CROFTING ON the West Coast is receiving a facelift, with more families choosing to invest and diversify their crofts in a bid to keep the age-old tradition alive and kicking in rural communities – but with a modern twist.

There are more than 920 active crofters on the islands of Lewis and Harris, with crofts ranging in size from as small as a single hectare to having access to thousands of hectares through the medium of community grazing.

The Outer Hebrides receives the lowest basic payment per ha through the Common Agricultural Policy than anywhere else in Scotland, mainly due to having poorer ground, extensive grazing systems and low stocking rates per ha.

However, there are various grants available through the Crofting Agricultural Grant Scheme which is helping to attract new entrants into island communities to rejuvenate old crofts, as well as funding for existing crofts to develop new avenues to increase their income.

One of the biggest challenges facing crofting is that, despite an appetite to return to the island communities, the price of land is preventing people from doing so. Moving forward, there is a need for inactive crofters who are holding on to the land for sentimental reasons to pass it on to fresh blood, who can then breathe new air into communities and restore old crofts to life.

SAC Consulting has been working closely with crofters on the island to help them embrace new opportunities and consultant, Ian Murdo, has been at the forefront offering support for many families.

During a two-day visit to Lewis and Harris he told The SF how mindsets are beginning to change with a view to repopulation.

“Lewis is a beautiful island with world class scenery, attracting many tourists in peak season, which meant the price of land had soared, preventing young people from getting a foothold.

“There are lots of incomers who are desperate to settle here, or return and only now are we beginning to see mindsets changing as people begin to realise that to keep this way of life going, there is a need to release land and support the incoming generation of crofters.”

To help those under 41 get a foothold, there are crofting grants available in the first five years of working the croft – these allow for an 80% grant for up to £25,000 per claim. If young crofters are applying for funding for common grazing – for something which will benefit a much wider community – then they will receive an 80% grant up to a £125,000 claim.

“This money is a game changer for crofting,” continued Ian. “If we can encourage investment, for example, in a new sheep and cattle handling system for a community to use for shearing and dipping, then this could encourage others to take on even a handful of sheep and grow from there, with the knowledge that the support is there in the community.”

The problem, he admitted, was that individuals would outlay money in advance, which can exert huge financial pressures if they don’t see that grant for three months.

There is also a Croft House Grant Scheme available to active crofters which offers 40% support for up to £38,000 in refurbishing old crofts.

Ian explained: “The hope is to encourage young families to come and set up life here. There are lots of old crofts sitting unused and are crying out for families to bring them back to life with these grants. If, post-Brexit, we don’t see continued financial support for these areas, then the worry is that they will become a desert.”


The Scottish Farmer:

Donald MacSween runs three active crofts on Lewis


Donald Macsween, Ness, Lewis

A well-known name on the Island of Lewis is Donald MacSween, who runs three active crofts in Ness, all while balancing freelance work as a presenter with the BBC and exploring various agri-tourism ventures such as crofting tours.

The 36-year-old previously worked for the local council authority, where he actively encouraged young people to choose the social benefits of life on the islands and decided in 2017 to heed his own advice and move into crofting full-time.

“We are a really strong community here in the Western Isles,” said Donald. “The further you are from ‘the powers that be’, the more you have to look after yourself and your community. We need to be more self-sufficient as we are an island and we have three wind turbines which power 2-3000 homes here in Ness.

“Crofters have worked together for years, coming together for gathering, dipping and shearing. Although the money numbers aren’t high for young people coming in, the quality is there, and they are coming in for the right reasons and keeping this tradition alive of tending to the land and keeping the community going.

“Crofting isn’t just about making money, people are drawn to this way of life because of the social benefits it offers and that is something we don’t want to lose.”

Donald’s crofts cover seven acres, but he also has access to common grazing of over 56,000 acres owned by the Galson Estate Trust, which he shares with only three other active crofters in the region.

He has around 100 ewes on the moors, breeding Hebridean, Shetland, Texel crosses and Blackface. He finishes around 50 lambs a year, which he has slaughtered in Stornoway and brought back to a local butcher in Ness, before being sold directly to customers.

Donald is passionate about making the most of his livestock and has their wool sent away to be spun in Uist and makes his own Harris Tweed – which provides a good income, retailing at £95 per metre.

“Everything here is about making the most of provenance and we also trialled putting a Zwartbles ram to our bigger ewes to produce a browner coat and are now sending 40-50 skins per year to Skye Skins for tanning,” he explained.

As well as sheep, Donald has three Highland cows plus followers and sells around nine pigs for meat which go to Dingwall at a deadweight of 30-40kg and make a return of £11 per kg.

“Pigs are expensive to breed as feed imports are so expensive so I can’t afford to sell them cheaper to a local market,” he explained. “We also have 600 hens here which are my bread and butter throughout the year. There is a strong market in Lewis for 2-3000 birds-worth of eggs and I only sell to local markets and independent stores, producing around 300 eggs a day.”

Donald has diversified his income by selling some of his produce out of one of his sheds and works alongside cruise ships offering croft tours to visitors during the summer months.


The Scottish Farmer:

Donald is currently building the first Polycrub on the island to house livestock inside


He is also the first crofter in the Outer Hebrides to invest in building what is known as a ‘Polycrub’ to house livestock.

SAC’s Rob Black, who is based in Appin, explained: “Polycrubs are made from recycled polyethylene salmon tubing which has washed up on the beaches. The tubing is welded in to a large polytunnel-type construction which is then covered by polycarbonate sheeting and held together by stainless steel screws to withstand the sea water, which is highly corrosive. This unit is much more substantial than polytunnels and can withstand the winds we face here of up to 125ph, which makes them a great solution to this climate.”

The Polycrub concept began as a small community project in Northmavine, Shetland, in 2008, but demand has spiralled, and they are now being built in places as far as the Falklands and France. The largest model available has dimensions of 4m by 12m and will set crofters back around £8000. However, with the support of CAGS, individuals can claim 60% funding towards building a polycrub and up to 80% funding for common grazing applications.

“CAGS has given crofters the financial support to diversify their businesses by investing in Polycrubs, allowing them to tap into fruit and veg growing, which may have been more restrictive before,” continued Rob. “They can also be used for community growing projects – planting trees and Donald is currently building the first polycrub to house livestock on the island.”

Donald said new measures had to be taken into consideration to make the unit livestock friendly. “We are trialling opaque sheeting to reduce heat in it so that livestock will be more comfortable. I have been wanting to build a large barn for my stock, but it is too big an investment, so this is a perfect halfway house between having livestock outdoors and building the shed.

"I have plans for two more to be built on-site, a second one for feed storage and machinery and a third for livestock. The Polycrub fits well with the ethos of the crofting community as it utilises recycled materials and ensures nothing gets wasted.”


The Scottish Farmer:

Donald is currently building the first Polycrub on the island to house livestock inside


Karen Macleod, Lewis

Karen Macleod and her husband, John, have a croft on the outskirts of Stornoway where they grow a lot of their own organic food to feed their family of five.

She explained that, traditionally, crofts were used for growing food not just for raising livestock, stating that sheep would have usually been grazed out on the moors.

The Macleods' succeeded in securing a crofting grant to build a Polycrub in 2019 and have successfully managed heavy yields in the short time it has been active.

“We are able to provide our family with six months of good organic fruit and veg and now, with the ability to grow indoors in the Polycrub, we have been able to grow grapes, olive trees, plum trees plus much more. Knowing where our food comes from is so important and everything is organic, which means no waste."

Karen harvests her own rainwater to feed the plants which is collected and stored in two 1000-litre IBCs attached to the Polycrub. She collects seaweed from the nearby beach, which she lies on top of the soil beds to create a mulch and swears by it as an effective pest control.

“The seaweed feeds the soil and keeps it moist, as well as stopping weeds from growing. Slugs don’t like the saltiness or texture of seaweed, so it keeps them away from the plants and we have no need for pesticides or fertiliser.”

SAC Consulting helped Karen install the Polycrub and have since been inundated with interest from others on the islands looking to invest in a similar venture, marking a notable growth in self-sustainable growing.


The Scottish Farmer:

Kenny Mackay explains that there is no profit in crofting, but that people do it for the lifestyle and to keep the tradition going


Kenny Mackay, Northton, Harris

Crofter, Kenny Mackay, is a joiner by trade but his real passion lies in tending to his stock on a dramatic Northton peninsula in the south of Harris.

The 29-year-old bought the tenancy of his first croft in 2012 and his second in 2019 and he pays £12.50 per croft per year to landlord, Robert Hitchcock. His two crofts come with 8ha of land, however Northton is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest for machair land which he has access to during points of the year for common grazing.

Kenny is in the process of putting in an access road to a shed to store his equipment and house any ill stock, and has plans to one day have some Highland cattle on the croft. He currently runs 140 Blackface ewes and crosses, which will begin lambing on April 10, with the lambs sold at Stornoway market in August and September.

He has been plagued by issues of predation on the island which has had a substantial impact on his lamb output. “We lose around 20% of our lambs to sea eagles and are having big issues with ravens. There can be as many as 40 ravens here at any one-time during lambing.”

Kenny explained why he had chosen the crofting life and what barriers face young people from taking on the lifestyle. “There is no profit in crofting. You do it for the lifestyle and to keep the tradition going. If I could do this full time, I would, but it is not viable, so I’m a joiner to trade.

“There are young people who are very keen to come to the Outer Hebrides and take on this way of life, but they are being priced out of the market. Nobody can afford to pay £100,000 per quarter of a ha.

“Unless you inherit a croft, there are few people who can afford the price of land and we need more people coming in to continue this tradition and to bring inactive crofts back to life. Finding people to help us gather the sheep is one of our biggest problems and we rely heavily on our neighbours to help us, so the fewer crofters, the bigger the task we face,” he added.

There are 41 crofts in the Northton township but only four are currently active. However, the local community has just secured funding in the 2019 agri-environmental scheme for up to £60,000 over five years to invest in new fences and a sheep and cattle handling facility which will inject much needed funds in to the community and will hopefully attract new entrants in to Northton.


The Scottish Farmer:

Some crofting communities have benefited from CAGS funding to invest in new sheep and cattle handling systems


Angus Mackay, Scarista, Harris

A wet summer and winter had presented numerous challenges to crofters on the Isle of Harris, but Angus Mackay, at Scarista, hadn’t been deterred from investing in his business to build a new cattle steading to house his stock.

He runs nine breeding cows and followers and has started to build up a pedigree Aberdeen-Angus herd over the past year. Angus also runs 350 ewes, making a change from Cheviots to Blackface on the basis that they were more suited to the rough ground.

There are 70 acres attached to the croft, which is rented from the West Harris Trust, but Angus also has shares in three lots of common grazing which add up to 5000 ha and outwinters his stock on nearby Taransay island.

It is hard to make a living on the island from running livestock alone and Angus said he relied heavily on the income generated from two self-catering houses and explained that 70% of his income comes from government funding through schemes such as LFASS, SUSSS and the SSBSS.


The Scottish Farmer:

Angus Mackay has shares in three lots of common grazing up to 5000 ha and outwinters stock on Taransay island


“The majority of our outgoings are spent on feed costs and although we try and grow our own silage here, the wet weather of late has meant that we are importing concentrates over from the mainland which is an extra £70 per tonne,” Angus explained. “The ground is really wet; we’re never seen a winter like this one and there are real concerns that this could lead to increased cases of fluke.

“We don’t currently have the facilities to house stock but have recently secured a CAGS grant and are in the process of building an 80ft by 30ft shed, with 60% funding support, which will make a real difference to our business and to animal health. We plan to put in a bull pen and space to hold 10 cows and calves over the winter.”

Angus sells around 250 lambs as store yearly and said that they make around £40 each in Dingwall, however pointed out that you lose £3.50 per head with transport costs en-route.

“We keep ewe hoggs for the SUSSS scheme, which is an important cash injection into our business, however we have two pairs of sea eagles causing carnage nearby and have suffered losses of 30% which can make a real mark on numbers and quality.”

Tourism in the Outer Hebrides plays a major part in adding income opportunities to crofting businesses and Angus stressed that crofters have to tap into new opportunities to diversify their business if they are to maintain this traditional way of life.


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