The Big Blue

When the sun shines, everything changes. The storm front moved across the island and left a freshly washed world of brilliant blue behind it.

This is actually the first picture that we’ve managed to take from the croft whilst the sun is shining!

The big blue. No filters needed.

We spent a happy few more hours on the croft in the sun earlier last week measuring, planning and dreaming.

Perhaps because it’s the only building on the land, we find ourselves always gravitating to the barn.

It’s clear that we will have to build a modern metal shed/barn for our croft equipment and storage, as our very picturesque ruin will need mammoth effort and cost to restore. We won’t have the money or the energy to do anything with it for a good few years.

As things stand at the moment, other priorities such as the house build, deer fencing, the access road and tree planting will have to take immediate precedence.

But that doesn’t stop us sitting with our mugs of tea and cake planning for possibilities.

A coffee shop? A library for our spare books? A bread barn? Spare accommodation for visitors? A studio? In between building warrant discussions for the house we skittle between ideas that we know may never come to reality, but are fun nevertheless.

Endless possibilities.

Everything seems possible whilst the sun is shining.

Showers, wind and wild flowers

It’s been a week of squally showers, high winds and at times, torrential rain here on the island. The rivers are full and the waterfalls are torrents of white water tumbling down the hillsides.

We don’t mind the weather at all. It’s lovely to sit in front of the windows in the cabin and watch the weather fronts scud across the sky. There’s a change every half hour or so, and we dodge the showers as best we can.

In a break in the rain we made it up to the croft. Here it’s very much seize the moment!

The lower ground is waterlogged and boggy, although the higher reaches of the land are better drained. We hopped from clump to clump of rushes to avoid sinking too deeply into the mud.

The tiny burn that we saw trickling sedately through the croft in February is now a raging plume of water plummeting through the channel that it has cut for itself.

We headed for the copse of trees on the western boundary and scattered bluebell, wood anemone, pignut and wild garlic seeds as we’d planned. We’re hoping that at least some of them will take.

Although the wild flowers are more or less over here on Skye, we found more than we expected in the ditches and springy turf on the croft: and with our trusty plant identification app we think we’ve recognised black knapweed, common vetchling, broad leaved clover, buttercups, crowfoot, downy vetch and willow herb.

We were delighted to see that we had a hazel tree already established amongst the birch trees – bodes well for more nut tree plantings once we’re established!

Excuse the bad quality of the photos – these were hurried snaps taken with an iPhone.

Cobnuts or filberts

Whilst browsing for seeds to take with us to the island in a few weeks time, I noticed that one of the online smallholdings that I was shopping from had filberts, or cobnuts, for sale.

Husband loves nuts, and has reminisced often about eating fresh filberts as a boy in Istanbul. I recall picking them too as a child, where they grew in the woods adjacent to our house in Dorset.

As soon as I saw these I couldn’t resist.

The small box arrived at the house yesterday, hand-packed with a layer of hazel leaves on top of the nuts to keep the dampness in. Opening them released the scent of woodland.

They have a unique taste and texture quite unlike dried hazlenuts. Slightly sweet, nutty and milky. They are only semi-hard with a moist, almost chewy texture. If anything could taste of ‘green’, this is it.

It’s inspired us again to make sure that we plant plenty of hazel on the croft.

The hazelnuts that don’t get eaten in handfuls off the tree can be dried and stored, chopped or whole, for use in bread, cakes or puddings. Or preserved in jars of honey for spooning as luscious toppings over cooked apples, pears or ice-cream.

Dappled shade and wild garlic

Wild garlic (or ransoms as they’re sometimes known) grow in dappled shade in woodland, on the banks of streams and in hedgerows.

Brushing through undergrowth or overgrown hedgerows as you walk will often release their pungent scent and alert you to their presence underfoot.

For me, they’re reminiscent of old woodland and drowsy, warm days in summer.

They’re also handily tolerant of thin, acidic, damp soils – perfect for the croft.

I can’t wait to get them started – and to be able to harvest enough for wild garlic butter, or to add trimmings to salads or pasta. I’ve even seen a recipe for homemade wild garlic pesto that I’d love to try.

As such I have a bag of seed to take with us on our trip to the croft in a few weeks time, and will try scattering them on the banks of the little stream to the north of the croft as well as in the copse of trees on the western boundary.

That and the bluebells and pignuts will be our first seed sewing on the croft.

It may take some years for them to establish, but the sooner we start…

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.