Hard Rock Crofting

1900 - harrowing a Shetland croft

The Highlands and Islands where crofting originated are not much more than a thin layer of topsoil on granite spurs. Farming these tiny plots was a constant struggle of improving soil health and keeping it in place. Coastal and island crofters carried seaweed to their fields as mulch and fertilizer. Manure was worked in to the earth. Constant rockpicking was a never ending task. These thin soiled plots were rarely enough to sustain a family; fishing and wildgathering supplied  a lot of the food. Most Highland crofters today have an outside income to make ends meet.

Another feature of the hard life a century and more ago was that families lived in tiny houses. They heated with peat cut from the bogs and piled in loose stacks to dry for the winter fuel. It was much snugger and warmer than a drafty castle or keep as the nobility lived in! Families worked together through the winter season in spinning, knitting and weaving.

Croft cottage interior, 1900.

Nanny has a lovely castle wheel going, with a lazy kate at her feet for plying. Most everything in the cottage and on their persons was made there, although there is a china teapot sitting on the hearth.

Thick plastered stone wall and a thatched roof was the typical cottage in the highlands. Thatching is time consuming, but with wood a scarcity, froe shingles were a rarity. Thatching rushes or straw would be gathered, bundled and tied into place on the roof frame, then netted down and weighted to keep it in place. This could be done with just labour and no cost, the materials and skill being local. This is not the case anymore with thatching! Rethatching an old cottage or house roof is now an expensive proposition, as the skill is not well-known anymore.

Croft cottage, Aberdeen

Our own house here on Blackthorn Croft is about 1000 square feet, maybe twice as big as a Highland cottage, although about half the size of the average suburban house. The house is about 100 years old, and probably originally had an iron stove in it for cooking and heat, with the family gathering in the kitchen through the winter months. My research and experience of families in New Brunswick was that often the young people were left to play games and make music in the kitchen, while the older folks settled in the sitting room or parlour for the evening, perhaps with a little parlour heater for comfort while they read and, later, listened to the wireless. Spinning and knitting went on, of course. Some families had home looms to make blankets and coverlets, and if they kept enough sheep, their own wool cloth.  A few grew flax; hackling and breaking equipment will show up in auctions and antique stores, and occasionally one sees an old spinning wheel with a distaff.

I have bags of wool to be processed yet. It is a few years old, but mostly good. In the better weather I will take it outdoors and go through it to sort out what can go to the carding mill to be made into roving (washed and carded wool in long ropes to be spun at home). Waste wool is good mulch. We expect to get a couple of ewes this year. Sometimes one can find yearling ewes still in fleece from a shepherd who didn’t get to shearing early. I always tried to have my shearing done by May, although it is possible to get snow and sleet storms well into that month.

This isn’t a hard rock farm. The maritimes and northern Maine are blessed with decent, thick topsoil, although it tends to be acidic from the softwood forests. We will build up the soil with rotted manure from local farms and with ash. I have learned that sunflower stems, burnt and spread on the ground, yield a good quantity of nutrient and help sweeten the soil. Since sunflowers are one of the crops we plan to grow, I hope to utilize every part of the plant – seeds for food, oil and animal feed; leaves and emoty seed heads as poultry food, and the stems as feritilizer. Our stove ashes – mostly hardwood – will go in the ground as well, although some might be used to make lye for soap. Our vegetable peelings already go into compost; almost every container that comes into the house will get pressed into service for seed starting; even newspaper and waste paper material will be used to make biodegradable plant pots or shredded as mulch. I have saved even plastic wrappings to cover the seed starts, and plastic bags to cut open and lay down around tomato plants to warm the soil. I have an idea of rescuing the frame from a temporary garage and covering it with greenhouse film for starting plants next year.

(Photographs are from the Shetland and Aberdeen historical sources.)

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6 thoughts on “Hard Rock Crofting

  1. We have friends that live in a village in the Alaska panhandle. The soil there is much as you describe. These people take 55 gallon drums, leave them to soak in the canal over winter, then fill them with fish and other compostables. She has literally made all the soil for her garden this way. Very work intensive, but considering how scare and expensive fresh veggies are, she thinks it worth the effort.

    • Wow, that is something! Yes, the islands off Scotland and Ireland are so sparse in soil that the people made their own dirt out of seaweed and other compostables. John Huston made a film called “The Field” that was about this – but it is very sad. The old silent documentary “Man of Arran” shows a Gaelic family working their croft and fishing.

  2. The second picture intrigued me too, but I was taken by the man in the striped hat. He has a very calm and concentrated face which I liked. The people next to him look quite contented too. The woman looks sad, perhaps they capture the feelings of crofters at once? The photo is great, I think I will look into printing it (Our printer is connected to the computer which does not have internet access so I will have to save the picture to a stick and so on)

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