There are few places in the UK where the direction from which the wind is blowing still matters, but North Uist is one of them. Here, you watch and pay attention to what the weather presenter has to tell you, for it will determine what you do the next day.
The mighty Hebridean wind can call off school; prevent you from buying your essentials from the nearest grocery shop; stop you from collecting the seaweed which otherwise would have gathered on the sandy beaches, ready to fertilise the island’s naturally acidic soils. It can even cancel the burial of a recently deceased islander. If you’re a crofter, the wind will be one of the many natural events, which reminds you of your inevitable connection with the land.
Most dictionary definitions of crofting read as rather aseptic descriptions: “an agricultural and farming system based on small holding tenancy”; or “small agricultural unit situated in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland”. Crofting is much more than that. It is a lifestyle. To some extent one could argue that you cannot become a crofter, you need to be born one. Crofting is a fully-fledged social system. It positively sustains remote rural communities and contributes to the life, landscape, cultural heritage and social economy of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.
There are over 17,000 registered crofts in Scotland, sustaining a total population of about 33,000. The largest concentration of crofts is on the Western Isles, with over 6,000 of them.
However, crofting communities are dwindling and migration to the mainland is rife. The majority of crofters are aged between 50 and 80, hardly a promising prospect. Most young people, overwhelmed with lack of opportunities, jobs, and increasing house prices do not have the courage or determination that a small minority of them, like Ivan McDonald, have. Still in his twenties, he epitomises the crofter of the future: driven, passionate and in love with his homeland.
Ena McNeill is the archetypal crofter. Daughter of a crofter, mother and grandmother of crofters, yet she is sceptical about the future. Even the implementation of the New Scottish Land Reform in January 2004, which gave crofters the right to buy the land upon which they work, has not affected her outlook. As she pointed out, whether crofters own the land they work or not, is irrelevant, for fishing and stalking rights – the most lucrative of the Estate’s activities – will still be beyond the control of the crofters. They would also lose out on government grants, which can be as much as £70 per acre per year.
Angus is made of the same stuff as his mother Ena, and so is his young son, Fraser. Playing truant has a different meaning in North Uist. Fraser, a diligent student, doesn’t think twice about taking a ‘day off’ in order to get up at 5am and help his dad on his 14-hour day silage day, an important event on the crofter’s calendar. He’s not the only one. He’s joined by a school friend who for a day swaps his seat at his class desk for a seat on a 500-horsepower tractor.
Whether these children will still be living off the land into their adulthood, is as difficult to predict as the wind.