Am Bratach No. 254
December 2012

View from the croft gate
by John MacDonald

The croft is settling into winter mode and we await whatever weather the next few months throws at us. We can do little but accept what comes but at least we can be sort-of prepared. As I write, we have a southerly wind and that is a bonus at this time of year.

Meanwhile, the tupping season is getting off to a good start, assuming that open weather is best for tupping. This assumption is open to debate as just a year or so ago we had a heavy fall of snow and it lay throughout the tupping period and the sheep did not go far. They had their own tracks through the snowy fields and these they followed religiously, as sheep do. The sheep just stayed put and devoured their rations. Long after the snow in the field disappeared, the packed snow of the sheep tracks remained. But the outcome at lambing time was quite a surprise: we anticipated a poor lambing but it was the opposite — it was a very good lambing.

It has been time to spean and sell the Spring calves. We had thought of keeping them on but the extra feed cost of taking them through winter and keeping them away from the rest of the herd and the bull tipped the balance and off to Dingwall they went. We only had four, much the same age and off the same bull so they were well matched. One calf was a bit more lively and athletic than her companions and while being loaded, she burst through the gates and made off to rejoin Mother. So just three went to the sale that day. The trade was good and we were pleased with the price. Two weeks later and another cattle sale in Dingwall. This time we managed to get the wayward heifer boarded without incident and off we set. It was a big sale and we were the last of the calves to go through, making for a long day. The trade was brisk and the prospects of obtaining a price comparable to the previous sale seemed to be on. But as the afternoon waned into evening most of the buyers had got what they wanted and headed for home. So by the time that we came into the ring the seats around were very empty. Only the diehard buyers waiting for the cows and OTM trade. Consequently the heifer calf attracted very half-hearted bids and she left the ring a good £130 down on her companions sold two weeks previous. The point brought home to me was just how circumstances can influence your income. I had one calf, but most hill farmers had a dozen or more and if each was to drop in value over £100 and that selling calves was their main income, then it was not good news and really just bad luck.

There is scepticism at the idea that the grazing clerks of common grazings land are to be at the forefront of reporting on how crofts are used. Most clerks give of their time voluntarily and probably only undertake the duty when nobody else will do it. To fulfil this new requirement puts them into a situation of being virtual spies for the commission and could see them becoming embroiled in controversy which, I am sure, most could do well without.

The commission, if they want to go down this road, should make more of its assessors, and if they expect them to become more involved to this extent, then they should pay them. In a way this would put the clock back to the day of the estate “ground officer,” and I am not sure if that would be acceptable in this day and age. Ground officers in general seemed to be regarded as being just one degree down from the factor. But it depended a lot on the individual. I have heard talk of one particular ground officer who served our parish in the early twentieth century, who was regarded as being very considerate and did a lot to help people who were in very poor circumstances. Of course, this did not always go down well with the estate, and so they sent him off to Alberta to manage the Duke`s farms in Canada.

But to get back to thinking about paid assessors. It would take the burden off the back of the voluntary grazings clerks and place it onto someone who, if they accept this position, is willing to make such reports. Usually the assessor is a person appointed by the crofters and grazings clerks as someone who has a fairly level headed opinion and knowledge of what is going on and gets on with most people.

I acted for quite a number of years as a local assessor and, indeed, I considered it to be an honour to have been chosen to do so. Fortunately my years as assessor did not throw up any very controversial cases as had the reign of my predecessor. My duties were mainly to respond to opinion being sought by the commission as to the feel of the crofter community to whatever proposal or notification was currently presented. I think that the greatest stir was when the local estate tried to bump up the rents by a massive amount. The local hall was packed in angry protest and eventually a compromise of about a four times increase was arrived at. Which was not as bad as it sounds as it was based on the rental for most of the crofters as it was when last raised, in 1914.

One jolly was the Annual Assessors Conference. For many years it was held in the Cummings Hotel in Inverness and encompassed the whole Highlands, so you began to come across some stalwarts of crofting and some very able people. But also there were some whose contribution could, every year, be very forcefully proclaimed and perhaps outwith what was considered subject of universal interest or consequence. Like the chap who every year shouted out, “And what are you going to do about the rabbits in Barra”?

But I was, at the same time as being a local assessor, a member of the new crofters’ union and one very forthright, outspoken lady and great advocate for the cause of crofting, with a speciality of knowledge for a crofting community just south of The Ord, regarded me as being “a commission spy.” I duly passed on this information to Herr Goebbels, as one should.

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