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 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?
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…
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.