Pre-enclosure farming: A Garden in the Hills

Tony Gosling tony at
Mon Jul 4 23:12:36 BST 2011

The Crofting Way by Katharine Stewart
Buy this book here -

The Crofting Way by Katharine Stewart, author of 
Croft in the Hills, Garden in the Hills and The 
Post in the Hills collects together the best of 
the On the Croft and Country Diary columns she 
wrote for the Scotsman over many years. As her 
diary begins, she and her husband are working a 
croft high up in the hills by Loch Ness. From day 
to day she captures the actuality of life on the 
croft: the blizzards and thaws, the pair of 
sparrows nesting in the eaves of the byre, the 
first lambs born in the season, the 
turnip-singling, the neighbours working together 
at harvest-time and Charlie the horse carting the 
stooks. Threaded throughout the diary entries are 
more considered pieces on crofting and country 
life in the Highlands, dealing with subjects like 
the Summer Walkers, Halloween, the shielings, the 
cutting of the peats, the magical uses of the rowan tree and many more.

Wonderfully evocative though it is, what 
Katharine Stewart writes about crofts and 
crofting is not merely a lament for the golden 
days of the past. Drawing on her own experiences 
and her deep knowledge of rural history, she has 
much to say about the present viability and 
future development of this unique form of farming.

The issue of sustainable and 
ecologically-friendly land use in the Highlands 
is one of the thorniest issues the new Scottish 
Parliament has to grapple with, and The Crofting 
Way is an important contribution to this debate. 
Katharine Stewart is in no doubt: ‘A land 
revolution is needed now... the land must be made 
available for a vastly increased amount of real 
production.’ Crofting, she believes, is the key 
to the renewal of the Highlands. She adds: ‘With 
reform in the system of landholding at the top of 
the politicians’ agenda there is surely hope, 
now, that crofting may be able to progress, to 
take its rightful place in the scheme of things.’

In his Foreword to The Crofting Way, Iain 
MacAskill, Chairman of the Crofters’ Commission, 
writes: ‘To preserve the unique and valuable 
heritage and culture in the Highlands and Islands 
we need vibrant preserving what 
is best from the past and taking advantage of new 
technological developments we can, I am sure, 
realise many of the hopes that Katharine Stewart outlines in her book.’


We came north in 1950. Before that the hills we 
walked were the lowland hills. There was 
lark-song and the scent of heather. But always in 
the inner eye were the hills of the north, vast 
hills under a white sky. And the distant curlew calling.

With the aftermath of war and its effects slowly 
seeping away, we began to think
 a tangle of 
thoughts which began, slowly, to take shape
each had close links with the land. Jim’s 
forebears had been crofters and weavers in 
Atholl, mine had farmed further south, in 
Galloway. A spell in the Women’s Land Army had 
taught me to milk a cow, to stook corn, to drive 
a tractor at the tattie-lifting. We had grown 
vegetables and fruit, had kept chickens and bees. 
So it was that we came, quite naturally, it 
seemed, with our small daughter Helen, to live 
and work on a croft, close on 1,000 feet up, in the hills above Loch Ness.

The house stood, four-square and solid, its walls 
of granite and whinstone, its roof of fine blue 
slate, facing the morning sun. Cleared fields 
surrounded it, rough grazing stretching west, and 
in the distance those vast hills, and the white 
sky, there, in reality. Nearby stood the ruin of 
the original house on the holding, a small 
single-storey structure, and a good steading with 
stable, barn and byre, with traces of the old horse-driven mill.

It is not always realised that crofting, as we 
think of it today, originated only about some 200 
years ago. The word ‘croft’, from the Gaelic 
croit, means a small piece of enclosed land. This 
is significant. Until the latter part of the 
eighteenth century, the people had lived in 
‘townships’, small clusters of houses, working 
the land on the ‘run-rig’ system, that is, as 
joint cultivators, the arable apportioned in 
strips, the good alternating with the poor. Their 
mainstay was the cattle which they grazed on 
large areas of hill-ground. In these close-knit 
communities there was much interchange of ideas, discussion, debate.

When the chiefs who, in the movement of the time, 
had become landlords, set out to make their 
estates profitable by the introduction of large 
flocks of sheep, many of the people were cleared 
from their holdings in the glens and given small 
plots of land, or crofts, to provide some 
sustenance for their families, with a share in a 
common hill-grazing and the possibility of 
finding some paid employment. For those sent to 
the coast this meant work at the ‘kelping’, the 
burning of sea-weed to produce alkali, or in 
developing the fishing. Some, as in the area we 
had come to, were given a few acres of barren, 
shelterless land with the possibility of 
obtaining some seasonal employment at draining, 
ditching, wall-building, with a small wage paid 
by the estate, which, of course, obtained the 
ultimate benefit. It was at this time that there 
were many emigrations, some willing, many 
enforced, to the developing colonies in America, 
Canada, Australia, New Zealand.

The people who remained, eking out a living as 
best they could, seeing the land they craved 
turned into sheep-walks or deer forests, these 
people began to realise that to fight was the 
only way to solve their problems. This time the 
fight was to be, not with their chiefs as in 
former times, but against them, against those who 
had abandoned them. From some of their 
supporters, men who had travelled in America, 
they heard stories of the troubles of the native 
people there. Broken promises, reservations
There were riots in many places, rents were 
withheld, summonses burned, ricks destroyed, 
fences pulled down, police attacked with sticks 
and stones. Eventually, after several years 
hearing evidence from crofters, a Royal 
Commission set up to investigate the situation 
reported its findings. A crofter was defined as 
‘a small tenant of land, with or without lease, 
who finds in the cultivation of his holding a 
material portion of his occupation, earnings and 
sustenance and who pays rent to the proprietor.’ 
In 1886 the Crofters’ Act was passed by the 
Government. This gave crofters security of tenure 
in their holdings but still did not restore the 
land they needed. Since that date many more 
measures have been adopted to improve the lot of 
the crofting community. We had always known 
something of the background to crofting. We were 
to learn more as we experienced the actuality.

New Friend

Our place was one of a small community scattered 
over this upland strath known as Caiplich, the 
‘place of horses’. In former times the ground had 
been fit only for the rough grazing of the many 
horses needed to work the surrounding areas. 
Quite soon friendly and helpful hands were 
stretched to us by members of the families all 
born and bred in the place. We were to value 
their skills and their wisdom, their 
companionship and help over the times to come.

The first years were hard but rewarding—seeing 
good ground bearing sturdy crops, sheep and 
cattle thriving, producing most of our 
foodstuffs, sharing the warmth of the old way of 
life. Schooling for Helen was in the best 
tradition, with the added benefit of new friends, 
new ploys. If spending money was hard to come by 
there was always the possibility of earning 
something from a spell of paid employment in a 
nearby town—Inverness or Dingwall. The crofter 
has always had recourse to something similar. But 
to have to split up, even for a short time, was 
not a happy thought. Then came a fresh idea. 
There must be many Highland people in the towns 
of the south who would like to hear about life as 
it was still lived in the uplands, I thought. I 
had always written diaries, letters, had had one or two things published

One bleak afternoon in the January of our fourth 
year on the croft I sat down at the kitchen 
table, a large blank sheet of paper in front of 
me, a pen between my fingers. Jim was outside, 
shifting loads of muck from the yard, Helen was 
not due home from school for a couple of hours. 
The writing came quite naturally. It was simply a 
description of a quiet January on a hill croft. 
Rejected by one editor on account of ‘lack of 
space’ it quickly found a home in the pages of 
the Weekly Scotsman and was to be the first of 
many welcomed by successive editors of that 
paper. This was the start of a record of our life 
and that of our neighbours in the crofting lands 
of Caiplich, part of Abriachan. Today, this may 
seem to many to be almost the stuff of legend, to 
us it was the reality of our daily lives.


‘A richly evocative picture of rural life.’—Scotland on Sunday
‘Gives a valuable insight into crofting life and 
other aspects of the countryside
 A fascinating 
book and one that needed to be written.’—Highland News
‘Those of you who have read some of Stewart’s 
previous four books will know they have a rare 
treat in store here. For those new to this 
splendid writer this is a chance for a really good read.’—Shetland Times


Katharine Stewart lived on a croft for many 
years. Her experiences during this period of her 
life were recounted in her book A Croft in the 
Hills. She has since helped to set up a crofting 
museum next to her home near Loch Ness. Among her 
other books are A Garden in the Hills, describing 
the life of her garden during the course of a 
year, and A School in the Hills, about the 
schoolhouse in which she lives and the way in 
which children of the Highlands have been educated over the years.

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