Crofting – a lost link returns

Abandoned stone cottages of the Western Isles each show a weakening link between people and the land – a crofters’ patriarchal influence on island habitats sadly dwindled. Or perhaps not.

These Western Isles once supported many tenanted black houses each home to a crofting way of life practiced for centuries and passed through generations.

Each croftng family had a small piece of cultivated ground for growing vegetables and each with access to common grazing for sheep and cattle. The subsistence living was supplemented with fish in warmer months and game in others whilst all the whike seaweed was dragged up hillsides to fertilise the land.

Annual cycle

Cereals such as oat, rye and bere were grown, scythed, bound into sheaves, dried in the sun and collected into stook stacks. It was then used to feed livestock during winter and the agricultural practice supplied an abundance of spilt grain for wild birds such as corn bunting. 

These particular cereals were well suited to Scotland’s exposed western isles and were selected for their ability to thrive in the lattitude’s shorter daylight hours and in island soil with limited nutrients.

Old craft

Hay was grown for winter livestock feed and this also provided cover for, and limited disturbance to, ground nesting birds such as the corncrake. Flowering plants set seed undesturbed.

Lazy beds, parallel channels cut into the fields by crofters for better drainage, are still visible from the high ground here on Mull, Ulva, Staffa and the Trshnish Islands.

Their remnants still work efficiently two hundred years after their abandonment with damp loving yellow iris in the channels and finer cotton grass and meadow flowers on the drier raised ground.

Lost biodiversities

To feed the burgeoning factory populations of the industrial revolution, lairds forcibly removed populations from the land during the highland clearances making way for more profitable sheep and cattle.

Agricultural practices changed to suit new land requirements and increased numbers of livestock, a preference for silage over hay, depopulation and the abandonment and neglect of the land all had detrimental consequences to west Scotland’s wildlife.

Indeed natural habitats and ecological systems unique to Scotland such as the machair are under threat as modern island inhabitants have a much reduced connection with the land that surrounds them.

Crofting comeback

But the Scottish isles are witnessing a resurgence. With satellite broadband, solar power and other clever gizmos and innovations these wilder and more inaccessible corners of land are becoming popular with artisans, freelancers, writers and many more optimistic intrepids.

Positivity

There is even some positivity in the air among fishermen – perhaps Brexit will even give them back control of their waters from Brussels

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