Crofters at Work

Continuing with my life with crofters, I would like to add more detail of the work involving working on a croft. I have spoken about this in previous blogs however I feel it is important to have a closer look at some of the tasks the crofter has to undertake. My own experience of croft work was as a child on our family croft of a few acres of in by land and later on my holidays on a small croft in Vidlin. This period of crofting to me was more like a holiday the weather appeared to consist of glorious stress free sunny days. It wasn’t until my working life began at J & S and my daily contact with crofters that I began to understand and appreciate the commitment and sacrifices made in order to survive on a croft.

Ronas Hill Cliffs

I will begin with the round up for the annual shearing, of the Shetland sheep on Ronas Hill the highest in Shetland at over 900feet and one the most remote and wildest parts of our islands. Situated in the north of Shetland it and the nearby Collafirth Hill dominates the surrounding area its rugged steep slopes help form Ronas Voe a sheltered inlet of water in past times home to whaling stations it also help shelter fishing boats escaping the stormy seas of the North Atlantic. On the opposite shore and at the mouth of the voe is an area of land called Tingon in times gone by home to fourteen crofts and their families who worked the land and fished the rich fishing grounds to the north west of Shetland. Walking this coastline you come across the remains of fishing ‘bods’ booth where the crofter fishermen would shelter and store their gear.

Ronas Hill Courtesy of Alex
Fishing Bod Ruins Tingon

My first venture climbing Ronas Hill was in 1988 a group of us camped on the beach at the head of the voe and at first light began our ascent passing by the ruins of a former fishing station there were several along the seashore sheltered by Ronas Hill. As we travelled upward through the rocky terrain I recalled a tragedy which my grand-father witnessed in the 1930s, his fishing boat along with several other vessels were at anchor in the Voe. It was a Sunday morning and the Sabbath respected by the god fearing fishermen of that era as a day of rest. Some of the crews took advantage of the fine weather and made the arduous climb up Ronas Hill sadly for one crew member this proved too much for him and he took ill and passed away on the side of the hill.

Looking Up Ronas Voe
Ronas Hill Climb 1988

 On that climb we witnessed the wild sheep they reminded me of mountain goats with their ability to run up the rocky slopes. I remember thinking how is it possible to gather these sheep in such a difficult terrain. With the help of photos courtesy of local crofters and photographers Kathleen Anderson and Alex Williamson one can appreciate the difficulties the crofter face. Their images aptly sum up one of the most arduous tasks of the “ caas” {gathering} up the Shetland sheep from this desolate landscape.

Caaing Courtesy of Alex


Gathering the Sheep Courtesy of Alex

 In order to carry out this task it required many hands it was as in times gone by a community event each crofter would have a particular of hill to cover with their sheep dogs in order to drive the sheep to their final destination the sheep ‘ cro’ sheep pen this could take up to six hours to accomplish. Ronas Hill was divided up at one time into five separate ‘caas’ {gatherings}, Burrisness, Feal, Outer Feal, Clifts and North Shore.

Success Courtesy of Alex

Sheep numbers have been greatly reduced for various reasons my first recollection of handling the wool from this area, while it was all Shetland sheep the fleece had distinct characteristics it was fairly small around about one kilo in weight, The wool staple was a fairly long guard hair with a very fine under wool the handle the handle was surprisingly soft despite the coarse outer wool. I would say it resembled some of the small sheep I had seen in the west coast of Norway the Vilsau it is possible that they were brought over by the Vikings in the 8/9 th century when they settled here.

Alex Shearing Courtesy of Kathleen
Tea Break Courtesy of Kathleen

Once the sheep was shorn came the labour intensive task of conveying the wool bales and sacks down the cliff face to the seashore and then on to the boat which was the only means of transporting the cargo to the transport at the head of the Voe. Quite a laborious task all told and not for the faint hearted a way of life that has carried on for centuries and is testimony to the crofter and their hard work and dedication.

Dangerous Work Courtesy of Kathleen

It has been a great privilege for me to have known these crofters for over fifty years and have the greatest respect for their way of life we hope it continues in years to come with a younger generation of crofters. I would like to thank Kathleen and Alex and for their images and information on how they carry out this unique part of their crofting life.

Waiting on the Boat Courtesy of Kathleen

I would like to thank Kathleen Anderson and Alex Williamson for the use of their photos also the information they gave me on their work in Ronas Hill, much appreciated. My next blog on crofting will be the role of the family cow and what it contributed to crofting life.

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