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A Hundred Years in the Highlands
Chapter XIII - Agriculture


People have an idea that agriculture was very far behind in the old days of the runrig system. That this system was as bad a one as could be there is no denying. There was no incentive to improve your rig or patch, for what you had this year one of your neighbours probably had next year. There were continual quarrels over the distribution of the allotments, and then the whole ground was remeasured with, as my uncle described it, “miles of string,” and lots were cast as to who were to get the various bits of ground. I may mention that the trustees left one big township—namely, Inverasdale—under the old system, and before three years had run the crofters unanimously begged to get separate crofts like the rest. I know a chauffeur from a township in Torridon where the runrig system still prevails, and he told me his ground was in thirty-six different patches, none of them contiguous.

In spite of all this, and though the only implements of husbandry were the caschrom and croman (the old prehistoric Norwegian hand plough and a kind of homemade Highland hoe), I, who am more or less of a farmer myself, am prepared to prove that far more crop was raised out of the soil then than there is now. I remember having it constantly dinned into my ears when I was young that when the people were educated (and not till then) the land would be properly cultivated, and that then every croft would become perfect like a garden. But, alas! it has turned out the very contrary. The modern crofter has nearly given up the use of all hand implements of culture, and trusts to hiring a pair of more or less starved ponies and often a very inefficient plough and harrows. They get the ground scratched over in some kind of way, but much of it only to a depth of a very few inches, all head rigs and difficult stony bits being left untouched. As there is great difficulty in getting horses and ploughs, the crops are almost always so late in being sown that the equinoctial gales are upon them before they ripen; this means disaster and a ruinous harvest nearly every year, owing to the floods and storms.

I maintain that education has done nothing for agriculture among the crofters on the west coast as far as I can see. Though the people are certainly improving their dwellings, I seldom, if ever, see them use the pick, the spade, and the crowbar, which are so essential for trenching and draining and getting rid of boulders. In fact, many of the crofts are going back, instead of being improved and turned into gardens, as they might be with fixity of tenure and fair rents to encourage their owners. In the old caschrom days every inch of the ground was cultivated even among boulders, where the best soil is often to be found and which no plough can go near.

And how the women used to work among the potatoes, weeding them by hand so carefully, putting all the chick weed and spurry into creels, carrying it to the nearest burn, and there washing it to give to the cattle for supper, much to the benefit of the milk-supply ! Also, how beautifully they earthed up their potatoes with the cromanan, whereas now the weeds are often allowed to get to a great height before a horse with a scuffler can be hired or borrowed, for very few four-acre crofts can support a pony besides the cows.

I can remember a good many crofters who were keen cultivators and prided themselves on the number of bolls of meal they could produce from their crofts. Nowadays hardly a boll of meal is made on any croft, and the mills are mostly derelict and falling to pieces, as neither the man nor the woman will bother themselves to thresh the sheaves before giving them to the cows. Many of the girls dislike milking a cow, and they will not accept willingly of service where a cow is kept, though they do not object to having cream in their tea if they can get it without trouble to themselves ! I am afraid that education, when it takes the shape of drawing, French, and music, has made the present generation of girls very unsuitable as wives for young west-coast crofters.

Before the crofters’ arable land was turned into four-acre crofts, and the runrig system was done away with, every family in the west went with their cattle for two or three of the summer months to the shieling. In the Lews they still continue this custom. But when the great change was made one of the new ideas for the betterment of the smaller tenants was that they should give up their migrations to the shieling, and consume the grass of their distant hill pastures by grazing them with sheep, instead of with cattle.

Before the potato blight in the early forties, it was fairly easy to raise food anywhere on the coast, where sea-ware was procurable. Though most of the ground consisted of poor peaty soil among stones and rocks, sea-ware with its potash would generally force a crop— often a bumper crop—of potatoes out of almost any soil, even though wet and boggy, if it was made into what were known as “ lazy beds," such as are so common to-day in the West of Ireland. Though the good effects of the sea-ware were not very permanent, the land thus planted with potatoes would give at least one heavy following crop of oats the next year. There was also a considerable amount of cultivation inland, there being in the parish of Gairloch a good number of what are called in Gaelic Bailtean Monaidk (inland townships). These townships were too far from the coast for sea-ware to be transported on men’s and women’s backs, the only method of transit in the days when there were no roads and consequently no carts in the district. So what the inland crofters did was this. They chose fairly smooth pieces of sloping ground, which had to be as dry as possible naturally, as they knew nothing about artificial draining, and they would then surround them with a low dyke of stones and turf, just sufficiently high to keep the cows from getting over. In some cases they used movable wicker-hurdles, where birch and hazel were handy, and into one of the enclosures the cattle were driven after being milked in the evening, to pass the night, for perhaps a fortnight or three weeks, until the wise men of the community considered they had sufficiently manured that particular plot. Then the cows were made to pass their nights on another achadh or enclosure. In the following spring these manured achaidhnan (fields) were very laboriously turned over by the men with the caschrom, and a more or less good crop of the small and hardy aboriginal black oats was reaped, and later on ground into meal by the Bra or , quern. Sometimes they would take a second or even a third crop of oats out of the achadh, or vary the crop, especially if the soil were hard and stony, with one of ' grey field peas, which, when ground and mixed with barley meal, made most nourishing bread in the form of scones baked on a girdle over a peat fire. Many a time have I eaten them as a boy.

When the achadh was completely exhausted, the dyke was allowed to tumble down, and the field to go wild again under weeds (the sowing of grass seeds was quite unknown then) till it had time to recover itself, in a kind of way. Then, the dyke having been repaired, the same process of manuring the ground with the cattle was gone through over again ! Most people would imagine that the time allowed for the cattle to lie on these enclosures for the purpose of enriching them would be about the same, whether early or late in the season, but the crofter knew better what was necessary from years of experience. The old men used to tell me, when I was a boy, that twenty cows on an enclosure in June when the grass was young and in full force did as much enriching in a week as they would do in a fortnight in August or September, when the hill grasses or bents were going back and turning brown. This folding of the cattle at night, though necessary for the production of grain, was not at all good for the cows from a milking point of view. These bits of cultivation were generally high above sea-level and in open, exposed places, and as there are pretty frequently on this north-west coast, even in the height of summer, wild, cold nights with wind and rain storms, the cows often suffered from the exposure and from not being free to go and choose for themselves warm and sheltered spots in which to make their beds.

The old inhabitants of these inland townships had also a way of growing potatoes as well as oats on the cultivated patches away up in the glens, where no sea-ware could be procured, and where it was impossible to carry the manure from their byres and stables in the township, because it was all required for the cropping of what was then known as the “infield” land round their houses. One way of growing potatoes up in the wilds was by substituting bracken for sea-ware, and making “ lazy beds ” of it where the soil was fairly deep and moist. The bracken was cut with the sickle in July when at its richest, and the ground given a thick coating of it; ditches were then opened about six feet apart, and the soil from the ditches put on the bracken so that it had a covering of six or eight inches of earth on it. Thus it was left for some nine months to decay, till the spring came round again, when holes were bored in the beds with a “dibble” and the seed potatoes dropped into them. In this case also the sheep and the goats helped in the growing of the potatoes!

In those olden times there were but few sheep kept, and they were all of the Seana chaoirich bheaga (little old sheep) breed, with pink noses and very fine wool, quite different from the modern black-faced sheep, much less hardy, and accustomed to be more or less housed at night. They were far less numerous than the goats, and when the people migrated to the shielings they took their sheep and goats with them. These had to be carefully herded by the children all day, to keep the lambs and kids from being carried off by the eagles and foxes. At night at the shielings the sheep and the goats were driven into bothies and bedded with bracken or moss, and when these bothies were cleaned out in the spring they contained a large accumulation of excellent manure for the potatoes. I well remember an old man telling me that when out with the cattle he used in dry summers to Set fire to old, useless turf dykes and use the peat ashes for his “ outfield ” potatoes, and that sometimes he grew better potatoes thus away up in the hills than he could grow at his home in the glen below. But who could be got to do this sort of land cultivation nowadays ? It is therefore useless to talk of cultivating these green spots among the hills, which were only forced to produce what would now be considered very poor crops of corn ! At that time there was no alternative but either to do this or starve. There is, I think, a very mistaken idea afloat that these Highlanders of the olden times were a lazy lot, instead of which they were, in my opinion, just the very contrary. I know as a fact that the fathers of several of the old Poolewe men I knew so well as a lad used to go in their small fourteen-foot boats in stormy weather in March and April to cut tangle on the coast of the Rudha Reidh promontory, ten miles out to sea from their homes, for manure for their potatoes. They then carried this fearfully heavy wet mass on their backs in creels for a good two miles up a steep hill from the sea-pool of the Ewe, to some cultivable spots on the moor above the present Tollie farm, which still glisten like emeralds among the surrounding heather. I am glad to say they were sometimes well rewarded by Providence, as I have heard that they not infrequently brought home a creel full of potatoes in autumn for every creel of sea-ware they had carried up in the spring, so effective is sea-ware on new land ! And the women of those days—how they slaved carrying the peats or kneeling down to cut short grass for hay with small sickles. When collecting shell-fish for food and bait for the lines, they had to stand out in the sea above their knees, and they were continually rounding up the goats barefooted among the most dangerous precipices, in order to get them in at night and thus be able to milk them and make cheese for winter, consumption! How different, alas ! are the men and the women of the present day, when it is thought a hardship if the women have to make porridge for breakfast or oat-cakes for dinner, because the baker failed to call at the door with his van, of often very bad loaf bread!


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