Reading About The Clearances

Whilst we wait to hear about whether planning consent will be granted, we sit in London and try and fill our time with useful things. Paint, trees, space planning, registering for schemes, permaculture learnings and reading about the history of the place that we are soon to live in.

On the reading pile this weekend is this rather impressive tome from one of the Penguin imprints, Allen Lane. Written by TM Devine, an expert in his field and Sir William Fraser Professor Emeritus of Scottish History and Palaeography at the University of Edinburgh, he is described as “a towering and fearless intellect” and this book as the definitive reference guide.

There are deserted villages dotted all over the Isle of Skye from the clearances in the eighteenth century, as is true across the whole of the Highlands and Islands.

They are sad and beautiful places, empty of all but the low, overgrown ruins of the house walls, and visited by few people.

The story of the forced clearances and the destruction of entire communities, enacted in the name of economic efficiency, is one that is both shameful and terrible. Truly the story of the dispossessed.

I think that we should be mindful and respectful of sensitivities on the island, shaped so brutally by this period in history. So many of the local names have family links and ancestors affected by the clearances. It will be sobering to hear their stories.

Horticulture for crofters

I’ve just received this copy of Horticulture for Crofters, a fabulously useful handbook published by the Scottish Crofting Federation.

I’ve been trying to get my hands on this for months, and so its arrival in the post this week was a cause for much excitement on my part.

It’s an incredibly detailed read on vegetable, fruit and tree production in Scotland, with lots of advice on crop shelter, soil care, crop selection and drainage. There are plenty of examples from growers in the inner and outer Hebrides, many on Skye. Just what we need to provide solid advice on local conditions and challenges.

Not to mention the wonderful illustrations by Chris Tyler, generously scattered through the chapters, which sadly I don’t have the rights to share here.

Bring it on! That’s the next weeks reading sorted.

Comments, costings and compromise

We inch forward slowly.

House designs are being drawn up by the architects and are shuttling through the ether between us with comments and costings.

We are in a continual state of debate at this stage around how best to design the space we need, based on our individual lifestyles and our lifetime experience of previous homes. All within the uncomfortably constraining straitjacket of affordability.

It’s exciting and terrifying all at the same time. The architects are concerned with flow, space and light, and we are concerned with mud, storage and costs. It’s all on paper, and so it’s difficult to visualise the space with any degree of accuracy.

We do what we can, pace out room sizes at home and try and imagine our furniture in situ in the new space. I dream of colour schemes, boot rooms and utility rooms at the moment…

Somehow, we promise ourselves, this will all eventually come together in a wonderfully graceful ballet, but we’re still to be convinced of that!

Exploring the croft

We’ve spent the last few days exploring the land. The croft is situated on a south east facing slope. Because it hasn’t been used for many years apart from occasional grazing, rushes have overtaken much of it, and there is little tree cover with the exception of a few small birch groves acting as a shelter belt to the west of the land.

There are exposures of lewissian gneiss in various places, but there also appear to be layers of shale, as exhibited here in an exposed cut above the stream. You can see the soil layer overlaying the shale. Local spot PH testing shows that the soil over the shale is around 6.5-6.8, so not as acidic as we had feared.

There is also a sheltered valley to the north, where the burn flows. It’s lightly wooded and overgrown, with the stream running through the cut.

It’s much more diverse and untouched in nature than I thought from our first viewing, which is wonderful. We’re already hatching plans for where we could plant a small orchard, and where we could create a pond.

Now to focus on planning permission and building warrants…

Fallen trees and a soggy bottom

It’s been a bizarely warm, cloudy day today on Skye, but we’re here! We spent the afternoon taking soil samples and exploring the croft with planting plans in mind, and it was so mild that we left our waterproofs hanging on a fence. Not at all like February.

On the western boundary of the croft is a grove of trees, providing a welcome shelter belt. At some point in the past an enormous fir tree was felled, and the trunk, denuded over time of it’s branches, still lies there.

We explored the bottom of the croft more thoroughly, a rough, overgrown area that borders the high moorland and common grazings at the back of where the house will be built.

We knew that there was a burn on the western boundary of the croft, running between us and our neighbour, but what we didn’t know was that there was a small tributary stream that runs through our land which joins the main burn, hidden in a low dip to the north.

It’s quite magical. The trees overhang the cut that the stream has carved for itself out of the bank. Everything is green, mossy and lichen-covered. Today the only sound was the gurgling of the stream, the occasional bleat of sheep and the song of the birds.

Our very own soggy bottom.

Of sick dogs and cancelled flights

We’ve been waiting impatiently for the opportunity to get back up to Skye for the last three months now.

Work schedules, family commitments, and the time it took to complete the croft purchase all conspired to stretch that time out to what seemed like an agonisingly long wait.

But eventually the week of the flight to Inverness approached and we started packing our bags and finalising the visit arrangements. And then disaster struck.

In the week before we were due to leave, our lovely old spaniel got sick. Up several times a night, my husband slept downstairs on the sofa with him so that he would be close in case anything happened. Bertie was listless and weak, had continual diarrhoea which his medication didn’t seem to be helping, and we were terrified that his time had come.

We cancelled the flight and the accommodation. We cancelled the dog sitter. We couldn’t leave him.

Exhausted from several nights of worry and scant sleep, we despaired of when we would get the chance to make the trip again, feeling both frustrated and guilty at voicing our feelings at a situation that was of no-one’s making.

Last night he turned the corner. He brightened. He started to eat again. We breathed again and watched in delight as he gained in energy. We dared to wonder whether we could get him comfortable enough over the weekend to squeeze a short few days in on the island out of the original week that we had planned.

The bags are still there, still packed on the bedroom floor, awaiting the outcome of the next few days.

We’re owners of a croft!

*Natasha Newton Art

Yesterday we received confirmation from our Skye solicitors that we’re at last confirmed as owners of the croft!

Never before has a small patch of permafrost in Scotland caused so much excitement.

It’s been a five month journey to get to this point and it feels so good to have reached this milestone. I can sense the slightly bemused expressions of friends, family, and passing strangers, but what we’ve bought isn’t just a patch of land. It’s a promise of a completely new way of life, which we are so ready for.

Now, as the snow settles on the fields we can start the real work … registering the croft, designing a house, securing planning permission, building an access track, groundwork, utilities connection, planning the land use, tree planting… so much to do.

I know that there will be frustrations, tears, hard work, midges and compromises along the way, but there will also be joy and a sense of achievement as we move through these things.

And fresh air, trees, sea, bees, dark skies, peace, space and wellies. After a lifetime of cities you can’t imagine the pull of all of these things.

One day soon we will wake up to sunrise over the Knoydart hills and start our other lives.

Hell yeah.