It 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…