Donald is a crofter on the Isle of Benbecula in Scotland's Outer Hebrides, also known as the Western Isles. Benbecula lies between the islands of North Uist and South Uist, connected by road causeways. The name Benbecula comes from the Scottish Gaelic Beinn nam Faoghla meaning "Mountain of the Fords." A crofter is a person who occupies and works a small landholding known as a croft, which is usually no bigger than 20 acres. The system of land ownership is unique to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.
We followed Donald across the soggy field for about thirty feet, reaching a muddy rivulet below a small embankment about three feet high. Catherine had lent me a pair of "wellies," rubber water-proof boots designed by the Duke of Wellington in the early 19th century. They certainly were a far better match for the spongy surface of the peat bog than my sneakers.
Donald pointed to a mound of the cut peat that lay off to the side that was about seven feet wide and five feet high and said it was enough to provide heat for a home for a year.
As Donald climbed up to the higher ground, he explained that the lower area we had just walked across, about the size of a football field, had been cut out over the course of a century by his forebearers, providing heat for many generations of his family.
Donald then enlisted Gilbert to demonstrate the process of cutting the peat. The first phase is removing with a sharp spade the top layer of earth in which the grass and vegetation is embedded, a part of the process known as "turfing" the bog. The sod is tossed down to the lower level that had been previously cut away to eventually--over thousands of years--form new bog. Once the bog is turfed it is then cleaned.
Not known for my sense of balance or motor coordination skills, I had a moment of panic, thinking I was sure to take a big digger and fall flat on my arse in the muddy peat if I tried to climb up the embankment. Not wanting Donald to think I was a wimp, I gamely chirped “Sure!” and began squishing my way toward the trench. I pleasantly surprised myself by managing to not only take the higher ground but do a passable job of slicing and flicking the peat, after having watched Donald and Gilbert. Nonetheless, it was hard work and it wasn’t long before I was tired.
I expressed curiosity about why he bothered to do that.
"The older generation had pride in the appearance of the bog, and a badly cut bog would be mocked," Donald said.
He explained that while today interest in using peat as a heating source is being resurrected due to fuel prices, back in the day, everyone cut their peat. Each person in the far flung community knew which fields belonged to whom and attention was paid to how people cared for what was theirs.
I asked Donald if he ever sold his peat.
“No, that would be wrong,” he said emphatically, looking at me with a baffled expression on his face that told me he thought the idea was incomprehensible. I didn’t ask him to explain, feeling that I thought perhaps I actually understood. While the land in the Outer Hebrides is poor for farming, people nonetheless value it both as a resource and for what it represents--autonomy, independence, and a hard-won legacy, as well as the basis for a tight-knit community.
Donald explained that the particular patch of bog we were in was his father's great-uncle's land and, pointing out across the heather, said that his family owned about 12 acres.
“Let me show you my great uncle’s croft” he said and began walking toward the horizon.
Gilbert and I tramped after him and at the far side of the big field, we reached the banks of the loch. Donald pointed a short distance up the shoreline to the stone remnants of a dwelling, a sight common in the Highlands and islands.
Donald said that his grandfather came into possession of the property in Nunton after World War I, in one of many “land raids.” Veterans had been promised land in exchange for their valiant service and when the government was slow to make good, Donald's grandfather and others took to the fields and staked their territory as their own. Donald said the factor, South Uist Estate, and the law got involved. The matter was resolved when Nunton Farm was split into eight separate crofts. Three of the crofts received part of the original Clan Ranald family home, Nunton House.
I asked how long his family had been in the area and Donald shared a sing-song rhyme that his father had been taught as a child, comprised of the first names of the men in the family going back ten generations. Starting with Donald's son the list now goes: Alasdair, son of Donald, son of Alex, son of Donald, son of Archie, son of Calum, son of Archie, son of Francis, son of Neil, son of Archie, son of Francis.
Gilbert observed that Donald’s recitation was evidence that the long oral tradition of story-telling in the Western Isles is alive and well in Benbecula.
"That's why we have managed to hang on to our land," he said with a laugh.
He said Catherine is a MacDonald; her family were originally from Torlum, another township on Benbecula.
“I also have MacDonalds on my side of the family, from South Lochboisdale on the neighbouring island of South Uist,” Donald said. “They were known as famous storytellers.”
Coming from a long line of storytellers myself, I have an appreciation for the gift. It was a privilege to hear Donald bring his family history alive out in the primeval peat bogs and I hope to have done it justice.
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