In the early summer of 1970 three friends and I drove up the A9 in an old green Ford Popular. A vivid memory for me is stopping in the middle of Rannoch Moor. Snow still lay on the land in streaks of dazzling white. The air was heady; clean, pure and crisp. We drove on into the Highlands and arrived at our destination, a small community in the hills on the west side of Loch Ness below Meall Fuar-mhonaid.
In the spring of 1973, my wife Sabina and I decided to look for our own place and began searching throughout the Highlands and Islands, eventually ending up storm bound in Kirkwall on our way to the Island of Sanday. There we met someone who offered us a ruin and a couple of acres on the Island of Papa Stour, Shetland.During our first summer on Papa we transported our wooden hut, gardening tools and basic foodstuffs, erected the hut in the shelter of the ruins and prepared for the home birth of our first son who arrived safe and well in September.
In the spring I dug out the interior of what was to become our home. The dry stone walls of the house, which had not been lived in since between the wars, stood at an average height of six foot. The roof had fallen in and sheep had been the only occupants for over 40 years. A rich mixture of soil from what must have been a sod roof mixed with rotten timber, sheep dung, assorted metalwork and fishing net covered the stone flagged floor to a depth of around two feet. I barrowed out the rich compost to the first patch we had cleared, having initially been excavated by stripping the sod with spades.
A local couple gave us 5 cast Shetland ewes and that was the beginning of our flock which we improved over time in both quality and numbers. Whilst the children were growing we kept a couple of cows, an Ayrshire and an Aberdeen Angus, milk for the house and calves for the market. We cleared and deep dug the yard and other areas around the house and established a series of vegetable and fruit gardens.
Looking back, I am aware of what an opportunity we were given back in 1973. Surveying the conditions faced by young people hoping to go into crofting today I wonder where the openings are to be found in today’s market-driven rural economy with even small croft tenancies changing hands for tens of thousands of pounds.
Now, having been elected as a Commissioner to the Crofting Commission I’m even more aware of how market forces push up the value of crofts. There is little we can do about that but the Crofting Commission, Board of Commissioners really care about young crofters and how crofting is a good way of life for them. Indeed for crofting to thrive young people are essential.