Jonathan: Denise has been applying her expertise with a spinning wheel and wools in a new direction. Here she is spinning a bobbin of steel wire into a new boundary fence! A case of transferable skills? At this rate we’ll be finished before the rain sets in!
Jonathan: This is the first of a new, occasional series of posts on the many and varied ‘tools of the trade’ we use in our day-to-day lives. How we use them, and their significance in our island lives (some are indispensable!): it’s in these things that the interest lies. The first is from me, and continues today’s theme of fencing.
The Hole Digger is for breaking open the ground, typically in making holes for fence posts. They are big, heavy, pointy, and not easy to carry about, and certainly not something one runs up or down the hill to borrow from one job to use on another. So, we have two of them. One has spent the past few months up in High Field working on the new fences. It’ll come back down to the store for Christmas! The other lounges around in the store, waiting for occasional smaller jobs elsewhere.
Our hole diggers are two metres long and each weighs 10kg. Most of the weight is in the long round steel bar. Welded at one end is a steel wedge with a hardened cutting edge. Welded to the other end is a round steel pommel, both to add weight and balance, and as an aid to handling.
Despite its name, the hole digger is rarely used for digging holes – in fact it is extremely ill-suited to – and most likely never intended for that task It is used with more for jabbing or thrusting into the ground to penetrate compacted soil, to break into and break up dense and stony subsoil and to lever rocks and stones out of the way or out of the hole opened up. The weight gives oomph to the jabbing, and the length and strength or the bar provides formidable leverage. We use it mainly for opening up a pilot hole, jabbing it successively deeper and deeper, first through the turf and soil, then into the subsoil, and then by a levering action forcing stones to one side or the other. ready for driving a fencing stob (an intermediate post). This pilot hole makes it easier to drive a post – usually a fencing stob (3″ square or round pointed wooden intermediate post). The post can then be driven in deeper and straighter. Sometimes we use the hole digger (in combination with a post-holer – but we’ll leave that tool for another time!) to clear a larger hole of stones and rocks ready for dropping in a big gate post or straining post. This does involve the tool being used more with a digging action, and is more likely to require levering rocks out entirely.
Occasionally it’s used for levering large boulders, lying on the surface of the ground, out of the way entirely, or moving them – for example by rolling – from one place to use elsewhere.
This is a really tough tool. Heavy work on the croft would not just be heavier without it, it would be impossible. This is the nearest I get to having an assistant fencer on the payroll!
Jonathan: If there’s one subject that keeps cropping up on this blog in recent months (and will for a few months more, I expect!), it’s fencing. Or, more specifically, fencing the boundaries of our Eriskay croft, enclosing the new High Field. It’s no small task, especially as I’m doing it almost entirely on my own. (Denise helps with leading wire off the spools – almost impossible to do single-handed.) It’s no easy task either, as ground conditions are extremely … well, extreme. Here a bog of semi-fluid moss and peat. There an outcrop of hard rock. Very hard rock. Just recently, drilling for three steel posts over one small outcrop took almost half an hour. That’s per hole.
As I said, hard. Very hard! It’s not as if the drill isn’t up to the job, or the drill bit too worn – both are top quality and still fairly new. No, it’s the rock. There’s about a hundred holes to drill out, each 25mm diameter and 200mm deep. Thankfully they don’t all take that long to drill out – most take less ten minutes or less.
Several of our guests at Carrick have asked what we do where there is rock. For them, and as a warning to those romantics who are in thrall to a dream of having their own Hebridean croft, here’s a wee pictorial guide to crossing an outcrop – just a very small one – of hard rock.
So each of these three 25mm x 200mm main holes took about half an hour of drilling, with a heavy-duty 2.5kW SDS-II hammer drill and a top quality bit. Just brief pauses to clear the rock flour and let the bit cool down. What with the getting tools moved into place from the previous worksite, installing posts over this small rock outcrop was a full half-day’s work. What’s that you say? If it’s so small why don’t you just move it out of the way? Or go round it, or blast it or break it up with a machine … or something? Well, if any of those things was easier, cheaper, quicker, or for that matter legally possible (this is, after all, a boundary fence), you could be sure I would have done it already and this post wouldn’t be being written at all! Time for one last question … Why so many posts in quick succession? Good question! To reliably contain sheep, especially lambs, the fence has to follow the ground closely. (That’s the usual form of words.) As a general rule, the gap between the bottom wire and the ground should be no greater than the gap between the bottom wire and the wire above it – typically 100mm. Believe me, it’s that which makes fencing for hill sheep so very expensive!
Anyway, this particular outcrop was fairly easy. Yes, really! So, here’s one or two more difficult ones made earlier.
Jonathan: It’s been a fine day in Uist, today, and I’ve made the most of it … carrying fencing materials up the hill to the new field, High Field, at the top of the croft. Eight round trips, each more than a half a kilometre out and 40m of ascent, across rough grass and heather, climbing rocky outcrops and across minefields of tussock-grass and hidden ditches, and staggering across bogs. With quarter of a tonne – about 265kg – balanced on my shoulder. Yes it hurts. No, there’s no practical alternative. And anyway, it’s not so bad done slowly, patiently. Step by Step. One by One. It’s just a question of balance! 1 bundle of wooden stobs at about 20kg – just to warm up. 2 big wooden gate posts (they’re wet through) at about 60kg each. 5 reels of fencing wire, 25kg each. To warm down, and to help forget the pain in my left shoulder – driving in the stobs and setting up the two gate posts. And then at last home for an evening meal and a relaxing evening podding peas!
Jonathan: At last, I seem to be making progress. Fencing work seems at first to be all uncertainty and difficulty ; then gradually a bit more certainty – but a lot more difficulty ; and then suddenly it seems to fly along! I’m working on extending the fences along the long sides of the croft – from the south end of Bothy Field right up to the Hill Fence, and thereby forming the new Field 4, or High Field as it will be known. I’m aiming to get the west fence done first because … well, let’s just say because of local politics. The ground varies greatly, and thus the materials, techniques, skill and effort required also. But now the line is very firmly clear on the ground, most of the posts are in – just a half-dozen or so steel posts on rock and about the same of wooden posts where the soil is deep and firm enough to hold the post. (And where the ground is neither bare rock or soil deep and firm enough, you ask? Well, now that’s a big subject … perhaps for another post – or two – or three!) What’s really given me a lift, however, is completion of the new west gate. It’s sited on an eminence of bare rock by the stream just where it tumbles down across the boundary into the croft neighbouring us to the west, 1 Haun. I picked this site because of its prominence, and when I’ve done the east gate too, and painted the gates red, they will be easily picked out even from a distance by hill-walkers finding their way across the croft lands to and from the hills. The gates will in fact normally be kept locked, but they nonetheless provide a means of crossing the boundary that is both easier and safet (and less likely to cause damage!) than crossing the fence itself. In fact it’s essential to provide this means of crossing, because the new boundary fences are to be fitted with a stand-off electric fence of three wires – to keep lambs in.
The stream beside the new west gate didn’t have a name, or at least not on Ordnance Survey maps, so on the croft map I created a fortnight or so ago, I called it Abhainn* a’ Charraig, because it springs out of huge tumble of boulders at the foot of the scree slopes of Beinn Sgiathan‘s north face. However I have since recalled that the spring is in fact known as Tobar a Phrionnsa – or Prince’s Well (the prince in question being Charles Edward Stuart, or Bonnie Prince Charlie … but that’s another story). So I shall be re-naming the stream as Abhainn a’ Phrionnsa. And the new west gate shall have a name too! The stream plays out a lovely melody as it tumbles and weaves amongst the rocks and little pools, and beside it the hollow steel gate posts act like pan pipes in the breeze, so this shall be An Geata Ceoil – The Musical Gate.
And there’s another sort of progress being made too. Each morning – whether I’ll be working on the fence or not – I take the black bucket with a couple of scoops of sheep nuts up to High Field – as near as the Hill Gate as I’ve been able to persuade them to follow me. On my way I call the sheep Troaibh! Troaibh! They appear from wherever they’ve been grazing since early light. They follow me in two or more skeins of ewes and lambs as we cross the lush gearraidh at the south end of Bothy Field, and then climb the steep slope into (what will be) High Field. Queenie – the alpha ewe – knows where we’re going, and suddenly trots ahead of me, pausing briefly at intervals to check that I’m following her! But her intelligence goes further than that, in fact it goes further than the spot at which I put down food for them yesterday. She seems to understand that we’re working our way slowly up the new field, towards Hill Gate, and she leads the way to the next little patch that’s suitable for putting down sheep nuts. Yes she knows that too: very short grasses and heather shoots on thin turf over hard rock – where the food doesn’t get wet or lost amongst long grasses. Clever girl!
But there’s more!! Queenie is also coming to the understanding that this high ground is where they are allowed to be – perhaps even where they are supposed to be. So, today, after they’d finished with the sheep nuts and a wee bit of sampling the local grasses and herbage, and for the very first time, she did not lead the flock gradually back down to Bothy Field and beyond, but instead settled down right there and then to chew the cud. And the others did likewise – except for two very independent-minded lambs who decided to try out the long lush grasses beside the stream. In one of these photos you can seem many of the ewes laid down with their necks and heads stretched out flat on the short turf, enjoying the warmth sunshine. Just out of shot there was Queenie a couple of the other oldest ewes with their heads up, watching me work on the fence. It seems that my presence gives them the security they need on this still unfamiliar ground! At noon, I stopped work and packed up the tools to go home for lunch: up they got, and headed off back to Bothy Field!
Well, it’s progress!
* Abhainn means a fast-flowing stream or river, and corresponds exactly to Afon in Welsh, and Avon in English