• Iain MacDonald (The Herd)
  • Katie MacDonald
Location:
Staffin
Date:
Monday 22nd September 2008
Reference:
SWI2008/009

Simon:

Maybe if we just start at home, how you came to have this croft and how long your family’s been here.

     

Iain:

Well, my grandfather came from Kilmuir. They were cottars then, place called Cnoc Cauld, and then they got a croft in Garafad and then got the old ... the grounds at the old inn. A bigger area than at Cnoc so ... And well, I was in Glasgow and my father ... When my aunt died they come up here in 1950. So, that’s how I landed in Skye and met a nice wee girl from Sartle and got married in 1959. Anything else you want to hear?

Simon:

Well Katie, tell me about your family. They’re also from Kilmuir?

     

Katie:

No, my family are not from Kilmuir. They’re from Staffin. Uh huh. And we just watched over the croft. My father was a cottar. It was till we were 12 years of age before it was our house. And they got a croft. All the land was owned by the landlord then. Worked hard on the croft. The women then worked as hard as men on the croft and all the water had to be taken from the wells. No electricity, so it was hard work and the women milked the cows and ...

Iain:

No suckers then. Milking the cows then, you did with a bucket.

     

Simon:

All by hand?

     

Iain:

All by hand, and then feeding the calves with buckets.

     

Katie:

No tractors either. Everything had to be done by scythe and hay had to be turned, and made into ... what do you call it in English? Ricks! Uh huh. And then made into stacks and put into the barns and then fed to the cows and ... All hard work. That’s going back a while of course.

Simon:

When you were a girl, how much was it still like that?

     

Katie:

Yes, oh yes.

     

Simon:

So did you learn to milk cows?

     

Katie:

Yes.

     

Simon:

So you did all that?

     

Katie:

Yes.

     

Iain:

And you did the washing in a barrel. You lit a fire and the stamping the ground and ...

     

Katie:

Aye, all that was when we got the blankets. Spring time all the blankets were washed and ... woollen blankets. There was a lot of wool used then. And the knitting.

Simon:

Did people make their own wool for clothes and stuff like that? Was it all done locally or did you buy clothes and sell the wool?

     

Katie:

No. We sold the wool and then bought. Sold the fleeces, I should say, and then used the wool for knitting. Everything was knitted then. Long johns for the men! (laughs)

Iain:

In Harris, I think they did the ...

Katie:

Oh yes, that’s in Harris but not in Skye.

Iain:

They made wool as well ...

     

Simon:

The whole family took part, all the children as well? The whole family ran ...?

     

Katie:

Oh yes. They did.

     

Simon:

And with things like getting the peats and doing the hay ...?

     

Katie:

Oh yes.

     

Simon:

Big family occasions? Hard work but also ...? Do you remember what they were like? Can you describe what it was like, say getting the peats? What a day would be like?

     

Iain:

Oh, first of all you had to cut them. And a man’s throwing them out and spreading them and ... Depends on the weather how long you’ve got to leave them till they go hard. And then you stack them up, four, one on top. Dry from the rain and then one on top ... Then take them all home. It was horse and carts then. Och, it wasn’t hard work.

Katie:

I remember there was only one tractor.

Iain:

Only one tractor, a Department tractor. And Roddy Gillies and that had a lorry each.

Katie:

Yes. That was all the vehicles then. Hardly anybody had a car.

Simon:

Did you rent the tractor or did the Department ...?

     

Iain:

Oh, you had to pay for it. You had to pay for it, aye.

     

Simon:

And this part of Skye, this was the part that got bought over by the government wasn’t it? The Department of Agriculture took over from the landowner. Isn’t that right?

     

Iain:

Well ... (inaudible) ... We were owned by the government?

     

Katie:

I’m not sure about that.

     

Iain:

I think you know more about the ... (inaudible) ...

     

Simon:

Yeah. Tatties was ... Cos his croft was rented from the Board of Agriculture.

     

Iain:

Oh yes. We’re all ... well, can do that now if you pay 15 times your rent but if you do that you lose out on grants. So, most people are still tenants. We’ll have to wait and see what happens.

Simon:

And did your families grow grain?

     

Iain:

Oh aye.

     

Katie:

Yes, yes.

     

Iain:

But long before our time. You had ... (inaudible) ... but that was before our time. But they did the rows and used it again for sowing. Your father had an upbringing of separating the seed from the chaff.

Simon:

And were you able to get all newer stuff like fertilizer, hay and silage. Was all of that produced locally?

     

Iain:

There was no fertilizers. All manure.

Simon:

Just manure?

     

Iain:

Yes, just manure. No fertilizers.

     

Simon:

You didn’t use seaweed as fertilizers at all?

     

Iain:

Not ...

     

Katie:

Not in Skye but in the Islands. In Uist, that’s what they used a lot. Seaweed for the fertilizer.

Simon:

So in a way you were quite self-sufficient in that you didn’t have to rely on ...

     

Katie:

Oh yes. Very self-sufficient.

Iain:

Your own butter. You were sorted for the winter.

Katie:

Your own milk and ...

Iain:

Then when the ... Oh, when the cows calved you’d have to take ... (inaudible) ... over your bròs. No milk! And no milk coming around either.

Katie:

No, there’s no milk in shops or anything like that. People had all their own eggs, everybody kept hens.

Iain:

And there was far more of a variety of fish than there is now. Not much more than mackerel now ...

Katie:

And they salted it for the winter, everything was salted. And barrels of herring used to come round. Every house, there used to be a lorry coming round with the herring and barrels of herring dropped off at every house.

Simon:

Fishing around here was quite big before, wasn’t it? It was an important part of the ...

     

Katie:

Oh yes.

     

Iain:

Oh, aye. That was the diet, yes. You only paid your rent twice a year then. No rates, no water rates, not all the things you’ve got to pay now.

Simon:

Did it get gradually more bureaucratic over the years?

     

Iain:

Och aye.

     

Simon:

Was there a time when it felt it was really noticeable that it was changing? Like I would’ve thought that maybe in the 70s it was ...

     

Iain:

Och, I don’t know. When you’re young you don’t ... You get by you know? But I just started and then the water line came and ...

     

Katie:

Paid for your water. Electricity.

Iain:

And then the deep freeze.

     

Katie:

That’s not that long ago! (laughs)

     

Iain:

Oh aye? We got one very early. Our neighbour’s a gamekeeper down there, I think they were the first to get one.

     

Simon:

Do people remember electricity coming?

     

Iain:

Och aye.

     

Simon:

Everyone had two lights and one socket or something?

     

Iain:

Something like that, aye.

     

Simon:

Teenie’s still got the original lights and sockets in their house.

     

Iain:

Has she? Well she better watch she doesn’t get electrocuted.

     

Simon:

Well, she doesn’t use it.

     

Iain:

Oh, she doesn’t use it?

     

Simon:

The socket’s got the old two pin. The round pins so it doesn’t work with modern equipment. But it’s still wired up! And they’ve got a clock that the electricity company gave them that you plugged in.

     

Iain:

Aye? ... (inaudible) ... was nice too. Was warm, you know, and ...?

     

Katie:

And the lanterns for going outside to the barns to feed the cows at night.

     

Iain:

Yes. When I was courting Katie, I used to stand at the bull shed waiting ...

     

Katie:

Here! Don’t say ...

     

Iain:

My grandfather was going from byre to byre with the lamp and ...

     

Katie:

You watch what you say!

     

Iain:

(laughs) And then when that was over, out she came.

     

Simon:

I take it your family’s had ... Did your grandparents have blackhouses (traditional type of house with thatched roof and dry stone walls)?

     

Iain:

Oh, they would have.

     

Katie:

Yes, oh yes.

     

Simon:

So everyone would’ve had blackhouses?

     

Katie:

Yes, thatched houses, yes.

     

Iain:

I think the old inn ... Well, my grandfather wasn’t the first or the second to live there but that was the first whitehouse in the north end of Skye. It was called An Taigh Ban. But then everybody’s equal now. There’s no ... (inaudible) ... or anything. And it’s far better too. Long ago there was one or two who were better off and they had servants and called them sgalags and they did ... But people are all just the same now that I can think of.

Simon:

And did people remember what it was like when it was the landlord that owned the land?

     

Iain:

Ah well, you’ll need to ... There’s not many of the older generation ... well, people that are older than us.

     

Simon:

You don’t remember your grandparents saying ...?

     

Iain:

No, never from my grandparents.

     

Katie:

You didn’t?

     

Iain:

No.

     

Katie:

I did.

     

Iain:

My grandfather was in the Land League when they’re were going on about the rents and that. Aye, he was. Valtos. What did they call him there in Valtos?

Simon:

Parnell?

     

Iain:

Parnell! That’s it. There was a few around. You know more than us I think!

Simon:

Lachie told me about the ... He told me when the soldiers were sent in they put ships in the harbour and sent soldiers through the towns and they stayed in the ... they billeted them in the crofts.

     

Iain:

Och, Lachie’s got history off. Does a lot of reading about that.

Simon:

And there used to be a lot more people in Staffin and Stenscholl and that. I think Clachan had over a hundred people back in the 30s or so and now it’s about forty people or something like that?

     

Iain:

Oh aye. But there are a lot more houses now than was ever in Clachan! They were bigger families then.

Simon:

Families were bigger?

     

Iain:

Oh, the families were bigger.

Katie:

There was eleven emigrants at one time. They went abroad to Canada, America, Australia, New Zealand. A lot never came back.

Simon:

Was that also ongoing through the twentieth century as well? We know about that from the Clearances, that a lot of people went then, but people continued to go after that did they?

     

Katie:

Oh yes. For work.

Iain:

The men had to go to sea to make money. They wouldn’t make much on the croft. They existed. And Tarbert Hamish too, he’s the oldest man in Stenscholl just now. Have you spoken to him?

Simon:

No.

     

Iain:

He’ll tell you ... How’s he related to Lachie? Lachie’s cousin’s married to Norman. Do you know Ned? Ned MocDonald? Well, that’s his father along here.

     

Katie:

He’s an old man. Doesn’t keep too well.

     

Iain:

Oh, but he’s got a good memory.

     

Katie:

Aye.

     

Iain:

And he can go further back than us. I think he’s eighty-five or eighty-six. That’s the one that can tell you more than we can.

     

Simon:

You’re good.

     

Simon:

What kind of food did people eat? What was the typical ...? You told me about the fish and mutton ...

     

Katie:

Mutton ...

     

Iain:

Herring was the most. The salt herring and potatoes was the most ...

Katie:

They salted the meat too.

     

Iain:

Oh aye.

     

Katie:

And eggs and milk. And they did their own baking.

     

Iain:

Oh aye. Before I came up to stay here, I used to stay up at Valtos at the house that Alec is in. And the old lady, Kate Rob, she used to make eight of the big ...

     

Katie:

Griddle scones.

     

Iain:

Big griddle scones, she’d make eight at a time. And they’d all disappear before the day was out.

     

Katie:

... burns just a low fire and griddled and things to make ... I think everybody made scones.

     

Simon:

I guess people had to make food that would store and ...

     

Katie:

Oh yes.

     

Simon:

And you had no freezers or anything like that.

     

Katie:

Oh no.

     

Iain:

Sometimes the bread would be a bit mouldy when you would get it. (laugh)

     

Simon:

Did they have anything like an ice house? Some communities had an ice house.

     

Iain:

None up here. Well, I don’t think ...

     

Katie:

No, not here.

     

Simon:

Ronnie from Maligar was telling me that the ... I don’t think it’s the Sartle fank. There was an older fank that belonged a bit up that way that was known as the ‘blood fank’ because people would bleed the cattle and make a kind of black pudding from it. Were people doing that?

     

Iain:

Och ... If you weren’t bleeding cattle you were killing sheep and making marag. You know, you would take the stomach out of the sheep and make black pudding with that. I don’t know how to put it ...

Katie:

Well, probably ...

     

Katie:

Depends on how interested you are in what happened long ago.

     

Simon:

Just trying to get an idea of the diet and ...

     

Katie:

Very basic.

     

Iain:

Oh basic, but then we were healthy and strong. There was no viruses on the go then!

     

Katie:

No tins. I think the only tin was corned beef.

     

Simon:

Did people live long?

     

Iain:

Och, it varies ...

     

Katie:

Eh, let me think ... What are you thinking?

     

Iain:

Well, there was TB is what it was. That was rife for a while but those that were ... oh aye, they lived long. Go to the graveyards and you’ll see the ages. There were quite a lot of young deaths as well.

Simon:

Cos Mairi Honish’s parents were like that. They were quite old. Her mother was quite old.

     

Iain:

Oh yes!

     

Katie:

Oh yes, her father too, yes.

     

Iain:

Aye they were both well in their 90s I think.

     

Simon:

They seemed to be a strong family I think. Did you have a ceilidh house and stuff like that?

     

Katie:

Oh yes! Oh aye. There was no televisions then.

     

Iain:

Yep. Playing ‘Catch the Tail’, playing cards, things like that and one had a fiddle and another had a ... we all had our wee dances there too. There was a house called Eoin Beag and the floor wasn’t that even but the women would give us stockings to put on. Big men in stockings, dancing ...

Simon:

Was that how people got to know each other and got the news or was it just ...?

     

Katie:

Well, there was one house that had a radio and they used to go and listen to the news then.

Iain:

When I was up here during the war in 1939 or 1940, we had ... They were coming. There was an accumulator and a battery and we just switched it on to hear the news. And put it off right away! (laughs) Those were very good radios.

Simon:

Lachie also told me there was quite a lot of shops.

     

Iain:

Very small.

     

Katie:

Small shops, yes.

     

Simon:

And I take it that was a lot of the crofters having a business along with their croft?

     

Katie:

Yes.

     

Iain:

Mmm hmm. Down at the old ... They had the post office for a while there and when you wanted to send the person a telegram you would put a white sheet up and then she would know to come over and ... There was no phones, all telegrams wasn’t it?

Katie:

Yes.

     

Iain:

I think there was only the post office and then the doctor got one. That was all that was in Staffin at one time.

Katie:

What?

     

Iain:

Telegrams.

     

Katie:

Oh aye, yes.

     

Simon:

And did ... Like people wouldn’t have had bank accounts and stuff like that, no?

     

Iain:

(laughs) No!

     

Simon:

Did people use barter as well as money? Like if you were getting ... What sort of stuff was in the shop? Like feed and grain and clothes ...?

     

Iain:

Eggs. Did you ... (inaudible) ... up to Clachan? ... (inaudible) ...

Katie:

Aye, and here as well. Francies came round. They kept a lot of hens and they would sell the eggs, get goods in exchange.

Iain:

There was an RAF station down at Kindram and did they not come to them for their eggs? The men?

     

Simon:

And were traveling salesmen not a big part of the ...? Like the vans that came and ...?

     

Katie:

Yes, yes.

     

Simon:

Is that how people managed to get things like furniture or ...?

     

Iain:

The tinkers would come round and they were great tinsmiths. There was no plastic then. Pails for milking, they would do that and they would get stuff ... You would ask for food for the horse and milk for the ... and things like that.

Katie:

The tinkers did.

     

Iain:

They had their own tents and ...

Katie:

They were called tinkers because they worked in tin.

Iain:

They were tinsmiths, aye.

Katie:

Aye, tinsmiths.

     

Iain:

Aye, they were alright.

     

Simon:

Were there tinker families in Skye itself or did they come from ...?

     

Katie:

Well, they came from the mainland. Yes, on their horse and cart. They had tinks in a few places.

Iain:

All the places where they were near fresh water. Aye, that’s all done away with now. They’ve all got big caravans, big ... What do they call them now? Travelling people.

Katie:

Travelling people, aye.

     

Iain:

They were ... oh, not the same type at all.

     

Simon:

What was the relationship between tinkers and crofters like? Did people get on?

     

Katie:

Oh yes.

     

Iain:

Yes.

     

Katie:

They would get milk and eggs off the crofters. Of course they had no land or ...

Iain:

And they had in their tents everything. I watched it. The peats, they put the peats in their edge. And then it’s a ... (inaudible) ... on top of that, keep away the dampness. They had a wee chimney going out the roof of it.

Simon:

Did many people from the crofters travel to get work? Like go to Glasgow or ...?

     

Katie:

Oh yes, a lot went to Glasgow.

Iain:

I think that’s why the bridge gets called the ‘Heilan Man’s Umbrella’ because of that. Most of the men were out to sea too.

Katie:

Yes, a lot to sea. They’d only see their families once a year.

Iain:

Or twice maybe.

     

Simon:

And did women do things like go into service?

     

Katie:

Oh yes, oh yes.

     

Simon:

If someone came from a big family then they wouldn’t be able to divide the croft up amongst all the children so did the younger ones have to go away?

     

Iain:

Aye.

     

Katie:

Oh yes, yes.

     

Iain:

You couldn’t stay on the croft and survive.

Simon:

A lot of the work that was necessary for crofting involved everyone having to work together quite often, like the fank.

     

Iain:

Yes.

     

Simon:

With there being fewer crofters working today, has that become harder?

     

Iain:

Aye, yes. It does. Did you go into the convent to look at all the photographs? Did you see all the women at the fanks there? Oh women did the shearing and everything then but now ... And it marked a time where you’re getting modern, you’ve got ... (inaudible) ... shears and you’ve got faster ... It’s a hard job.

Simon:

Has the fact that people aren’t working together as much changed what it feels like to be part of the crofting community as well? Do people feel more isolated or do people find other ways to ...?

     

Iain:

Well, they’re not so helpful to one and other as used to be, I don’t think.

Katie:

Well, they’ve got the machinery now to do it. They don’t need it.

Iain:

Long ago when there was the Department and you were planting potatoes, everybody went and did everybody else’s, you know? Everybody helped everybody but now everybody’s just for themselves and ... some neighbours in places are better at helping than in others. That’s what I think.

Simon:

Yeah, some people seem to be ... like even among the younger guys and that, they do a lot to help other people out.

     

Iain:

Ach, it’s just a different way of life altogether. It’ll be the same the world over at the time.

Simon:

And do you feel ... do you think crofting’s going to die out or do you think it’s going to change but continue in another way?

     

Katie:

It’s hard to say, yes.

     

Iain:

I don’t think it will die out because you can’t change the ... What’s the right word? You can’t change the land and the hills and everything else. So it’ll have to be kept as crofts. Maybe the big ... It’ll be one or two have three or four crofts and they’ll try and make a wee bit of money that way but ... but the old way of the crofting is definitely dying out.

Katie:

Nobody does ... I don’t think anybody can make a living out of crofting today. Unless it ...

Simon:

Do you think there will be younger people that will want to keep doing it as a way of life or ...?

     

Iain:

In our own township, yes. I would say we’re one of the best for keeping crofting up. There’s quite a few young men that are keen on it. But in other places they just ... (inaudible) ... houses for making money that way. Selling the land for building.

Katie:

Yes, selling plots.

     

Simon:

Has that been ... I can see why some people need to do it because it ...

     

Iain:

Aye. They don’t make anything at ... Look over various wee crofts, you’ll never make a living at ... You’ll have to have something else, another job along with it.

Simon:

And some people feel that that, in some ways, has sort of eroded the community a bit though because it’s maybe made it a bit unstable in who comes and goes.

     

Iain:

Oh well. They’re saying there’s more incomers on Skye now than there is local people. I’m not sure.

Katie:

Yeah, but they don’t work crofts.

     

Simon:

You’ve still got a long way ahead of you with the croft itself but what do you think will happen to the croft? What would you like to see happen?

     

Iain:

Well, I would like to see one of my sons taking over after me but I don’t know. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Simon:

What would you like ...? What do you think the croft will be like, say in fifty years time?

     

Iain:

Full of rushes! I don’t know.

     

Katie:

Well, it depends how interested they are in the crofting but it’s just a sideline now. They need another job as well.

Iain:

This part of the island is not so good as the other parts. Our common grazing is pretty ... It’s a big big common grazing but it’s ... it’s pretty rubbishy. Only around the fences it’s nice and green but most of it is peat and whatnot.

Simon:

Yeah, it seems like one of the harshest bits.

     

Iain:

Och, of course aye.

     

Simon:

I guess this was the bit where people were moved to when the landlords took the good ground.

     

Iain:

Mmm hmm. Yep. Only thing is, if the ... (inaudible) ... we can still cut peats. (laughs)

Katie:

More people cutting peats now with the price of coal going up.

Iain:

Well, not here, but in Lewis I think there’s more cutting done now.

Simon:

I’ve seen a few people with quite big stack of it. Young Ally down in Stenscholl’s got ...

     

Iain:

But a lot of .... They’re better inside on the long wet winters. If you’ve got a building at all you don’t have to be digging to get a good dry one.

Simon:

What do you feel crofting means to you on a personal level? Not in terms of what you get out of it in terms of the money, but just in terms of satisfaction and stuff?

     

Iain:

Ach well, it just depends on ... if you don’t like the work, it’ll be ... but you do that just because you like doing that work. You keep it going as long as you can. It’s all I can think to say. You’re not saying much Mrs MacDonald.

Katie:

No. I’m not saying any more. (laughs)