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Crofting Agriculture
Introduction: Looking at Our Problems


One of the things which has struck me most in my efforts to make a good croft out of a derelict piece of ground has been that a croft is not a farm. We cannot look upon the many problems of the 2- to 10-acre croft in the same way that a farmer would see them. He cannot give individual attention to small areas of crops, for he is concerned with the balance of yield against available labour, the cost of labour and the quickness of getting certain agricultural operations done. He is coming to rely more and more on mechanical implements which need room to work and fairly wide-set rows, and which pay no attention to individual plants. A good farmer's crop yields are usually not the biggest he could possibly obtain, but the most profitable yields under the circumstances of markets, labour and time.

The crofter and his family represent a much larger unit of labour per acre than a farmer can muster. The crofter's task is to produce the largest possible yield from his very limited amount of arable land. What his methods may lack in speed they can make up in thoroughness. A croft raising the average yield or less of any crop cannot hope to hold its head above water. Doubtless this is why in recent years there has been a tendency on mainland crofting estates to unite the land of two or more crofts under one landholder. Such a practice may solve an immediate problem, but it does not maintain the dwindling population of the Highlands and Islands.

We have wide spaces in the Highlands for comparatively few people, though agriculturally we must compare the population with the amount of arable ground. The success of a croft as a home and a food-producing unit for the family depends on the ability of the ground to produce winter food as well as summer grazing. A full barn means the possibility of winter milk and a good stack of manure at the end of the winter. We cannot get winter eggs economically in the Highlands and Islands, but we can preserve them easily in summer when they are plentiful. A supply of milk and eggs through the winter alters the whole outlook of a crofter's household. For myself, I should add vegetables as well.

The West Highlands may be cursed by a prevalence of high winds and a high rainfall, but they are blest with a mild, soft climate. We can certainly grow cow food and a plentiful, varied quantity of vegetables for the table if we get our arable land into good heart. If we have not as big an acreage as we should like, we must achieve results by intensifying our methods of cultivation to increase the yield. That has been my policy on the small island of Tanera in the Summer Isles, though I have a long way to go yet before I have brought the ground to its full capabilities.

In these pages I shall try to explain the principles of putting land into good heart and of growing crops which suit our special conditions. I cannot hope to touch on everyone's particular problem, but, as in the past, shall try to answer by personal letters any queries sent to me. We have to evolve a husbandry suited to our conditions and climate, and as far as I can see such a husbandry will not be a slavish imitation of southern and eastern Scottish farming methods.

What, at present, have we got to sell from the West Highlands? The bulk of our exports is weaned lambs of not very good quality, but which do very well on the better ground of those who buy them ; weaned calves in autumn; lean stirks and newly-dropped calves in spring; a few cast ewes and a quantity of poor-quality wool. All these items are the rawest of raw materials giving low cash returns. If West Highland folk are to have their rightful share of some of the highly-processed goods which retail distribution puts before our generation, the Highlands must consider what finished goods they also can export, or how an increased flow of better quality raw materials can leave the glens and islands. The Outer Isles with their relatively dense population, confined largely to the Atlantic strip of machair or green ground overlying shell-sand, have solved the problem to some extent by producing a large quantity of a finished product—Harris Tweed. Shetland does the same with knitted goods and tweed. The best wools for these several finished products are certain types of those already grown in the Islands, but there is nothing like enough of such wools and there has to be considerable importation. Yet an increasing amount of poor Blackface wool is being produced in the Islands and has to be exported. The finishing of home-grown wools of suitable types is one way of increasing the cash income of crofting districts.

The second line of finished products will be in catering for the immense tourist traffic which will arise within the next few years. In the three- or four-months' season June to September, and the Easter holiday, there will be a great demand for fresh food—milk, butter, soft cheese, eggs, vegetables and soft fruit. At present these commodities are often sadly lacking, and we see crates of stuff coming into the West over a poor system of communications. The crofter's wife will in the future be taking summer guests into her house. Surely the rest of the family will find it a worthy and profitable occupation to grow that fresh food for the visitors.

It is not every croft that can grow vegetables and soft fruit profitably, but there are many thousands that can. I reckon we were at about the limit on Isle Tanera, a treeless windswept island open to the Minch and to the east winds as well. High winds would tear winter vegetables out of the ground at times and kill the new growth on black-currant and gooseberry bushes. The problems of shelter were considerable but not insoluble. The crops we have grown on Tanera have been well worth the effort, and we have had a constant succession of fresh vegetables through the year ; the soft fruit has kept us supplied with jam and bottled fruit, beside the amount eaten fresh.

This war has shown us that there are two kinds of capital, the one of money and the other of resources, and there can have been no doubt which was the most valuable, the 50 in the bank yielding 25s. a year, or the good cow and the place to keep her which that sum may have represented. The 25s. is a reduced interest facing increased prices and absence of the goods it might buy. The cow is constant and her produce will make healthy bodies to-day in a way money cannot do.

What we are seeking in the West Highlands and Islands are not necessarily big cash profits, but the good life, a satisfaction and content of being in the land we love. The good life means a cultural content of the mind as well, and I hold that physical surroundings of greenness, and healthy, thriving crops and animals are a necessity, if that content is to grow and be maintained in a rural community. Our heads may be above the clouds, but our feet are still on mother earth. The earth has to be tended with toil, love and wisdom if she is to give us our content. The toil and love I take for granted in Highland folk, and in this book we will keep to the subject of knowledge applied to the very distinct set of conditions found in the West Highlands and Islands.

What the future holds for the crofting West we do not know, but the portents are that much greater vigour will be shown in finding a solution of what is known as the Highland problem. We have yet to discover what will be the effects of a supply of fairly cheap hydroelectric power. There are those who doubt whether this power will ever reach the crofter in remote townships, but at this stage I do not think we have reason to doubt that a sincere effort will be made to provide electricity for the croft. If it does come, the possibilities of content in the crofting life will be greater. At present, where crofters burn only peat for cooking and warmth, an average of 15,000 peats is consumed in a year by a household of four persons. It takes a good man to keep up the rate of cutting 1000 peats a day—and as we know all too well, cutting is only the beginning of winning peats. Practically a month of the crofter's year is taken up by this task, and mostly at that dry time of year in spring when he should be working his ground and cleaning it. Electricity could well cut down the need for peats to one quarter and thus indirectly increase the agricultural and horticultural possibilities of the croft. Directly, it would lighten the woman's work in the home, economize food and produce by allowing cheap refrigeration, and make its contribution to the cultivation of certain food crops. These direct and indirect effects of electricity on crofting agriculture should be kept in mind by those who say it will never pay to carry electric power to the townships. After all, the bald economic point of view should not be the criterion, and, personally, I have faith that that cold and calculating attitude will not be brought to bear on the problem of enrichment of the crofting life.


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