• Donnie Macdonald
Location:
Aignish
Date:
Monday 15th February 2010
Reference:
SWI2010/006

Donnie:

I’m the Grazings Clerk. I’ve been a Grazings Clerk ... well, too long really. Seven, eight, nine years now. And I’m also an assessor for the Crofters Commission and also I’m the chairman of the Lewis branch of the Scottish Crofting Federation (SCF). I’ve been involved with the Federation now for about three years or so, this is my third year. So, from that point of view, yes, I’m quite heavily involved, apart from keeping stock and doing the normal things that a crofter would do.

Simon:

We were talking earlier, there’s quite a lot of changes going on in crofting at the present moment with some changes in regulations, but also just because of how crofting’s evolving. For example, you were talking about cutting down the number of Federation representatives that’s there and amalgamating them cos you ...

     

Donnie:

Yes. Well, crofting is changing, has changed, and I’m not necessarily convinced that it’s for the better. Personally ... well, I say personally but most crofters will tell you that they feel that there are far too many rules and regulations tied to crofting nowadays. We feel that really it’s becoming over-regulated which cannot be a good thing. That’s why many elderly crofters especially have got rid of their stock, either cattle or sheep, in the past few years because the paperwork is so much that it really isn’t worth it anymore. It’s not a pleasure anymore, where it used to be, and there is this feeling that there is far too much interference by the politicians and by bureaucrats and so-called ‘experts’. We have a lot of ‘experts’ now voicing their opinions as far as crofting’s concerned, and we don’t like that. Crofting seemed to work, certainly when I grew up on a croft. Crofting seemed to work, it was so different to what it is nowadays. It really was ... it helped, it was crofting that helped to create the community and there really was a strong community then, not just in this village but in all villages, but that’s just changed so much for various reasons.

 

Now I mentioned earlier on that I was the chairman of the Lewis branch of the Scottish Crofting Federation. The way the SCF was set up in the islands and on the mainland was that you had area branches in various communities throughout the island with it’s own chairman, secretary and treasurer, but last year I made a point of getting in contact with all of these branch personnel and the response from all of them really was that it just wasn’t working as it was set up. In fact, they hadn’t met for several years and it just wasn’t working as it was, so I recommended that, in the circumstances, the branches disband and we restructure and we form one big branch called the Lewis branch. So we formulated that and I’m hoping that that’s going to work much more efficiently as one branch. Theoretically it should. And I know the response has been very encouraging and optimistic from the former branch managers so this year we’ll prove whether this is the way forward or if this is going to work or not.

Simon:

Did that process give you a sense of the current state of crofting across the Outer Hebrides and is it similar across all areas or is there variations in different parts?

     

Donnie:

It varies throughout the Western Isles. There are pockets where crofters are quite ... How shall I say it? They’re quite diligent in what they do and they put in a lot more effort than perhaps other individuals in other areas. There are differences. If you travel through Lewis and Harris and then the Uists, you’ll notice differences. For example, the Uists, they’re very much cattle orientated. And we in Lewis are concentrating much more on sheep. In fact that’s a bad thing in a way from an environmental point of view if nothing else. The reduction of cattle numbers is really quite alarming but I’m glad to say that this is on the increase now, very slowly, in Lewis. There are very few, I can probably think of one or two people in the Uists, who croft on a full-time basis. So obviously they’re making a reasonable amount of income, but it’s a lot of hard work, a lot of dedication, but really that’s an exception. Apart from these two that I know in the Uists, it really is a hobby. Now, going from what I said earlier, because it is a hobby this is why there is this resentment that it’s getting seemingly over regulated. There is this interference in what we are doing. Now whether this comes from the Scottish Office, Westminster or Brussels ... Let’s face it, most of the interference really comes from Brussels these days, and we’re now in a position in this country where we jolly well do as we are told, sadly. So the state of crofting nowadays is not good, it’s not good. It’s come to the point where organisations like the SCF really have to fight hard on behalf of their members, on behalf of crofters, and if they didn’t I think civil servants and politicians would have their way and crofting will have had it’s day. It would cease to exist, I think. I say that because I somehow don’t think that politicians, and especially civil servants, don’t have an understanding of what crofting really is, what crofting life really is. They really do not have an understanding. It is a unique way of life. You cannot compare the crofting way of life to, say, farming in the Mearns of Aberdeenshire or wherever. It is so unique and I don’t think they have an understanding of what that uniqueness is. And because ... also it is so complex, crofting and crofting laws. I think that irks them and I would think ... Let’s just say that this is my personal opinion that life would be much easier for them if crofting did not exist as it has existed, which is quite sad, but there you are.

Simon:

What some people ... some people would say that if crofting is no more than a hobby, if it doesn’t contribute significantly to the economy, why should it get support? Why should it be allowed to continue? Maybe it should be allowed to just die out. Do you think that’s a fair statement?

     

Donnie:

It’s not a fair statement at all. If you analyze this, crofting’s got a huge contribution to make. What it really needs is a little bit of imagination, a little bit of vision. When you analyze it a little bit more deeply, it’s crofters ... Who has been looking after the environment all the decades? It’s the crofters, not the non-crofters. And they’ve been doing so ... It’s all instinctive. When I grew up here there were no experts telling them how to look after this patch of grass or that patch of grass or how to do this or how to do that and how to graze this properly, not that these little flowers should grow at this time of year and graze this part ... It was done instinctively, they seemed to know all of these things. They were so in tune with nature, they didn’t need experts to tell them all of that. All these things happened. Crofters did look after the environment and nowadays there’s so much, and quite rightly so, talk about the environment and being Green and environmental issues and there are environmentalists all over the place ... I just have a quiet laugh to myself and think: “Well, you know, crofters have been involved in this for a long, long time and they really didn’t need experts to tell them what to do.”

 

So from an environmental point of view, you do need the crofters. If we didn’t have the crofters and the stock grazing all that land it really would be in a sorry state. Who else would graze land? What else are you going to do with the land? Year after year you’d have grass growing on top of grass, growing on top of grass, growing on top of grass. Who’s going to sort all of that out? You would be living in a veritable jungle. So then all these city folk come on their holidays for the little nice walks and they’re going to see all this horrible, horrible mess in the countryside and who are they going to blame? They should really blame themselves cos if they’ve been claiming that crofters really aren’t necessary in this day and age then when it comes to the stage when you have that neglect of the environment ... well it’s these city folk that have themselves to blame.

 

You do need your crofting and your crofters. I think beyond that, a little bit of imagination and vision ... crofting could be made to pay much more than it is at the moment. Up until last year the prices at auction for the animals was absolutely abysmal, shocking. It was hardly worth bringing animals to auction but last year ... Well, hopefully it was a turning point and this year it’ll continue, we’ll see, but the prices were quite good, and I think that might have a large part to do with supply and demand. Crofters in the area have got rid of so many sheep and cattle that the numbers were drastically reduced, thereby reducing the supply and whilst you have the same demand, therefore you’re going to have an increase in prices to satisfy that demand. So, hopefully, that’ll continue, hopefully. So that was a good sign, that encourages the crofters to continue crofting. But there is another area that it could be made more profitable and that’s for individual crofters to start thinking about marketing their own products, and why not? And that’s perhaps a little bit more difficult to persuade them to do. In fact, if I can just remind you or tell you about an article I wrote in the local paper many years ago. I suggested that we should be proud of, you know, the produce we have here on the islands and market it as something special, something unique with the clean fresh air and the clean environment we have up here. I argued in this article: “Why couldn’t we be marketing Lewis lamb and selling Lewis lamb to top restaurants in London or in the big cities wherever? Why not?” But after I wrote the article, I know that some folk approached me and said it was a bit of a daft thing to write: “Who on earth would want to buy our meat? Lewis lamb in London restaurants? Never, don’t be silly, it’ll never happen ...” That’s such a ... if they’ll forgive me for saying so, that’s such a pathetic excuse. My own response to that is: “Why not?” You think of some of the farmers on the mainland who are specialising in, say, venison and they’re targeting that product at these top restaurants and why not? And these top restaurants are buying that venison and quite proudly boasting on the menus that it comes from this particular farm, this particular source, on the hills of Scotland. Why should they do the same with Lewis lamb, with Lewis meat? So I think with a little bit of imagination and obviously some help along the way financially perhaps, we could go down that road and make much more use of the Internet as well. So all is not lost. There are ways of diversifying. Tourism is an obvious one, to cater for the many tourists that we have here. That’s an obvious diversification. So all is not lost as far as the crofters are concerned, it’s just a little bit of imagination and vision, a little bit of perseverance, and it could be made to pay to a certain extent. I’m not saying to the extent that we’re all going to make vast sums out of crofting but certainly it could be much more viable than it is at the moment. There’s so many factors in the big equation but these are some of them.

Simon:

Are you able, as a crofter, to sell direct in that fashion or are there regulations that require that ...? I know you have an abattoir on Lewis but other islands and communities don’t have direct access to abattoirs and that puts up a price barrier and there’s regulations around meat sales ... Does that ...?

     

Donnie:

Well, of course there are the areas that don’t have an abattoir nearby. That’s a hurdle that they’d have to get over. But, certainly concentrating on Lewis, yes we do have an abattoir. It is an issue with the abattoir and the opening times of the abattoir in Lewis. It’s not open all year round, it’s open at certain times of the year. And from their point of view, from a business point of view, perhaps that’s the way it has to be, but I think that could change if the product was there and if more and more crofters went down the road of selling privately through the Internet. And of course you have to obey the various rules and regulations concerning hygiene et cetera but theoretically it’s simple enough. I mean, you take the animals to the abattoir, you slaughter your animals, you have them packed and it’s either sent fresh or you freeze it. It’s already advertised on the Internet and you get your orders in and you just send it off to the mainland that day and that’s not impossible. We have local carriers going back and forth from the mainland every day of the week. So it’s not difficult, it’s not rocket science. It can be done. And there are one or two or three who are doing it but I think more and more crofters should be thinking of doing that. I certainly am. But for those who don’t want to go down that road, I think if prices continue as they were last year, I think they’ll be a lot more happier and I think that might persuade them to retain their stock and perhaps increase the stock, which is a good thing.

Simon:

The issue of crofting is largely that it’s not self-sustainable at present in the current economy. Do all crofters manage to get by with second jobs or does it cause a problem for people? If people are in quite remote crofts do the ...? When I was on Eigg somebody mentioned in passing about less people having to sign on now because they’re able to have a better economy in Eigg with the government and the buy-out ... and I was quite surprised to hear that. Does it happen in Lewis? Do some people find it hard to make that combination of jobs work for them?

     

Donnie:

I don’t think so, not that I’m aware of. I think you accept ... what you accept is what you want for yourself. So if you have a croft and you want to work that croft or see it being worked you already have accepted that. It’s never going to be a full-time job because the income isn’t there, you’ve already accepted that so you accept that you must have another job and you quite happily combine the two, you juggle the two. Yes, you can be quite busy. In the summertime you come home at six o’clock or whatever, you have your tea and then there’s something to be done for the rest of the evening on the croft. Saturday is taken up by the croft. But it’s your choice, it’s what you choose to do. There’s no difficulty, it’s what people do and the two coincide very well. Well, they have to really.

Simon:

And in terms of the economic viability of crofting in general, I guess this is like what Kenny was talking about this morning ... One thing that crofters have taught me is that the cost of supplies has increased and there’s a number of factors affecting that. Partly there’s a local factor in that the production of things like food stuff has gone down as the numbers in crofting have diminished but also the costs of buying in have gone up, like fuel costs ...

     

Donnie:

Yeah. There are different issues there. There was a time when a lot of people in the islands, a lot of crofters, would cut hay. I mean in the traditional way. But because the weather has changed dramatically ... I mean, we’ve had much, much wetter seasons now, we certainly have in the past fifteen, twenty years. The seasons have changed. Sometimes you can have rain right through the year with very mild winters. So that’s definitely changed. There are very few people now that can cut hay because you just don’t have that window of good weather where you can dry the hay and take it in. That has stopped. And, also, the square bales, that tradition has stopped as well. Again, it’s because of the climate, the weather, constant wet weather. So because of that they now have to be brought from the mainland. People are now much more into baling and plastic wrapped bales. And that’s a good thing in a way because those who for some reason choose not to work the crofts, or cannot perhaps through ill health or whatever, more and more people in other areas are using their crofts for baling, for silage, which is a good thing that the ground is getting used. The other issue is, going back to the hay and the bales, they now have to be imported from the mainland. An awful lot of hay is being imported from the mainland at great cost and this is what I have an issue with. Well, that and the cost of fertilizer as well, which is another thing. That has increased dramatically, however the cost of haulage remains the same. Now, I do have an issue with this. This is despite the fact that the ferry charges have been reduced drastically but for some mysterious reason that saving to hauliers has not been passed to crofters. So crofters find that they still pay the same price and it can be quite horrific, you know, the price of bales and fertilizer from the mainland. I do have an issue with that and I think it’s a matter that should be investigated. Right now I don’t have a definitive answer for it but I would like to know precisely why, if the transportation has been drastically reduced on the ferry, why the prices have remained the same for the crofters. So I think that has to be investigated, perhaps that’s another issue for the local branch of the SCF to investigate over the coming months.

Simon:

Just picking up on the last point you made there. Just to give people an idea of what the SCF’s role is in representing crofters and ... What kind of issues do you address? You’ve mentioned that about the haulage costs.

     

Donnie:

The SCF is a member-led organisation. It’s made up of crofters and is run by crofters on behalf of crofters, and it’s very important that we listen to what our members say to us. And the haulage and the price of fertilizer, that’s just one of the many issues. There’s ... I don’t think there are other issues that are local issues ... it’s very important we address the local issues, like the geese. The increase in geese numbers over the years and they are becoming a real pest in this area and that’s quite serious. Emm ... rabbits, fencing, boundaries ... these normal local issues. But beyond that, there’s a political side as well and I think perhaps or some individuals or parties, perhaps outwith the SCF, they might not understand how much work goes on behind the scenes as far as the SCF directors are concerned. I mean, we all work ... well, most of the directors work. I don’t want to involve myself in this, but the directors work very hard on behalf of the crofters in the background. There are constant meetings with officials of organisations or officials at government level, whether in Westminster or Holyrood or even Brussels. We have one director that frequently flies to Brussels for talks with officials there, and I do know that the SCF is held in high esteem in these places, certainly in Holyrood and Brussels, and it is amazing how much you can achieve by just having a face to face talk with what we call ... well, we sometimes called them faceless bureaucrats but it’s amazing what you can achieve when you’re talking to them, just quietly and politely, fairly ... forcibly as well! Putting your point across and it’s putting your own point of view across and the point of view of your members, and then persuading them that that is the way forward and then achieving that. That’s of great satisfaction to us, to be able to fight on behalf of our members that way. So, really, a lot of our work is done in that manner, by lobbying ministers and civil servants and trying to persuade them that this is the way they should go, because this is what our members want and our members consist of entirely crofters. So the SCF does a power of good and it is absolutely essential. If the SCF wasn’t there ... Well, there is really no other organisation to replace it.

Simon:

The Crofters Commission would not then supply similar representation?

     

Donnie:

The Crofters Commission is an entirely different set up to the SCF. It’s not a members-led organisation, it’s entirely different. They’re much more closely involved with Holyrood and the ministers, and the ministers have much more input in the way that the Crofters Commission is run. Rightly or wrongly, that’s the case. However, we are independent of that. That’s the essential difference between us and the Commission. So no, if the SCF ceases to exist the Crofters Commission can’t just slide in and take over from the SCF in the same way. No, that’s impossible.

Simon:

And if the Crofters Commission ceased to exist could the SCF take over some of their responsibilities?

     

Donnie:

(laughs) Would they want to?

     

Simon:

Do you feel each organisation is as helpful in some way?

     

Donnie:

I think ... Yes, I think the two can work in tandem with a few little tweaks, or big tweaks, here and there. The two can, and probably should, work in tandem. But they do two different things. I mean the Crofters Commission are a regulated body, that’s the way it’s been set up. We are not, we are there to represent our members because we are a member-led organisation and we represent our members at these various levels. Crofters Commission have their function and it is a regulatory function which, given little tweaks here and there, they could perform quite well.

Simon:

You were talking about geese and rabbits and those issues, which I’m assuming come about because land is left unfarmed or is let to lie for a long time or that’s part of the cause?

     

Donnie:

Yeah.

     

Simon:

That in a way also, therefore, relates to how land is allocated for use and I think was some of the discussions that were going on throughout the Shucksmith process, how these factors could be addressed. I don’t know the details so I’ll ...

     

Donnie:

How land should be used?

     

Simon:

For example, if say round here you’ve got six or seven active crofts ...

     

Donnie:

Six, seven, eight active crofters.

     

Simon:

How many of the actual crofts themselves are actively farmed? Do people ...?

     

Donnie:

Well, you’ve got to look at the picture as a whole. Yes, there’s six, seven, eight crofters with stock who actively work the land, and the remaining don’t have stock. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the crofts are lying neglected, certainly not in this village. They are used by other people. Whether it’s other crofters within this village or from outlying villages, they will come in and bale the grass each year or perhaps put in some cattle or sheep during certain times of the year, seasonal use of the land. So it is being used. You could perhaps argue that there are one or two crofts in this village that are being neglected because of absenteeism but otherwise they are being put to use.

 

To get back to the geese, it’s not necessarily neglect. I mean, they don’t fly in and say: “Look here chaps, here’s a neglected croft, let’s just zoom in here.” I mean, I have an issue with them. I have stock. I have an issue, we all do. Practically every day I’ve got to go down the croft and shoo these beasts off. It’s not only that they’re eating the grass, which really is so crucial at this time of year with going into lambing ... Not only do they eat the grass, the good grass, they’re dirty as well. They dirty the land and the dirt they leave behind is just extraordinary. They really do make a mess of the land and they are becoming quite a serious problem in this area. I know the poor people in Uist have put up with this problem for years and years but now we’re facing it. Only recently we’ve set up a committee to look into this problem, a Goose Management committee. Well, a committee set up with a view of creating a Goose Management scheme so that has just been set up, that’s how serious a problem they are becoming in Lewis and Harris.

Simon:

How do you manage geese?

     

Donnie:

Well ...

     

Simon:

Are you talking about culling or are you talking about how to direct them off the land?

     

Donnie:

Well if you can tell me of a good way of directing geese ... ! (laughs) Please, enlighten me! It’s a major problem but there isn’t an easy answer, and you would think that by shooting them, well that would soon get rid of them. But there are so many, even shooting ... They do shoot. Every single year they shoot on the Uists, and they’re still fighting a losing battle because there are so many of them. Thousand and thousands and they don’t seem to go away. But shooting is probably the best solution, one of the best solutions, and there is another way ... It’s a possible way but again it’s not easy because you have to know where their nesting areas are and that is to pick all the eggs. Find the nest, locate the nest, and pick all the eggs apart from one. Leave one. But the difficulty on that is finding where they nest. But again, there’s so many of them, so many thousands, it really is difficult. But that would be a start, to shoot them, so that’s what we’re talking about at the moment. That means getting a license from the local Department, as we call it, and we’ll see if that has any impact on the numbers over the years. But something has to be done, it really has to be addressed.

Simon:

How did people do it in the past? Were geese part of the food supply in the past more?

     

Donnie:

The problem didn’t exist.

     

Simon:

It just didn’t exist?

     

Donnie:

No, it didn’t exist. It’s the weather pattern, it’s changed so much.

Simon:

Ah, so the migration routes have changed?

     

Donnie:

Well ... (inaudible) ... to climate change. I would say that over the past fifteen or twenty years, we’ve had very mild winters. And up until then, certainly growing up in this village ... I mean, we were accustomed to a lot of snow over the winter months, weeks of snow over the winter months, blizzards, large drifts of snow ... That’s what we were used to growing up in the village. And of course the birds, including the geese, didn’t remain on the island. They left for warmer climes. But because all that’s gone now, we so rarely have snow in this area now, and because it’s changed so much and it’s so much warmer they’ve decided to stay and they nest in these areas now. So that’s why they’ve become such a problem, they never were.

Simon:

What do you ... you were talking about how crofting was an essential part of the stewardship of the environment on the islands and ... on the one hand we do face the situation with crofting ... is it fair to say that crofting’s declining in general in the Western Isles?

     

Donnie:

Mmm.

     

Simon:

What do you think ...? Do you think there is a move towards younger crofters coming in, there’s ways that can happen to encourage it? Or do you think how croft land was allocated to better use or do you think it’s going to ...?

     

Donnie:

Well, really a mixture of both. I certainly think we have to go down that road to a certain extent, where land has to be allocated and I think perhaps this is where the Commission could come in to the equation and use the powers they already have and crack down on ... especially neglect of land, neglect of crofts, and perhaps that could be allocated to more active crofters. The issue with the young, there are actually young folk there who are interested or who would want to be interested and I think it’s a question of motivating them in the right manner and one way of doing this, and I’ve seen the results, is through a scheme called Crofting Connections which involves schoolchildren being actively involved in crofting matters whereby they ... I think perhaps it’s one afternoon per week, or certainly a few hours per week, they have a break from school life, school routine, and they actually croft a piece of land. They plant and they sow and then they reap the rewards at the right time of the year. They plant their vegetables, corn or whatever, and because they’re actively involved, they’re learning as they go along and they see what the various processes are in crofting and planting crops. A good example of this is down on Uist, where they did a wonderful job there with the school kids. This, I think this is the way forward. If you can target these young people and if you can get them interested in the crofting way of life and persuade them how important it is and how unique it is, I think that’s the future. And this is one way of doing it. This is an excellent scheme, the Crofting Connections, and if we have more schemes similar to that then crofting isn’t dead, not for a long time. But it’s targeting the young and it’s motivating the young in the right manner. That’s the way forward. Well, of course it’s just one of the many factors, there are other issues as well. If politicians could just leave crofters alone perhaps crofting could just continue very nicely and survive, thank you very much!