Harris as the season turns …

After a long beautifully warm and productive summer, now the evenings are drawing in and the smallholding is edging towards hibernation mode I am to re-engage with my other, indoor, occupation. Getting ready for the winter season of sewing, starting off with my annual tweed buying trip and holiday to Scotland’s beautiful Outer Hebrides. There is something magical about arriving on a remote island, leaving the rest of the world behind, and this time it was even more special as -with my partner unable to join me as usual- I was accompanied by my two lovely sisters Olwynne and Bec. Our first ever sister-holiday

Neither of them had been to any Scottish islands and I was excited to be
taking them to one of the most intriguing and unique places I have visited. Arriving in the cover of darkness, both Ol and Bec were relieved I knew where we were going as the convoluted single-track roads can be disorienting in the dark. Drinishader, a few miles south of Tarbert (where we arrived on the ferry from Skye) is familiar to me now having stayed there several times. It is a small village on the rocky coast of South Harris, with a Hostel, excellent art gallery, Harris Tweed and Knitwear shop in the Old School and the Clò-Mòr Harris Tweed experience museum. It is a small community with much to offer visitors, as George’ and my multiple returns to this very beautiful little inlet attest.

We spent the first couple of days exploring Harris: The vast dunes of Losgaintir (Luskentyre), the quirky St Clements Church at Roghadal (Rodel), the diverse and mountainous North Harris and Hùisinis (Hushinish) with its windswept sandy beach that feels like it is nestled in a nook on the edge of the world. Harris’s landscape is extraordinary. The East side of South Harris is rocky and surreal, like being on another planet, while the sandy beaches and sweeping Machair* joining land and sea on the West coast is green and fertile with evidence of traditional crofting all around and a diverse habitat of interesting micro flora and fauna. Harris’ main port town Tairbaert (Tarbert), lies just above the isthmus that joins the north and south parts of the island. Off to the east of Tarbert you can take a land bridge to the small but thriving Island of Scalpay for amazing seafood and scenic coastal walks, and off out to the west of Tarbert the mountains of Harris await in their stark beauty, and beyond that the equally magical Island of Lewis (connected by land to Harris, they are not actually separate land masses).

The Outer Hebrides are truly an outdoor playground for lovers of nature and wildness. We take long ambling walks, armed with home-made fruit leathers and chocolate, and come back to our accommodation after full days of exploring to enjoy evenings of cooking and enjoy a Harris Gin and tonic or two before curling up in our beds ready for the next adventure… A few days in it was down to business, business of course being the very important job of tweed buying!

There are a number of outlets for buying tweed by the metre on both Harris and Lewis and we planned to visit all of them, taking in some of the history and culture of Lewis while we were there too. I was particularly excited to go tweed shopping with my wonderful sisters, both being creative souls I knew that they would enjoy it and it would be great to get some new perspectives on choosing (George likes tweed but has a very low tolerance for any kind of shopping!). Their brief was to gently nudge me in the direction of colour. I always veer into the earthy tones that reflect the landscape back to me and am generally shy of bolder colours so this would be a challenge! Turns out I do like colours! Ol and Bec did their job well and we came away with all sorts from deep reds and maroons, greens, blues, yellows and even a purple! The diversity and depth of colour found in Harris Tweed has always appealed to me, even the earthy browns I am so drawn to come alive with a huge spectrum of colours when you look closely, just like the landscape, teeming with colour and texture you just have to stop and inspect it.

Now that I am back home, it’s a chilly, frosty morning outside and I am furiously making preserves with the last of the smallholdings bounty before I can retreat to my den of creativity (also known as The Bat Cave) and start making. I have some great ideas for bags using my newly acquired accent colours and have decided this winter to start making waistcoats, cos who doesn’t want a funky Harris Tweed waistcoat to complement their Rosehip handbag… *Machair – the machair is a unique coastal habitat mainly found on the islands to the west of Scotland, grassy, sandy and fertile they are known for wildflowers and other wildlife.

springtime at the field …

Well, we have been waiting too long for spring to do its thing this year, my propagators have been full to bursting with plants that ideally should’ve been planted out in the polytunnels by this time in April but it’s been so cold I didn’t dare. Now that we have warmed up the place is buzzing and I am running to catch up and get all the plants in, and started. Lots of seed-sowing, weeding out the beds and getting them manured or composted ready for their annual charge. Everything is about to burst with life I can feel it coming, bulging buds and peeks of that beautiful fresh bright green of the years new growth. The birds are singing loud and proud and the soil has that earthy moist smell of potential…

After much deliberation George and I decided last year to intervene on the very rapid growth rate of our small flock of rare/primitive breed Soay sheep. Even with a small flock numbers can easily double in a year without intervention. I love lambing, Soay ewes make truly the cutest lambs (I accept a level of bias here!) and we love the natural cycle of life that having lambs in the spring lends the rhythm of the smallholding, so we ran just 5 of our 12 ewes with Art the Magnificent for tupping, and we have now welcomed 9 lambs iinto the world. Soay lambs are quick, if I don’t catch them in the first 24hours they will be too fast, so I like to get hold of them soon after they arrive, check them over and get mum and baby into a pen together for at least a few days to bond and have some privacy (this also means I can reward the ewe her hard work with some fresh greens and extra rations).

This year we have 2 new addition’s, just after we finished lambing I went on a wee road trip north into Aberdeenshire and came back with 2 x 3 week old female goat kids. Their mum was sadly no longer feeding them so I took up the baton and am raising them myself, ‘The Pharaohs’ – Cleopatra and Nefertiti – are adorable, lots of fun and add their own querky nature to the richness of the holding. The more diverse we become the more we move towards sustainability, and the more we are able to ‘close the loop’ and be self-reliant. The Pharaohs could give us many years of milk production once they are old enough to meet a Billy, so it’s a big investment but one we feel will be worth it.

So spring is proving busy and tiring, but in a good way. We have a metaphorical mountain to climb each year with the smallholding, each element leading to the next, always with one eye looking to the next thing, never quite catching up, but I don’t think either of us would have it any other way. The smallholding is undoubtedly much more than the sum of its parts and while spring can feel an uphill struggle it’s also when the magic starts with the simple meeting of seeds and soil…

welcome to ‘hips from the hedgerow’ …

My life isn’t all about playing with swathes of tweed, I run a B&B from our home in rural Angus and we have a ramshackle smallholding bursting at the seams with sheep, ducks, chooks and soon we’ll add goats to the menagerie.

This time of year it is quiet at ‘the field’, there isn’t much growing except a little kale and a few lettuces in the poly tunnels; so it’s only feeding the animals that pulls me there each day.  Today, as the sun began to set there was a cold chill in the air, I was desperately trying to find a water butt with a thin enough layer of ice to break.  It’s been cold, properly Scottish cold, and I’m faced each day with frozen disks of water between me and all the water in the butts.

The ice on the old bath has a layer of snow with a few delicately placed paw prints, it doesn’t take much of a detective to know that it was the field cat Bean (short for Verbena), as her sister Betty (Betony) only has three legs (that’s another story) and wouldn’t have risked the ice breaking; but even with a garden fork I can only chip a corner away, enough to get water for the poultry anyhow.   The cats live at the field, rather than in the house, and are supposed to support themselves, they are possibly the fattest farm cats in existence, I just can’t work out why they are so round.  In the winter months though, we supplement a dwindling diet … reward for all their help through spring and summer … sitting on my lap when I’m weeding and flattening all the new seedlings as they come up!

Not so many eggs from the chooks at this time of the year, but one or two are enormous – good work girls. The ducks, Indian Runners, are hiding as per usual, three of them  already in the duck house, the others engage in their usual comedy act, disappearing into the long grass only to pop their long necks up like periscopes and run one after the other like a demented conga!

They head  hopefully for the gate, and when I call they scuttle off, it is, afterall, an ancient ritual; I dump the watering-can near the entrance, then walk round the back of the duck house, and as I do, they run back in on the other side, quacking loudly, a complaint no doubt at being kept waiting for dinner!

As I look at my herd of Soay & Hebridean sheep, and the sun starts to properly set, I think, life gets so busy we forget how wonderful and beautiful our home and its surroundings are. Make a mental note to stop and stare a little more, to breathe deep and try not to complain about frozen water butts and the lack of eggs, because it is all a bit of a miracle, this incredible corner of Scotland where I have made my home.