Am Bratach No. 236
June 2011

View from the croft
by John MacDonald

May is a probably my favourite month of the year, before the bracken takes over and obscures much of our wood and hillside from everything trying to compete with it. So we enjoy the display of primroses and bluebells while they last. In former times the main activity of the croft at this time of year would be preparing the ground for a crop before starting the peats. In our parts it was not the time for peats until the oil rose. What the scientific reason for this arouses my curiosity, perhaps some reader can enlighten us, but it is a fact that come June you can often see a sheen of oil on the waters of the peat bank. Perhaps the tradition has more to do with ensuring that the peats were cut when the danger of a frost was least likely, as this can spoil the structure of a peat. Mind you, some folk, less immured with the traditions of the area now start their peats as early as late March and mostly it seems to work out well for them. Especially on years like this when we had lovely dry weather all April, certainly there was a touch of frost with the daybreak, but not enough to upset a peat too much. They are ready to take the peats home by July when we are still thinking of starting to cut, but we all seem to get there in the end.

On the field, the May task would be preparing the black ground for a crop of turnip, the tatties having already been planted. This was quite a labour intensive job in the days when the power unit was one horse, and probably not a very big horse at that. Last year’s lea stubble would first be ploughed, then the spring-tyne grubber would be put into the ground to start to break it up, followed by a rub or two of the ordinary harrows. By now the ground should be getting pretty smooth but the harrows would have taken to the top lots of stone and weeds. The stones would necessitate the horse being yoked up to the cart and the laborious task of gathering undertaken. This is a task I continue to this day whenever I plough a field and it ties me in with the people who worked the land hundreds of years ago. Just look at any old rig system and there is usually a pile or piles of gathered field stone as evidence of labours past.

The weed problem of today seems different; probably all the sprays and what not have played their part in this but the croft fields of my distant memory were usually full of couch grass and knotty weed. These were gathered up and either burned or put on top of an old fiell dyke, depending on the weather. A dry spell would see the croft field obscured with smoke from smouldering weed piles, the resulting ash adding to the soil’s fertility. It the weeds were bad, a second grubbing and harrowing was done and perhaps a set of chain harrows used to help gather the weeds into rollers which made gathering up easier. The croft horsy would have a busy time of it as the next job was to pull the drill plough and then the turnip sower. After these duties, it could relax a bit until the turnip came through and a scrape was needed between the tattie and turnip drills to keep the weeds down. It would be into July before it was needed again to put ground to the tattie drills before the shaws closed over.

The lambing is almost over and I am glad to say that the fears expressed at tup time have proven groundless. The deep snow and restriction of movement were not a deterrent to the tups doing what was required of them; indeed it might even have helped in that the sheep did not wander but stayed more or less where they were fed. Perhaps it might be different with tupping on the open hill ground but I suspect that most people now have the sheep inbye for the occasion.

News of the good April weather that we enjoyed must have found its way to Africa for the cuckoo appeared very early this year. Always, come May 1, I listen for it but this year, to my surprise, I heard it on April 18. I noted its arrival in my diary. The swallows have also come early and are busy setting up their nests and not always in the best of places for our convenience. The eaves directly above our door are one such place and I have had to create an invention to collect their droppings before they descend on us or our visitors. They can make quite a mess in a shed but the strange thing is that once they have gone it is not long before their mess dries up into dust and disappears. Thankfully.

With our taking up on a rural development scheme the pressure is on to get everything completed. One of the options that come under retention of cattle is a grant to renew fences. I thought that this would be a good idea as the best neighbour is a good fence and as most of ours are over forty years of vintage, it is time for a replacement. Not so long ago we could have used a CAGS grant but now I understand that they only give assistance for completely new fences. They cut and change the rules and make things more difficult, then wonder why crofters are not using up the grant allocation. Away back in the seventies, the Department, as we called it, positively encouraged crofters to set about improving their stock and buildings, undertake draining and reseeds, put up new fences and put in roads etc. Forward thinking advisers to give help and guidance were never far away. But over the years, their wings have been clipped and now their directive seems to be to find out what they can do to cut back or restrict our croft hectares.

I read in the agricultural press that there is a danger that the recording of sheep is going to become even more strict and we must be able to keep tabs on every sheep all of the time. Not too difficult in a enclosed farm but a nightmare for people on extensive hill pastures. No wonder sheep are disappearing to be replaced by trees. It is something which bothers me. I think that there is a place for trees but there are also places where trees should not be, or if they are, they are the not the best option for the use of that particular piece of land. At the present time, the incentive is to plant more and more trees and I notice that even some crofters and farmers whom I would consider traditional agriculturists have jumped on the bandwagon of bucks from forestry. Not that I can blame them as they are but responding to the incentive on offer, but something is wrong with the directive and I think that there will come a day when the country will regret having only trees to eat.

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