Crofting at the Upper End, 1958-9

Another extract from Uig, A Hebridean Parish, compiled by HA Moisley and members of the Geographical Field Group, Universities of Glasgow and Nottingham.  This section was written by Pamela M Gough; see also the further detail on life in the townships.

Soils are generally deep, and there are few rocky outcrops on the crofts which are fairly level.  In Brenish and Islivig, the soils are mainly peaty, becoming wetter in the west.  Where visible the subsoil is gravel or stony boulder clay.  In Mangersta the transition from peaty soils on the northern crofts to sandy soils on the southern crofts is marked by the increasing continuous cultivation, drains being unnecessary on the latter.

There are no trees of shrubs, and vegetation consists of marshy grass moors in the Mealista area, with a considerable amount of cotton grass bog further north.  West and south of Mangersta the machair area is characterised by a calceole plant community similar in content to that found in many parts of the chalk and limestone areas of England.

The majority of crofts are long narrow strips, with those in Mangersta being somewhat more compact.  The area ranges from two to nine acres, with an average of about four acres; in Brenish and Islivig only about half is usually arable.  All the crofts – or croft-units – are fenced, the work having been completed in Brenish in 1959.  There are 29 crofts in the rental for Brenish, ten for Islivig and thirteen for Mangersta; but, owing to amalgamations of various kinds the number of operative units is considerably less – fourteen in Brenish, five in Islivig and ten in Mangersta.  There are no cottars.

As soils are reasonably free from rocky outcrops, the arable patches are large enough to be cultivated with a horse or tractor.  There is a tractor in Brenish, and four horses, a horse in Mangersta and two in Islivig.  All of these are hired for ploughing and carting peats.  Very little work is done with the spade, unlike many of the other Uig townships.

While the general rhythm of township work through the year is similar to other areas, here the sheep are wintered up on the hills; some crofters winter lambs on their crofts.  Brenish crofters are allowed to winter eight sheep (or sixteen hoggs, or four year-old heifers) on Mealista island – hoggs are usually sent since their loss, by falling over the cliffs, is less serious than the loss of heifers.  Eilean Molach is used by Mangersta crofters, who are allowed two sheep each in summer.

The only crops grown are potatoes and oats, with ‘black oats’ (Avena strigosa) on the sandy soils at Mangersta.  Since see for black oats is unavailable commercially, the crofters save their own.  A grass mixture is sown by the majority of crofters for hay, to qualify for the subsidy.

The extensive hill and mountain pastures are not separately fenced; sheep from all three townships graze over all.   If the total sheep stock of the townships (about 3,300) is compared with the souming figures it is found to exceed the soum by about 50%.  On the other hand, fewer cattle and horses are kept that formerly so that taking the total stock for all animals (horses, cattle and sheep) and comparing with the actual stock the area carries only 87% of the stock which the soum allowed.  In the two older townships, the souming was reckoned according to rent, being one cow, one two-year old and eight sheep for each £1.  In Mangersta, however, the soum was one horse, three cows, one heifer, two stirks and 25 sheep for each croft.

Lambing percentage is about 80, and ewes form 60% of the total sheep numbers (excluding lambs).  In this district some wedders are kept for three years and then sold for meat, but the main income is from wool, about three pounds weight from each sheep, which sells at up to four shillings a pound.

Most crofters keep one or two cows, and the calves are normally sold in the autumn or spring sales.  Brenish and Mangersta each have a bull, and in the three townships there are sixty-seven cattle and thirty calves.  Shielings, formerly used for about seven weeks in summer, were last used for cattle six to eight years ago by people in Brenish, but none are in use today.  These shielings were at the western foot of Mealisval, only about a mile from the township.  The Brenish ‘distant’ shielings, about six miles tot he south-east of the township across the mountains, were not used after about 1920, while the adjoining Islivig shielings were last used in 1922.  Mangersta may have had its original shielings to the east of Loch Melavat about a mile south of the township, but after obtaining the enlargement from the Mealista farm until about 1939, shielings were used in that area.

No peats are cut on the crofts; the peat-cutting areas for all three townships are near the road and in no case far from the township.  The common pasture near the crofts bears evidence of former cultivation, but it is at least fifty years ago since crops were grown on it.  At this time the townships of Islivig and Brenish were over-populated with many cottars living on the crofts and all possible land on the crofts was already under cultivation.  Today, less than half of this ‘old arable’ is being cultivated, and in several cases the land is used solely for hay and grazing.

The relatively young population may help to account, together with the better soils, for this area giving an impression of a fairly prosperous crofting district compared with some of the others in Uig.  Amalgamation of crofts into larger units has also gone further.  The use of a tractor or horse for ploughing, extensive use of artificial fertilisers, the sowing of grass seeds and the sale of sheep for meat, all seem evidence of a group of people who are determined to make the most of their limited resources.

One enterprise, that of the Aird Bheag sheep farm, deserves special mention.  Four crofters (three from Brenish and one from Islivig) have purchased from the Uig shooting estate about 2,000 acres of land on the aird Bheag and Aird Mor peninsulas, five miles south of Mealista.  Here they are running a flock of about five hundred sheep.  There is no road and access by foot is difficult.  To reach the grazings the crofters travel by boat from Mealista several times a year and stay in one of the two houses at Aird Bheag which, although vacant, is still in repair.  These houses were formerly occupied by estate employees who had crofter status.

From the above account, it is evident that in this district as in others, a single croft is not sufficient to support a crofter and his family.  On an average, each resident crofter has acquired the equivalent of two crofts, an in addition each crofter supports the meagre income obtained from his croft by some other occupation, eg weaving, labouring or driving.