Am Bratach No. 221
March 2010

View from the croft
by John Macdonald

As I write, it is still early February and still the snow is not too far away. We have had two falls and two thaws and now seem to be enjoying a bit respite while the snow continues to cause its usual chaos around the southern extremity of the country.

It is strange how even quite a modest amount of snow can bring everything to a stop. Our local school has been closed on quite a few occasions, even although the roads have been passable, if at times difficult. I think back to my own time spent in its portals and I cannot remember it ever closed because of the weather. We would walk through drifts to get there and yes, some bairns would not make it, but there was always enough got there to enable school to proceed. At that time our school house was occupied by the teacher so it was no problem for her to attend but now the teachers come from other parishes and it is no doubt more daunting to attend to your school when you have to start the day with a considerable journey into the unknown. But such is progress.

In many ways, we have been lucky, the thaws have been benign, and there have been no power cuts and only one interruption in water supply that I heard of. The roads have been kept open except for a few of the customary notorious spots that, usually on account of altitude, always present a problem. Indeed, is spite of the depletion of salt supplies, cutbacks and what have you, the county have to be congratulated for the way that they handled the winter weather emergency? I speak with the evidence in my own locality; perhaps some of you will have different views.

I think that a lot of the problem lies with ourselves and our expectation for the roads to be kept 100% clear. I remember a winter’s trip into Sweden and a journey undertaken on snow packed roads. There was no salt, but the driver was very aware of the conditions and drove accordingly, coupled with that, the vehicle was fitted with tyres appropriate to winter driving. But their winter is predictable, unlike ours.

It was disturbing to hear of so many people coming to grief on the roads. A lot of these accidents involved young drivers and I fear that having had such a succession of snow free winters, many would never have had experience on how to drive in old time winter conditions. It’s sad when many of them never get a second chance.

I notice in the last Bratach that my musings over crofting and where it is going has attracted some heavy shells from a big gun. The point being made that it is time that crofting shook off regulation and counter balances and just got on with open market forces and ownership of the land. This opinion I will not disagree with, although “a big fish in a small pond,” comes to mind.

The present situation is a hotchpotch. Ownership of some crofts, not of others, houses sites in private ownership but not the land which these houses were first constructed to serve, croft land given over to blatant speculation, people wanting land, people with more land than they can cope with, etc.

The traditional regulatory control of crofting land has been ruptured and the gene has escaped. Perhaps it is indeed time to go the whole hog like what happened in Ireland when they went down the road of land ownership while Scotland went down the crofting road. In Ireland, they had a no nonsense approach to big private estates.

With all the investigation into crofting, meetings and what not, it is strange that the question of how Ireland has adapted itself to the individual ownership of small holdings never seems to be considered. Surely there is a lesson there.

I seem to have caused some offence by using the term “indigenous population,” I suppose this raises contentious issues, especially if you go into the heartlands of the UK and see the skyline dotted with as many minarets as church spires.

I have made a retirement hobby of exploring many of the townships of Sutherland cleared of their population to create the great sheep farms. It is when you stand there in the midst of these low walls and the outline of former homes that you reflect and soak up the sadness of these places. You look for where the mill was, where the kilns are, the remains of track ways, the miles of boundary dyke and the effort which must have gone into creating them with very primitive means. Then you look at the nearby shepherds’ stalls and the grand wall surrounding the sheep enclosure park and you wonder how much of this fine example of the mason’s art contains the stone taken from the people’s houses. You start looking for lintels and stones which may have served a purpose and you find them. You are conscious that some of the people who lived and died here over many generations were your own ancestors and you feel a part of the place. If you are of these people, to my thinking, you are indigenous, your roots go deep.

I will lob one more grenade. In the early eighties when there was a stirring amongst the crofting fraternity as the ghosts of the Land League rose again and gave crofting a voice. One or two things got together, the leadership came from the ashes of former land disputes in the Western Isles, there were some very able people within the active crofting circle who were willing to give it a go and the Scottish Crofters Union was formed. Not least amongst the influences guiding and inspiring the movement was Dr Jim Hunter’s new book “The Making of the Crofting Community.” When Jim was persuaded to be the first director, things took off, better than was ever expected.

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since those heady days but the organisation, under various guises, still survives and it is no coincidence that it is regarded by central government as the main representative body for the crofting fraternity that exists. The union made this their business.

It is still driven mainly by crofters willing to forgo of their time and effort in its cause and even although it exists on a mean budget and it is limited in what it can achieve, few will deny that it punches above its weight. It has made a difference. It will never be perfect, but it is worthy of what support we can give, as are all organisations with the wellbeing of our rural communities at heart.

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