Friday, 6 March 2015

Life on the Croft

Memories of Life on the Croft 

This fascinating subject was covered a few years ago by the members of our County Sutherland Mailing List following a plea from Isabel in Australia who wrote:

“Hello Members,
I mentioned to a member of The Heraldry & Genealogy Society of Canberra, Australia, that I was born on a croft in Tongue, Sutherland and now they have asked me to give a talk on what it was like living on a croft. I can do that through the eyes of a child but as I left the croft and went to boarding school in Golspie at the age of 14 years I am hoping that someone out there will help me fill in the gaps!  Any information will be greatly appreciated.
Kind regards, Isabel, Australia”

The response to Isabel’s plea was great and reply by reply we opened up real life memories of living on a croft. With responses from outside Sutherland also it became clear just how many of the old traditions travelled around the world with those who left the county. I had planned to create an article from the many responses but on reading them again I am going to display them just as they came in. For readers who do not know the County of Sutherland I have added parish names to the places mentioned. Hope you enjoy reading these.

This photograph was sent in by Marie Hembrow. It was taken at Blairmore, Eddrachillis probably in the late 1950s. It shows her Nan Bessie Mackay and helpers on her croft. Nan was widowed in 1946, and haymaking would have been too much for one woman so all the neighbours would have rallied around to help when these jobs needed doing.


Traditional crowdie was a cottage cheese and originated as a staple food for the crofter. Many of our members remembered crowdie being made on the crofts of Sutherland. Many also remember it being made in Canada where their Sutherland ancestors brought the recipes from home.

“When my mother used to make crowdie, she used unpasteurised sour milk. I am not sure how long it stood before she heated it on the stove. Today it has been replaced by cottage cheese, which is not as good as crowdie.” Jean in Ontario

“My Mum always talked about Crowdie being made in her home in Rogart, Sutherland, by just leaving the milk near the fire till it curdled then straining though muslin and salting. Years later Mum worked at Lockerbie Creamery on the Cheddar making process and I started there in the early 60's finishing my cheese making career where we were taught to make many cheese including Dunlop (an Ayrshire Cheese but not Crowdie. I have always been fascinated by what in England is called Cottage Cheese. In around 1967 I was working at a creamery in Shropshire and a new product was made there for launch - "Cottage Cheese". This came about because U.S. airmen at Ruislip airbase were continually asking for it so a product was born but of course it had been and I presume still is made commercially in the Highlands as well as in the home.” Iain in Yorkshire

“Yes we can buy Crowdie locally, made in a creamery in Tain, Ross & Cromarty and its first class.”  
Ray in Scourie, Sutherland

“I had a feeling that crowdie was what my grandmother called curds. She used to make it especially for me as I just loved it on new potatoes with butter. Grandma use to put it in muslin and hang it on the clothes line to curdle. I don't exactly remember how it was made but my mouth just waters thinking about it. Another treat brought over from Sutherland with our ancestors.” Carol 

Rag Rugs

Who remembers the "Rag rugs"? I remember we had slate on our kitchen floor before we moved up in the world and had some lino put down, my mother used to make "Ragrugs" out of old coats or blankets, I can still see her now sitting by the Raeburn and tillie lamp in the kitchen platting the scraps together.

I remember my grandmother making rag rugs. They were always on the floor in the large kitchen of her farmhouse. She lived in Canada and we stayed with her all summer every year to help her out on the farm. My mom, her daughter, came to the US with her sister at a young age and they would save old coats, suits, and wool of any kind and bring it with us when we came for the summer. Grandma used it for her lovely rugs. She also made all the quilts for the beds. An aunt of mine still has quilting bees in her home. Oh, how I loved those times.

General Memories

Thanks everyone, I am really enjoying reading the emails on life on a croft. What a great insight into how our ancestors lived. I wonder what they would think of us today?
Thanks again.
Glenda in OZ

My grandfather always started every morning with brose. We grandchildren all tried it but my brother Robert was the only one who took a liking to it. Crowdie now I did enjoy, along with the home made butter and the oatcakes. I was reminding my brother this morning about the carnation milk. One of my great uncles in Clashnessie always had carnation milk for tea. We hated it but our mother insisted that we be polite and drink it without comment.
Marian Macleod

I have greatly enjoyed all the postings about life on a croft. Most of what has been written is new to me but greatly enjoyed and I know my mother would have loved reading it, too. I'm a 2nd generation American and never knew my grandmother as she died when I was only 2 and my grandfather never talked much about Scotland. Researching my ancestors in Scotland has been a journey as I had only the place of birth for my grandmother and not much in the way of names for anyone else. My mother was thrilled as I found each generation. I am still looking for the rest. Thank you all for your wonderful stories of the "crofts".
Jan, USA

I well remember my young days brought up on a croft. Every morning my father would boil the kettle on the fire, first adding water to his bowl of brose, putting a saucer over it to steam, filling the teapot and when waiting for his brose to cook, would fill the tin basin with the remaining water to wash and shave. I loved my pease meal brose. I can nearly taste it as I write.

My mother always salted a barrel of herring. We had a burn running beside the house and my mother used to gut the herring in the running water. I used to be afraid of the many eels which would appear and almost pull the fish out of her hands. She also salted a sheep every year which my father had killed from his flock [probably illegal but all the crofters did it]. Every part of the sheep was used, including the lovely black puddings which were also made.

Whenever I came home from school I had to help. In the summer it would be raking or turning the hay which my father cut by hand with the scythe. In the hot weather it would take a tin milk pail filled with cold water and a sprinkling of oatmeal in it to quench his thirst [no lemonade in those days] I also remember always finding something called bee’s nests when the hay had been cut. The honey tasted so sweet. My father carried the hay on his back tied with rope.

Many hours were spent at night searching for the cows to milk as they had the freedom of the hills. We used to look for the freshest cow pats to follow. After the cows were milked, some of which was put in a basin and the cream collected for butter the next day, we had supper and if we were lucky we would put the wireless on for the news and perhaps listen to Radio Luxembourg if there was enough power left in the battery which had been in the oven of the Rayburn to boost it up. Then we had our bath in the tin bath [which is still in my loft] in front of the fire hoping that no one came to the door. No one ever did as I think it was customary for all families to bathe on Sunday night.

It was a very simple, hard working life which until this day I think has set most of the principles we Highlanders live by. Must go now and put my frozen curry in the microwave, switch on the TV and check my e-mails. A change for the better or not - who knows?
Muriel in Ross-shire

My grandmother Mary Morrison b 1870 at Oldshoremore, Eddrachillis came to Glasgow about 1910 and loved it but was always an innocent outsider looking in. My sister was telling me recently about Granny's sister Lexy Morrison born 1873 who was the only one of 14 siblings who never worked anywhere but on her parents croft at Badcall (Eddrachillis) or for one of her two husbands in Scourie and never really learned anything other than pidgeon English. She was a small wiry woman who usually trauchled about in an old tweed skirt and wellingtons and was no oil painting - goodness knows how she got two husbands!
Around 1940 my sister was aged 7 and living in Scourie for the war years when a parcel came from Canada containing some lovely shoes and a child's dress. The sender obviously knew my sister was living with Lexy at the time but Lexy being so unworldly thought it was a blouse for her and wore it around Scourie over the old skirt and boots. Cathy says that no one had the heart to tell her how ridiculous she looked with this little frilly child's dress on and she happily boasted to all and sundry about the good relatives they had abroad who never forgot them.
Marion, Renfrewshire

Gosh how the memories are coming flooding back! No water or electricity in the croft house in my childhood. No water meant that the washing was done in a big tub outside. Anyone remember "tramping" the blankets and the feel of hot soapy suds between your toes? No water also meant no inside toilet, just a 'dry loo' in a wee shed beside the henhouse and if the toilet paper was finished there was always pieces of newspaper! I'm sure that some folk today will think that it was so primitive, but that’s the way it was and it never did us any harm. These same folk never experienced the "luxury" of a bath in front of the fire. 
“Of course all the cooking was done on the open fire. Nothing to beat a hot scone or pancake straight of the girdle which hung from the 'crook' over the fire”.
Although our croft in Badninish (Dornoch) was sublet I enjoyed helping to plant and lift the tatties etc. Before the disease killed them off there were always plenty rabbits on the croft and I was quite good at setting snares to catch them and when meat was rationed during the war years we usually had rabbit stew once or twice a week.
No TV or computers then to amuse youngsters we just played Ludo or Snakes and Ladders, but not on a Sunday. No knitting or homework allowed either but I must confess that I did read by torchlight with the blankets pulled over my head. All the messages evoke more memories so I may be back later remembering more about the good old days
Ray in Scourie, Sutherland 

Ah, Ray, the tub by the fire and the loo with newspaper. How you rattle the old memories. We were not allowed to work on Sunday, many a Sunday was family day and all the folks would convene at Grandma's and what a time we would have. Miss those days dearly. Maybe this is part of what is wrong with the world today. It is called connections.

ahhh peat cutting ... don't forget the cold tea in an old lemonade bottle with a marble in the top.

I applaud all of you who are collecting memories of croft life because once the holders of the memories are gone what on earth are we left with if we have not recorded them. I was too young when our family went to Sutherland to visit family so I rely on my sister Cathy who is 11 years older and who I regularly poke and stir and annoy to gather anything she recalls. I was recently contacted by my father's cousin now aged 80 years in Tignabruaich and fully intend to leave no stone unturned in emptying her memory banks either. I have the facts and certificates about our relatives and ancestors but my sister is able to put personalities on the facts. I consider memories invaluable in making the family tree come to life.
Marion, Renfrewshire

This is just fascinating. I never knew my grandfather so didn't hear any stories firsthand about his life as a shepherd. I feel I have missed so much and the memories you have all revealed give me some idea of the kind of life he would have led.
Margaret Smith, Renfrew 

I was born and brought up on a croft at Kinlochbervie, Sutherland. It is a subject that covers a lot and a lot of time could be spent on each area of crofting. One thing that did strike me today when I was thinking about being bought up on a croft was that nearly all our food was organic, not that the word organic was mentioned then.
Each crofter grew their own potatoes, turnips and carrots. Most of the crofters had cows and this gave milk, butter and cheese. All had hens which provided the eggs for cooking and baking. The only fertiliser that was used for the potatoes came from the byre! Coming from Kinlochbervie we also had plenty access to fish.
Hector Macrae in Bonar Bridge, Sutherland

Wow! How just reading about what you wrote is bringing me back….we didn’t have any electricity in Blandy (Tongue), we had the paraffin lamps and a Tillie lamp (if you have a photo of a Tillie lamp I would love a copy) we had a rayburn to cook on and a small gas cooker in later years, an iron that you put the block in the fire until we got one for the gas……we had the old gramophone record player until my brother who joined the merchant navy came home with a battery operated one and we though we were moving up in the world (Ha Ha) we didn’t have any water either until I was about 11 or 12 yrs we used to go to the well up the hill with buckets and bring it down rain, hail or sunshine many a time I slipped on ice on my way down and all the water went over me (very cold) and had to go back for some more.

You mentioned the Scythe I remember using one to cut the nettles in our front garden or when the grass got so long. I used to work at the Ribigill Farm when it was time for the hay also the sheep shearing.

I remember that there was a bad storm when I was about 6 or 7 years old in 1963/64 could have been older not sure but the storm blew the roof of our Barn and I remember Mam putting mattresses up against the skylights so that they gale wouldn’t blow them out… you know any information on that storm? Or how I would find out more about it….I would like the information to pass on to my children as well and including it in my talks here in OZ.
I would love to hear your stories on Peat cutting and Sheep shearing as it is bringing it all back to me and I must remember to safe all this information to pass on to my children…they of course are not interested at the moment but one day maybe…….I took them home to meet the relies and see Blandy where I was born and where I went to school in 2006 but it was such a short stay, I hope when I get home next time I will have time to go around the graveyards.
What did people do for a living around then other than the croft? I know my dad worked in Dounreay and rode is bike from Blandy to Reay on the Sunday night and rode back on the Friday night to see us.

We had the outside "dry loo" in an old henhouse and we cut up the newspaper in small squares and put it on a nail and had to empty the slops in the midden. We had an old tin bath and we used to have a bath every Saturday night for church on sunday and as I was the youngest I used to get first wash and then more water got added as the others used it. I remember the big black pot boiling away on the rayburn. When the first rays of sunshine came my mam used to wash the blankets and yes we filled the old tin bath and "trampled" on the blankets. My sister and I used to dance and sing as we trampled away. Then we would put the blankets through this old wringer and put them on the bracken to dry. One of my strong memories is that we never had very much but I can never remember going hungry, mam used to make meals out of nothing. I remember coming home from school and the smell of fresh bread, girdle scones or pancakes, there also seemed to be a pot of either barley or lentil soup on the rayburn or a pot of mince and tatties or stew and always porridge in the morning.

In the evenings by the tillie lamp my mother would teach us to knit, sew, play ludo, snakes and ladders or draw and play cards, mam was a great whist player and we used to go to the whist drives in Tongue or around the area. We also got to go to the dances on the Friday night to about three or four in the morning but they always ended at ten minutes to twelve on the Saturday night no excuse for not being in Church on Sunday. We weren't allow to do much on Sunday's, my mam got the peoples friend and we used to be allowed to read "Will & Wag" and if friends came to visit us children had to go up and over the hill to play so we wouldn't be heard.

Do we all remember the great "sale of works" we had in the village?
Yes it was primitive, but we all seemed to have survived and probably better for it and here we are now all sharing these memories with each other and anyone else who might like to share the experience with us.


Thank you for introducing this topic. I have enjoyed reading all the memories. Apart from the enjoyment of reading the stories, it is yet another important reason why we are here. Not just for bare genealogy, but to record the life and times of the past before it is all gone. There is nothing like firsthand stories. They make the past live.

My first experience of a Ceilidh was in 2004 when my cousin and I visited Scotland and the lady where we stayed in a B & B in Lairg invited us to attend one. What a welcome we received! Before the evening was over, we had enjoyed different dances which they patiently showed us. The hospitality was wonderful and one of the ladies attending who went out of her way to introduce us to everyone was the minister's wife. It certainly is one of the pleasant memories of my visit to Scotland. I was so pleased to be able to participate in something that was an old tradition in Scotland.
Jean, Ontario

Photograph above, donated by Mary Young, was taken during haymaking on the Sutherland croft at Scullomie, Tongue circa 1928

Who remembers taking "Beastie Beer" with them to the peat banks...I remember my mother giving us what we called "Beastie Beer" and we used to put a string on the bottle and put the bottle in a little pool off water we would find near our bank...If my memory serves it was little balls of yeast that you never let dry out...syrup, treacle, sugar and hot water ( but I could be wrong) and you let it sit for about 3 weeks...boy was it good I can taste it now as think about it?

I have just loved the stories of living on a croft. You have brought back such wonderful memories of living on my grandmother's farm in Nova Scotia every summer. The memories were so similar to those that you have experienced. It is nice to remember that the Sutherland traditions survived even here.

We never baled hay, so it was always done by hand. It was such fun jumping in the hay mow after a long days work. Grandma never had indoor plumbing and we also walked to the well and carried buckets of water to the kitchen. The house was heated by a large wood stove in the kitchen. Oh, the smell of homemade bread. She planted large vegetable gardens, had a small orchard and we picked berries when in season. We would sit on the porch and shell peas, snap beans, etc. and do all the canning for the winter. Once in awhile a fisherman's truck would stop by and we could purchase fish. We would clean them and Grandma would hang them on the clothes line to dry. She had Jersey cows for milk, cream, and we would use the churn to make butter. We kept chickens for eggs. Yes, porridge survived here for breakfast, also. How I wish our children had the opportunity to go back in time as we can. It was hard work but such satisfaction and self reliance not seen today.
Carol D, Canada

I was born in 1947 on a croft in Kinlochbervie (Eddrachillis) and I lived there until I was about 10 years of age. We then shifted to a croft outside Brora (Clyne) where my father came from. Both crofts were completely different as the croft at Kinlochbervie would have been more like the croft at Tongue and the croft at Brora was like a small farm with very good ground.

Although I left Kinlochbervie when I was 10, I went back there every holiday to stay with my grandparents. I would imagine that the crofts at Kinlochbervie and the ones at Tongue were similar. After I left school I used to go round all the houses in the county of Sutherland as I worked for the council for a few years before I joined the police. I knew the Tongue area well.

Most of the crofts in Kinlochbervie only had about 3 or 4 acres of what you would call arable ground. All the other ground that went with the croft was either hill ground or part of the common grazing. The arable ground was often in a narrow strip going down towards the sea and this was where all the crops were grown. We used to grow potatoes, carrots and turnip. This arable land was where we also grew corn and the hay for the animals for the winter months. Each crofter had his own croft fenced off and every little corner of the arable ground was used for something.

Outwith the crofts was the hill ground or the common grazing. This area was not usually fenced off and all the crofters had a share in it, depending on the croft size. Most crofters at this time would have had about 30 or 40 sheep and about 3 or 4 cows. A lot also had a horse as I am talking about the days before they could afford tractors.

All the hay was cut with a scythe and once cut it was left for a few days, when depending on the weather it was turned over with a fork. This fork had a long handle and you had to turn it over a few times to get it dry. Once it was dry it was raked into larger bundles before it was put into coils. These are like very small haystacks about 6 feet high. They were then covered with a net and left to further dry. Once they were all ready then were carried either on your back or by the horse and cart up to the barn where it was stored or the winter to feed the cows. A little corn was also grown as this was for feeding the sheep and the hens.
The only fertiliser that went on the the potatoes came from the byre. This was cleaned out every morning, apart from Sunday, and it was piled in a heap at the top of the croft a good distance away from the house!!. In the spring time this was taken to the croft by the horse and cart and spread where the potatoes were to be planted. The horse was then used to plough the field and the potatoes were planted in each second row. All the seed for the potatoes came from the previous year’s crop and you used a different part of the croft each year in a cycle to plant the potatoes. When the potatoes were lifted as many as possible were stored in a dry place in the barn and the rest were stored in a pit in the ground on the croft. A pit was dug, usually in sandy ground and layers of bracken were put in the bottom of the pit before the potatoes were put in. More bracken was put on top of the potatoes before more ground was put on top.

It was around 1955 that electricity and water came to Kinlochbervie. Until then everyone had to depend on wells for water and paraffin for lighting the lamps. All my sisters are a good bit younger than me and they were born in Brora and when I mentioned on day that we had no water or light when I was small they didn't believe me. Without electricity we had no freezers, kettles etc, everything was cooked on a stove that burnt peats or a small gas cooker.

Most of the crofters had other employment as you could not make any money out of the croft. The only income one had from the croft was selling 2 or 3 calves a years, selling the lambs and the wool from the sheep.
Hector, Bonar Bridge

Sure does bring back memories. I was brought up by my grandmother on a croft in Clyne after my mother died when I was an infant. We did not get piped water until I was about 10. Water was carried in pails from a well each day. I still return to that well when I return to “home”. My granny was born in 1888 and could remember when she was a child people who had actually experienced eviction talking about it. I still think about the stories she told. Everyone of her generation had stories to tell and I loved listening to them. Wish I had kept some kind of record.

We grew “tatties” and stored them in pits. These were made by digging a yard wide trench about 6 inches deep in the driest ground available. Slabs of heather covered turf referred to as diffets were cut with a specially designed spade and these were the placed over the pile of potatoes. Each row of turf overlapping like slates on a roof. Insulation was a layer of bracken under the turf and the dead stems of the potato plants above.

Rabbits were a main food source until they were wiped out by disease in the early 60s. August was the time for gathering wild rasps and early October for brambles. Sadly the area that we gathered them (an old quarry) is no longer there.

As children were created our own entertainment and were rarely indoors except to eat and sleep. Work was not seen as something that children should be kept away from. I loved being involved with the animals (we had goats and sheep) and the seasonal tasks of the croft. I first built a ‘drystane’ dyke when I was about 8 and nearly half a century later it is still standing. It shows up against the rest of the dykes because I could only lift small stones.
We were lucky enough to have a peat bank within the croft and I loved the smell of peat burning on the open fire.

We did not bale hay. It was piled into small stacks (coles) and a rope was placed round the base of the cole and it was pulled in by the tractor to the stack yard. I would hitch a ride on it – great fun.

We were poor by today standards yet we never felt that. We were bound by family, the country life and the seasons. I cannot remember ever feeling bored as a child – the very opposite as I never had enough time to do everything I wanted to.
Grant, Fife, Scotland

I wasn't brought up on a croft but spent just about every summer holiday on my aunt and uncle's croft in Lybster, Caithness - this would be in the late 60's. I have very fond memories of those days. Climbing on the back of the bogie and off up the hill to cut the peats, everyone had tea from their flasks and sandwiches of course. I wasn't too keen on the tea as it always seemed to be Carnation milk they used and I found that a bit too sweet. I remember that every cow had a name and when clearing out my aunt's house we found a record of all the cows she ever had, the calves they had, date of births, what happened to them and the bull of course - only wish she had such detailed notes on our family history! I recognised lots of those names from that list. Hens of course needed their eggs collecting and that was one of my jobs whilst vacationing! Driving the tractor was a great treat, sitting on my uncle's knee of course. Stacking the bales of hay and playing leap frog over them and bursting my trousers whilst leaping!

My aunt's house was thatched and white washed so that was a huge job and everyone in the nearby crofts seemed to be there helping out. Getting water from the well and using the toilet in the byre - big change from my life in the "city" of Golspie. A grocery van would come around once or twice a week and that was a big highlight in the week - sweeties and "proper" milk. I had two uncles in Lybster (Caithness) and my other uncle had a bigger piece of land and both uncles would work together on big jobs. One time they were bringing bales of hay in to the sheds and stacking them on top of the silage that had been in for some time, my friend and I would sit on the top of the bales and banter back and forth with the workmen. One of the workmen had had enough of our cheek and grabbed one of my legs and one of my friends legs and pulled us through the silage - needless to say my aunt wouldn't let us in the house after that. I must have been there for Easter holidays as well as I remember lambs in the kitchen in boxes and making up bottles for them. We must have been getting water for animals in the byre at one time as well and the tap was higher than I could reach so I stood on a half water barrel and grabbed a pipe to reach the tap and the next I knew I was on my back on the byre floor - must have been electricity in that pipe!!!!
Well I think that's enough - I don't know if this is the sort of thing you were looking for or if it was a similar situation in Tongue, but it has made me write down some of these memories which I can now elaborate on for my own records.
Shirley in Golspie, Sutherland

I have similar memories about playing on the bales of hay! Could be quite dangerous as well balancing on the top of them! We lived on a croft but my father leased it out but we used to "help" with things like planting/lifting tatties, baling etc. A few neighbours would help each other so it was quite an event.
Fiona in Aberdeen

To end this fascinating series of memories I have kept this last note to the end – a lesson indeed.

I went to see a 94 year old woman from Kinlochbervie tonight in the local hospital and we were discussing 'life on the croft' as she remembered it when she was growing up. (She still lives on a croft). Most of the subjects mentioned in the last week or so came up in conversation. One thing she did add was that although none of the families had much, they were all in the same boat. Nobody was any richer or poorer than anyone else and that everyone helped each other. She also thought that although times were hard, everyone was more content than they are today.

There must be a lesson there for us all!!

Hector in Bonar Bridge

updated 5/03/2016

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