Am Bratach No. 253
November 2012

View from the croft gate
by John MacDonald

We often seem to get a nice spell of weather in October and this has been the case once again with a touch of frost and a nice day to follow. Good tattie picking weather. I understand that the schools are now closed for a couple of weeks for what used to be called the “tattie holidays.” I wonder just how many of today’s youngsters ever put a tattie in a pail. Empty a crisp packet maybe but that`s the closest most of them will get to handling a tattie. Dipping into the memory box once again, “when we were young”, the term tattie holiday usually meant just that. There would be the home croft tattie lifting but then neighbours would be looking for a hand with theirs and usually a few shillings would be earned.

Sometimes it would be a small farm outfit that would be lifting and their fields would be much bigger and it was a much bigger job, perhaps taking a couple of days. People would be engaged and if you managed to get a job for a day or two it fair boosted the pocket money. By this time most farms had tractor spinners but on the croft the old methods hung on well into the 1950s. The method we used was to split the drill with the drill plough pulled by a pair of garrons, and then it was a case of howking. An improvement on this was to have the local smiddy make a spreader to fit onto the sock of the plough and this worked pretty well, breaking up the ground more. In our area, the tattie was a regular crop grown on the majority of the crofts, but this started fading out in the seventies. Redundant tattie diggers were to become a common sight on most crofts, often left at the end of the field in which they has last been put to useful purpose. After a few years, rust and seizure ensured that the next move would be to the scrap merchant.

Taking a Sunday walk over parts of our parish in fine October weather is an enjoyable experience. Taking in the colours and the last flush of fungi. On such occasions I cannot help but reflect on what the scene was when, in earlier years, I frequented these haunts with free abandon, exploring the woods and byeways; usually with my sidekick, wee Jimmy. Quite often we came across this crofter who was always very aware of what was going on and the usual greeting was, “Oh boy, what are you wandering owls up to today,” Only in later years did I twig that it was in the nature of young owls to do just what we were doing, wandering. In those days there was not the distraction of touch screens or mobile phones that seem to occupy the time of the present day youth and so we would be out mostly all day long. I think Mother gave up worrying and resigned herself that I would usually turn up at teatime.

It is rather sad to find many of the paths, which not so many years ago were very walk-able, and used regularly by people moving about the parish, neglected. What were shortcuts and regular routes to school are now overgrown with whin, bracken and scrub trees; gates no longer able to open, rush and bog where there used to be a drained path. When people stop using them it does not take long for nature to reclaim. The same could be said of many of the fields that I walk through. Fifty or sixty years ago most of them were regularly cultivated, or at least re-seeded, thanks to the grant incentive from the Commission and the ready advice from the College advisors.

Unfortunately, no crofter lasts forever and age takes its toll. Perhaps a widow is left with the land and cultivation halts. The easy option is for it to be let out as a grazing pasture to a neighbour or relative, but this arrangement seldom results in investment in the land. Drainage goes, rushes and bracken spread, the grass pasture deteriorates and it is all downhill from an agricultural aspect, though probably fine for the naturalist. One thinks of how these fields were first created and the time and effort put into creating them over many years — perhaps a lifetime of work went into a croft for it to become fully established with land trenched, drained and dykes built. I cannot but conclude that croft land, on the whole, has degenerated. I doubt if changing things from a Crofters Commission to a Crofting Commission will make any significant change, nodding through schemes to sell off croft land and making big play about absentee crofters. Time will tell. But I wonder if what crofting really needs is to reverse the present policy and make the land the main asset that the commission has to protect. Have a system where access to land is easier but also easier to have land freed up when people are no longer able to work it and maintain it to a certain standard. Having some sort of incentive to hand over to new blood could surely be built into the system. Money is given to agriculture in various guises, vast sums to grow crops and not to grow crops, create woodlands, wetlands, special habitat and so on. So why not recognise that what is recorded as “croft land” is recognised for a purpose in line with that for which it was first created and that was to have a pasture and crop unit for livestock, maintaining an independence of lifestyle which is unique and maintains a population on land that the big farm approach cannot match. There was, and probably still is, an incentive available as a sweetener to encourage retirement and change but, like the Croft Housing Grant and Loan, it is not big enough to have much meaning. What if the land is seen to ask the question, “Is this person fit for purpose to look after me?”

I have always thought that when writing an article like this, to mention weather is taboo, as it is so fickle. But when writing with a crofting theme in mind it is hard to avoid, as weather is so central to every outdoor crofting activity, so I have been caught out again. When I began writing this article I was in a benign mood on account of the fine autumn weather. But since then we have had a 2-day deluge, flooded fields and wet everywhere. The mood has darkened.

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