Managing Small Woodlands in the Highlands and Islands

The Scottish Crofting Federation has recently published this useful little tome, packed with goodies about planting and managing woodland on the croft.

Husband and I have just spent a happy hour or so debating the wisdom of tree shelters vs. spiral tree guards for the protection of newly planted whips and young trees. A lot will depend upon the strength of the wind on the slope, which we won’t really be able to assess until we’ve lived there through a year or so of seasons.

We are travelling up to the island next month and are hoping to be able to walk the land with a representative from the local Woodland Trust, who will be able to assess the site and recommend viable tree varieties. It would be good to start the tree planning even if the trees can’t go in for a further year. And of course, the whole croft will need to be deer fenced before anything much can be planted.

We’re thinking of planting willow to help drain the boggy bottom of the croft, which can apparently act as a pioneer tree and help preparation for other species, along with birch, alder, elm, rowan, hazel, sycamore, sessile oak, bird cherry and others elsewhere. But of course we’ll take advice.

Husband is a just wee bit excited to read that Walnut and Sweet Chestnut are now considered viable species in this part of the world. Being Nut Boy, anything nut-related is worth a try in his eyes!

Wilding, the book

Wilding, by Isabella Tree, is a book based on an experimental re-wilding of a 3,500 acre farm in West Sussex.

Forced to accept that the intensive farming of the heavy clay soils of their farm at Knepp was driving it close to bankruptcy, they handed the farm back to nature.

The results in terms of biodiversity, soil fertility and increased wildlife have been nothing short of astonishing.

This is a pioneering book describing a brave and far-reaching experiment. If we can achieve these results on a piece of intensively farmed, chemically fertilised, biologically sterile land situated under the flight path at Gatwick, with time and patience we can achieve them anywhere.

Books like this provide inspiration and reinforcement of the thought that given half a chance, nature will fight back and thrive.

What we do to our little six acre pocket of land on Skye will be much less impactful than the 3,500 acres at Knepp, and the soil, weather and environmental challenges will be very different, but to the local area of Sleat it will be just as important.

So many ideas and plans. We can’t wait to start.

Bluebells and pignuts

Our next trip to the croft is in September, and itching to make a start, any kind of start, we’ve bought some seeds to sew in the established patch of woodland on the western boundary.

We can’t start anything on the main croft land until the drainage and groundworks are complete, which won’t start until the Autumn, so the little woodland belt is the place to begin some underplanting.

First off, I’ve bought pignut seeds.

Pignut is small perennial herb, whose underground root resembles a chestnut and is sometimes eaten as a wild or cultivated root vegetable. It has fascinated me for many years.

The name Pignut comes from its popularity with pigs, who root it out for its flavour, which is said to be similar to water chestnut. Wild food foragers also love it and jealously guard their sources.

Secondly, I’ve sourced some bluebell seed from a small, licensed croft on the Isle of Eigg. Eddie’s Croft.

Bluebell seed can be procured from many places, but I particularly wanted to find Scottish bluebell seed, and being so close to Skye, seed grown on Eigg will, I think, be more naturalised to the climate and conditions there. We will scatter it in the birch grove and hope that in a few years we’ll have the beginnings of a sea of blue.

It’s a small start, but it’s a start, and it’s exciting to be making our first mark on the land, however modest.

The Bath Chronicles

I love a good bath. There’s something about the ease that it provides to a chilled and tired body after a day of work that a shower just can’t match.

So, despite the modest proportions of the bathroom in the new build croft house, we have decided that in addition to a free standing shower, that we must have a bath.

Husband is nearly six feet tall. I stand at a diminutive (although magnificent…) five feet and four inches. You can start to see the dilemma when it comes to a comfortable soak.

For husband to be able to stretch out luxuriously, I would have to learn to float like a jelly fish, my feet not able to reach the end of the bath. For me to wedge comfortably in for a long soak, husband would be left folded up with knees protruding from the water like an origami grasshopper.

We have found a solution, Dear Reader. It is a slipper bath. Supremely comfortable, the bather assumes a supported, semi-seated position, not requiring any wedging on my part to avoid drowning, and yet long enough for grasshopper legs to be comfortable.

The other wonderful thing about this bath is that it is excellent for reading. For those of you who know me this is an equally important consideration. There is nothing like a soggy page and neck ache to ruin an otherwise sublime bathing experience.

We are feeling rather smug about all of this, and I am going to try a number of them next week in order to find The One.

Wish me luck.

On the Crofters Trail

On the reading pile this weekend (between flooring catalogues and kitchen cabinet fittings) is this poignant read.

Written by David Craig and originally published in 1990, this is now out of print and was a purchase from a second-hand bookseller.

It contains interviews with the descendants of those cleared from the Highlands and Islands who settled in Novia Scotia.

Some have letters from the period describing the atrocities in faded but visceral detail. Some have tales passed down through three generations from their great, great grandparents and recount them in detail.

There’s is something incredibly real and intimate about a book that contains a reference directly to the croft or township that you live in. For me it creates a tangible link back through time.

I look over the ancient but still visible lazy beds on the moor above the croft and feel a real link to the lives of those who wrestled them from the soil.

Definitely wall hung.. as the actress said to the bishop

Only those of you of a certain age and a certain lack of delicacy will get that….I am not going to explain for those of you who don’t.

Apparently, the latest thing in bathroom chic is to have your bathroom appliances (eg. toilet and washbasin) suspended from the wall. Nothing between them and the ground except fresh air and a tremulous fear of suspension.

Why? I asked the bathroom consultant. What’s wrong with them being floor mounted? Have they not been that way since time immemorial?

Difficult to clean, he said, delicately. You have men in your home?

I sort of get that swishing a mop under a wall mounted toilet is easy, but seriously? How difficult is swishing it around the base of a floor mounted toilet?

Perhaps it requires manoeuvres that the current generation haven’t evolved or mastered. Maybe I get that. But I also get that the process of house specification has a lot to do with trends, and I had seriously missed that even a basic croft house would be subject to that.

I am finding the process of specifying flooring, sanitary ware, tiles, kitchen units and worktops much more tiring than I expected.

It’s such a privilege to be able to do this in some ways, and so important to get right, but the endless choice is so wearying. Some days I just want to curl up and have someone present me with my perfect kitchen/bathroom and say…

Yes! It can be yours, and it’s within budget….

I’m focusing on the fun.

The frustration of over-engineering

When you’re eager to be somewhere, time passes slowly. This is a picture of the rocky shore down from the Church on the Sleat Peninsula, close to where the croft is. This image helps me with the passage of time.

Every now and then when we’re knee-deep in roof light specifications, or looking for the fiftieth time at how best to configure the bathroom, I pull up all the photos that I can find of the township, the croft or its views, and remind myself why we’re doing this. And I breathe more slowly…

It’s difficult to describe what we want so that architects and kitchen or bathroom planners understand clearly. We are realising that anything that deviates from the perception of the norm causes problems. Because we are clearly not normal.

For example, it appears to be inconceivable to certain kitchen designers, who have a preconceived idea of what needs to go into our space, that I do not want a steam oven. Or why a single small kitchen sink with no draining board area would not be perfectly adequate. Or why I could not live without individually programmable humidity-controlled salad drawers in the fridge….

Trying to keep things simple these days is clearly out of fashion.

Believe me, I know that this sounds strange coming from the lips of someone who has spent a lifetime working with technology, but I don’t want to have to programme my appliances. Even the induction hob that we were shown had reconfigurable cooking zones….

I’m feeling a bit like a frustrated Luddite.

I’m happy to listen to experts and take on what works for our lifestyle, but over-engineered appliances just seem to me an exercise in unnecessary expense.

I am looking at my calming picture of the shore. I am breathing.

We are making progress…