Am Bratach No. 325
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John MacDonald’s View from the croft gate
It’s a year now since I contributed a croft gate article; I have
been using up reminiscences of growing up in the 1940s. A few years ago I
had written down some memories in the hope that they might be of interest to
members of the family in future years or people looking into how things once
were. I suppose most of our heritage societies are on the same journey.
It must be coming on twenty years since I started our local heritage
society, with no clear idea of what lay ahead. My only regret is that time
has run out on my ability to be active in research and exploration. What I
really enjoyed was to go on a research mission to an archive source. To
visit the Edinburgh archive used up valuable holiday time, but once familiar
with all its quirks of access and understanding how the system worked, a
most rewarding place to visit. The family did not see much of me on such
The local Sutherland estate office is also most rewarding and
helpful once you have got permission to visit and the archivist is
available. Visitors from abroad head down to Dunrobin on a search for
ancestors but usually come away disappointed as all such records are in the
national archives. What can be seen are interesting old maps of the local
parishes which help with the identification of crofts and houses and estate
improvements like shifting a water course or building roads and bridges.
Being involved with heritage opens contact with many interesting people
and lets you see into a world well outwith the croft gate. Mostly people are
very helpful. Inverness was handy when the archive was in Farraline Park,
but not so once they hid it at the edge of town. In the old Inverness
archive there used to be Mr Steward, and to visit his map room was a
pleasure and an education. To meet such people was always encouraging.
It was only once that I came up against a prickly archivist and that was
in the new Inverness archive, when I asked to see a certain collection and
received a stern lecture. The archivist was probably a retired headmaster
who thought that I was a suspicious-looking character in need of a lesson on
protocol: what did I want to see this material for and how was I to handle
it? I listened politely and took aboard what he said, a lesson learned for
future occasions. The item which I wished to view was the diary of my
father’s schoolmaster, William Campbell, who died in 1930. Mr Campbell kept
a most meticulous diary of what was going on in the parish. I did not tell
the archivist that I already had a good knowledge of what the diary
contained: I had gone through its content during a heritage project to
digitise it for our records. It contains much interesting comment on
crofting as it used to be. Eventually I was allowed to view the diaries and
I was amazed to see how small they were to contain such a wealth of
Considering that my croft activity is likely to be zero,
perhaps if I can continue writing this column I can take a monthly look at
the diary extracts as they relate to the croft. I will start with an example
from this time of year in 1907.
“Friday, October 11, 1907. A nice
dry day, but coldish and threatening showers. Attendance very good. Gathered
my corn into 3 achors (Gaelic = “small corn-stacks”) in 10 minutes with help
of the scholars.
“Saturday, October 12, 1907. A coldish dry day.
People very busy cutting the corn. Made up all the crates and took them in —
and two crates of honey — one with full sections all sealed; the other
partly sealed. Raked the corn fields — made the corn stack and thatched it.
Disappointed that I got neither the boots ordered from Mr Hogg Strathmiglo.
“Saturday, October 19, 1907. A fine dry sunny day; some corn still
uncut; some making ‘achors’. Thatched the two hives and skep. Altered
netting up to cabbage.
“Monday, November 4, 1907. A fine dry and
mild day; lifting potatoes.”
The term “achors” was one we also used
for the initial small stack of sheaves gathered together as protection from
the weather. In October the parish would have been alive with cutting and
securing the oat harvest. Mr Campbell gets the scholars to help and makes
short work of the task, the fields for the school croft being quite small. I
am sure most of the boys would have welcomed a break from sitting behind a
desk. The corn stack was the final achievement when the achors would be
loaded onto the cart and led into the stackyard to be near to the barn for
access during severe weather.
It was also time to harvest the honey
and Mr Campbell protects his bees for the winter by thatching the hives, one
of which was a skep. My aunt used to have a skep, which is literally a woven
straw basket, set perhaps three high. When the bees filled up the lower
basket they moved up to the basket above and so on. If it was a good year
for honey the top basket would be full. Aunt would scoop out the honey into
a big enamel basin; the lower sections were left to feed the bee during
winter. Mother was very good at keeping bees but we just had the
conventional hive with sections. She would first harvest the early clover
honey which was light in colour and, finally, the darker heather honey.
During the war years it was a welcome treat and one of the benefits of
having a croft.
In parts of our parish open to the grouse moor some
folk would leave a few achors out very late until the November frosts and
this attracted another harvest which did not please the local gamekeeper
protecting his master’s grouse. But the practice went on for many years and
every year the hill would have a healthy covey of grouse. It was only after
the 1950s, when the old ways of harvesting had died out, that there was a
massive decline in grouse numbers. Presumably enough grouse survived the
crofter’s snare or gun and with a feed of grain to carry them into the
Two other things of interest are revealed. Our schoolmaster
has sent off for footware from “Hogg”, a name familiar to many a shepherd
and gamekeeper. Then come early November, when some fine weather comes
along, it is time to lift the tatties. Not many crofters now grow a field of
tatties, nor do they keep bees, while the stook and the achor have faded
into memory. Soon they will be remembered only in heritage records such as