The weather forecast for the last full day of my Hebridean adventure wasn’t promising and most of the group certainly didn’t fancy a long walk trudging through heavy rain. So our Guide had a proposal for us. Although he was English – from the flat lands around Peterboropugh – he had married a local woman and lived on a croft in a small, remote village in the South Lochs area on the east coast of Lewis. He suggested we drove over there and he’d take us on a shorter walk and show us around the area. This seemed like a good way to learn about the real way of life in a crofting community so we enthusiastically agreed!
Marbhig (Marvig in English) is on the coast and is one of 11 crofting villages which are part of the Pairc Estate which is connected to the rest of Lewis by a narrow neck between Loch Seaforth and Loch Èireasort. The villages in the south of the estate were “cleared” in the 19th Century by the then owner of Lewis, by Sir James Matheson, who’s made his fortune selling opium to the Chinese (they’d call him a drug baron these days), so all the inhabited villages are in the north of the huge estate. In more modern times, the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 gave crofting communities the right to buy out their landlords and in 2003 the Pairc community decided that was what they wanted to do. The Landlord, who was an English businessman, resisted the transfer and it took a determined effort by the Pairc Trust that had been set up by the community, including legal action, before they were succesful in 2015. (More detail of their struggle can be read on the Trust’s website). The Estate is now run by the Trust on behalf of the community Pairc which has an active volunteer community which runs a shop, petrol station, museum, hostel, polytunnels, village halls, playpark, cemeteries and grazings.
Although not far from Stornoway “as the crow flies”, we had to take a circuitous route, initially on the Island’s main road which ran along the north shore of Loch Èireasort, before turning down a minor road that ran along the south shore and then taking narrow roads that wound around the rocky landscape to near the village. On the way we stopped off at the shop / petrol station/ museum / cafe / hostel run by the community at Ravenspoint on the shore of the loch. We had a look round the small museum, which has an interesting small local history collection, including extensive information on family history in the Pairc villages, and then bought a few gifts in the shop (“supporting the local community” as Liz, one of our party, liked to put it).
Then we carried on towards Marbhig.
We parked up by a small loch just outside the village and then proceeded on foot. John, our guide, gave us a “guided tour” telling us about the history, the crofting way of life and some storied about local personalities – including a certain Rob!
Each of the crofts that make up the village have an allocated strip of land that stretches down to the sea loch. This was so the crofters could subsist by fishing as well as farming the land. Traditionally, crofters raise animals and grow vegetables, while coastal communities supplemented this by fishing and gathering kelp. Today they’re likely to have other sources of income, so John has a joinery business while his wife works for BBC Alba (the Gaelic language service).
The traditional form of heating was by burning peat, and peat cutting is still practiced today. We saw evidence of this during our time on the island- both old, disused peat banks and others that were currently in use with the peats piled up ready to be taken away. However, other fuels are likely to be used today (although still supplemented by burning peat).
There weren’t many boats on the loch – fishing is no doubt much less important for the modern crofters and other residents of the small village. But there is a boat yard on the loch shore which specialises in repair and maintenance of vessels.
The picture below shows John’s croft. Those are his sheep. You can see that the land has ridges and furrows due to the traditional farming method. These are the “lazy beds” (feannagan in Gaelic), also known as ‘ridge and furrow’.
Low trenches were dug with spades at about three foot intervals with the extracted sod and dirt piled in between creating the raised beds. The beds were then enriched with some form of fertiliser depending on the resources at hand e.g. manure, rotted straw, sea weed. This method was well suited to locations lacking warmth, deep soil, and drainage……… The raised beds are drier and therefore warmer than the moist flat ground around them. The beds warm up more quickly in the morning and retain heat longer. At night they protect crops from frost by draining the denser cold air into the ditches and compared to flat fields. According to both researchers and farmers, lazy beds reduce labor time and raise the yield per acrehttps://www.oughterardheritage.org/content/topics/lazy-beds
We walked up across the field towards john’s house to be welcomed by his collie – not much more than a puppy it kept us busy playing “fetch” for a while.
John then invited us into his home, beautifully renovated inside, where we met his wife, born and bred in the village and now working as an Executive Producer for BBC Alba, who treated us to a welcome brew and homemade scones and jam.
We then walked back to the minibus. Driving back along Loch Èireasort I spotted something in the sky. We stopped as it flew over – another White Tailed Eagle.
The weather during the morning hadn’t been as forecast – there was hardly any rain. That all changed as we drove away from Pairc on to our next destination.