Am Bratach No. 214
August 2009


View from the croft gate
by John MacDonald

What a contrast of weather since I wrote last month. For a start, hot and dry weather as is rarely seen in these parts, followed by a northerly chill and as I write, very unsettled weather and back to a pattern with which we are more familiar. Anyone with hay ready during the hot spell at the end of June was on to a winner. Most of our hay fields were not quite ready for cutting as it was not that long ago that the sheep had come off them. But the weather was too good to miss and so we went ahead and cut what was nearly ready and I am glad that we did as it is good quality stuff, if a little down on bulk. It reminded me of the type of hay-making weather experienced in Canada and parts of the States, where you have to act quickly or else the hay gets too dry.

The croft animals did not take kindly to all the heat. The old dog spent most of the day in the shade of our dust bin. Sheep lay under whatever shade they could find, a nice river bank preferred; just what you need to blunt the shears. Cattle seem to like the heat but not the clegs that usually accompany such conditions.

Good weather or not, nothing on the croft ever goes quite to plan and something is sure to break down or play up. If you still have a square baler you will know only too well what I mean. The round balers too have their problems with chains breaking or bearings going. This year everything was going well on the last day of guaranteed good weather before the forecasted change. I had started to bale the seven acre park, and then I did something which no crofter should ever do — think to himself just how well everything is going. It’s a psychological thing and has no rationality to it but think like that and something is bound to go wrong. In my case the hydraulic pump on the baler decided that it had enough of the pressures of life and burst asunder, taking most of the back end oil from the tractor with it. I had previously wondered about this little thing on the baler with lots of little pipes coming from it, but as long as it worked, its function remained a mystery. Now I know.

Fortunately, I had a similar baler behind the shed, which I raided for spares. (That is why every crofter has what the general public assume is a junk yard. It is not, it is a spare parts repository.) Sure enough, the pump was still on it and a transfer was made, not without difficulty, but with great joy that it functioned; so, somewhat late in the day, it was back to the field. The plus point was that the crop had benefited from the extra few hours of drying and was just right for haylage.

For the first time in many years I got round to visiting the County Show. When I was working as a postman, it was a six day week and days off were Sunday only, so I did not tend to visit many all-day events in the locality, unless in holiday time. You would think that retirement would free up lots of time and in some ways it does, but the croft demands commitment as well and that is usually tied in very much with the weather. So if it is good weather at the time of the County Show, haymaking takes priority.

In last month’s article I made mention of the Mackay brothers from New Zealand who were staying with us for a few weeks as they explored round the area. Spending a lot of their time restoring some of my dilapidated fences and rebuilding one for a neighbour as well. They had a night at cutting peat with another neighbour on a damp, midge-infested evening when the squad cut two banks. Strangely enough, the midges did not bother them; they thought them just a bit of a nuisance but set their mind to ignoring them and kept on working. The clegs were not so easily ignored, especially when fencing during those hot days. With all their hands on activities, they soon got to know the locals, while getting a feel for the place and met with plenty Mackays.

It was not all work; they managed to get to the Highland Show in Ingleston and our local county show as well. They were of the opinion that the bulls on display were away over-fat, probably right.

They are great bottle hunters, stop anywhere and they soon found a bottle. One of those grand hot days we went exploring the Strathnaver trail and walked over to Achness to see the cemetery and the ruins of settlement. We started off at Grumore and no sooner were we out of the car than they spotted an old screw-top with the zinc top and a milk bottle with North of Scotland Milk Marketing Board stamped on it. Not many years ago it was as common as muck but now it is a collectable item. So by the time that they left my shed had probably the nucleus of a new collection. I will have a long way to go before I can equal what they have gathered in their home area while exploring the old derelict gold and coal mining towns. Much of their most valued finds are found on the site in what they call “the long drop”. No flush toilets and septic fees for those old pioneers.

I wish that I had kept a note of all the tips and things that they came out with. Like how to preserve poor hay. Sprinkle salt on it. They always sprinkle salt over every layer of bales if they are fresh or damp. I mentioned this to my neighbour who said that her father, a former gamekeeper, always did the same. When the hay was being forked into the barn and tramped he always sprinkled salt onto it. Probably it was common practice at one time but how many of us now remember such things?

Another tip was when herself complained that the old collie was starting to use the area around her washing line as a toilet. No problem, just fill a bottle with water and lay it on the ground where you want the offence to cease. Rather sceptically we tried it. Don’t ask me how, but it works.

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