Island Life – Andy Holt, Commissioner

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 uAndy Holt1s 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.

Papa Stour 068

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.Papa Stour 058

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.

 

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A view from “outside” the “inside”……. James Scott, Commissioner.

As a non-crofter and not even coming from a crofting county, I often find myself feeling like the outsider in the organisation.Crofting Commission portraits

That’s not to say that this is necessarily a bad thing as I can ask the “daft laddie” questions from a position of authority. There’s a huge amount of history involved in crofting, not all of it helpful, and having someone who can question and challenge the “always been”, to really understand how our system has got to where it is, is of vital importance to understanding where it needs to be now and for the future.

It’s clear that much of the current public support for crofting relates to the social aspects such as access to housing and supporting population retention. These issues take up a lot of time for those bodies representing crofting too – especially how to make crofting both attractive and available to future generations.

There’s much that can be done to make crofts available to young people, at least for them to use, especially by those who may no longer wish or be able to use their croft and communicating these possibilities is something I see as key issue for both the Commission and the representative bodies to take forward.

It’s also vital that the “average crofter” takes a more proactive stance in describing the benefits that crofting brings to Scotland. Statements like “quality food, locally produced from high nature-value enterprises” probably do not trip off the tongues of many, but it’s the sort of language that is commonly used by those making decisions about the future of crofting.

mairi cattle

I do notice one aspect of crofting that seems to be dying in many areas which was previously a major strength of crofting – collective effort. Increasingly, every croft is run as an individual enterprise with little sense of common purpose. Grazings committees, where they exist, are often poorly supported by the shareholders. Everyone has to find, buy or hire their own equipment and help. This lack of collectivism in my view is hugely damaging to crofting.  Disagreements in communities and failure to take the benefits that are to be had from working together, and collectively communicating what is being done, could be more damaging to crofting than changes to legislative or financial support mechanisms.

Perhaps it’s time for crofters to take a greater role in shaping the future of a crofting system that’s fit for another couple of hundred years?

 

I was on my father’s heel from a very early age. Mairi Mackenzie, Commissioner.

Crofting Commission portraits

I was brought up on a large hill farm in Wester Ross. The eldest of a family of 6, I was on my father’s heel from a very early age. Mairi Dad

I have fond memories of life on the farm. The shearing shed in the early seventies with 8 men, shepherds and crofters, hand shearing, shouting ‘buist’ (marking fluid) as they finished each sheep.

As children it was our job to run and buist the sheep on the appropriate spot according to whichever flock it came from. Inevitably we were often covered from head to toe in different colours of buist. The woolbags were hung vertically from the rafters, and we as children packed the wool with our feet. The fleeces tossed in over our heads for us to ‘pack’ the bag as tight as we could. Our skin was soft from the lanolin, but our hair was black with grit.

Lambing time was a busy time with none of the mod cons we have now. Mairi lambsNo quad & trailer, the ewes were transported in the back of the Land Rover. No heat lamp or powdered milk, just cows milk and the odd drop of whisky to kick start a weak lamb lying in cardboard boxes in front of the open fire. No marking sprays, just different coloured knitting yarn on the lamb’s tails to cross reference them to their mother. All of this was no mean feat as there were over 2000 ewes on the farm.

Those experiences and many others have set me up to run my own croft which I inherited from my father. I learnt my shepherding skills from my father and feel very privileged to have been given the opportunity to croft, a life I love. Yes, it can be hard work but it has its rewards. I have a flock of North Country Cheviot ewes and a small herd of pedigree Luing Cattle in a beautiful setting on Lochbroom.

Mairi calfMairi dressing sheep

Although I am a great advocate for traditional crofting, I do believe there needs to be diversification on the croft in order for there to be a viable business. I have run a successful Bed & Breakfast business from the croft for 28 years. Over the past few years we have refurbished the old croft buildings, the byre and the barn and we are in the process of refurbishing the original ‘But and Ben’ croft house.

We have invested time and money into our crofts to maintain them for future generations. I would love to see the neglected crofts across the crofting counties brought back into use, and to see the townships flourish once again. It is very encouraging to see the enthusiasm from both the younger and new generation of crofters and hopeful the new Crofting Legislation will help protect and advance crofting for future generations.

 

 

 

A crofter without a croft.

When I am introducing myself in public while dealing with Crofting Commission matters I often describe myself as a crofter without a croft which may seem an odd statement to Crofting Commission portraitssome, however, to people from the crofting counties there’s an instant recognition to the statement.

Crofting is often about the working of the land but it is undoubtedly as much about culture, history, a connection to the land and to the locality. It’s an identification mark if you like much like the lug mark on the crofter’s sheep.

At the Commission we understand that crofting actually goes well beyond the rearing and husbandry of livestock, the cutting of crops and the harvesting of potatoes. It’s about community, it’s about inclusion and it’s about people. It’s about people doing different things, with a common objective, often in the remotest of communities working individually and collectively to support themselves and the communities in which they live while they also protect many hard-earned gains over the lifespan of crofting as we know it.

Crofting is undoubtedly also about stewardship of the Environment – I have just returned from a few days in the Uists, my fourth visit in a year for various reasons and it warmed my soul to be walking through the machairs at Balranald and even more so in Bernary on my way to enjoy the deserted white sandy beaches that continue for miles on the west coast of the islands.Commissioners in Uist1

What really struck me this week is that these machairs are thriving productive areas for crofters on the Islands, particularly on the Uists and there’s an array of winter fodder crops coming close to harvesting that will support livestock over the long, often wet, winter months that lie ahead – that while enjoying the summer sunshine on the beach seems a long way in the future.

But the real story about the crofters crops that’s not often understood and recognised is that they are providing something that farming in Scotland no longer provides in the modern era.

At this time of year, before the crops are cut there is an amazing bio diversity work taking place that for the creatures, birds and small mammals that inhabit the machairs all benefit from. The sight of more oystercatchers, lapwings, golden plover and mirade other wading birds feeding in one small field that had been cropped for hay a few days earlier than I may see across the whole of the rich farmland of Easter Ross as we enjoyed an evening stroll was a quite awe inspiring.

That five acres of land managed for crofting can do this, while still feeding and sustaining the fine cattle that continue to thrive on the Uists in large numbers strengthens my already firm belief in the crofting system for all its difficulties and failings.

Long Live crofting and crofting land management methods….

David Campbell, Commissioner

 

 

I always wanted to be a crofter. Rod Mackenzie, Convener, Crofting Commission.

From an early age I wanted to be a full-time crofter. That’s a Rod03contradiction because crofting is an occupation usually worked alongside another job but in essence that was my ambition. Little did I think at that time I would become the Convener of the Crofting Commission.

I started keeping livestock from my early teenage years when I bought 20 Blackface ewes in MacDonald Fraser’s Mart in Inverness for about £3.80 a head. A Border Leicester ram was purchased a month later and the whole sheep enterprise was started for less than £100!! A couple of cows followed and so it progressed.

A year or so later, our local postman who was also a crofter noticed my flock and herd on his rounds and made comment to my mother something like, “that loon has got an affliction!” My mother caught unawares by the comment understandably looked alarmed. He went on to say, “Aye he’s going to be a crofter and there’s no known cure!” How right he was, I will never be cured.

I grew up learning all the practical aspects from my father as well as all the highs and lows. From achieving a good price when selling sheep and cattle to dead lambs and the occasional dead calf no matter how hard you tried to save them. All attempts were made to save weakly newborns and the kitchen Rayburn was a very effective revival method!  I learned quickly that nature is cruel especially when combined with bad weather, marauding predators and downright bad luck.

Work was hard on crofts when I was growing up in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. Backbreaking jobs included; hoeing turnips by hand on a blistering hot June day; stacking, carting and building small bales of hay; hand clipping Swedes from December to February; feeding and mucking out cows tied in the byre from November until they were turned out in late April. I must admit I am not as physically fit as my father was, but the years of hard work couldn’t have done him much harm as he turned 90 last January.1

During my years as an auctioneer I visited many of the crofting areas in the Highland and Islands and crofting output in the form of cattle and sheep sales contribute greatly to the economic activity. The proportion of these traditional activities has declined as other diversified ways of earning an income have been embraced. Tourism and renewable energy projects are among those projects. I am sure there are and will be others and proves crofters are adaptable and innovative in the use of their crofts.

To have a croft is a privilege not a right. It jars on my nerves to see so many neglected and unused pieces of croft land, which were worked and maintained not so long ago and have now gone to “rack and ruin”. Land is like a house if it is not regularly maintained it is a depreciating asset which quickly becomes derelict and unusable.

There must be an incentive to work, maintain and invest in a croft. This incentive does not always have to be about financial reward but coupled with lifestyle and satisfaction in seeing a well worked and productive croft where a family can live in a beautiful environment. Rods croft Teanroit

 

A “not so” typical day on the croft for Commissioner, Billy Neilson.

Crofting Commission portraitsThe picture below is of six heifer calves, who in 5 seconds flat managed to cause absolute mayhem.

To identify the culprits, from the left Wave, Billys cattlenext to her is Wake, facing you is Wanda, next to her is Waive, hidden on the right is Wait and right in the corner at the back is Walls. The calves names over the last couple of years have been Gaelic, but with the 2017 Year letter being W, I couldn’t find Gaelic names.

The scene as it unfolded was one that every crofter who has cattle can visualise. Walking peacefully behind them the cattle strolled quietly along the track towards the shed, cattle and sheep pens (fanks is how most of you will know them).

Now, there was an opportunity to sneak through a gap in the stone wall, which handy enough gives you entry to the Big House gardens and woodland walks but as they have never shown interest in it before I didn’t give it a second thought.  Oh, how wrong I was!

Wave led the way and living up to her name was waving her tail in the air as she and her 5 accomplices disappeared through the gap.  I took off in hot pursuit although it wasn’t difficult to know the direction they had travelled by the screams from the walkers who were out for a pleasant stroll and by the way those people sprinted past me fleeing in the opposite direction.  They didn’t believe me when I told them the calves were really pets!

A troop of herders, including me, fellow crofter George, a non-terrified walker, Dougie and my daughter who got an S.O.S. phone call for assistance all headed after the cattle.

After a lap around the ‘Big House’, through the raised beds, which they didn’t even attempt to jump, round the side of the fish pond (thank goodness, could you imagine them going for a swim, it’s plastic and only 6 feet in diameter) and finally back onto the track and into the shed, full of innocence at all the fuss. Although I’m sure there was a smug smirk on their faces.

To the ‘Big House’ people, I just professed and admitted, diminished responsibility.  I was left breathless, but never swore (well! not much!).

I’m sure they just wanted to leave me with a lasting memory as Wait was going to a new home on the Island of Bute, Wave, Wake and Walls were off to a farm near Luss on Loch Lomond.  All of these calves will become cows on the various farms, with Wanda and Waive staying at home to become stock cows.  Although if they fancy disappearing through any more “gaps” then maybe they will be looking for a new home as well!!

 

How Commissioner Andy Holt came to live on the island of Papa Stour.

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. DSC_0582The 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.Papa Stour 024During 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.Papa Stour 006

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.