The Isles of Lewis and Harris were hosts last month to a Gathering of Rural Skills pupils from four Crofting Connections secondary schools, Kinlochbervie, Plockton (Highland), Whalsay (Shetland) and the Nicolson Institute (Western Isles).The pupils were accompanied by teachers and crofters who teach on their Rural Skills courses. The visit coincided with the Scottish Crofting Federation’s Annual Gathering in Stornoway, the theme of which was Common Grazings – Utilising Potential, in recognition of the Year of Natural Scotland 2013.
In all, nearly 40 pupils participated in a range of activities in Lewis and Harris. At Gearrannan Blackhouse Village, pupils heard how crofters provided their own food, housing, energy and clothing until the last residents left in the mid-20th century. Some pupils searched the skies for eagles at the Eagle Observatory in Harris, while others learned about managing a modern-day croft at Brue Highland Fold, where Kenny and Lesley Matheson breed high quality Highlanders for beef and breeding stock. At the SCF Gathering they all learned how renewable energy can be the way forward for many crofters interested in diversification as well as providing their own energy. They learned about the role of the Crofting Commission in an engaging dialogue with Catriona MacLean, the new chief executive. It was an authentic experience of crofting past, present and future for our students – just what Crofting Connections is all about.
The highlight of the 3-day trip was definitely a visit to the Cuidhsiadar Shielings in Ness, an astounding example of shieling dwellings, both old and new, many of which are still used today, though their residents now come every summer for rest, recreation and peat-cutting, rather than to tend their animals out on the hill as they would have done traditionally. The visit was led by Donald MacSween, a local crofter from Ness, who works with the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s Include Us projec, and Dr Sam Harrison, who teaches place-based learning in the Highlands and Islands. Pupils imagined life as it was in the past compared to the present and what it could be like in the future. They recorded this in pictures and stories which they shared – a real exercise in outdoor learning and creativity. Everyone was blown away by the experience (thankfully not literally, although that did mean more midges!) and the general consensus was that many in the wider Crofting Connections project would benefit from spending time at this beautiful place.
The Crofting Connections exhibition at the SCF Gathering featured some excellent projects from three Lewis Primary schools – Lochs, Laxdale and Tong. The crofters and other delegates were captivated by the range of topics, including model black-houses made of recycled and natural materials, used as a context for Gaelic language acquisition at Laxdale Primary, and a rainbow harvest of vegetables and fruit from pupils at Tong Primary, who also exhibited quails’ and hens’ eggs.
Other activities included visits to the Callanish Stones, Dun Carloway Broch, the Harris Tweed Authority, the Hebridean Seaweed Company, the North Harris Trust and Comunn Eachdraidh Nìs (Ness Community Centre) – all memorable experiences of Lewis and Harris hospitality.
A full report will be available soon.