The State Of The Croft

1508063_10152387287156105_3026520496099479934_nIt has been over a year since I blogged last but before the year was out I thought it would be fruitful to look back at the second year on the croft and gather some thoughts on the time that has flown by so ridiculously quickly. It’s been a very different year from the first, the honeymoon period being well and truly over and the reality of having packed in one way of life and packed up for another hitting home with no holds barred.

City life seems an age away, exacerbated by the fact that I haven’t left the island, save for once, since I wrote last. For the first time, 2014 was the year I missed the things I left behind for a whole host of silly reasons. I miss riding my bike through busy streets. I miss the immediacy of on-demand shops and services. I miss bustling bars serving incredible booze and restaurants where people more than ably cook and bring you amazing food in exchange for your hard earned cash. I miss a lot of old friends and the take-it-for-granted nature of being able to walk out of your door on a whim and meet them for a catch-up over a pint or three. I wistfully miss seeing, hearing, speaking to all manner of women and crave the anonymity that comes with living in a morass of crazy people, where idiosyncrasies are not only encouraged but blissfully ignored.

I could, at any second however, be in the midst of all that within a couple of hours. A car journey, a flight and I’d be in Glasgow, Edinburgh, London or beyond with ease. Or I could debauch myself in the heady environs of Stornoway just an hour’s bus-ride away. But work here and the limited period of grace I’ve been granted to make this crofting malarkey work means that such luxuries have to wait. I have just less than a year to run on the croft sub-let and when it runs out I need to stump up or bail out. So there’s everything to play for and no time to play. And despite the yearning for the bacchanal and bright lights I must state that I wouldn’t trade them back for this island life. Whatever the metropolis/metropolii holds, this small part of the world weighs far heavier on my happiness scale. It’s a joy to be here and at no point have I felt mistaken for coming home. I think any misgivings are a matter of balance and as long as the odd con can be countermanded by the pros of getting out and away here and there then this track being walked will remain an enjoyable one.

So what news?

The year has been dominated by the need to earn a living wage and the desire to do interesting and fulfilling work. On one hand I had the steady, reliable work weaving of Harris Tweed, which does not pay particularly well for a single, late-thirties man with no other income, but for a 40+ hour week (if your loom is singing) can guarantee a regular wage paid direct to the ol’ bank account. On the other, I had a myriad of (over)stimulating but often poorly paid projects, writing work and exciting potential revenue streams to pursue but which kept me tied to the desk and staring at a computer screen in order to make happen. Finding the balance was difficult, when one swung too far there would be politely irate messages and phone calls asking when tweeds would be finished and a pressure to meet quotas. When it swung the other way, similarly, clients would be demanding work be done at a moment’s notice and often unpractically added to at the last minute.

In the end circumstance and pragmatism won out. My loom went kaput mid-summer, basically a plethora of minor faults compounded into one, big, disaster-prone bit of machination and instead of weaving the cloth I love so much it was simply ripping it to shreds. It got so bad I phoned the mill I was working for and told them to come and cut out what was there and give it to someone who was able to produce a useable piece. And, being a self-employed, independent weaver, there was no assistance to my plight, least of all from my otherwise generous ‘employers’. But at the same time the profusion of desk-bound work was not paying its way. Clients across the board were not coughing up on time for work done and every month meant issuing invoices and waiting for the inevitable lack of payment before going on the polite offensive to hustle, beg, guilt-trip and damn well demand their bills were settled. Not something I enjoyed at all and although very much par for the course for any freelancer or small business, the grief and stress was not something I’d signed up for here on the croft.

The many and varied conflicts of interest came to a head when the owners of the loom I rent, a smaller mill than the one I was weaving for, got in touch to say they were aware I was no longer using the damn thing and that they wished to repossess it to re-rent to someone able to weave to a greater extent than I was. I explained the machine was in dire need of multiple repairs but that I had neither the finances or the expertise to get it back in action.  So they offered to help get me working again, paying for new parts and the attentions of someone who could fix all the problems I had failed to. In return I agreed to weave cloth for them by way of thanks. And so it went. Almost a month of repairs in the hands of a local expert, new parts to the tune of around £700.00 and by the end up I was finally in possession of a smoothly operating loom but also a commitment to return to full-time weaving. Henceforth, I dropped the vast majority of clients on my books, retaining just two for nostalgic and personal reasons and became a Harris Tweed weaver once again. The conflict between one way of life and another resolved through fate and circumstance.

Everything else on the croft was, and is, a hobby. I make no money from the land, probably because I don’t claim any subsidy or grants. But that’s ok. This year potatoes were grown in the ground again and I built six raised beds from old wooden pallets in which were grown an abundance of salad leaves, lettuce, spinach, onions, cabbages, swedes, turnips, kale, carrots (not so abundant), beetroot and other hardy and tasty stuff. The hens and cockerel decided to expand their domain, laying eggs in secret places and hatching them to produce to big broods of new birds of their own volition. The flock now stands at twenty,  but only because the half dozen or so resulting roosters met their demise at my culling hand and knife and latterly with the predations of feral ferrets. Good soup stock resulted nonetheless. In the fields the flock of Hebrideans expanded also, new lambs from their own midst and pedigree stock bought in from Breanish to swell their numbers. At the same time others were sold on to new homes in the lovely land of Lochs on the far side of the island.

And I got a dog.

The mischievous Mara. A Border Collie who turned out to have a bit of Bearded Collie in the mix too. She’s wonderful but a handful, smarter than I’d ever imagined a dog to be, very obedient but a challenge to keep under control and on four paws, bursting as she does with energy and love. A friendlier dog you will not meet but every day is a lesson for both of us. She loves the sheep and had excellent instincts, already helping me to move the flock to where I want it to go. There is a lot of work to do and she’s by no means the perfect pup but any faults are purely my own and not her’s. She’s my first dog and it’s been a blast. Highly recommended but if you don’t have time, space and care then please don’t bother with a breed as psychologically complex as this.

Much of what has happened over the piece is gearing up for 2015, a crunch year if ever there was one. It’s clear that everything now will be centered in and around the loomshed, that manky, cluttered old cow byre whose walls I knocked out last year. As well as the working loom, there’s now an old Hattersley loom from the 1930’s in the middle of being put back together. There’s a wood burning stove, new framed prints on the wall, better lighting, a sturdy work bench and well-stocked toolkit, full whack wi-fi, streamed music and much more. And in my mind there’s a very concrete game plan, the result of which, if successful, will set matters firmly forth on stage two of this (possibly) fool-hardy life-choice. If I make it then I’ll have reached, if not the summit, but a pretty damn good basecamp from which to make even more adventurous journeys from.

It’s winter now, the storms are rolling in and the year is drawing to a close. There is much omitted here, the simple pleasures of life in Lewis, the good people I’ve met and worked with, being immersed in nature and community, growing closer to family and new friends, the freedom to be and do fulfilling stuff in a stunning part of the world, the opportunity to carve something out anew, free from all the usual ruts and restrictions of the banal day to day. And there is certainly much more to write but hopefully this blog will resurrect slightly, covering more of the less mundane stuff as it unfolds on into 2015…

Please do watch this space…

Full Circle

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The first year is over here on the croft.

Life has come full circle in more ways than one and now seems as good a time as any to look back on the journey through the last four seasons and, ultimately, bring things to a close.

Autumn, coming at the end of August 2012 was the first season here and saw the conversion of the old byre into a working loom shed and office from which to work. Sledgehammers were swung and walls ‘n’ stalls came down to make room for the double-width loom that was to serve as my financial means to an end while other plans were made. Some wood stain and whitewash later and there was a large, airy space from which to carve out a living. Livestock came next, a “starter pack” of three Hebridean ewes and a ram called Calan joined me, forming the basis of a flock that would grow to 19 beasts before the year was out. A wooden henhouse was commissioned from a local man and half a dozen or so chickens at just six weeks old procured to provide that crofter’s staple of fresh eggs every morning. A wee ginger cat found lurking in the croft grasses became an ever present new pal.

Winter rolled in quickly and the days were short and dark nights long. Weaving in the loom shed proved challenging, often done in the full get-up of thermals, woollens, waterproofs and fingerless gloves. When the wind blew in certain ways, rain and hail would accompany the peddling inside, the Ness gales blowing gaily through the cracks and crevices in the old tin roof. Bad weather affected the sheep too, with an outbreak of snow blindness, one girl almost losing her sight as a result. The classic Colnago Cross bike I’d relied on to get me back and forth from the local shop for supplies was of no use in the face of daily 50mph+ winds, a journey that took just 20 minutes one way could take twice that in the other direction. So an old jalopy was bought for buttons, probably the most impractical vehicle for any crofter to be driving on these islands. A convertible with slow punctures, ropey battery and a rasping exhaust, the back seat could hold one bale of hay and the boot a couple of bags of sheep feed at best. But it lasted long enough until the bank balance was back on track and a more up to date replacement was bought.

As quickly as it came in, the darkest season crept out and Spring was soon in the air. The grass that had so long been burnt dry and withered by wind began to grow green again, feeding the now in-lamb ewes in preparation for the arrival of newborns. The flock had been expanded with two young Hebridean / Jacob’s crosses towards the end of 2012 and Calan had carnally joined the pure Hebs around that time too, working his magic with the ladies and, unfortunately with one of the under-age girls after an illicit midnight escapade into their field. The result of his prowess was a brilliant lambing season that produced eight healthy lambs in total and no losses, two pairs of twins, a triplet and a single. With the weather improving there was some back-breaking work to be done breaking new ground for growing vegetables and after a bit of graft there were soon potatoes, onions, lettuces, beetroot, carrots, cauliflower, peas, cabbages and carrots in the soil. Time would tell if I’d reap what I’d sown.

Summer on the islands is always special, especially when the sun shines and the days are so long the time between sunset and sunrise barely registers. With the fields full of lush grass, the vegetables growing, hens laying and the loom singing it felt as if the hard part was over. Things were established, stuff had worked out, progress had been made. With a bit of wi-fi re-working I was able to move the office into the byre and online work reached a peak with half a dozen good clients paying monthly for various marketing, copywriting and social media projects. Visitor numbers to the croft took a steady uptick as dozens of schoolkids, art-school students, textile designers, photographers, journalists and old friends made their way to this far north-west outpost to see what was happening. The sheep were sheared with the help of a neighbour and the village roads were full of activity from tractors to tourists. Sunsets were many and there was even a period of midnight barbecues and books read by twilight in sandals, shorts and teeshirt. Imagine that.

As summer faded and the forecasts began to take a turn for the worst the cycle of the seasons had almost made its full revolution. Other local crofters brought home their peats and stacked them ready for the colder months ahead, something I failed to get organised enough to do despite having a peat-bank and the tools, if not the time or manpower, to do it. A regret I’ll now end up paying for, literally, as I fork out cold, hard cash for coal instead of this free fuel I could have had. The declining days were heartened by a harvest of my own making. Some things had thrived, predictably the traditional and hardy root veg of potatoes, onions, turnips and beetroot. Other things failed miserably like the green beans and carrots who struggled in the dense soil. Lettuces of all kinds were a bumper crop and filled plate after plate as they were cut and came again but the high hopes for the kale and cabbages were dashed by the double predations of cheeky chickens and cruel caterpillars. In spite of these failings, the veg growing has been a wonderful experience, something I never expected to enjoy so much. Even with the bad weather looming and the ground now bare, I’ve planted out dozens of new late season seeds to see how they’ll fare.

It’s all been truly satisfying and deeply nourishing on every level. Like being plugged back into Life after a lifetime without access to the very basics of living. Fundamental truths have abounded, something only nature and quiet simplicity can reveal, and with them a real and profound happiness ensues.

Which brings us back to today, the point at which the whole process begins again. Another go around. It’s here that thoughts turn to future plans, consideration given to what has been learned, what worked and what didn’t, what has been achieved and what can be improved on. It’s also the time to reassess life more generally, set some new goals, alter plans and perhaps choose new paths.

Next year there will most definitely be a polytunnel present and more time devoted to growing my own produce. There will be more of the good stuff that worked growing in more of the ground, enough to fill store-cupboards and possibly even sell on. Raised beds will be built to use up the bad ground too. Better fencing and windbreaks need erected. Conversely, my previously held desire to raise my own meat has wained somewhat. While I have no ethical problem with killing and eating animals, (although I’ll admit the connection to my fellow creatures has deepened considerably) the practicality of doing so is weighing on me a little.

My intent was never to maintain a flock of hundreds and gain financial benefit from sales and grants, rather it was to simply have food for the freezer and at this level I’d far rather do the dispatching myself, here on the croft, than ship two or three beasts to the abattoir to go through the stress of the production line there. And I’d like to use a lot of the offal too, something prohibited by the official processes. But home slaughter has its problems too, I’m comfortable with the culling but skinning, gutting and disposal prior to the butchering presents challenges. Neither is ideal for me but at least I have until next year to make that particular bloody call.

There are also downsides to the financial and time commitments required to raise animals. I had hoped to have pigs on the go too for splendid charcuterie purposes but, as with the sheep, I’ve much to consider there also. Money is required for housing, feeds, vet bills, shearing, slaughtering, drenching, fencing…all of which makes me wonder if it’s worth it when I can buy a perfectly good, locally raised carcass (or three) from one of my neighbours. The two obvious reasons for continuing  down these animal tracks are the fact it brings the 5 acres of land here into use and also that it’s very enjoyable. We’ll see how it pans out but the level of animal management right now is more than sufficient for my purposes. Except perhaps for bees, I miss my inner-city beehives so getting new colonies on the go needs to be prioritised.

Which all brings me to the big con of this new way of life.

Time.

Time is money, there is no way to earn unless I am working and the simple fact is that I need to earn money. Every hour not spent working is an hour not spent earning. Much as I love it, weaving Harris Tweed does not pay well enough to justify doing full-time. It’s ideal if you’re supplementing a pension or using it to pitch into the family income as a part-time endeavour but to earn a decent living peddling under your own steam…forget it. The awful truth is I can easily earn more money (double) sitting at a desk than at a loom.

The second caveat is that I would like more of my own time and work for money a whole lot less. Livestock keeps me bound to the croft and after a year here I would like to get away a whole lot more. And I mean a WHOLE lot more. In the unplanned absence of a female sidekick due to rather unforeseen circumstances the goalposts have shifted more than a little. The prospect of living on the croft as a bachelor all year round fills me with fear! I’ve handled the situation admirably through a combination of cod-philosophy (pragmatism and stoicism with a smattering of Thoreau-esque  transcendentalism mostly) but something’s got to give in 2014 otherwise I’ll go crazy. I’ve also not seen enough of the world for my liking.

And so, inspired by Chris Guillbeau I hope next year to work even more with the seasons, remain fully tied to the land but not be tied by it. To be able to work hard for two-thirds of the year, spring through Autumn and have the freedom to explore new cities and places for four months rather than four weeks of the year is the ultimate goal. Meet new people, do new things, keep being inspired and motivated and moved in this short life while still being true to my attachment to home and family and this croft I’ve worked so hard to get to.

An over ambitious dichotomy? An impossible undertaking? Another pointless pipe dream?

Perhaps!

But I like a challenge and my baggage is light these days so what better plan than to simply face the horizon of one’s choosing and keep walking…

Afterword:

By 2015 I hope to build one of our Airigh dwellings on the croft and never have to pay a mortgage again. The sublet on the croft will have expired and I’ll be given the option to buy that too. A beautifully simple home, on the island I was born, working for myself,  growing my own food and being able to travel when I want to.

Now that’s real freedom.

Anti-Social

OTCFINALLOGO

WordPress, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Spotify…I seem to be everywhere and nowhere online and all at once and it’s been getting really difficult to keep track and on top of all the updates and connections needed to stay this “social”.

I’d been thinking that the blog here has sort of lost its momentum a bit, since moving back the impetus for the blog’s original purpose, namely researching and finding my roots and routes home to these islands has been lost somewhat. Instead of being a resource for exposing the islands music, art, culture and history to those who might also be interested, it’s in danger of becoming one of those island blogs where your day to day life gets written about and snapped and put out there for all to see…not really what I want or had intended for it. I’m also blogging about Harris tweed stuff over at www.harristweed.org/blog so even keeping this blog busy with tweed stuff would be just plain ol’ repetition.

So what to do?

Well basically I’ve picked a format, namely a Facebook page at www.facebook.com/OffTheCroft that will have a nice and simple, short and sweet, feed of goings on from life here on the croft and will be focussing my attention there from now on.

If you’d like to keep track of The Croft going forward then that’s the place to go, simply “like” it if so. If not feel free to keep checking back here to see if anything more heavyweight crops up. You never know…

Either way, thanks as always for reading!

PS You can always reach me via email at mike.thecroft@me.com

Yūgen

Greylag geese over croft at sunset.

Yūgen is a Japanese word pertaining to a profound awareness of the universe which evokes feelings that are inexplicably deep and too mysterious for words.

The word itself is like an extension of awareness, the aesthetic perception which allows us to conceive of the vastness of the universe but carries it beyond into an inconceivably mysterious realm. The feeling of Awareness is induced by confrontation to the brevity of life, and yugen is initiated from the awareness that even ‘aware’ itself is an ephemeral thing.

Zeami Motokiyo’s description portrays a medium through which one may experience the unspeakably deep, stirring, feeling of yugen:

“To watch the sun sink behind a flower clad hill. To wander on in a huge forest without thought of return. To stand upon the shore and gaze after a boat that disappears behind distant islands. To contemplate the flight of wild geese seen and lost among the clouds.”

That’s Yūgen.

The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses…

View from The Croft, 19.00hrs 23.10.12

…Over The Hill

It’s been the most beautiful of days.

Again.

From sunrise, a fishing boat blinking past Port of Ness harbour,  the sky grew from peaches and pink to ever-changing blues. It was frosty and hundreds of spiderwebs strung between the spikes of the croft reeds shimmered with fat beads of dew.

The air was sharp and cold and the nearest house, down and across the village road, was already puffing out peat-smoke which filled the air with its reassuring reek. As the sun rose so did a mist, settling into the hollows of croft land for miles around and Venus, alone, pinpricked the sky.

The rest of the day was cloudless and still, just sunshine, which burned off the fog and frost, and I worked outside all day just to be  in amongst it.

And tonight everything reversed, the sun set in familiar deep colours, those eerie clouds of moisture rose again, the moon appeared.

As I locked the hens in their coop for the night I spotted the cat perched on a fencepost, silhouetted against the darkening sky, just taking it  in also.

I’ve had more happy days in recent memory than in years of Glasgow living and for no other reason than nature provides.

I feel privileged to be here.

Eleanor Nicolson

This is Eleanor Nicolson, she is 14 years of age and attends the local secondary school, The Nicolson Institute, here on the island.

She also sings songs and plays guitar rather damn nicely.

Here she is playing an original song of hers live.

Maybe they’ll rename the school when she’s rich and famous…

http://soundcloud.com/eleanorxnicolson

Harris Tweed Ride II

Last year I organised Glasgow’s first Tweed Ride and such was the demand for another one in 2012 it would have been rude not to oblige.

Being so far from the city meant that this time around I took a back seat / saddle and placed the event in the hands of two Glasgow chaps I knew would make a sterling job of it.

And that they did…

Homeward / Breathe In

A new video from the new album of music by Lewis singer-song writer Iain Morrison.

Homeward is the first release from the forthcoming album ‘To the Horizon, Sir’.

It is available as a free download HERE

Weirdly, I’d penned a very short story a couple of years ago, having never seen this video, but now after watching it seems to tie up a little spookily…

 

Breathe In

He rose from his old armchair, in his family croft, sat on the shores of an expanse of sand, perched at the edge of the Atlantic.

Draining his glass, he slipped off his unknotted boots and thick woolen socks and pulled his navy geansaidh over his head. The jumper’s neck rasping at his own, tugging at his ears as it did when he was a young boy.

Stood barefoot outside his door he let his toes curl in the grass and faced the wan yellow sun which was slipping beyond the western horizon. Lazy evening clegs buzzing fore and aft, like four stroke engines far over the hill. As he walked away from his red door, ewes and lambs scattered over the rock strewn headland. He felt the dry heather now roughly caressing his soles and the mosses soaked like bathroom sponges, washed his steps.

Nestled between ridges, hunkered against the prevailings, the empty blackhouses stood. Walking through the mantle-less doorway, nettle beds held their sting as he reached down to pick up a great block of stone that once made up a wall. The roof and beams were long gone leaving him ringed in lichen rock, ragged tattoos of silvers and bronze.

Walking, stooped, across maram grass, whipping lightly in the evening breeze their in-curled leaves bowed at him, sphagnum gave way to machair. Clovers and dogweed kissed his path as his heavy steps led him to the beach where, like stars in the universe, below him they flowed countlessly.

The sands were hidden from everyone but the sea and in the rocks at its edge flotsam and jetsam stored up from voyages unknown lay. A long faded plastic box, marked STO NO AY  COOPE ATI E, held a blue rope, plastic and faded and frayed.

Setting the stone down he sat once again and set about coiling the rope into embracing knots. His small fingers spun hitches and cloves from straight lines, unforgotten intricacies bound the block and kneeling now, the gniess tight in its sea-beaten grip, he looped the remaining rope around his neck, crossing it over his chest and tied tight at his back.

Taking the strain he rose to his feet and walked to the waves breaking on the secret shore. Razor clams rose beyond the waterline and the limpets and mussels clung to the nearby rocks opened wide while his footprints led to darker sands and seafoam.

Cold brine raced around his ankles hugging them as he walked on, knee deep now, up to his waist, the sea carried his weight, held him upwards, refused to chill his bones.

The waves of Uig broke across his breast and he strode firmly now, forward into deeper water.

His grey eyes lifted towards Hiort as the sky erupted into golds and burnt ambers. Water face-slaps him one last time, stinging his thoughts away one last time

Dropping his burden, rock that preserved generations, he was pulled down. Remembering, he released everything to the roar of tides and time. Arms raised, feet still grounded in sands, he breathed in.

(M.D. 2010)

Chicks

I’d mentioned previously that there were six hens and a cockerel now on the croft.

Chickens are pretty much a basic for any crofter or smallholder and so after the wee starter flock of Hebrideans it was a no brainer to get some chooks on the go.

They reside in a hand-built wooden coop, nice and simple design, waterproof roof / lid, 4′ x 3′ x 3′ in size, roosting perch, single nesting box, small door, brass air vent…that’s it. The coop gets a good layer of wood shavings and a bit of straw, all very cosy. They are hemmed in by a 5m x 5m square run of dark green, heavy, nylon netting held up by spiked poles that allow me to move the pen around to let the ground recover from all their scratching and crapping. I’ll probably let them free-range at some point but this will keep them safe until they start laying and encourage them to keep to the coop and nest box when they do start dropping eggs.

I got the critters at 6 weeks of age which made them pretty scrawny, feathers not fully developed, quills poking through as if they’d been plucked alive in parts. Kinda gross really. This was their first venture into the open air and they still needed protection from predators (seagulls, cats, crows…) so I took a roll of small-holed plastic netting and added a a very small porch to the coop so they could hang out and find their feet, so to speak. They get fed growers pellets and whatever else they can peck up from the grass and ground, there’s water of course and I need to sort out some grit and poultry spice at some point I suppose.

I’ve been amazed at how quickly they’ve grown, every morning when they get let out at sunrise they seem to be bigger and better looking. They’re also much bolder, the protective inner pen is wide open now and they run around the main run doing their stuff. If they catch sight of the cat or a large bird flies overhead they bolt back under cover but they’ve been taking on thieving starlings who come near their feeder and generally look like they can handle themselves more. Yesterday the Ram tried to get at the feeder of food and ended up tangled in their netting but somehow doubt they felt able to take him on, but in future who knows?

There is one Rhode Island Red, two Frizzles and the rest are hybrids of RIR, Marans and Barnevelders and hopefully they’ll start to lay in December. Right now they’re just eating and growing and sorting out their pecking orders.

The weather here is cold, windy and wet today, they came out to eat and drink but haven’t ventured very far from their front door at all. I pegged a piece of off-cut tweed across the coop entrance as the prevailing was blowing straight inside so they have a bit of a windbreak at least.

All very exciting huh?

To be honest I thought they’d be pretty uninteresting, just good for eggs and perhaps one for the pot every so often but their behaviour is fascinating and I’ll happily kill a tea-break watching them chase flies or interact with their new environment.

They remind me of little dinosaurs…

There names? Dolina, Murdina, Kenina, Alexina, Katrina, Christina and Tiff Peaches.

Don’t ask.