October 12, 2012 § 1 Comment
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.
October 4, 2012 § Leave a Comment
What to do with the rest of the day was decided for me as I stood at the back door looking over the croft.
I’d taken on six six week old chickens and a similarly aged cockerel recently and had them safely ensconced in a new hen run. 5.5m X 5.5m of sturdy nylon netting, with holes 5cm squared to a height of 24 inches and then 10cm squares hioles to twice that height. The bottom of the netting was securely pegged into the ground by over a dozen tent pegs and weighted down by stones.
Their new wooden chicken coop was fenced in further by some green, plastic netting on all sides and above to keep the chicks safe until they grew old enough and brave enough to venture further without being lifted by airborn predators like crows, seagulls and our local birds of prey.
So I considered it to be a Fort Knox for fowl and lazily looked on from 30 yards away as they squeaked and pecked in their well protected haven, feeding and drinking from the three bright orange feeders I’d placed in the run…
There should only be TWO.
And there, just inches from the new birds, separated only by the inner wire of the green plastic mesh was Weasley, the feral ginger cat I sometimes give bed and board to. The wee blaggard had somehow got through the first perimeter and was now studiously assessing how to get through the second and help himself to some fresh chicken.
So I legged it down the croft waving my arms like an irate rooster, yelling at him to get the fleek out of there and watched in wonder as he leapt onto the roof of the coop and bounded clean over the netting, landing on a raised bank of turf on the other side. The raised bank was the weak spot, by standing on it he’d given himself another couple of feet of height. And the chicken coop roof was right on the other side at a similar height and so it took no great leap of feline imagination to make a great leap into the run.
My thinking had been that the bank of turf would provide some shelter from the wind and had moved the coop close to it so it lay in its lee. As it was it simply gave sly ol’ Weasley a launch pad for his hunting endeavours.
So out came the spade and scythe and I set about levelling the offending turf. Pretty soon it was flattened and I tensioned the netting even further to make sure it was at its full height all around. Then I grabbed some more tent pegs and secured the bottom even further. All the while Weasely sat watching passively, waiting for me to finish. And when I had done so he set about trying his luck a second time.
For the next hour, in full view of me, he paced the fence line looking for chinks in the armour. Time and time again he returned to the spot where the turf bank had been, head swaying from side to side to analyse heights and distance, slowly raising up on his haunches to see if the larger holes were within reach. He chewed at the nylon and tried to poke his head underneath in dozens of spots, all to no avail. At the point I thought he’d surely have to give up he paced away some half dozen yards, a supposedly defeated cat, but before I could raise a smug smile he turned and ran full tilt at the netting…
With a leap that had to be seen to be believed he pounced himself through a netting hole some 36″ off the ground. Clean through, front paws first, head and shoulders and up to his rib cage. With his claws he grabbed onto the roof of the coop, which was still within a few inches of the fencing, and hauled the rest of his skinny body through. It was like something out of The Matrix. A gravity defying jump of pinpoint accuracy, perfectly finding his mark with the form of an Olympic diver. Within a few seconds he was back in his spot, staring at the final barrier to his prey, trying to work out how to best me a final time.
Again I seized him and threw him out of the chicken camp and set about moving the wooden coop well away from the sides of the netting. Again he watched.
By now he was clear on the effacy of his method but knew he had nothing to grab hold of on the other side. Could he make the leap again and get himself through alone? He weighed his odds, found them worth the risk and went at it again.
This time the jump was the same, millimetre perfect, an arc of grace and aplomb, beautifully executed and scarily accurate in its aim. But with only half his torso through the hole he quickly found himself undone. With nothing to help pull his second section through the small hole he just hung there, trapped like a herring, wriggling and meowling in great discomfort, completely caught.
Mercifully, I walked over, laughing all the while, to release the sad feline from his ignomy, pulling him backwards by his back legs like a breech birth. Free again, he sheepishly padded away into the long grass, defeated. Triumphantly, I returned to the house, pleased that once again man had bested beast, the human genius outwitting the lowly animal, the greater mind had won.
The next morning I found a very cat-sized gap under the netting at the spot of Weasles last stand, the tent pegs lifted clean out of the ground. Touché Weasely. Thankfully the chickens had been locked in their coop for the night and until such time as the cat fathoms how to undo a door catch and open the dashed thing then they are safe, at night at least. However I suspect it won’t take him too long…
October 2, 2012 § 2 Comments
The mornings are darker for longer but sunrise is still before 8am. I’m dog-sitting my folks’ old collie at the moment and he’s used to a walk at 6.30 am which is a bit of a stretch for me, never been a morning person but I’m working on it. So today’s alarm call was the belt and braces combo of the cockerel next door and some slabbery dog breath at 7am. On rising, I dress in the splendourous outfit of:
First order of the day is coffee, brewed on the stove in a 6 cup Bialetti Moka, the kitchen radio switched on and the dulcet tones of the presenter of Radio Nan Gaidheal (I have no clue what she is saying) reading what I assume to be the mornings news. Something about golf and Alex Salmond I discern so my incomprehension is of no great loss. I like the gaelic radio in the morning, the music is good and the voices remind me of mornings in my grandparent’s house, their radio always tuned to that same station.
The coffee pot puffles and plops on the hob as I open the back door and take in the view over the croft to Port of Ness, the sea and further on the low cliffs of Skigersta. It’s a view I will never tire of looking at. There’s a ship out there, I look it up on the Ship AIS website and see it’s a Norwegian vessel and heading for Loch Roag. The three Hebridean ewes are grazing happily and look up when they hear the door open. Calan the Ram is standing at the gate looking at me expectantly. For what I’m not sure. Maybe he thinks today’s the day he gets let loose on the ladies on the other side of the fence. He’s going to be disappointed today anyway. About a dozen Greylag geese have landed and are busy pecking away at whatever they peck away at.
Half of the coffee pot is poured into a mug and sweetened before being returned to the hob. Mac The Collie wanders out the door, nose in the air, sniffing something in the wind and I check the days emails on the iPad, waiting for mind and body to caffeinate and wake up. The mug is drained, I follow Mac outside, pulling on rubber boots as I go and we walk to the road and towards the harbour nearby.
The sun is climbing but behind broken cloud, brightly dappled, it’s windy too. The tide is coming in, little fishing boats, bobbing behind the safety of the concrete breakwater walls, clunk when they get too close to one other. We don’t see a soul on the road to the harbour although the light is on in a weaver’s shed at number 12 but no clatter of a loom yet. There’s a little beach at Port, getting smaller as the tide pulls in, and we manage to get halfway along it before executing a swift volte face to avoid getting cut off from the only steps on and off the sands. Enough time for the dog to get wet and gritty however.
Walking back to the croft the air is full of starling chatter, a huge group of them sitting on a weird old house I can’t work out is long abandoned or still inhabited. A car passes, a wave from the driver, I don’t recognise him but we all wave at each other here as we pass, on foot, in tractors, on bikes. It’s friendly, a recognition of an implied connection, even between strangers, something that never happened in Glasgow.
Two thick slices of Ness marag, topped with two fried eggs from a local croft for me. And the remainder of the coffee, still hot on the stove. The dog gets his usual food. The sheep get a few handfuls of Clover Crunch. The six week old hens now out in their run get theirs. Everyone fed and watered? Then the day can begin, it’s around 8am.
September 21, 2012 § 2 Comments
This is Calan, the first ram on the new croft!
He’s a Hebridean and has three ewes joining him in the hope of getting some lambs on the go and expanding the flock next year. FYI the Hebridean is a pretty primitive wee sheep, attributed to descend from the flocks of the Norse folk before being introduced to the highlands and islands of Scotland.
They are small sheep with striking black soft fleece with two or four horns. Until recently they were classified by the Rare Breed Society as an endangered breed. Fortunately, through the dedication of a small band of private breeders, this threat has now been lifted.
The breed thrived along the West Coast of Scotland where they enjoyed the freedom to roam highland, lowland and seaside at leisure. Originally their high butterfat content milk and fine fleeces resulted in them being kept by Highlanders as much for their milk and wool as for their meat. They were at one time common throughout Scotland until market forces found them to be too small and they were superseded by the Blackface and Cheviots.
I decided to keep them instead of the traditional white-fleeced breeds for a few reasons. Firstly they’ll be easier to keep for a time and cash-poor relative novice like me, they lamb easily and are very hardy. Their meat is a wholly different taste, much darker and gamier and I’m interested in producing niche products from the croft if I can. And I like the fact they are a native breed, they look pretty cool and I think it will be interesting to work with a breed I’ve never worked with before, I’m starting from scratch with them. There’s also some possibilities with the fleece and weaving but bit more research needed on that front.
The native Hebridean is a far smaller sheep than modern commercial breeds found in today’s supermarkets, taking around twelve months for lamb to reach maturity in comparison to modern commercial lamb such as the Texel and Suffolk which are far greater in size and ready for market in only six months. This allows Hebrideans to enjoy a full and natural life. Slower maturing lambs permit the meat’s flavour to fully develop in a way we now rarely have the opportunity to appreciate.
When butchered locally, weigh around 14kg – 19kg and are hung for 12 days to permit the meat to finalise its maturing before cutting is begun.The meat is unique with a rich dark hue, succulent tender texture, and a gamey – utterly delicious long forgotten flavour. The purity of the meat also offers important health advantages over modern commercial breeds of sheep – with the meat being very lean. Recent tests have shown that it has a significantly lower cholesterol level than most lamb.
“The meat from Hebridean sheep is unique. It has a rich, dark colour, succulent tender texture, and a gamey, utterly delicious flavour. Tasted against locally produced butchers’ lamb and some very good Welsh lamb, there was no contest: the Hebridean won hands down. It was tender with a really good bite, and rich but didn’t leave that greasy, fatty taste in the mouth. And it was so full of flavour that some of the young tasters couldn’t believe it really was lamb.”
Alex Barker: Guild of Food Writers..
So there we are, next up the chickens…
[Info via www.hebrideansheep.com]
August 26, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Bit overdue on flagging this up but be sure and bookmark / follow this blog by local crofter Donald MacSween from Dell, just up the road from me.
Expect a no-holds barred insight into island life, livestock and lots more of that sort of thing with some informative writing and good photos thrown in for good measure.
August 21, 2012 § Leave a Comment
So the byre is almost done, at least to a basic level.
Once the stall walls were levelled and removed the floor needed a bit of work with a hammer to bring it level but it was ready to take the Harris Tweed loom at long last. There is still a draining channel that needs filled but most of the walls have been nicely whitewashed and I’ve made a start in treating the rafters with wood stain and they look pretty good.
We had fun and games putting my loom in. It weighs a ton and is so dang cumbersome to move. Usually it sits on two wooden blocks, held in by huge bolts but to move it requires jacking it up on a set of pallet lifters, removing the blocks and fitting castor wheels before lowering it again. Then its the simple matter of removing the seating, handles, chain, pedals and pushing it up a set of steep steel tracks into the back of a Luton truck. The truck we borrowed was higher than expected which left the gradient ridiculously steep, so much so that the loom cantilevered at its mid-point. It took four of us to wrestle it into the back with a few hairy moments. And that was the easy part as it was simply moving from a flat garage floor directly onto the ramps, the Ness side proved far harder.
To get to the new loom shed required backing the truck up a long steep driveway and then negotiating some gravel, a narrow gate, a sloping grass path and then a narrow door with 6 inch step. It took six of us, assorted bits of wood, levers, strops, lifters, blocks and brute strength to finish the job – all in clouds of the worst midgies of the year.
But the loom is in and looks great (and undamaged) in its new home. Phew.
Still got much work to do to the byre, a wood stove for heat, better lighting, some electricity points, workbench, seating etc. but all in good time…
July 26, 2012 § 4 Comments
Ok, we’re back!
Broadband has been connected and we’re surfing 2MB of internet goodness from the remote district of Ness, here on the croft at long last.
More thoughts on the move soon but meantime…
Week 1 on the croft…
First thing on the agenda is to convert the old byre into a loom shed to take my Bonas-Griffiths loom. Right now weaving Harris Tweed is my main source of income and without my loom on the croft then I just don’t earn. The Harris Tweed Act of Parliament 1993 decrees that Harris Tweed must be woven at the residence of the weaver so it’s not like I can wander into a factory and just keep pedalling. The loom weighs about a million tonnes and is over 3 meters long so finding a home for it has been a challenge.
The byre on the croft in a 1950′s/1960′s Board of Agriculture build (I think) and is pretty solid, some 8 meters long (haven’t measured tbh) by 5 metres or so wide with a high peaked and raftered roof. There are two rickety, old wooden doors, one in the gable end, and four cloudy skylights as the only source of natural light.
Until yesterday there were also an interior dividing wall, door frame and lintel and three stalls complete with old Oxford sinks as feeding troughs. There are a few nice old iron features for chaining cattle and some odd, old ceramic air vents. Dividing the stall-end is a water drain which drops about 6 inches into the concrete floor and runs to a drain in the far wall. That was until yesterday.
A day of swinging a sledgehammer brought the walls and stalls tumbling down and after an afternoon of clearing the remaining rubble there is a nice big airy space left to play with. The door and lintel were a bitch to bring down, made from hand poured concrete and barbed wire. But once they fell the rest seemed a breeze, very satisfying to be honest. I’ve left in the Oxford sinks to take out a little more gracefully with a hammer and chisel if I can, they look worth preserving, even just to sell on if not reuse. There’s a little tidying up to do on the floor and walls where the brickwork joined but it should come up nice and not necessitate re-screeding the floor. It has a lot of character and I’m loathed to make it shiny and new again.
There’s still a lot to do before it’s the way I want it, have some nice old light fittings and bulbs sourced, the walls will get limewashed, it would be good to get windows in and a wood-buring stove on the go for the winter. But it will be a perfect weaving shed when it’s done, a couple of Harris Tweed upholstered chairs and a place to stash a bottle of whisky and I may never want to leave it.
More on the croft and accompanying thoughts as it happens but we’re underway again.
All good things.
July 15, 2012 § 4 Comments
The Croft has a croft!
Missives on a sublet of a 5 acre croft in the district of Ness were signed yesterday and a set of keys to the adjacent croft house were handed over.
There is a lot of work to do despite having missed the best part of the horticultural season but it’s been a long journey and now physically having a key in hand and official papers signed feels like a huge step forward.
Normal service will resumed on here shortly, meantime please excuse the changes to the blog’s appearance, hoping the boffins at WordPress can help rectify all the formatting issues caused by a recent upgrade.
August 16, 2011 § 1 Comment
Ian’s book ‘From the Land’, from which the idea for this exhibition was born, will be published later in the year and contains Ian’s personal and intimate portrait of the Hebrides and the people and places connected with the production of its iconic textile.
If you’re in Stornoway don’t miss the opportunity to preview the work. We saw it last month in the midst of live music and bubbly (it wasn’t even the official opening so gawd knows what was going on) and loved it.
It’s unashamedly romantic, something that generally goes against my island-focussed world view, all ruddy faced locals and wind-through-the heather beauty, but even this cynical cove found it chiming chord after chord.
Some things you simply can’t photoshop and while the island and weavers aren’t always of these images’ ilk, the photographs are not shot through a dishonest filter.
The images are quite breathtaking at times and the innate link between colour, patterns and texture of the Clo are cleverly linked to the island and its natural world. For some reason the herringbone diptych is particularly striking for me.
So go see it if you can, and if you can’t hold tight for the book. It’s a keeper.
All images © Ian Lawson
May 11, 2011 § 2 Comments
Guthan Nan Eilean (Island Voices) is a bilingual project that aims to collect video slices of life and work in the Hebrides, with a view to encouraging further community-based recording and language learning. It is run by Benbecula resident Gordon Wells.
The website has a wealth of links (150+) as well as audio and written material on all sorts of topics from Lazy Beds to local residents but if you just want to dive right in, the videos the YouTube channel are very accessible and highly recommended. I’ve spent a fair few hours watching and listening so far.
It’s surprising that there are so few resources / projects of this kind, it really is very valuable for documentation, education and communication of island culture, history and language. I look forward to picking up a video camera (video – how quaint) towards the end of the year as a long mothballed project finally finds some time and energy to get going.
Here’s some of Gordon’s work, film of Benbecula resident Archie Campbell demonstrating and talking in English (Gaelic is also available) about the traditional peatcutting process.