Croft Work

Can the harsh economics of urban life entice young people to repopulate the highlands? asks Ewen McLachlan.

I recall a conversation of a decade or more ago about the sadness and continuing legacy of the Clearances. Sitting in an early evening session in one of Edinburgh’s many Rose Street bars, with one eye on the clock for the last Lockerbie bound train, the company were in that maudlin mood that comes with frustration and perceived historical wrongs. One sage opined on the doom, gloom and dourness of a nation seemingly forever tholed to its bigger neighbour, how those who had escaped during the Clearances and the early 1980’s of Thatcher were the positive, confident ones whose lives had changed for the better. “Bollocks”, my late chum Ian Docherty opined in his cut glass, overly exaggerated RP accent. “The ones who stayed were the hopeful; the ones not afraid of hard work of making nowhere into somewhere, those were the optimists.” His statement sucked the melancholy air out of our table, excuses were made, hands remained in pockets and trains were chased down. I’ve often thought of Ian’s profundity over the years, he was a meddlesome sprite who delighted in masking his solemnity with wind-up. His words spoken through a half gone pint still ring true today.

Walking along the back of Lochinver, heading to Glencanisp and spotting the remains of the village of Dubh Clais, which was cleared nearly 220 years ago for…yep sheep, I spot the unmistakable ridges of tilled land that, at one time, supported several families. My thoughts turn to their fate, pondering which part of the globe their families ended up in. The Canadians, Australians, Americans and Kiwis who turn up in Assynt every summer looking for a connection to the place, all seem healthy, happy and content. Their only audible sadness is that of the tribulations their families underwent in an effort to make the lives of their offspring better than those left behind. Whilst Scots-Canadian songstress Anna Gillis, who left for Canada in 1786, lamented the loss of the people from the land, she also hailed the opportunities of Canada in her song Canada Árd, where she declared that the wheat could be grown to harvest in only three months and due to plentiful maple trees ‘that sugar may be got from a tree’. Many of course suffered, but the diaspora we proudly claim as Jock Tamson’s bairns are the result of those early evacuees who adapted and survived to their new lands and tongues.

Assynt today is a parish of circa 600 souls, where the most stoical advice given to newcomers consists of the following: “If you can survive your first winter here, you’ll probably never leave.” Many Assynt born and raised, leave for better opportunities on new horizons, some travel the world before coming back.

Marianne Simpson is a crofter and the owner/operator of the tiny shop with a big attitude, Flossie’s Beach Hut at Clachtoll. Open year round, Flossie’s is a fixture for both crofters and tourists alike who pull in for a sticky bun, cuppa and blether. Marianne returned to Assynt a few years back after living and working in Dubai, she raised her kids here and took to crofting with a renewed vigour and a firm belief in changing things up a bit. Despite some initial scepticism, she strayed from the norm and brought in a variety of breeds of sheep, her Shetland sheep outnumber her solitary cheviot. Soon a flock of goats, pigs, chicken and ducks followed. Eggs are plentiful and snapped up the moment they arrive at Flossie’s.

Taking the beasts to slaughter is arduous and involves a roughly 200 mile round trip to the abattoir in Dingwall. Aware of the cost in time, fuel and animal comfort, there are discussions around a mobile abattoir servicing the far North. All produce is sold locally with the goat being a speciality at one of the hotels a few miles up the road. Marianne, like most here, sees the likelihood of her own kids leaving and probably not returning. Two of them have already left for full-time education, the third is more of a home body and is ever keen to return home during visits south of the A9. Kids are naturally inclined to leave and see the big wide world. However, when the only available jobs are seasonal tourism posts; when there’s a distinct lack of training opportunities, when transport is sporadic and expensive, and there’s next to zero in anything near affordable housing either to rent or buy, then it’s not difficult to see why they would leave. The population is in danger of plummeting, leaving an empty landscape as a backdrop for Instagram posts. Marianne is optimistic, that the right life work balance will work out for her and her family. She sees more tourists discover Assynt and then find themselves drawn to return for more than a fortnight.

“As we enter the next decade of austerity and local authorities tighten their purse strings even further there is a determined drive from communities to make do for themselves. From the largest foundations and Trusts to the smallest community associations the push is on to improve our lot, and offer local expert knowledge on how we go about helping bring people back to the North. For too long the attitude that nobody cared and that we should have little or no say in our future has perpetuated. That cycle or resignation is about to break, all we need now is for Inverness, Edinburgh and London to listen.”

Irene McKenzie now lives in Glasgow where she operates a gift shop on the Southside. She left for 10 years when she was younger and returned to the croft as she couldn’t cope with having children in the city and missed her grounded roots. As a crofting family she was thankful for the crofting grant and loan to build a home to raise her family. Eventually each of her children had to leave home to study. They all have good jobs in the city now. It’s unlikely they will return, although Irene says they are all grateful they were brought up with the freedom Assynt allows.

Irene tells me, “I think crofting for people born and brought in Assynt is so hard that most of us give up. Crofts south of Lochinver in Badnaban and Inverkirkaig for example are so small, average less than 10 acres of mostly rocks, burns and bogs, there’s little people can do to make that work in a traditional way. Everybody I was brought with that has a croft also worked full-time and raised a family, so there’s little energy left to work a croft that yields so little. I was full of hope to start with but with little extra money or energy it was basically a losing battle. Eventually the township did a crofter forestry scheme in our common grazing and that was mainly to appease our guilt from not being able to ‘properly’ croft, but hopefully it helped the environment too.”

There have been some improvements with the return of new adventurous souls and their ventures on the crofts. Irene says, “The area looks so much better than it did 40 years ago, when there were plenty of ruined houses and scabby looking crofts! They seem to be mostly tourist related now and I have pretty mixed feeling about that, mainly because the work is seasonal and low paid. I suspect the newer people have invested a lot of money in those enterprises and that’s one thing most natives have little of.”

Lesley Riddoch posits the following in her National column this week,

“Better still, conduct a poll asking how many young Scots would move to remote Scotland given half a chance. I humbly suggest we would all be impressed.”

It’s a great question, more and more younger folk are visiting the Highlands from the Central belt, many veterans of the “are we there yet” school of teenage defiance, have succumbed to the real joys and quality of life that comes with amazing landscapes and wildlife.

Last week during one our regularly blowy nights when it’s a struggle to open the car door from the inside, I drove over to meet Gail and Jamie, their pal and business partner, Murray, was off at an Assynt Wildlife club meeting, so there’s a meet yet to happen. These three Central belt refugees had been working for one of the many tour operators that speed through Scotland pointing out our many views and stories. Our intrepid trio, tired of the congestion and harassment of life that goes hand in hand with urban life have ventured north for a better quality of life. They’ve pooled their resources and for about the same amount of money one might pay for a fixer-upper basement studio in one of Edinburgh less salubrious areas, have bought a 10-acre croft with views out to Handa Island, Scourie and the snow topped magnificence of Ben Hope rising in the far distance. They plan to offer bespoke, leisurely tours around the North Highlands whilst self-building a straw bale home that should cost less than half that of a Glasgow parking garage. Jamie has a background in building and as soon as final planning permission is agreed, plans to launch himself at the project through the summer with the hope of completing it before winter arrives. Murray is the gardener he’ll be prepping, planting and cultivating their fruit and veg needs. Gail, as well as driving the school bus will be on the road with Rustic Tours most of the summer season ahead. The group have thrown themselves into becoming part of the local community, their enthusiasm and drive has been welcomed. Jamie has started Gaelic lessons; they’ve attended Crofting courses through the Scottish Crofting Federation. There are hopes that the feller who runs the straw bale building course they attended in Devon last year will use their project as one of his courses this summer.

As we enter the next decade of austerity and local authorities tighten their purse strings even further there is a determined drive from communities to make do for themselves. From the largest foundations and Trusts to the smallest community associations the push is on to improve our lot, and offer local expert knowledge on how we go about helping bring people back to the North. For too long the attitude that nobody cared and that we should have little or no say in our future has perpetuated. That cycle or resignation is about to break, all we need now is for Inverness, Edinburgh and London to listen.

Do visit Flossie’s Facebook page here or Rustic Tours website here.

Comments (3)

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  1. Murray Anderson says:

    Nice article Ewen. Just to add, in every nook of Assynt we have found the greatest hospitality and support and this, along with the south westerlies, has truly blown us away. There’s no doubt that we have made the right life choice.
    I look forward to meeting you.

    Cheers, Murray

    P.S. Flossie’s sells great butteries, so as a loon of Aberdeenshire, this place truly is heaven!

  2. Madeleine Rose says:

    Excellent article!
    Definitely on our bucket list to return to the wilds of North Scotland!!!
    We first experienced the raw beauty, warm hospitality, and delightful tour of the Scottish Highlands with Murray in October 2013.
    We are eager to return to see the croft that Murray, Gail, and Jamie are proudly calling home. Especially keen to see young Murray’s cheeky grin.
    Cheers, Pete and Maddie
    Hagley, Tasmania, Australia

  3. Kirsty MacLeod says:

    Very good article, which accurately sums up how it is. I’ve lived in Assynt 21 years now, my husband grew up here and our young boys enjoy a freedom unheard of in a city. Not so great for teenagers though. I still believe the pros outweigh the cons, but it doesn’t always feel like that!!

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