to find any listeria, while a few found minute amounts of a non-dangerous strain. He decided to appeal against the council’s decision and the case went to court. Legal arguments dragged on for over a year, making Errington and his flock a regular news item.

‘We fought the case on a couple of grounds,’ he says. ‘Firstly that the government’s test methodology was incorrect and secondly that the listeria strain in question was not a harmful one. Professor Hugh Pennington championed our cause and eventually sense prevailed and we won the case.

‘We were tremendously lucky in that so many customers stuck by us and continued to take our cheese and also that people all over the country helped to raise funds to pay our escalating legal bills. But it was a fight that needed to be fought for small producers everywhere and it touched a lot of people.’

The cheese is hand-made by introducing Penicillium roquefortii mould at the start of the process to encourage blue-green veining, along with vegetarian rennet to set the curds. These are ladled into forms and allowed to settle into shape. During the maturing process, the cheeses are twice dipped in brine then put into clean forms. They are removed after a month, wrapped in foil to prevent growth of surface mould and left in a cool room for a further two months. Turning three times a week ensures they ripen evenly. Before sale, they are hand-scraped and wrapped in the distinctive foil pack designed by Humphrey’s brother Tom Errington.

Errington explains that cheese made at different times of the year can vary, as the ewes’ milk is affected by seasonal changes in their diet. The sheep are only milked between January and September, but Lanark Blue is available all year. ‘Following the success of this cheese we developed Dunsyre Blue a cow’s cheese which is also mould ripened and hand-made,’ he says. The unpasteurised milk for this cheese comes from a neighbouring farm at Dunsyre – hence the name.

Two white cheeses followed, one made with ewes’ milk named Lanark White and another, Maisie’s Kebbuck, from cows’ milk. This cheese was made for Humphrey’s mother-in-law Maisie, who does not like blue cheese, and very proud she is of it.

In 2005 he developed Fallachan, a fermented alcoholic drink made from the whey left over when curds are separated from the milk. It uses an ancient recipe and needs to mature for a year in oak casks before bottling.

Errington’s skill as a cheesemaker took him to Romania recently to investigate how local sheep farmers could make their products acceptable for general sale under European Union regulations. ‘What we saw there was amazing – people milking up to 800 sheep by hand and making cheese without refrigeration or water. The taste was superb, but they have a lot of work to do before they can market it outside their country.’

Errington’s cheese is sold all over Scotland and the UK and can be found as far afield as Hong Kong and the USA. With his daughter Selina working full-time in the business, he takes time to make regular personal deliveries to many of his Scottish customers and values the feedback he receives.

Errington may have earned a special place in Scottish cheesemaking and the hearts of many small-scale food producers, but his energy and enthusiasm seem undiminished. ‘I am currently developing a small, hard-pressed cheese with both sheep and cows’ milk,’ he reveals. ‘But it is not perfected yet.’