Angus MacNeil on sheep & Scottish independence
This article is from the June 2013 issue of Total Politics
I was raised on a croft in Tangasdale (a name given by the invading Norsemen) on the west side of the Gaelic-speaking Isle of Barra, the island of the Clan MacNeil, in the Outer Hebrides, where I still live. A croft is often referred to jovially as a piece of land surrounded by red tape, but it is a system of subsistence land-holding created by the 1886 Crofting Act to give security of tenure to those in the areas where the Highland Clearances had been savage. My croft comprises 15 acres, but we also have rights to common grazings on the hill and on the machair, which is the fertile sandy soil by the Atlantic beach.
We have looked after about 30 sheep and have grown potatoes for as long as I can remember. I sell the lambs in early autumn, but a couple winter in the household freezer. The potatoes are just enough for ourselves for the year, but grown from any Hebridean sandy machair soil, the potatoes are as tasty as you will get. As our winter climate is mild they can be left in the sand all winter, as they were this year, with no frost damage. Cold is not the enemy: it’s the wind, hammering in unimpeded from a few hundred miles out in the sea.
My late father was a postman and motor mechanic by trade, but he seemed to prefer crofting to these other jobs. To give an economic context, the croft probably added about another month to my father’s wages when I was a child and, of course, added quality meat, potatoes and veg. Its value has gone down economically in those terms, I suppose, but I do enjoy the work associated with it, whether its planting, digging ditches, fencing or hauling seaweed from the beach with trailer and quad, but especially at lambing time.
However, hand on heart, the one job I do not like is shearing. I use a deamhas, or hand clippers in English, and I’m not the fastest. Some friends and neighbours have gone electric, but I seem slower still with that. The upshot is a druim goirt, or sore back.
A lot of the year’s efforts hang on the success of lambing. I have one ewe that was a lamb on an election leaflet in 2010, and she has now provided eight lambs in three years – she gets extra rations in the spring feeding. While helping one another if need be, there can be a mild and understated competitive edge between crofters, as we want to have a higher lambing percentage than neighbours. Around or above 150 per cent, and I am happy.
Our land is marginal and probably has among the worst soil conditions in the EU – an Irishman told me after a visit, “Your place makes Connemara look fertile.” Despite this, the bureaucratic upside-down thinking of the EU means we attract the least in Less Favoured Area Payments, with lush Belgium attracting the most, apparently. Funny that…
I hope that no matter what else I might do in life after Scottish independence, I can always continue to live there and keep a few sheep. It strikes me as a reasonably healthy lifestyle, where exercise is forced upon you by the necessity of the matters in hand. My neighbour, wit and comedian Iain Aonghais Mhoir (John MacLean) is going like a train at 75 – and that’s after a triple bypass operation. Meanwhile, we all have our fingers crossed for good prices at the lamb auctions in either Dalmally or Oban this August.
Here is an SNP-supporting sheep: