Mull crofter, Liz Gibson, tells her story of how her and her husband found a new use for their croft whilst building on their passion for tea.
Mention growing tea in Scotland and most people’s reaction is surprise, often disbelief. The idea isn’t actually new but only in the last few years has the possibility been taken seriously. The Wee Tea Plantation, along with the Wee Tea Company, leads the way. I first read about them in an article some time before we moved to Mull. It was interesting but I didn’t think any more about it. Around the same time we went on a Fairtrade tour in Peru and got the opportunity to pick some tea on a small plantation with exotic fruit growing on trellises above the tea plants. Again, interesting but no thoughts of taking it any further.
Fast forward and we’d been living on the croft for nearly a year. How we ended up with a ten acre croft is a different story. Our intention was and is to grow soft fruit and fruit trees, vegetables, and herbs, all as organically as possible and with the hope of contributing to the local food economy. We welcome Wwoofers (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) for a week or two at a time and have had a couple of seasons of international help and mutual learning. Bracken has been cleared by pulling, cutting and digging.
I read another article about the success of the Wee Tea Plantation in Perthshire. This one ended with the suggestion to get in touch if we were up for trying to grow some ourselves. So we did. It was on an area cleared of bracken that we planted our first fifty Camellia Sinensis in October 2014. Half a dozen of us worked hard to get some wind breaks up and get the plants in. We had space so we gave them plenty of room for growing. The hillside is quite exposed but being a slope meant the water would keep moving and not leave the tea sitting in puddles. Unfortunately the corrugated iron windbreaks weren’t up to the strength of the wind and themselves got blown away. When the plants didn’t revive as everything else was turning green in spring we thought we’d made an expensive mistake and were about to admit defeat.
We hadn’t reckoned with the persistence and support of Tam O’Braan of Wee Tea fame. He came to have a look and said he’d take away the original plants to see if he could revive them. Meanwhile he suggested a different spot and closer planting to give the new plants better protection. We decided to try hurdle fences. A number of folk helped create the distinctive wind breaks that our three little plots now boast. We didn’t pick more than a few handfuls of leaves in 2015 in order to get the plants properly established. They’re looking healthy and we look forward to picking the first flush probably in late March 2016.
Meanwhile the original plants got a new lease of life, but not by growing. Some did start to revive but Tam had tried making what turned out to be a delicious and delicate stem tea. A new concept for us but one which made Isle of Mull “Scottish Antlers” Stem Tea hit the headlines. It was one of four Scottish Teas given by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to President Barack Obama. Extra interest was generated because like many crofters we have more than one job. I am a Church of Scotland minister so “More tea Vicar” was almost an inevitable headline. Such interest would be the proverbial storm in a teacup if it wasn’t a good product. We’ve sold some locally and it is doing well online at the Wee Tea Company as well as garnering some good reviews. Learning about the world of specialist tea is an ongoing process and we look forward to being part of it in the years to come.
Liz & Martyn Gibson