By Andy Williams.
In September 2017, my wife and I bought a croft in the Highlands. As house moves go, it was a big one. Since neither of us had any farming experience beyond a veg garden and a few chickens, sinking our life savings into a run down, neglected croft at the tip of Scotland might seem more than a little reckless, so why did we do it? Good question, I’m glad you asked. This, my first ever blog post, tells that story. To explain we need to back up a few years. As many good things in life, it started in front of a camp fire. We’d been in the habit of taking the family on camping holidays, and on those long relaxing days spent cooking over the fire I’d often thought that charging hundreds of pounds to let someone use a tiny corner of a field for a week with no amenities other than access to a toilet and a tap was potentially a good earner. We always preferred basic sites. I’d spent years as a younger man providing security to high end camp sites with bars, arcades and swimming pools and they weren’t my cup of tea at all. Spending my holiday in the tent and caravan equivalent of a terraced street just wasn’t my idea of getting away from anything. We enjoyed basic sites with a nice view.
The site we loved best was in a remote corner of Anglesey. It was a sloping field that wasn’t ideal but the views were just stunning. The surrounding woods were rammed with wild edibles and the nearby estuary was a forager’s dream. The beaches were mile upon mile of sand and there was hardly anyone else there. That site, since closed, was run by a semi retired couple who mostly grew veg for market. Over the many visits we made to Anglesey I became increasingly convinced that this was what we wanted: a little corner of paradise in the sun surrounded by home grown produce, but how and where? After all it’s not like they’re making more land and a career in the security industry, while something I enjoyed, didn’t exactly give us the sort of income necessary for buying into a lifestyle that so many people aspire to. We were living just outside Sheffield at this time, on the edge of the Peak District. The land prices there were, and are, astronomically high and way beyond anything we could afford. Another factor was that I was determined to get back to Wales, my homeland. The Welsh are so fond of wanting to return to their homeland they even have a word for that sense of longing, hiraeth. I’m not saying that’s what I was feeling of course. For me, a sense of home is determined more by people than place, but I did miss Wales. The trouble was that land there too was well beyond our budget. As our older two kids approached school leaving age we realised that this was our one and only window, before our youngest started secondary school. We began to research in earnest.
After months of evenings spent online we’d only managed to narrow it down to one. Six saturated acres at the bottom of a steep hillside in the Welsh borders, essentially a swamp with planning permission. It was so far over budget I’d have to keep working in Sheffield, sleeping in our van, while my family lived in a caravan on site trying to establish a business. It really didn’t appeal but we were halfway resigned to such a massive compromise if it allowed us to at least start on our dream. Then in late May 2016, with our opportunity window looming, we took a backpacking holiday through the Cairngorms in the Central Highlands. I’d backpacked across this area twice before, in 2012 and 2014, and loved it. I loved the shape of the land, I loved the forests, I loved the coast. Above all though, I loved the freedom in Scotland. Walkers, wild campers and outdoors persons of every stripe have a level of freedom in Scotland that is unique in the UK. As elsewhere the uplands and mountains are owned by a few massive estates but in Scotland you’re free to walk across them, wild camp and swim in the waters. We were away from ‘civilisation’ for nine days, completely unsupported. By the time we’d been out 5 days my wife and youngest son were as smitten as I was, and Scotland had become a viable option. By the time we walked back into Aviemore, we’d pretty well committed to concentrating all our research north of the border. We’d come north stressed and anxious. We returned home relaxed, motivated and feeling very positive.
The next year was a blur of working full time, getting our terraced house ready for market and spending every minute we had spare searching online for suitable land with planning. I was determined to find something in the central belt of the highlands. We have friends in the area and I was at least partially familiar with the area. Slowly however it became clear that we’d have to widen the search. The Cairngorms are a huge tourist draw. It makes property there expensive, and also means there is significant competition for any kind of campsite, which brings me to another point. We’d started out on this journey towards a better life with the intention of using camping income to build a home on our land. Over time it had occurred to us that selling any surplus produce to customers would give us 100% of market value on crops we managed to sell. The plan had started to grow, to evolve. Starting our search in Wales meant we’d quickly become resigned to starting out on a bare field site, which presented us with a small problem. What do you call land where you have a house, fields, grow crops and sell them? A smallholding. Or, in Scottish terms, a croft.
The main problem with this was that neither of us had the slightest clue about farming, never mind designing or building a farm. It was time to hit the search engine once again. Most farms come at least partially built. Finding sensible layouts for farm buildings, fencing and housing is largely determined by what is already in place, but starting from scratch was intimidating. There aren’t a huge number of resources for how to lay out a croft. I found no books on the subject and for a few days I was a little overwhelmed. One factor that worked in my favour was, possibly surprisingly, my choice of career in security. By this point I was working 12 hour shifts at a university. As security jobs go, university security is among the best. The pay is relatively decent, the conditions are reasonable, the risk is fairly low, but most importantly, I had a lot of freedom. Between patrols and attending callouts, I had time: time to read, learn, and reflect. The main reason I never attempted to progress into management is that I’d have missed the time I spent learning. If I have one addiction, it’s learning. My job allowed me to put in hour after hour researching methods of farm design specific to the small scale we were looking at. I knew that I wanted to work less, not more, at least in the long term beyond establishment. I knew I didn’t want to drive a tractor all day. I knew I didn’t want the pressure of trying to bring large scale crops to market, competing against other farms on price. I wanted to be as close to self sufficient as possible and produce a healthy surplus. Very quickly that search led me to permaculture.
Permaculture is essentially a design science for ecologically and financially sustainable systems. That’s it. If you want to design a house, a farm, or even a town that is designed to work without degrading your resource base or requiring significant external inputs then permaculture fits the bill. I’m not going to go into the ethics or origins of permaculture here. There are multiple resources online that can do it far better than I can, but it ticked enough boxes for me to begin researching it. I promptly dropped down a rabbit hole so deep I’ve not reached the bottom yet. Sustainability is a vast subject. Despite my passion for learning, I’ve occasionally felt overwhelmed by the sheer scale of this subject. I learned new design methods, sustainable practices, and underlying it the existing state of our food production systems and the land base that we all rely on. Our plan continued to change as my understanding deepened.
Over the summer of 2017, we took two trips north to look at possible land. During the first trip, we saw several places but really fell for one, near Helmsdale on the east coast. It was gorgeous! 14 acres of good pasture with a crystal clear burn running through it. Everything else we saw that trip just didn’t come close. As soon as we got home we contacted the seller to see whether she would be amenable to the plans we had for the place, as she would have been our nearest neighbour. We figured it would be best to find out whether we’d face any objections to gaining all the planning permissions we needed for the plot and land. The seller had enough reservations to make us reconsider making a formal offer, which in Scotland is done through solicitors and costs money. On a budget as tight as ours, it would have been wasted money so it was definitely the right decision. Back to square one. By now we were old hands at online land hunting. The main online estate agents that handled agricultural land were only really useful as a starting point. Many parcels of land are sold without ever being listed on these sites, so we modified our techniques to suit. We used them to identify local agents in the areas we were looking at, and contacted those agents directly. We soon had a list of suitable plots to visit once again, all in the Highlands north of Inverness. It was further north than I’d hoped for, but I took the view that there was no harm in looking. I’d compromised on not moving to Wales. I’d compromised on looking beyond the central highlands. I wasn’t prepared to compromise on anything else. I wanted a south facing site with good views. That was that. I was adamant. A five degree slope to the south has the same solar gain as a point roughly a hundred miles to the south, effectively the central highlands. Sneaky eh? The most likely candidate was a five acre site in the far north, between Wick and Thurso. My wife had found it while speaking to an agent about a plot that as it turned out had just been sold. The agent mentioned another croft just about to come on the market, not yet online, that would be available to view from Saturday. It was unique on our list in that it had an old cottage needing complete renovation and a barn in an even worse state.
We were there Saturday morning. First impressions were not good. The house was dark, cold, and damp. It was riddled with woodworm. There were holes in the floor and the floorboards were so buckled and rotten it was risky just crossing the room. The attached garage was falling down and had 3 feet of goat manure throughout. The front garden was a jungle. The land was 5 acres of knee deep creeping buttercup, a persistent invasive weed that’s notoriously difficult to eradicate. The first time I walked across the lower of the two fields I tripped over a kitchen sink that was hidden under the sward. The barn had four to five feet of goat manure through the entire ground floor and part of the roof was collapsing. All of the fences were collapsing and badly patched. Worst of all, it faced north. Rather than favourable solar gain, we’d be farming the equivalent of an imaginary spot off the north coast of the Shetlands. Did I really think we could farm here? Could I grow enough food on this windswept north slope to support my family? I stood in the field and looked out over Loch Watten to the north. The sun was hot that day, with just enough wind to keep insects away. I slowly turned, taking it in. It was stunning. I fell in love on the spot. I walked back to Gabrielle at the van and said, “We’re going to need a digger to make beds south-facing”. We chatted for a while before driving around the area to see if we liked it. We stopped several times on the way home to look at other plots of land, but really our hearts weren’t in it. We knew what we wanted.
It’s now the end of March 2018, and I’m sitting in the lounge at the croft. It has a new floor, new ceilings, doors, windows, plumbing, radiators, insulation and electrics. A fire burning in the hearth. We don’t have any kind of kitchen but we do have a functioning toilet. We’ve barely scratched the surface of bringing the croft back to life, but we’ve started. We have big plans for this place. The sort of plans that take time and sensitivity rather than a bulging wallet, which is just as well because we don’t have one. A lot of what I’m planning is somewhat experimental and some of it may not work, but it’ll be interesting at least. That transition from an overgrazed, run down half derelict croft into an integrated, functional, productive food growing system will be the primary focus of this blog.