This week we’re heading back to Britain’s most isolate isle for the second part of my interview with Rachel from Fair Isle’s Barkland Croft.
We chat working with the National Trust, juggling farming with 6 other jobs and what the future holds.
J: The NT has caused quite a bit of controversy of late, especially in their handling of the purchase of Thorneywaite Farm in the Lake District. You’ve highlighted a couple of issues there, but what are they like as Landlords?
R: Re the National Trust for Scotland: I can only speak from my very limited, 18 months experience, so my views might not necessarily be representative of all the islanders here. I think the relationship between Fair Isle residents and the NTS used to be very different – going back 15-20 years an NTS representative would be present at the 4 annual quarterly island community meetings and there was a real sense of personal relationship between ‘them and us’.
I get the impression from older residents that they used to feel valued as tenants, that the NTS was keen to renovate housing, carry out repairs and put money into the housing stock on the island, to ensure its longevity. In recent years the feeling seems to be that the NTS is moving to a more ‘hands-off’ style of management, based in an office in Edinburgh, with managers who’ve never been to Fair Isle and have no concept of the lives we lead here and the challenges and issues we face.
People have said that they have felt that in recent years Fair Isle has been ‘cut adrift’ and left to deal with its problems on its own to an extent. At the 7 island quarterly meetings at which I’ve been present since moving here, there has only ever been an NTS representative present at one of them, and that was last week. There has been a big re-shuffle in the NTS in the last couple of months and quite a change in staff – last week we met our new ‘area manager’ who listened to some of our concerns, visited houses and saw some of the issues we have and, dare I say it, the overall feeling now is one of hopeful positivity, that this could be the start of a new, improved relationship and that the NTS will better support us in our efforts to develop new housing on the island so we can grow our population.
J: The yearly cycle is one that most farmers will recognise, but from what I know of crofting it is very different from your “traditional” farming set up. What do you think really sets crofting apart?
R: As I’ve no farming background and so my only experience comes from crofting, I’m not really sure if there is a technical definition that sets the two apart. I would say that one of the differences between ‘farming’ and ‘crofting’, certainly here at least, is that you can’t make a living from just crofting!
Everyone that runs a croft here on Fair Isle has several other part-time jobs (I have 6), that bring in an income, that enable us to carry on crofting. Perhaps also it is the sense of community that pervades just about everything we do, where everyone pitches in with jobs like baling, the several hill caas each year (bringing down the hill sheep which are on common grazing land), fencing repairs or ditching on shared grazing areas, being part of the hill rota for lambing checks on the hill sheep… Whether it is applicable to crofting in general, or whether it’s just my experience here on Fair Isle due to our environment, but crofting seems to have an element of self-sufficiency that perhaps isn’t as necessarily evident in farming. I may be completely wrong and I’m not trying to annoy any farmers with that statement – please put it down to my ignorance if I’m wrong!. I’ve a way to go myself, but the majority of crofters here are virtually self-sufficient and produce their own meat and veg crops. As little as 20 years ago the croft next door to me was also the island dairy, where people got their milk from.
J: Balancing the croft with 6 other jobs is phenomenal! What other jobs are you doing on the island?
R: I run the croft, I ‘finish’ garments for two of the island’s three knitwear producers, I’m the Admin Assistant for Fair Isle Development Company, I also do admin & accounts work for Shetland Nature – a wildlife tour company based in Shetland, I’m the relief cook at the primary school, I provide all the catering for the cruise ships that visit the island, and I’m the relief cleaner for the surgery & community hall . Oh, and I’m one of two organists for the Kirk and Chapel, and the Secretary for the Hall Committee, but they’re not paid positions.
J: That’s just incredible. You’ve recently been part of a BBC programme about living on Fair Isle. How was that?
R: I think having several jobs is just the norm here as there are so few full-time jobs, in the traditional sense, on the island. You can see that on the recent BBC documentary where they listed people’s jobs under their names!
The BBC documentary was a really special project to be part of. Initially I was reticent about being in it, as I’m quite a private person really, but then once it was established that Lou, whose project it was, wasn’t looking to make one of these the-more-scandal-the-better reality shows, I realised how positive it could be for Fair Isle, helping to raise its profile, bring in more visitors, etc. Lou started filming in April 2015 and finished in May 2016. She and Stuart, the sound man, recorded 266 hours of footage, visiting the island roughly every six weeks. They were never intrusive and respected people’s wishes if someone said ‘please don’t film this’ or ‘can you not use that clip’.
I think Lou had a really tough job editing the footage down to just 2hrs, and I think it’s nigh-on impossible to give a true feel of life on Fair Isle in such a short time, but she’s done a great job & everyone is pleased with how the two programmes turned out. They’ve just been shown on BBC1 Scotland and hopefully will be shown in the rest of the U.K. In 2017!
J: What are the biggest challenges of living and farming in such an isolated location?
R: One of the biggest challenges of living & crofting in such an isolated location is just getting supplies in to the island! Depending on what you’re needing, some companies won’t deliver at all, others want to charge you £25 surcharges or pay ridiculous postage charges…which all add up.
Then it’s physically getting items onto the island – most will be brought by the island ferry, Good Shepherd IV, but that only sails once a week in winter and, weather depending, might not be able to sail for weeks at a time. You have to plan ahead for things like winter feed, lamb milk powder, etc – the last thing you want is to run out of something & there literally be no way of getting any more in.
Another challenge is that everything has to be craned aboard the Good Shepherd, and the crane’s maximum lifting limit is 1.8 tonnes – so that even limits what vehicle you can have here! I wanted a Hilux but they’re too heavy to be craned on the boat, so have an old Freelander. With heavy machinery and tractors, for example, we have to wait till the Filla ,the island ferry that serves the Out Skerries, and has a RORO capacity, comes in twice a year, to get things in or out. It came in last week, bringing all our winter feed & straw, and left with a cargo of vehicles being sent out to be scrapped and a load of old oil drums! Another challenge is that we don’t have 24hr electricity here – the generators only work between 0730-2330hrs, so outside of those times there is literally no power. It’s not a huge issue most of the time, and you do get used to it very quickly, but when it’s 3am, pitch black out, hailing, blowing a gale and you’re trying to get an uncooperative ewe who’s just lambed from the field into a stall in the byre, with just a head torch, it can be quite frustrating! Some folk do have inverters, essentially batteries that charge up during the day then give power once the generators go off, but they’re incredibly expensive to buy…..it’s on my ‘wish list’ though!!
J: We’ve discussed the challenges you face but what have been some of your highlights/favourite parts of your new life as a crofter?
R: Some of the highlights for me have definitely included becoming part of an amazing community, lambing (part-terrifying, part-exhilarating!), sending my first lambs to market, but none of it would be possible without the support I have from my friends and neighbours here. I think overall, however, my favourite aspect of crofting here on Fair Isle is the feeling that I’m actually achieving something. Yes, I make mistakes and I’m learning every day, but I feel a sense of contentment in my life and pride in what I’m doing here that’s been missing from my life for a long time. The support and encouragement I’ve had from people on Twitter has also been overwhelming – whether it’s been kind words or folk offering to help me rebuild gates and such like.
J: what does 2017 have in store for you and Barkland Croft?
R: 2017…golly…let’s see…Well, I turn 40 in June, so that’s kind of terrifying! It’ll be my first time lambing on my own, albeit with help from neighbours only a phone call away. My sister and brother-in-law, who live in the States, might hopefully visit for the first time. The usual round of ditching, fencing repairs, hill caas, baling – the same as for a lot of folk! I’m very keen to get one of my parks’ soil tested, as it’s awful ground and I desperately want to improve it so I can eventually increase my flock numbers. I’d love to get my polytunnels covered too! One of the low points of 2016 was that my ex took my working dog, Scott, when we split up (not that he now crofts or even has sheep, but that’s another story….!) meaning that I’ve been reliant on neighbours getting my sheep in for me. However, 2017 is set to change that as in about a week’s time I’m getting a sheepdog pup, Meg, who I’m going to do my best to train so that I can be more self-reliant and better able to help on the hill caas. It’s an exciting time and I really do feel positive about what the future holds for me and my life here.