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Catherine Brown on the revival of crofting in Scotland’s Highlands and Islands



The Oxford Cultural Collective has a strong connection with the Jane Grigson Trust, an educational charity established in 1991 in memory of Jane Grigson.  OCC team members Geraldene Holt, Jeremy Lee and Don Sloan are also Trustees of the Jane Grigson Trust.  

The most recent annual lecture of the Jane Grigson Trust was delivered by distinguished food writer Catherine Brown in July 2017 at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery.  She explored one distinctive aspect of Scotland’s food culture – the development, decline and recent revival of crofting. 

Here we publish an updated transcript of Catherine’s lecture (and follow link to visit Catherine’s website).



A Challenging Landscape: Scotland’s Food and Drink Assets

Unlike England, which is mostly arable land, Scotland is predominantly rough, hilly and mountainous. The area of Scotland with the most challenging landscape is everything west and north of the Highland Fault Line drawn from the town of Helensburgh on the South West Coast and Stonehaven on the North East Coast, known as the Highlands and Islands. Because it contains the country’s less favourable arable land, it has a distinctly different system of agriculture.

Today, it is defined as the area of the crofting counties where the farming system is dependent on small-scale food production with arable units (crofts) and common grazing for livestock on hills, moors and mountains. [1] There are over 17,000 crofts. Crofting households represent 30 per cent of those on the mainland, and 65 per cent of the households on Shetland, the Western Isles and Skye. [2]

Other important natural landscape and climatic factors which influence food and drink production in this area, compared with the rest of Scotland are: an extensive coastline; proximity to rich fishing grounds; a colder, wetter climate; longer hours of summer daylight; longer hours of winter darkness and long distances from markets creating transport problems. Also its early history is distinct from the rest of Scotland. From around the mid eighth century, a large part of the area was a separate kingdom ruled by the Lords of the Isles, of mixed Celtic and Norse blood. At their height, they wielded sea-power with fleets of galleys. Today, in the Highlands and Western Isles the native language is Gaelic.


Food Culture in Less-Favourable Areas

It is a wild day with torrential rain as we drive out of the Applecross peninsula in Wester Ross, just across the sea from Skye. A road linking the crofting communities on the shores of Outer Loch Torridon was only being built in the late 1960s. We have come to visit crofters, Alistair and Maggie. Both into their seventies, they have lived here all their lives, a boat their only form of transport.

There is a warm, welcoming orange glow from a peat fire in the hearth with a large black pot hanging over it, cooking slowly. Enticing aromas mingle with wafts of pungent peat smoke. Drams of whisky are poured. Maggie puts crowdie cheese, soft bannocks and crisp oatcakes on the table. Later, Alistair goes over to the pot and takes out a joint of mutton and cuts slices for us.

His mutton, he tells us, has been preserved in ‘the salt’ (a barrel of brine in the barn). His hardy, sure-footed, mature Blackface sheep (Blackies) have roamed the rough hillsides and rocky mountains, winter and summer, for years, living on a diet of heather and wild plants. We get a slice of the mutton which we eat with an oatcake.  Later, Alistair chops up some kail and adds it to the pot and we get a bowlful of broth, thickened with barley, flavoured with carrots, turnips and mutton stock. It is the culinary heritage of generations, living by an ingenious system of self-sufficiency, making good things from an inhospitable landscape and difficult climate.

They are dependent for fuel on the dried out peat which they cut from the peat bog. It burns slowly with a steady glow. Not hot enough to heat an oven, or roast a joint of meat, but perfect to slow-cook the contents of the large black pot over the fire as it simmers gently throughout the day. It tenderizes both mature meat and all the less-tender cuts. It is the origin of Scotland’s national broth tradition. Also its stews, stovies, and bag puddings, originally cooked in the broth, such as haggis (in a sheep’s stomach bag); black puddings, mealie (white) puddings and clootie dumplings tied up in a cloot (cloth). It has also influenced the baking tradition. A cast iron girdle hanging over the slow burning peat is the origin of the bannocks, oatcakes and girdle scones which Maggie has been baking all her life.

Their generous sharing of food has captured all the essence of the land. When questioned about their self-sufficent lifestyle, they claim to be: ‘Rich in everything, but money.’ They buy salt for preserving, but fertilizer for growing crops comes from animal manure and seaweed from the beach. They cut peats for fuel. It’s a hard life by today’s standards, but they are sustained by these ingredients of the old Scots diet which makes full use of their majestic mountains for breeding hardy animals and their limited arable patches for growing crops. Besides this, they are skilled at fishing and foraging. Adding to their diet wild berries, herbs, seaweed, fish and shellfish which has been part of their food culture since their hunter-gatherer ancestors first settled in coastal caves on this peninsula around 7000 BC, leaving evidence of their eating habits in middens of shellfish and fish bones.[3]


The Potential of the Crofter’s Land and Food Culture

I was teaching catering at Elgin Technical College in Morayshire, preparing young Scottish students to sit the London City and Guilds 151/152 examinations. Their textbook was Practical Cookery by V. Ceserani and R. Kinton. French haute cuisine was the norm in most hotels and restaurants. Scotch Broth and Cullen Skink were the only Scottish recipes in their textbook. Neither were part of the syllabus. But this was Scotland.  Not France.

My next move was to manage the kitchen at the Loch Torridon Hotel on a deer shooting and salmon fishing estate at the head of Inner Loch Torridon. My aim: to cook Scottish and write menus in English, Scots and maybe Gaelic. Armed with an 1829 edition of Meg Dod’s The Cook and Housewife’s Manual  with its special chapter on Scottish National Dishes; W Heptinstall’s Gourmet Recipes from a Highland Hotel (1967); and Janet Murray’s Traditional Recipes from Scotland (n.d.) I got some useful inspiration. But the book which became my ‘Bible’ was Florence (Floss) Marian McNeill’s The Scots Kitchen (1929).

Floss was born on a traditional Orkney croft in 1885. She was the second youngest of twelve children. The family grew their own vegetables, oats and barley; kept cattle for milk, cheese and butter; sheep for mutton; and as much fish as they could catch in the summer months. She was one of the first women to have a university education and had been strongly encouraged by her Gaelic speaking father to preserve her cultural heritage. She says she did not set out to write a ‘compendium of cookery’. But ‘to preserve the recipes of our old national dishes, many of which, in this age of standardisation, are in danger of falling into undeserved oblivion.’[4] Her collection from the Shetlands to the Borders includes simple folk recipes, some collected in Orkney and the Hebrides, which had never been published.

Shortly after moving to the Loch Torridon Hotel, I was invited by Alastair Holmes, the gamekeeper, to visit his deer larder. I began by owning-up to the fact that I’d never cooked venison, or any other game for that matter. ‘Not a problem,’ he said. ‘My mother will be happy to help.’

Mary Holmes had cooked for most of her life on Highland shooting and fishing estates and was a highly experienced and excellent game cook. She was also a nose-to-tail cook. Nothing wasted. Among her repertoire was Stag’s Head Broth, Venison Haggis and Venison Tripe, known by its colourful Gaelic name: Pocha (bag) Buidhe (yellow). The broth and the haggis were soon on the menu but I baulked at the tripe. It had a dark brownish, mushroom look about it. Totally unlike cow tripe in texture or taste. It was much thinner, more tender, with a pleasingly delicate gamey flavour. Mary insisted I put it on the menu. ‘Call it Pocha Buidhe,’ she said. ‘And if anyone asks, just say it is a Highland Speciality.’ So I did, and it sold. Just one curious German guest asked what it was, but was content with Mary’s answer.

Properly handled, there is no finer game to be had in Europe, than from these majestic Torridon Highlands. Feeding on rough grasses and heather, shot in its prime and carefully hung, it was this in particular which impressed Continental guests who happily ate it every night.

Excellent Aberdeen Angus beef and Blackface Sheep came from the Dingwall market. There was always  plentiful supplies of superb wild salmon and sea trout in season. Creel caught crabs, lobsters and langoustines were often on the menu.

I made lifelong friendships with other crofters in the area. These Gaelic-speaking Highlanders were steeped in the traditions of the area. Just a few of the memorable things they shared with me were Mary Macdonald’s croppen heids; Alice Mackenzie’s tatties ‘n’ herrin; Rhoda Mackenzie’s sheep’s heid broth; Peggy Maclean’s clootie dumplings; and raw pickled mackerel, cured in vinegar and brown sugar which old Murdo Matheson kept in a plastic bucket which appeared at ceilidhs (when people gather to socialise) in his house, accompanied by malt whisky tasting of nectar from an unlabelled bottle. The Torridon area has a rich history of illicit distilling.[5]

I remember Mary Holmes, cooking in her tiny stable cottage, a pot of Bawd Bree (Hare Broth) from a well-hung mountain hare. She gives us a wide deep Scottish soup plate with a large ‘floury’ Scottish potato, making an island in the middle. It is surrounded by a rich, dark brown, velvety liquid and collops of tender hare meat. And as the potato disintegrates into the broth there is the perfect balance of rich hare and bland potato to satisfy all the senses.

While my next move was back to Glasgow to work on the research with Professor Fuller, my family, with no Highland heritage, decided to change lifestyle and have a go at a self-sufficiency on a fertile piece of land in a crofting township on the north side of Loch Torridon. They engineered a road, built a house, planted a fruit orchard, grew vegetables on land that had once been the crofter’s potato patch, had a boat and caught fish from the sea loch and brown trout from the hill lochs. Though officially ‘incomers’, we were welcomed and became a working part of the community, my father a member of the mountain rescue team until he was seventy-five. Four generations on, the land is still in our family.

By the end of the 1980s, however, most of the (almost) self-sufficient crofters I had made friends with in the 60s were the last to work the land and sea in the old way. The road round the Applecross peninsula was thirty years too late for them and their children. Many would dearly loved to have stayed, but were faced with no job opportunities, no houses, and no up-to-date infrastructure. So they left.


The Black Cloud of Depopulation in Gaeldom [6]

The Scottish Gaels of the Highlands and Islands held an ancient belief, known in Gaelic as duthchas [7] which lay behind the origins of the clan system. It expresses a sense of being rooted to a certain area of land by ancient lineage, which is communally held by all the people of the clan. Under this early system, a clan chief ensured the general well-being of the clan, and provided protection and security of possession for the people living within their lands. He was originally elected by the clan, not by bilineal descent. He had no legal right to evict or take rents and was expected to govern in the best interests of the clan. However, as feudalism was introduced in other parts of the country, the spirit of the old system was not upheld and clan chiefs began to take rents and sell land.

At the time of the failed 1715 and 45 Jacobite rebellions not all clan chiefs, in this remote and mostly roadless area, supported the Stuart cause. Jacobite loyalties were not confined to the Highlands, but it was no coincidence that the uprisings began, and ended in the Highlands.[8] And it was the Highland clans who suffered most after Culloden. Their loyalty to Charles Stuart had brought him so close to success that the victorious Duke of Cumberland considered a wholesale transportation of Jacobites to the colonies.

Instead, he opted for a scorched earth policy of burning, clearing and pillaging, even in areas that had been loyal. The Highlands remained oppressed by the Hanoverian government’s military might, as they attempted to break up the clan system.[9] To crush them further, the military confiscated thousands of the clans hardy black polled Highland cattle, their most valuable assets which they bartered for essential grain, since they did not have enough arable land to fulfil their needs. Less valuable sheep, goats and horses were also confiscated and sold, mostly in Southern markets.[10]

In the years following, lucrative large scale commercial sheep farms began to be set up by new landlords, often from England, also by some non-Jacobite clan chiefs. This involved clearing the people from their traditional lands where, under the paternal clan chief, each had an enclosed piece of fertile land for tillage, usually beside their house, and with rights to graze livestock on less fertile land in the glens and mountains. The unique social system of ‘crofting’ stems from the Highland Clearances. Clanspeople became tenants.

The tradition of a benevolent clan chief who was responsible for his clanspeople’s security of tenure no longer operated wherever sheep farming was introduced. Houses in glens were destroyed and people moved to less favourable land at the coast, where the traditional mix of livestock and crops was not viable. Many were forced to take an emigrant ship to America. This was the situation for the dispirited, demoralised and exhausted generation which had lived through two uprisings and a brutal aftermath. It would be the next generation who would show more drive and energy to fight for their rights.

Some acts of defiance were organised, when crofters from several districts came together to drive the hated flocks of landlord’s sheep off the land. This was just the start of a period of dissent known as the Crofters’ War (1790-1886) which culminated in the Battle of the Braes on Skye in 1882 against landlords who had deprived crofters of the common grazing land they needed to feed their livestock.[11] They made a public protest by refusing to pay their rents until they were given back the land. The landlord, Lord MacDonald, mobilised the law in the form of an Inverness sheriff and 50 policemen, shipped up from Glasgow, to arrest the crofters. But at a strategic location on their route through Skye, they were met by a 150 crofters who attacked them with sticks and stones.[12] The issue was widely publicized in the media, with journalists visiting the area and reporting in the national press. Public opinion in Scotland favoured the crofters. As a result of the Braes revolt, the British government set up a Royal Commission to investigate the situation, leading to a radical change, set out by the Napier Commission. And with the Crofters Act of 1886, security of tenure was established, along with rights to grazing land. A Crofters Commission (CC) was set up with rent-fixing powers.[13] This is seen now as only a partial solution, since it did not include those without a tenant’s right to work a croft. These were the landless cotters, squatters and fishermen who were most vulnerable to transportation. The new law was also too late for all the thousands (the number is unknown) who had already taken a boat to America in the first half of the nineteenth-century, the period of the largest exodus.

During the period of the Crofters’ War, another land issue threatened the communities in the Highlands and Islands when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert fell in love with the Balmoral Estate in 1848. They were not into sheep farming. But they did like to hunt and fish. This was an estate amongst spectacular scenery, wild, remote and private, where they could relax away from the royal pomp of London. Soon the aristocracy, landed gentry and nouveau-riche industrialists were buying up large areas of Highland and Island estates for pleasure and building a castle, if there was not one there already, as did the royal family.

An Act of Property in 1621 had converted hunting game into an exclusive right of the landowner, taking away the Highlander’s right to a share of game and fish from their clan lands.[14] While in the early 1800s there were only six or seven areas actively managed for hunting, just 25 years after the royal family’s arrival, there were 79. By 1900 there were between 130/150, covering 2.5 million acres. By 2002, the extent of the sporting estates, including deer forests and mountains, as well as grouse moors, had reached 4.5 million acres.[15]

New owners of sporting estates only employed a few local people for a few months of the year during the season.  The rest of the year they became absentee landlords, living a considerable distance away. Often unable, or unwilling, to take an interest in the survival or the care of communities on their estate who were paying them rent for their house and land. Not all were bad landlords. Some were interested in supporting the local community, but others were intent on preserving their privacy and keeping their lands wild, barren and empty of people.


Land Reform on the Political Agenda for the Highlands and Islands

It was on a clear day in June 1992, that the crofters on the Assynt estate in Sutherland were surprised to see some small sea planes circling the estate. One landed on a sandy beach and the locals gathered to watch. Out stepped a titled family and an Iranian gentleman who, it transpired, were being given an aerial view of the estate as potential buyers. Unusual goings-on, but it served as a wake-up call to the crofters who were unaware that the estate was for sale.[16]

By the late twentieth century, large areas of the Highlands and Islands have become a playground for much more than British royalty and its followers. Joining them now is a global super-class who might be sheiks, olegarchs or self-made millionaires. Or they could be completely anonymous landowners who secretly register their investment in a tax haven so tenants must deal with intermediaries.

The pattern of private land ownership in Scotland, at the beginning of the twenty-first century is the most concentrated in the developed world: 432 private landowners account for 50 per cent of all the privately owned land.[17] Or put another way, 0.025 per cent of the population owns 67 per cent of the privately owned rural land.[18] Some might use their estates to hunt and fish. Some see the potential profit in agricultural support subsidies, forestry grants and other taxpayer financed payments. Some are in it for the lucrative rental charges to be levied on wind farms which only exist by public subsidy. Some are also adept at making arrangements to reduce, or even eliminate, effective taxation of landed wealth. [19] Some treat their estates as playgrounds to entertain their friends. Some may not even visit their estate. But it is the lives of local communities, who live on a badly managed estate, that become so unbearable that their only course of action is a tenant’s revolt.

In the early 1990s the community on the small island of Eigg was in revolt. Their dysfunctional landlord who had owned the estate for almost twenty years had made their lives a misery. Situated south of Skye, Eigg has a land area of just twelve square miles. The islanders (known as Eiggachs) decided on the radical move of setting up a Trust in 1991, to fund buying the island from their landlord. They called a well-publicised and well-attended (including by their landlord) press conference in an Edinburgh hotel to get some attention, and to invite people to support the Isle of Eigg Trust.

Also at the event were the worried Assynt crofters. They immediately set up their own fund to buy their land, and in less than a year, had raised the asking price (£300.000). Half came from supporters in the UK and the Scottish diaspora who retain strong links with Scotland, and the remainder from a grant loan from Highland Council. They bought their land in February 1993 to great excitement and rejoicing. A photograph of the late Allan MacRae, the chief mover in the campaign, shows him standing on top of a large rock with the majestic mountain of Suilven in the background. His arms are held high in victory, holding a bottle (probably whisky) in one hand and the other punching the air with a defiant clenched fist. They had become the first crofters in the Highlands to buy back their land.[20]

Meanwhile, the Eiggachs continued to suffer from the actions of their dysfunctional landlord, Keith Schellenberg (AKA Shellie). An eccentric, millionaire playboy who wafted hot and cold with them. He had bought the estate in 1974 and was fiercely opposed to selling it to the islanders. Despite the island having a reputation as the ‘garden of the Hebrides’, he had neglected to maintain estate houses, the island’s infrastructure and its land. A housing poverty report in 1988 described ‘most of the tenants houses as uninsulated, and therefore severely affected by rising and penetrating damp[…]had no proper electricity supply[…]some had no water supply, so no baths showers or sinks[…]and no WCs.’[21] Shellie claimed he liked the ‘run-down, Hebridean aspect’ of the island. While the islanders health suffered from the appalling state of the houses and the difficulties of eking out a living, he entertained his friends with ‘champers and hampers’ weekends and costumed Jacobite and Hanoverian mock battles which did not go down well with the Eiggachs.[22]

A major fund-raising campaign had the support of Highland Council and the Scottish Wildlife Trust. But in 1995, under financial pressure to sell the island, Shellie rejected a bid from the Trust and instead, sold to a German, Professor Marlin Eckhart (AKA Maruma). Two years later he was also under financial pressure to sell and the Trust raised the total purchase price of £1.5 million by public donations from Scotland and beyond. Nearing the bid deadline, however, they were still short of £900,000. This was generously donated by an anonymous female donor from the North of England (rumoured to be Catherine Cookson).[23] Eigg was the first Scottish island to be bought by its tenants. Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) gave the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust a grant of £17,000 to get started. [24]

The Eiggachs have just celebrated 20 years of independence. During which time they have: improved the infrastructure; built their own renewably powered electricity grid (Eiggtricity); repaired, improved and built new houses; and piped water to all establishments. The population has increased from 65 to over 100. Tourism is flourishing. There is a café, bar and restaurant at the pier; it has its own brewery with craft artisan beers recently on sale in Aldi; and a weekly craft and local produce market with organic eggs and vegetables.[25] It has also been named Britain’s most eco-friendly island.[26]

After devolution in 1999, (HIE) set up the Community Land Unit (CLU) which supports any community exploring the possibilities of ownership. By 2000, 144,000 acres were in community ownership, all of which community fund-raised. In January 2000, the Scottish Land Fund (SLF) was set up with lottery funding and by 2006, 420,000 acres of land was in community ownership.  As at June 2017, 562,230 acres of Scottish land is community owned which amounts to 2.9% of the total land area of Scotland. The Scottish Government have been challenged to aim for another 500,000 acres community-owned by 2020.[27]

While progress is being made, many more communities want to take back their land and remove controlling, insensitive and dysfunctional landlords. Those communities who have succeeded are witness to how their living conditions, and their ability to develop the land’s potential to produce a local food supply, creates health and prosperity for everyone.


Crofting Empowered: a long hard struggle

The battle for land reform is ongoing, but the crofter’s battle for their rights has been on the agenda since the demise of the clan system and has attracted illegal protests, murders, arrests and prison sentences. Long after The Crofters’ War (1790-1886), a high profile event, highlighted a critical situation. It was in June 1908 when a group of ten men, from the islands of Barra and Mingulay, emerged from Waverley station in Edinburgh.  Few had travelled in a train before. None had ever been to Edinburgh.  But news had already reached the capital of their arrival and a crowd of around 300 had gathered to cheer them. Their crime: to take land illegally from their absentee landlord, Lady Emily Gordon Cathcart of Berkshire, who had ordered their arrest.[28]

The ‘Vatersay Raiders’ as they were known, had been existing at minimal subsistence level, in overcrowded conditions leading to ill health, malnutrition and premature death on the islands of Barra and Mingulay. The nearby island of Vatersay had been ‘cleared’ in 1850 of all indigenous crofters by Colonel John Gordon of Cluny. Also an absentee landlord, he had ordered this to turn the whole island into a sheep farm making it more profitable for him than crofting rents. But in 1908, the Congested  Districts Board (CDB), which had been set up by the Secretary of State in the 1880s to regulate crofting land, had named Vatersay as having vacant croft land for 58 crofts.

Over several years, the Barra and Mingulay islanders, in their desperate need of more land to grow crops, had appealed to the new owner, Lady Cathcart (Colonel Gordon’s daughter-in-law), for this crofting land on Vatersay. But she refused their appeal. She appears to have only once visited the Highlands. She was, however, very active when it came to land management on her several Highland estates. She had inherited other estates, and followed the common policy of evicting tenants to increase the value of land for sheep-farming. She had only allowed her tenants on Barra and Mingulay small pieces of land (insufficient for supporting the population) so that island men would be available to work in the fishing industry, which was more profitable for her than crofting.[29] So the desperate ‘raiders’ set about marking out the vacant crofts on Vatersay, building huts to live in and planting potatoes to keep their families from starvation. It was that, or take a boat to America.[30]

The Ten ‘land raiders’ were sentenced to two months imprisonment. They were not the first to be jailed. And neither were they the last. But they were a microcosm of what was going in the Highlands at this time and their story, well publicised by sympathisers, caught the public’s imagination. Large crowds of supporters followed their trial and imprisonment. Within days, petitions were organised for their release. Funds were set up to support them. Lady Cathcart was forced to show mercy. Even the UK Parliament became involved. The House of Lords held a seven hour debate on how to handle the situation on Vatersay and deal with Lady Cathcart’s demands.[31] To resolve the impass, the government bought the island from her in 1909. The CDB marked-out 58 new crofts in four townships on Vatersay. And the crofters got the land.

The people on the nearby islands of Mingulay, Sandray and Pabbay were not so lucky. Their population, reduced to a point where the community was not viable, they reluctantly left their land. The islands remain uninhabited. Many other Scottish islands on the west coast, which had sustained human life for thousands of years were completely, and irreversibly, deserted in a very short space of time.[32] Happily for the Vatersay Raiders, this was not the case.

A 100 years on from their arrest, the island’s community have gathered in 2009 for the launch, by the Scottish Government’s Crofting Minister, Michael Russell, of a Croft Mark on all produce from Scottish Crofts which is managed by the Scottish Crofting Federation (SCF).[33]

‘The men who raided Vatersay did so because they needed to produce food for their families.’ said the Crofting Minister. ‘In Scotland today, many places have lost that link between the land and what it can produce. That link needs to be restored. This is a role for crofting which could be of huge benefit to Scotland.’

The mark indicates produce which has come from a croft, or similar small agricultural holding in the Scottish Highlands and Islands, and includes beef, lamb and mutton, pork, eggs, dairy produce, honey, preserves, vegetables, soft fruits, knitwear, tweed and wool. Those who buy this produce are supporting the unique heritage and culture of Scottish crofting. They are also helping to preserve some of the nation’s most valued landscapes and habitats. In particular, the heather moors and Hebridean machair which is the extensive, fertile grassy plain of wild flower-rich meadows in spring, which borders the many miles of white sandy beaches.

The SCF is the largest association of small scale food producers in the UK. A directory of producers is listed on their website.[34] Recently, they have petitioned the Scottish Government’s Land Reform Group to create 10,000 new crofts by 2020.[35] They argue that crofting is the best system to deliver goals for the future of agriculture in the Highlands and Islands, also contributing to the sustainability of rural communities. They are also keen to extend the area of the Crofting Counties. In some cases two or three crofts are joined together making them more economic. The Crofting Commission (CC) which is the Scottish Government’s regulatory body, has a waiting list of people who want to croft. [36]


A new generation of Crofters

From a young age, Donald McSween (AKA Sweeny) followed his grandfather around as he worked the family croft at Ness, on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. A treeless area of flat land at the coast, where foam-crested Atlantic rollers wash onto white sandy beaches and where people have toiled for centuries under the great arch of sky. They are hard-working folk whose way of life is co-operative, not competitive.  On calm, opalescent summer nights sunset merges into dawn. While wild winter nights of lashing rain and gale force winds rattles windows and threatens chimney pots.

Sweeny claims it was his grandfather who inspired him to croft, and to love animals. His parents gave him the croft for his 21st birthday. Sweeny had been interviewing for BBC Alba, the Gaelic TV channel, when it was suggested that they do a series on how he managed to do part-time work in Stornoway while at the same time working the croft. An Lot (The Croft) began filming in 2016.

First we meet his small flock 60 hardy Blackface sheep. These, and his super-intelligent sheepdog Bud, are his favourite animals. But he needs a project that will give him a regular income. Eggs, he decides, are the best idea. He salvages three unwanted porta cabins which he joins together to make a large shed, making space for the egg project. He builds a henhouse for 300 hens. Himself, and his student brother, Innes (who claims to hate crofting but still helps out when he is on holiday) set off from Lewis to travel to Stirling for the hens. The hens are put into crates and when they arrive back at Ness, the boys are very happy to discover that the hens are none the worse of the journey by road and boat. Bud learns to herd hens.

The demand for An Lot eggs regularly outstrips the supply in the Stornoway butchers. There is tedious work to be done with the eggs: collecting, weighing, labelling boxes and then filling them. This ends up as mostly mother’s work. Another idea is pigs. He goes for Tamworths and Gloucester Old Spot crosses. He finds them much more wilful than his sheep. The most wilful one is the first to go to the Stornoway butcher. At the end of the first series, he still needs to keep his part-time work in Stornoway.  Innes thinks he is mad. Sweeny replies, ‘But I get to live in paradise.’

The second series begins with a new flock of 300 hens to increase the egg production, this time delivered from a supplier in Skye. Egg production from the original flock had reduced, so he offered the hens to anyone who would come and collect them. He has increased his flock of sheep to 100. His pigs to 3 female, 1 male, and by the end of the series there are 20 piglets. He is excited at the arrival of two very beautiful, light golden Highland cows.

At the end of the second series he buys eighteen dark brown Hebridean sheep, a rare breed, which are the native sheep of these islands. They are hardy wee sheep with handsome heads and rich chocolate brown coats. He has an idea of getting rugs made with their skins. He invites local young people to come and work for a day on the croft. He has increased his income from the croft by diversifying into pigs, cows and more sheep. But he is still not ready to give up work in Stornoway. ‘There is,’ he says, ‘a gap in the market for good wholesome food from animals who have lived a good life, on good fertile lands.’ Sweeny can be visited at Air An Lot/Life on a croft in Ness. [37]

There is a chance now for Sweeny’s generation to reverse the damage that has been done to land in the Highlands and Islands through wars, clearances, emigration and dominating landowners who have no interest in encouraging people to settle in communities and use land for food production. The 2016 Land Reform Scotland Bill has resolved some of the problems. [38] Also, the new Scottish Land Fund which has £10m available for community buyouts, is another hopeful move. But land which lies derelict, because no one knows who owns it, and the land registered in tax havens, by unknown companies and individuals, still remains a frustrating issue for both the local people, who want to work the land, and the land reform campaigners who carry on the fight.



 [1] Argyll: Skye and Lochalsh; Lochaber; Inverness and East Highlands; Wester Ross; East Sutherland and Caithness; North West Sutherland;  Uist, Barra, Harris, Lewis; Orkney and Shetland. <https://www.crofting.org/index.php/contact_regions_main> [accessed 10 February 2018]

[2] Scottish Crofting Federation (SCF). Who are we and what do we do? 2. What crofting is and why it is valuable 2.4, <https://www.crofting.org/aboutus> [accessed 10 February 2018]

[3] Applecross History Society. ‘Scotland’s First Settlers Project’ <https://www.applecrossheritage.org.uk//first_settlers.html> [accessed 10 February 2018]

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[5] Murdoch MacDonald, The Battle of the Black Pot: Illicit Distillation in Torridon (Torridon Publishing, 2011), pp. 14-25.

 [6] The land of the Gaelic Speaking Gaels in the Highlands and Islands.

[7] T.M. Devine, The Scottish Nation 1700-2007 (Penguin Books, 2006), p. 175.

[8] T.M. Devine, p. 40.

[9] T.M. Devine, p. 45.

[10] T.M. Devine, p 46.

[11] T.M. Devine, Clanship to Crofters’ War: The social transformation of the Scottish Highlands (Manchester University Press, 1994), p. 209-227.

[12] James Hunter, The Last of the Free, A Millennial History of the Highlands and Islands (Mainstream, 1999), p. 308-316.

[13] James Hunter, p. 320.

[14] Andy Wightman, The Poor Had No Lawyers: Who Owns Scotland (Birlinn, 2011), p. 163.

[15] Andy Wightman, p. 165.

[16] Andy Wightman, pp. 146-7.

[17] James Hunter, Peter Peacock, Andy Wightman, Michael Foxley, 432:50 – Towards a comprehensive land reform agenda for Scotland: A briefing paper for the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee 2013, p. 5, 2.1. <https://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons-committiees/scottish-affairs/432-Land-Reform-Paper.pdf > [accessed 10 February 2018]

[18] Charles Warren, Managing Scotland’s Environment (Edinburgh University Press, 2009), pp 48-49.

[19] James Hunter, Peter Peacock, Andy Wightman. p. 5, 2.3, 2.4, 2.5.

[20] Assynt Crofters’ Trust <https://www.theassyntcrofters.co.uk/history [accessed 10 February 2018]

[21] Alastair McIntosh, Soil and Soul, People Versus Corporate Power (Birlinn, 2004), p 164.

[22] Lesley Riddoch, Blossom:What Scotland Needs to Flourish (Luath Press, 2014), p149.

[23] Lesley Riddoch, p. 162.

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[27]Andy Wightman, p. 149-151. < https://beta.gov.scot/publications/estimate-community-owned-land-scotland-2017/ >

[28] Ben Buxton, The Vatersay Raiders, (Birlinn, 2008 ). Prologue: Kindle edition 2012. [accessed 10 February 2018]

[29] Henry Buckton , The Lost Villages (Tauris, 2008), p. 43.

[30] Henry Buckton, pp. 40-48.

[31] House of Lords Debate, Vatersay (Hansard, 19 May 1909), cc 1055-80.

[32] Henry Buckton, pp. 45-46.

[33] Scottish Crofting Federation/Crofting Mark <https:www.crofting.org/scpbrand> [accessed 10 February 2018]

[34] Directory of Scottish Crofting Producers <https:// www.scottishcroftingenterprise.co.uk.> [accessed 10 February 2018]

[35]Scottish Crofting Federation call on Land Reform Gurus to support creation of 10,000 new crofts. <https://www.crofting.org/uploads/news/scfnewcrofts.pdf> [accessed 10 February 2018]

[36] Crofting Commision, the regulatory body. <https://www.crofting.scotland.gov.uk> [accessed 10 February 2018]

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[39]Neil Forbes, Chef Director, Café St Honore, Edinburgh; co-presenter BBC Radio Scotland’s Kitchen Café; one of Scotland’s Ambassador Chefs. <https:www.eat-scottish.co.uk/2016/02/12/neil-forbes/> [accessed 10 February 2018]

[40]Catherine Brown. Scottish Cookery, (Birlinn, 2013), p. 224.

[41] F. Marian McNeill, p. 258. 2013 edition.also Dictionary of the Scots Language. <https//www.dsl.ac.uk/entry/snd/sndns/1013/> [accessed 10 February 2018]

[42]Buttered Oats: 85g butter; 110g brown sugar; 250g rolled oats. Baking tin 22x33cm. Preheat oven 350F/180C/160Cfan/Gas 4. To make: Melt the butter in a pan with the sugar. When melted add oats. Mix well. Spread out in tin and toast in a moderate oven for about 30-40 minutes till golden brown, turning once. Leave to cool. Store in an airtight jar or tin. Catherine Brown, Scottish Cookery (Birlinn, 2013).p.33.


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