One of our kitchen windows, in this crofthouse in the farthest western reaches of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, looks out west to St Kilda; the other two look south to the mountains of Harris and the island of Scarp. Nothing but flat boggy headland between us and the sea in two directions; Lewis’ highest mountain, Mealasbhal, to the east; more headland, lochs and sea to the north. It sounds idyllic, and indeed it is – except on the days when the prevailing winds from the south and west (usually more gale than mere wind) lash the land, and anything that has the audacity to grow on it, with salt. And I do mean lash: this last winter season, from October to March, saw salt-laden rain and gales most days, and 60 to 80 mph winds were quite common.
When you aspire to a sustainable lifestyle based around growing your own food, that presents challenges. The salt kills just about everything except for grass, a few scrubby willows, and rosa rugosa. The wind levels anything that is left (an icy northerly or blustery easterly in this exposed land can be almost as lethal as the salty southerlies and westerlies). The soil is acid and boggy. And yet, once upon a time this was a flourishing crofting community, so remote that only the very basics could be bought from the local shop, and all fresh food was grown locally during the summer, with as much of it stored over the winter as possible.
For those of you who don’t know anything about crofting, in its heyday it could be seen as a perfect model for Transition. I’ll skip the detailed history lesson and just say that it came into being in the Scottish Highlands & islands in the 18th century, following the demise of the old almost totally communal ‘runrig’ system of farming. Most crofts consist of a few acres of what’s called ‘in-bye’ land – the actual smallholding itself, on which the croft house is usually situated – along with rights to put livestock out onto the ‘common grazings’ of the crofting township. Crofters now have rights to security of tenure, fixed rents, and the right to inherit or assign crofts pretty much in perpetuity. Recently, the right for crofting communities to buy out their land has been enshrined in an astonishing package of legislation that in an ideal world would mean that crofting townships like ours should flourish.
One of the remarkable things about crofting is that it provides the best of both worlds: the system is both individualistic – a crofter runs and manages his own croft – and collaborative – the elected township Grazings Committee manages the communal land and can often fulfil other functions as well. In many townships the gathering and clipping of the sheep at shearing time is still carried out by the whole community, just as peat-cutting and its transportation back to the township can become a whole community activity. Each croft would have a few sheep and a milk cow, and the milk cows and tups (rams) would be managed communally. Everyone would have a vegetable patch, even though all that could generally be grown were potatoes, turnips, a few carrots and some kind of cabbage or kale. But those vegetable patches were created and improved over generations: hewn from the bog, drained, rocks removed, seaweed carried up from the shore as fertiliser.
Sadly, in the village where we live, there is now very little of this communal crofting, which only serves to highlight the difficulties of self-sufficiency and food production in such a radical landscape. One serious croft isn’t enough in a township like this. If there were more people crofting so that the load could be shared, and so that each croft could be used in the best way, determined by its location and the quality of its soil, then something much finer could be achieved. Land isn’t a problem here, though it’s often quite challenging land: people are a problem – or rather, lack of people. There simply aren’t enough people who are prepared to come to so remote a location and work so hard on the land. And so, we do our best to go it alone.
On our especially exposed and boggy croft, if we want to grow any vegetables at all two things are absolutely essential: a raised bed to ensure appropriate drainage, and some serious forms of windbreak. Even our raised beds have sides, recycled from old glass greenhouse panels or unwanted sheets of rigid plastic. They also have lids, in case of really serious salty gales. But anything that is even remotely delicate or higher than about 6 inches tall has to be grown in a polytunnel – even Brussels sprouts! And the polytunnel has to be gale-proof and must itself protected by a windbreak – the past few years have seen a number of polytunnels erected in this region vanish into the mountains over the winter season. Growing fruit is close to impossible, but we’ve just constructed a small enclosure for raspberries and blackberries protected on one side by the polytunnel and on the three other sides by windbreak fences.
There are other challenges that mean that a home-grown vegetarian diet is totally unfeasible, unless you keep plenty of chickens and a couple of milk cows and are willing to derive all your protein from dairy products. Field beans? Forget it: they wouldn’t last a minute out there – unless you could afford another large polytunnel (and associated infrastructure) just for them. You certainly can’t grow any other pulses, and nuts are equally impossible – though we have managed to keep a couple of heavily protected hazel bushes alive through one winter, so we live in hope. If you want to live in a place like this and to be self-sufficient, you need to be prepared to produce your own meat.
And we do. This, of course, is sheep country – though the decline of crofting means that there are far fewer sheep on the grazings than there used to be, which is probably a good thing. But the land, being boggy and acid, offers quite poor grazing for much of the year, and if you want to be sure of good healthy sheep and lambs you need to supplement during the winter with bought-in feed. The same goes for cows. We are working very hard to reduce the amount of feed that we buy in, but the challenges of growing fodder on such ground – even hay, or oats – means that it is intensely hard work and incredibly time-consuming.
For centuries, crofting families have lived close to this challenging and harsh land, and eked out the best part of a living from it. Just as they did in the past, crofters here still may supplement their income by fishing, or by weaving Harris Tweed in a loomshed on the croft; now working from home via computer (as we do, running Two Ravens Press and EarthLines magazine from the croft) provides other ways to sustain oneself and a family even in as remote a community as this one. At its best, the crofting model parallels the best that Transition can achieve – but the challenges that are faced on these remotest edges of this country are quite different from those faced by most Transition communities, and not to be underestimated. This is no green and pleasant land: it has a harsh, hurting, wild beauty that grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go. But the land makes you work hard for such bounty, and perhaps the greatest lesson we are learning here is to work with it, and not to fight it.
Originally trained in psychology and neuroscience, Sharon Blackie is now a crofter, storyteller, writer and publisher on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Her first novel was the critically acclaimed The Long Delirious Burning Blue. In 2011 she founded and now edits EarthLines magazine, for writing about nature, place & the environment (www.earthlines.org.uk). See also www.reenchantingtheearth.com.
Images: Looking south to Harris mountains and Scarp; Pedigree Jacob & Hebridean sheep by Lewis' highest mountain, Mealasbhal; The Keder polytunnel, with windbreak fencing and high-sided raised beds; Even dogs dance for joy in this place