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.

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A year at the Crofting Commission

Crofting Commission portraitsBill Barron, Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission, tells us about his first year at the Commission.

It’s been a year since my permanent appointment to the Crofting Commission, and 16 months since I first arrived on a temporary basis, eager to learn more of the Commission, the Highlands and Islands, and crofting.

I quickly discovered that the Commission is a unique organisation.  Not just because crofting is so interesting – although its mix of rights and responsibilities and complexities is daunting for the newcomer.  Not because it is the only Scottish Non-Departmental Public Body with a majority of elected members, nor because it is a regulator that is widely regarded as the champion of the sector that we regulate; but because of its unique history, tracing back (through many twists and turns, and too many adjustments to crofting law) to the Crofters Commission of 1886.

Of course, the first Crofters Commission achieved great things for the crofters of its time, helping to reverse the decades of decline and despair, radically reducing croft rents, and ushering in a period of growth and success for the crofting communities.  Maybe that is why the expectations nowadays are sometimes so high!  It would be difficult to match the epic achievements of our predecessors, but we can ensure the Commission remains focused on providing a good service to crofters, promoting and protecting the interests of crofting, and providing effective regulation to aid continued growth and success throughout the crofting communities.

Thankfully, I have had many opportunities to learn about the issues facing crofting. We are fortunate to have a broad Crofting Stakeholder Forum, and an active Cross-Party Group which meets regularly in the Scottish Parliament, discussing issues ranging from wild geese and abattoirs to the future of crofting law.   I have gained a still broader perspective by attending meetings of the Convention of the Highlands and Islands (COHI), I joined them in Lerwick soon after my permanent appointment as Chief Executive, and in Oban again in October. COHI looks at the full range of issues and challenges facing the Highlands and Islands, and the Oban meeting was an appropriate forum in which our new Convener, Rod Mackenzie, announced the Commission’s intention to fund a study on how subsidy systems can support crofters, and through them the land and the communities.shetland 2

Even more than meetings, I like to meet individual crofters and hear their ideas and concerns first hand, whether in my own visits to particular places, or in the questions at the end of a presentation to an SCF or NFUS event. More recently I enjoyed our roadshows in Thurso, Rogart, Benbecula and Stornoway, which again gave me the opportunity to talk directly to crofters and hear their views and aspirations for crofting and the Commission.   The range of challenges facing crofters is considerable, but I am encouraged by the energy and passion of those who have been crofting for many years, and even more by the inspirational new entrants who are just starting out. The crofting communities need their new entrants, and many people across the sector are rightly focussing on how to enable them to become the successes of the future.

As well as grappling with the work of the Commission and the complexities of crofting legislation, I wanted to learn more about the Gaelic language so, along with many of the staff in the Commission I signed up to a Gaelic learning class. I don’t think I’ll ever be fully proficient! But at least I’m able to say, “halò ciamar a tha thu?” even if it is quickly followed by “tha mi duilich nach eil mòran Gàidhlig agam!”

Mull Tea Vicar

Last year Liz Gibson told us of the alternative use herself and her husband were making of their croft in Mull.  Here Liz gives us an update on Tea production in 2016.Liz Martyn Gibson

Liz writes, “2016 was a good year for Isle of Mull Tea. The main excitement was the launch of Isle of Mull Matcha. The world seems to be divided into those who think Matcha is amazing and those who have never heard of it. At the beginning of the year we were in the latter category. Now we’re aware of the history, the health benefits, the range of uses, and importantly the taste.  It is a green powder produced by grinding the whole leaf, meaning that the whole leaf is consumed and none of the goodness left behind as usually happens when leaves are discarded.

Cafes often serve Matcha Latte – either with cow’s milk or almond milk. The traditional way would be to whisk in a bowl with hot water (boiled then cooled slightly). Special whisks are available online. This gives a strong flavour with just a hint of bitterness.

We were delighted that among the cafes serving our products Duart Castle Tearoom in Mull was an enthusiastic customer. They like to use as much local produce as possible. As well as serving Stem Tea by the pot and Matcha Latte the chef did occasional specials of Matcha cheesecake and crème brulee.

We also co-hosted an event “Cheese and Tea Pairings”, suggested by a French wwoofer (Wwoofers (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) who had written a paper on this concept. Less known than cheese and wine there is indeed a fair bit of information on the subject.

The Scottish Antlers Stem Tea has now sold out and we don’t intend to produce any more because it involves cutting up too much of the plant.

Perhaps when the plants are bigger there will be enough from the prunings but that’s a few years away. Meanwhile we have a good number of cuttings growing roots in the polytunnel. We’re discovering the need for patience as growing isn’t a quick process. We’ll be picking our 2017 first flush at the end of March and look forward to increasing our Matcha knowledge in the year ahead. It will continue to be available from www.weeteacompany.com

We’ll also be concentrating on the many other aspects of the croft here, including planting native hedging thanks to support from the Woodland Trust.

Isle of Mull Tea and our croft Mo Dhachaidh both have Facebook Pages if you want to follow the ongoing stories.

Liz and Martyn Gibson