Do you ever wonder about what life must have been like on Skye, say a hundred years ago? That would be in the summer just before the beginning of the Great War. I was reading in The Scots Magazine today (which incidentally has a series of articles focusing on Skye) that the summer of 1914 was a wet and dreary one in Scotland. It’s so easy to romanticise about life in a black house, with packed earth floors and peat glowing in the grate…. or is it? All the books I have read, that are set in that time period, speak of dampness, hard work and hardship, yet coupled with a certain level of happiness coupled with a strong sense of family and community. As you walk along the track leading to Macleods Maidens, or walk from Fiskavaig to Talisker you see countless runrigs (or lazy beds) where crops were planted year on year upon the hillside.
Especially are they evident during the winter, when the bracken has died down, along with the remains of the croft houses sometimes simply a few rocks now, others with gable ends intact. It leaves an aura of times past and you can almost hear the cows lowing in the byre that’s part of the house and the chickens that shared warmth of these tiny homes.
In the summer as you drive along the road through Glen Drynoch to Sligachan during a sunny evening you see how the runrigs stretch up the hillsides.
All over Skye wherever you look, there are at the very least, small mounds of the ruined and deserted croft houses, whole villages in places, left forever, only the ghosts of the children playing while they collected cotton grass-heads for their pillows and the singing of the women as they waulked the newly woven cloth, remain. It can’t have been an easy way of life, but it was a simple existence. But what a place to live. Given a few moments to reflect on a balmy spring evening (before the midges hatched) after a hard days work, I doubt that anyone would have really wanted to live elsewhere.
However, despite advances there are still those who embrace the simpler ways, those who prefer to run their crofts the traditional way and that – along with their friendliness – seems to nurture the community spirit that appears to hold sway on Skye . Oh the houses are different, there’s electricity and central heating and mains water. Although like our house, there are those who still benefit from gloriously fresh water from their own spring and a great many have a multi-fuel burner or open fire in their sitting room – a central place to gather on those gale swept nights in the dead of winter. Highland cattle still graze the land but no longer share the house, cows stay with their calves out in the fields, the bull standing guard in all his grandeur, ready to sire the next generation again.
But what of todays crofters, how do they make a living with all the rules and constantly changing, new EU regulations, how do they live knowing they will get only a small amount per carcass from buyers for their carefully reared cattle, or their sheep that graze on salt marshland and produce tasty meat; and all because purchasers in the cities and towns want meat for next to no money at all? They improvise, that’s what they do? In small ways; Rearing hens and ducks and selling the eggs at the gate, with an honesty box for the money, or slightly larger ways by letting a room or two out as B&B during the season, making preserves and selling them, or turning a spare room and front garden into a ‘tea-room’ open to the public selling cream teas and freshly baked cakes. There are those who have crofts on nutrient rich soil, where they erect poly-tunnels and grow vegetables, herbs and fruits commercially for sale to the local restaurants. Whilst others choose more controversial ways to earn the money they need to survive. Selling off small parcels of land as building plots is a common occurrence , but more often now, some are even selling off an acre or two to house a wind turbine? Controversial indeed!
What would you do? How would you survive on this beautiful Island, amidst todays economic environment? Before we judge, before we exclaim that these things spoil the views, and “why can’t it all remain the way it was”, maybe, just maybe we should put ourselves in a crofters hard worn boots and ……just maybe….think again.