Am Bratach No. 325
November 2018

John MacDonald’s View from the croft gate

It’s a year now since I contributed a croft gate article; I have been using up reminiscences of growing up in the 1940s. A few years ago I had written down some memories in the hope that they might be of interest to members of the family in future years or people looking into how things once were. I suppose most of our heritage societies are on the same journey.

It must be coming on twenty years since I started our local heritage society, with no clear idea of what lay ahead. My only regret is that time has run out on my ability to be active in research and exploration. What I really enjoyed was to go on a research mission to an archive source. To visit the Edinburgh archive used up valuable holiday time, but once familiar with all its quirks of access and understanding how the system worked, a most rewarding place to visit. The family did not see much of me on such days.

The local Sutherland estate office is also most rewarding and helpful once you have got permission to visit and the archivist is available. Visitors from abroad head down to Dunrobin on a search for ancestors but usually come away disappointed as all such records are in the national archives. What can be seen are interesting old maps of the local parishes which help with the identification of crofts and houses and estate improvements like shifting a water course or building roads and bridges.

Being involved with heritage opens contact with many interesting people and lets you see into a world well outwith the croft gate. Mostly people are very helpful. Inverness was handy when the archive was in Farraline Park, but not so once they hid it at the edge of town. In the old Inverness archive there used to be Mr Steward, and to visit his map room was a pleasure and an education. To meet such people was always encouraging.

It was only once that I came up against a prickly archivist and that was in the new Inverness archive, when I asked to see a certain collection and received a stern lecture. The archivist was probably a retired headmaster who thought that I was a suspicious-looking character in need of a lesson on protocol: what did I want to see this material for and how was I to handle it? I listened politely and took aboard what he said, a lesson learned for future occasions. The item which I wished to view was the diary of my father’s schoolmaster, William Campbell, who died in 1930. Mr Campbell kept a most meticulous diary of what was going on in the parish. I did not tell the archivist that I already had a good knowledge of what the diary contained: I had gone through its content during a heritage project to digitise it for our records. It contains much interesting comment on crofting as it used to be. Eventually I was allowed to view the diaries and I was amazed to see how small they were to contain such a wealth of material.

Considering that my croft activity is likely to be zero, perhaps if I can continue writing this column I can take a monthly look at the diary extracts as they relate to the croft. I will start with an example from this time of year in 1907.

“Friday, October 11, 1907. A nice dry day, but coldish and threatening showers. Attendance very good. Gathered my corn into 3 achors (Gaelic = “small corn-stacks”) in 10 minutes with help of the scholars.

“Saturday, October 12, 1907. A coldish dry day. People very busy cutting the corn. Made up all the crates and took them in — and two crates of honey — one with full sections all sealed; the other partly sealed. Raked the corn fields — made the corn stack and thatched it. Disappointed that I got neither the boots ordered from Mr Hogg Strathmiglo.

“Saturday, October 19, 1907. A fine dry sunny day; some corn still uncut; some making ‘achors’. Thatched the two hives and skep. Altered netting up to cabbage.

“Monday, November 4, 1907. A fine dry and mild day; lifting potatoes.”

The term “achors” was one we also used for the initial small stack of sheaves gathered together as protection from the weather. In October the parish would have been alive with cutting and securing the oat harvest. Mr Campbell gets the scholars to help and makes short work of the task, the fields for the school croft being quite small. I am sure most of the boys would have welcomed a break from sitting behind a desk. The corn stack was the final achievement when the achors would be loaded onto the cart and led into the stackyard to be near to the barn for access during severe weather.

It was also time to harvest the honey and Mr Campbell protects his bees for the winter by thatching the hives, one of which was a skep. My aunt used to have a skep, which is literally a woven straw basket, set perhaps three high. When the bees filled up the lower basket they moved up to the basket above and so on. If it was a good year for honey the top basket would be full. Aunt would scoop out the honey into a big enamel basin; the lower sections were left to feed the bee during winter. Mother was very good at keeping bees but we just had the conventional hive with sections. She would first harvest the early clover honey which was light in colour and, finally, the darker heather honey. During the war years it was a welcome treat and one of the benefits of having a croft.

In parts of our parish open to the grouse moor some folk would leave a few achors out very late until the November frosts and this attracted another harvest which did not please the local gamekeeper protecting his master’s grouse. But the practice went on for many years and every year the hill would have a healthy covey of grouse. It was only after the 1950s, when the old ways of harvesting had died out, that there was a massive decline in grouse numbers. Presumably enough grouse survived the crofter’s snare or gun and with a feed of grain to carry them into the winter.

Two other things of interest are revealed. Our schoolmaster has sent off for footware from “Hogg”, a name familiar to many a shepherd and gamekeeper. Then come early November, when some fine weather comes along, it is time to lift the tatties. Not many crofters now grow a field of tatties, nor do they keep bees, while the stook and the achor have faded into memory. Soon they will be remembered only in heritage records such as these. 

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