Crofting – Early Influences

That sounds more scholarly than I mean. Crofting itself grew out of the need to maintain some population on Highland farms after the much-hated “clearances”. I do mean early influences on why I have been interested in small scale farming most of my life.

The BBC series my family loved

“All Creatures Great and Small” – It was set in pre-war Yorkshire, and continued into the later years of a country vet’s family life and practice. The scenery was wild and beautiful, the farms snug in dales and on hillsides.

vintage image of Yorkshire farm

Who wouldn’t want that kind of life? Oh, yes, many people. The thought of being isolated in rural Yorkshire, with no neighbours in sight, a narrow, stonewalled road to travel in bad weather, houses with no central heat and drafty old cow byres for a work environment – most people would flee on the next train, on foot if necessary.

a little bleak, perhaps - Wensleydale

I thought of “All Creatures Great and Small” tonight as I made supper. The rain was pelting down in sheets on the icy, snow-covered fields, the trees along the river bank whipped by the wind. It was grey, and lonely. A small red car passed on the road above us, the only one I had seen in more than an hour. I was thankful to be inside where it is warm. While I miss having farm animals, this was one evening I was really glad I didn’t have to pull on a coat and boots and make my way to the barn for milking.

When I lived  across the river and up the mountain beside the church, I was a lot more like young James the vet. I got called out in all weather, at any time. Roads were often icy and treacherous. I once slid down Klokledahl Hill sideways in my old Ford truck. That was the evening I decided that the next truck would have four wheel drive. I lived alone; I had animals that demanded feeding in all weather; I had a job that included emergency calls in the middle of the night. I never said, as I crept through a snow storm, making my way home from a hospital at three in  the morning, that I regretted my choice.

Now we have moved to the other side of that equation. We are the ones snug in the warm farmhouse, perhaps waiting for someone to come help. It doesn’t happen often; I have always managed emergency deliveries of lambs by myself, and when I have called a vet, he was too late to save the ewe. But we have had a priest visit this year, and we will again. Now that we will have the woodstove, I expect that an hour by the fire, drinking tea and eating carrot cake, would be appealing to a priest (or vet) out on rural calls.

I did love the farmhouse scenes in “All Creatures.” Many of them had the old fireplace as well as the iron cookstove, a handpump, a churn, a huge table, lots of iron, copper and enamelled cookware and a big Brown Betty teapot, kept warm on the hob or the back of the stove. Young James was always getting served plates of sausage and potato, or seed cake and buns. He boasted of his farm-raised wife’s incredible cooking and baking skills. My hope is that my farmhouse kitchen will be as inviting and as comfortable.


8 thoughts on “Crofting – Early Influences

  1. Shortly after moving here to marry my husband ( 29 yrs ago on March 21st) I found myself in a foreign land – a rural one. In town, but town was not much and surrounded by farmlands and creatures both wild and raised. A river runs BY it, not exactly through it, but close enough. One great thing I found was the old library a few blocks down from me and what do ya think I settled on for my first read? All Creatures Great and Small. I was absolutely riveted to that story and I read all the books and when Bruce was home I followed him around reading certain parts. I never wanted those books to end! Yrs later we saw the shows on dvd and loved them. I liked the first wife of James better, probably because I got used to her. Anyhow, I found out something neat in those early years of reading the books. My mom’s family was from Manchester and my grandad had insisted when I was 11 to start writing his nephew, his namesake, who was an older author. He loved to write his American cousins, but was frustrated because none of them were enthusiastic writers. He had a granddaughter my age and my cousin’s and we were both asked to write to them both. We did. I developed a close relationship with my ‘surrogate grandpa” ( his call, when my grandad died when I was 13) that was to last the rest of his life and until I was in my late 30’s. So, I have tons of letters shoved away from long ago, tapes, and all kinds of stuff he sent me. Everyyear he went on holiday somewhere and for many years it was Yorkshire. His daughter in law’s sister had a renovated barn there that was used as a bed and breakfast ( I have the flyer) and she lived next door to guess who? The real “James Herriot”. I wanted so badly to get there and meet him, but we were in a recession then and could not afford the travel. So, I just rerent the series now and then, but that naughty Tristan?!!! Walking the edge there, ya know.


    • I thought one of my younger sisters was certain to become a vet after growing up watching the show. We got it on CBC in those days. The second Helen kind of bothered me, not because she wasn’t a lovely woman or a good actress, but she had been someone else’s wife in another series! I like the series for not whitewashing the nasty parts of rural life – the disasters, the losses, the bad neighbours, the very bad weather! It struck me as I was pouring tea for my Canadian-British husband (definitely not from Yorkshire) and commenting on the weather how much our life was getting to be like life on one of those isolated Yorkshire outposts!

  2. Magdalena,

    I read Herriot’s ‘Every Living Thing’ aged 19, back in 1990. If memory serves me correctly, it was his last book written just prior to his passing only a couple of years previously; and you’re right, nothing was whitewashed; the conditions, his illness contracted due to his line of work, the animals that didn’t make it despite his care… I never settled in to watch the series when it aired out here in the late 70’s and early 80’s – I’ll have to hunt it down on DVD.

    The image you painted in words of the weather and conditions around your home at the moment were striking – I could hear the rain and wind; feel the cold warring with any heat produced by said woodstove indoors, perhaps hear a window paine rattling a little in its frame and felt the comfort and contentment of not having to brave those conditions tonight… If I were a priest doing the rounds up your neck of the woods, I’d be eager to call in and rest awhile, talking, enjoying fellowship, catching up and the like over a pot of tea – yours would be a favourite visit, I assure you!!

  3. In the series we see James go through changes, even though she stays generally a congenial fellow. He had to have SO much patience. Something reminded us of some character on one of those earlier ones when James was always having to prove himself and we have been imitating this character and laughing ourselves silly. I can’t remember his name, but he was watching James delivering a calf that was sure to die. He was this skinny kind of witchy looking little elf of a man, sitting on a stool and he never stop singing the praises of his vet, ” Mr. Brooooomfield”. Mr. Broomfield would not do it that way, of course, Mr. Broomfield would…. and on and on till one wondered how James took it. The funniest scene was when the calf was delivered alive and that man’s dropped open – and for once he was speechless. SO many favorites. My favorite times for the series was pre war with the first Helen. They all lived in the same place and had that great cook housekeeper = forgot her name for the moment, but that cast really worked well together. Not that the others didn’t, but I just really enjoyed that time in particular. It was hard to see what war did to our genial James when he returned.

    Pass the tea pot, please.

    • As a parish priest, I well remember the “Mr. Broomfields” who went before me! “Oh, Father Suchaone never did that way!” and “Father Suchaone always…” One day, one of the oldest parishioners saif to me, “Well, they like to go on about Father Suchaone, but I really didn’t think he was more than a lazy priest!”

  4. My parents had friends who lived in a Yorkshire farmhouse, very similar to the one you have pictured. In the ’70’s we took a family caravan holiday to Yorkshire, and we stayed in the farmhouse, with the family friends, for a few days (to take a break from the tight quarters in the caravan). As a child I just fell in love with the farmhouse, the walls were a foot or more in thickness throughout the house, the floors were stone flags, and rather uneven, there was a huge fireplace in the kitchen, the views outside were amazing. On our first morning there we all walked to the neighboring farm to get milk, about a half a mile trek, the farmer was still milking the cow, we were allowed to drink some of the still warm freshly milked milk! I was around ten years old when we took this vacation and the memories of it are seared into my memory – it was absolutely wonderful.

  5. I had the privilege to visit Yorkshire (and most of the UK: from Cornwall to the Isle of Skye) in 1985 via the rent a car and go the B and B route. One place we stayed in Yorkshire, the proprietor told us we were in Herriott Country. Darrowby was actually the town of Thirsk and Mr Herriott’s surname was actually Wight. Made sure to purchase some Wensleydale cheddar while there.
    I liked how in the Isle of Skye that each person was given a plot of land where they would spade and turn their peat. Then they would stack it to dry to then use for heating. Still can remember the acrid smell of peat burning in some of the small towns up North. We were there in May but the weather felt like it was April in the NE part of the US. Glad I packed my woolies.

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