Jonathan: Quaint how some archaic words linger on in fixed expressions: girding, for example, which is only ever used with his/her/my etc and loins. It shares the same root – in Old English – as girdle – originally meaning simply a belt. As for the connection with loins, well like many such expressions, it became fixed in the form we know today thanks to King James’ Bible. As to meaning, it’s equivalent to ‘rolling up one’s sleeves’ in readiness for a physical task; but in this case it means another mug of coffee and a couple of hours quiet and rest in preparation for shearing sheep this afternoon. I sheared eleven some weeks ago, but there’s seventeen still to do ; hours of back-breaking work with hand shears (I do a good job, but lack confidence). First the sheep need to be rounded up: Seonaidh will bring his dogs over at around 1pm, and that will take them no more than ten to fifteen minutes. The fank is in the new field, by the road, and at this stage is makeshift – a number of borrowed steel gates tied together: if this round-up works well, I’ll make the layout permanent with post and rail fences, or buy steel hurdles, but I’m reasonably confident that the temporary fank will do its job. What’s making me nervous, and a little stressed, is the weather. Shearing really needs to be done in the dry, not just because that makes it more pleasant work, but because the fleeces will spoil if they are stored wet or even damp: drying them out afterwards is no easy task! Yet – just as happened at the last round-up (and for that matter I’m sure every time I’ve made arrangements for shearing), the long spell of dry sunny weather we’ve been enjoying has been briefly interrupted for a day of clouds and intermittent rain – which on any other day would have been welcomed with shouts of joy, the land being so drought-stricken!. I’ve been keeping a close eye on the Met Office website, which currently forecasts for the Sound of Barra, the rain easing up at around mid-day, and it remaining dry, if overcast, all afternoon.
Jonathan. Bringing a croft back into proper productive use after years of neglect, underinvestment – or downright dereliction, is no small task! We certainly undestood that when we put in our bid for the tenancy, back in 2007, but only as high-level aspirations: keep a variety of chickens free-range and sell attractive quality eggs) and low-level guesstimates ; Clear out the old creel store and fix it up as a hen house – £200. Say it quickly and with conviction and who’s to argue? (Well it cost a great deal more than £200 and yet the hens are still arguing the merits of the case! But I digress.) There are some who bring to such a task a bulging bank balance – which runs to waste in paying others to do all the work. Some abound with creative ideas, but lack the practical skills or hard work and patience to acquire them. Yet there’s one necessity that can be neither brought nor bought, and cannot be accumulated as capital, yet is indispensible to many endeavours of life, not least working the land and keeping livestock. And that’s the good will of neighbours. Tolerance of our failings ; help when really needed ; advice that takes account of our own peculiarities of character, our aspirations and our circumstances – not a lecture. If the value of capital is realized only when put to work, and the good judgement of a budget only when well spent, then good neighbourliness is made manifest only if acknowledged, if actually put to use. And with that in mind, let me say this: We will not be keeping Highland cattle on our croft, as we’ve long intended to. They’re too big and and powerful for us to manage without help, and even when quiet and contented they can casually wreck a good fence just by scratching their neck on the wires. So thanks, Seonaidh, for telling us what we needed to know: not when it was too late to do anything about it apart from soldier on regardless or give up and lick our wounds, but in time for us to really benefit from that advice, when we’ve time and opportunity to redirect our ideas and energy into something more suitable for our circumstances.
Jonathan: D and I were away from home this morning – together for once, and not just to cleaning at our holiday lets either! No, much further afield – to Lochmaddy in North Uist, in fact. Seven hogget lambs to bring home from the abattoir. ‘A bit on the lean side’ he said, meaning that they weren’t particular big and there was very little fat on them. The mainstream market for lamb is leaner than it would have been in the past, but all meats are expected to show a significant proportion of fat. Hebrideans are a niche market (along with the likes of North Ronaldsay) with a reputation for darker, fuller-flavoured meat, very lean and such fat as there is being low in cholestorol. And that seems to be exactly what we’ve got! The seven wedders have come back with an average butchered weight of 9kg: they were 15 months old. Last time (October 2010), five wedders were 15kg average weight at 19 months. The difference? Their last four months were spent grazing down the verdent grasses and wild flowers of later summer early autumn, not requiring much effort, so much of the additional 6kg was fat – and very obvious it was too. By contrast, this year’s wedders have ‘finished’ on coarser upland vegetation that takes some getting – and that’s where the lean-ness and flavour comes from. Once out of the cold store and into the back of the car, the aircon was turned up to max (or is that min?) and we set off briskly for home before we caught a cold! This afternoon we’ve sorted and packed the meat as leg, leg shank, shoulder, shoulder-shank, chops, loin chops, scrag end (really a lot better than it sounds!), kidneys, … dog food … and bagged and frozen the meat, with a number of roasting joints set aside fresh – for those who have placed advance orders.
Jonathan: Fencing the ‘middle croft’ – between the new road (it was built the year I was born) and the old road – has proved far more time-consuming than I’d ever imagined. The materials were ordered almost a year ago – late August 2011, but whilst the wooden posts and wire were delivered fairly promptly, by the time all the special steel ‘rock posts’ were here we were locked in the grip of the longest, windiest and wettest winter anyone – even the oldest and keenest bodach or cailleach could remember. Working outdoors with generators and electric drills was simply out of the question! But once lambing was over and the fine weather had become a settled feature of this year’s Spring and early Summer, there was no excuse but to get on with the job whenever I could spare time from engineering work. The fence type I’ve adopted – high tensile strained wire with droppers – is well suited to lone manual work, as there is nothing too heavy for one person to lift and carry (the heaviest is a 2.4m x 150mm square post, or for that matter the generator at about 60kg). But this is not the familar sheep-netting fence of woven wire mesh – it is simply individual horizontal wires (7 plain, 1 barbed) pulled to a very high tension. The spacing is maintained by fixed posts every 10m or less (depending on the rise and fall of the ground) – either driven wooden posts or metal posts resin-anchored into the rock, and between these (at a spacing of 2m to 3m) lighter battens of wood spanning from bottom wire to top, the wires being stapled to wood and passing through holes in the metal posts. This type of fencing relies on very high tension, obtained with a special tool. That’s where the problem lies, because at corners, gate posts and the such like, the combined pull of 8 wires is pretty awesome, and even with good strong stay-posts, the post can be pulled out of the ground. There’s no problem where the soil is deep and firm, or there is bare rock – but where the soil is about 200mm of loose soil over a matrix of boulders and peat, it is extremely difficult to get a firm hold, and improvisation is necessary. I would say 95% of the fence required only 5% of the total effort, but unfortunately the 5% that has taken me weeks and weeks to get right has been the length following the public road, providing everyone from my neighbours to holidaymakers with a free demonstration of how to and how not to make a fence. Belle – you’ve been a great encouragement. To the gentleman from England who said We don’t have anything like this in Norfolk! I’d like to think it was the sheep and the rocky ground you were so delighted to photograph, and not the complete and utter disaster with the gate. And finally, to Nick, Caroline, Jo, Hannah and Robert – thanks for coming to listen to my singing fence, and yes the gate is now good to go, and properly set back so that – eventually (when the access has been properly made up with stone) – I will be able to reverse the car and trailer off the road.
Jonathan: As the lambs on the croft have grown and are more ‘mobile’, their mothers seem more willing to leave the security of the peninsula which they seemed to have made their maternity ward, and are coming to me for their morning treats. With a judicious shaking of the feed bucket and some encouraging rustling of hay, I have over the past two or three mornings enticed all of them back into the field, where I will have a bit more control over them. Out of the 16 breeding ewes, I now have 11 lambs (including U9 at home) from 10 ewes, so there’s possibly another half dozen or so to come. 8 of the 11 lambs born so far are female. I need the sheep back in the field because on 1 May all livestock have to go up on the common grazings, or be contained on the crofters own land. The field in question is borrowed until I complete my own fencing work: but the grazing is thin after the long winter, so I’ll have to continue feeding hay and sheep nuts until I can get the fencing work complete and the sheep transferred to my own new field.