It would be fair to say my working life has revolved around crofting, after all at the end of the day they in fact pay my wages. Working at J & S since 1967 we have been responsible for the marketing of well over 80% of the annual Shetland wool clip so it stands to reason we have to strive hard to improve results for all concerned.
To get a better understanding of crofting life I would like to add more detail to my work with the crofters some of their stories also how life was and still is on a Shetland croft. Over the decades I have learned of life on the croft and hardships involved first hand from the people who work the land. I will endeavour in my own way try to pass on some of the challenges, stories and way of life they have had and still face in crofting life in general.
In order to have a better understanding of crofting life in our islands I will explain what a croft really is. This is a question I have been asked many times over the years by visitors calling along my work at Jamieson & Smith Shetland Wool Brokers. It is best to go back in time to help best understand the basic set up of crofting life.
After Shetland became a part of Scotland in 1468 the lairds land owners put in place by the King of Scotland often his family or friends, were ruthless with the crofters who worked the land and living off the rent paid by the crofter which would mainly be salt fish, butter, and knitted garments, they then sold these goods to the German merchants who established trading posts in the isles known as Booths. The lairds also received income from the Dutch fishing fleet which harvested the bountiful seas around Shetland.
A major change took place when the Dutch fishing fleet departed around 1700 the laird lost out on revenue in order to reduce this financial shortfall they became merchants in their own right building shops and renting fishing boats “ sixareens” six oars, to the crofter who had now become a crofter fisherman. They could only sell their products croft produce and fish to the laird who made sure they were always in debt to him. I discovered only recently that in the past my family ancestry from the Walls area were in fact merchants who most likely obtained their wealth from the hard toil of the crofter fisherman.
Crofts were small tracts of land a typical size would be around 12 acres although they could be much smaller as was the case with the croft I grew up on as a child. The land was owned by the laird usually powerful cash rich merchants. When I was really young I remember walking down the road towards the pier with my grand- father, we stopped at the small building which was the milk shop where we would take our milk container each morning to collect the milk we required. With the absence of cattle in the isle all the milk would arrive on the small ferry Tirrick. I asked him what we were doing here without our milk pail he replied, “To pay Cussons for living on the Island “. For many years I thought this was some distant cousin who was the landlord, not the true owners Cussons Group the largest independent soap manufacturer in Britain!
The crofter would improve the barren ground and turn it into rich green pasture the laird would then evict them from their croft, many were forced to leave the isles others tried to settle on impoverished land along the seashore or on the side of heather clad hills. I was told some of my ancestors were cleared off the land at a place called the Garths Banks at Fitful Head in the south of Shetland by Bruce the laird and travelled north settling in Burra Isle. They just had time to gather up their belongings and had not left the area before the smoke from their burning homes darkened the sky over Fitful Head. The story goes before the people left they gathered together in a group and one elderly person put a curse on the laird, that his line of the family would bear no children to carry on the lairdship and in fact the laird died barren of a successor. As you travel around Shetland you will see many ruins of croft houses many with a sad story to tell.
These clearances were common practise amongst lairds throughout the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and after decades of abuse and evictions this came to an end after seven years of fighting for crofters rights to be improved by the formation of the Land League movement. One of the main protagonists being John McPherson ‘ The Skye Martyr’ a crofter from Glendale in the island of Skye who took on the establishment of lairds, church leaders, sheriff officers and even the military, his vision and efforts brought much needed change in the crofting way of life throughout Scotland.
My next blog on crofting will show the arduous tasks involved in shearing one of our most remote and highest hills Ronas Hill.