It is said that “where there’s life, there’s hope.” And in order to “keep on keeping on” crofting on a small island in a remote island group, hope is the first and most vital asset that the crofter must cling to. This is true for all farmers of course, big and small and particularly so as we travel the tortuous road towards whatever form of Brexit awaits us down the road sometime in the future. Crofting and farming are always vulnerable to the vagaries of the market. Despite which every year without fail, in go the tups in late autumn and we sow, plant and cultivate in early spring in hope of a harvest. Every year crofters and farmers “cast their bread upon the waters” hoping for a return on their investment of time, labour and money.
Why do we do it? Well I don’t know your reasons but I expect, like me you may at least occasionally ask yourself the same question. Particularly when times are tough and the future is so uncertain. I have found one thing that helps me when the pressure is on is to remember why I am involved in crofting and the stewardship of the land.
I have come across a number of crofting ‘heroes’ during the four and a half decades we have lived here on Papa Stour, mainly old school and now mostly in various kirkyards scattered across these islands. Some time before my wife and I moved to Shetland in the early seventies I discovered the works of Frank Fraser Darling. Initially his book “Island Years” and later “island Farm” and the handy primer, “Crofting Agriculture.” All still worth a read today. The first two were republished jointly in 2011 by Little Toller Books. “Crofting Agriculture” is out of print but easily obtained second hand. Darling was a pioneering ecologist, broadcaster, academic and crofting practitioner whose work on care for our raw material, the soil, is still highly relevant today. His Reith Lectures for the BBC are still available online and well worth a listen.
Apart from the practical side of his work though, what shines through for me is his love for the remote places of the Highlands and Islands and the sheer guts and determination of him and Bobbie, his first wife to triumph over adversity. Frank Darling was a pioneering ‘evangelist’ for the idea of responsible stewardship and the possibilities for the transformation of poor, sour and neglected soil in remote upland and island areas into productive units.
When I am at my most optimistic about the achievability of such a goal. When, like today the cold North East wind has abated and there’s finally warmth in the early spring sun. When the ewes look great, full of new life and fit for lambing. Then it’s easy to have faith for the future and be optimistic. But when the Brexit process and the political shenanigans accompanying it feel like they are never coming to an end. When it’s tough going for meagre financial reward and winter never seems to be bowing out. That’s precisely the time when I need to call to mind the old folk who worked the land before me and the heroes of good husbandry and love for the land like Frank Fraser Darling.