Crofting is being celebrated in the Highland Year of Culture with pupils working the land, living the life and learning about these threatened communities
fifteen-year-old Chris Shearer seems born to work the land. He has the hands for it, and his heart is in it.
Chris is from the Shetland island of Whalsay, a small community of about 1,000 people, where fishing and crofting have been key to survival for generations. Today, though, he's in Inverness, taking part in harvest celebrations with school pupils from far-flung Scottish crofting communities like his own.
"I would like to become a farmer and have a croft. Working with animals I've been doing it all my life and I know how to do it," he says with conviction.
Chris has been taking part in a year-long pilot project to celebrate crofting in the Highland Year of Culture, where pupils have been working with crofters on their doorstep and producing their own crops. Later, they'll be eating the tatties, vegetables and salad leaves they've grown, along with fish and meat from their own communities. And they'll be celebrating the culture and traditions of their heritage with music and song.
Not all the pupils involved are as firmly connected with the land as Chris, though. Some are also from crofting families but, before this project, have had little to do with the working routines around them.
To re-establish these youngsters' links with their landscape and the food grown and reared in their communities, this Planting to Plate initiative has been set up. It is staged by a partnership between the Crofters Commission, the Scottish Crofting Foundation, Soil Association Scotland, Highland Council, Action 4 Sustainability and Scottish Health Promoting Schools.
With such a cast list and a successful run to date, it's expected the project will extend to more schools. Those involved in the pilot were Farr High in Sutherland, Sgoil Nan Loch in the Western Isles, Kilchoan Primary near Ardnamurchan and Whalsay School in Shetland.
The objectives include engaging children with the history and culture of food and the skills to produce it, and alerting them to the pleasure of fresh, healthy food, produced locally to benefit the environment.
Chris Shearer is more aware of the seasonal rhythms of Planting to Plate than your average teenager who, we're told with repetitive regularity, would struggle to recognise most green vegetables, never mind eat them. But Chris has the advantage of his background and spends a lot of his time working on his grandfather's land.
"I help him. Herding and clipping sheep, gathering up hay and sometimes slaughtering. I don't help with the killing, I help with cutting up some of the animals," he says.
"We kill our own animals and eat them. My father doesn't let me see that. My uncle has a licence for a humane killer and he's allowed to handle and kill our sheep. It's called a humane killer because they die right away. I always knew we killed our own sheep but I never knew how it was done, so my dad showed me one time."
Chris is visiting Cawdor Castle before the evening harvest celebrations but, with classmates Ellie Rickard and Lynda Hutchison, he takes a break in the sunshine to describe what they've been learning about crofting. Ellie and Lynda want to be vets and have been taking the Rural Skills course at Whalsay School with Chris, as well as visiting Joan Polson's croft just a mile or so from their school.
"The potatoes we have grown are in the supper tonight. We grow our own, and carrots and neeps," says Ellie, whose parents moved to Shetland from Derbyshire six years ago.
"It's fine having a Whalsay person showing us what to do, instead of someone you don't know," says Lynda, who's been helping in the school's polytunnel over the holidays.
The three visit the croft in a small group at least once a fortnight for a couple of hours. And they've taken part in most of the activities involved in the crofting year, according to crofter Mrs Polson. She's accompanied them to the harvest celebrations with biology teacher Emily Priest, who is also from a crofting background and runs their rural skills course.
Like most crofters, Joan has another job and works part-time in the post office: "It's mainly a fishing community and the crofts. You can't possibly make a living off crofts. So on the isle we live on, the main job was fishing and people worked their crofts more or less when they weren't at the fishing. The fishing's not as good as it used to be, so there's a few of them have other jobs now."
Quite a few of the children are from crofting homes, she says. But when they arrived, she was surprised how little they had seen of their crofts. They were obviously interested, because they had chosen to go on the course, and they seemed very keen.
Mrs Polson has just over 10 acres, with 32 breeding ewes half of them Shetland and half Shetland-Cheviot Cross: "We grow mainly potatoes, turnips and cabbage. A lot of grass is for silage to feed the sheep during the winter, so we don't do crops in a big way, it's mainly for the animal feed," she says.
"The children have done all the things over the year that have to be done with the sheep. We got the lambs ready for market and that type of thing. And when the tupping season started, then the rams had to be brought and they helped mark the ewes so we knew which one was which.
"They've done ear tagging and we did dipping and they've done some foot care. They also did some work selecting and grading the wool, which gets sold to spinners and is eventually made into Shetland wool and sold at the wool brokers in Lerwick."
One of the year's highlights came in the lambing season, when one of the ewes got into difficulties with twin lambs, just as the pupils were arriving at the croft. Mrs Polson was surprised most of them had never seen lambing before and that included Chris.
"It was the first time I'd seen a lamb being born," he says. "We have our ewes up in the hills, so when they lamb we don't actually see the birth. We go up twice a day at lambing."
Teacher Emily Priest says the Planting to Plate project fitted in well with their rural skills course, which the pupils are studying to Intermediate 1 level. "We have a partnership with the Crofters Commission and that provides funding to get Joan in as our expert. So they will be doing things that happen locally on the crofts, that will eventually be useful to them when they grow up.
"It's good to be able to use the expertise you have in your community and to show the bairns that they are not just learning in school. Your learning is continuous and they can be learning not just from teachers but from others in the community."
But crofting remains a financial challenge in fragile communities where depopulation is a constant threat. Joan Polson hopes youngsters like Chris will face a brighter future on the land. "The price of lamb is continually coming down, the price of wool is not good. At the end of the day, you can't make money out of it, it's more like an expensive hobby. It's sad if the children are interested; there's no way they can make a living at it unless something changes," she says.
"I like it and I think they should be encouraged to do it, because hopefully some day it will change. There will always be sheep and crofts; you need something to eat the grass."
But Chris is already a convert: "I like working with my hands. Instead of staying in class and writing, I like getting out and working."
Over on the far west coast of Scotland, pupils at Kilchoan Primary, near Ardnamurchan, have also been getting in touch with their crofting roots. They've just finished their tour of Cawdor Castle with headteacher Lynne McLuckie, who said the project had touched on most areas of the curriculum.
The pupils ploughed land at a croft, which runs down to the sea over-looking Tiree, and also planted tatties in the school garden. But their studies have gone deep into the history and culture of the landscape and have clearly made an impression.
"We started off with the Highland Clearances and then went on to crofting now. We planted potatoes, carrots and pars- nips," says nine-year-old Katie McFarlane. "The clan chief wanted to raise sheep on the land, and they all got put out, so he could raise money for his children to go to a private school," adds Hannah Hunter, who is also nine.
"We learned about crofting and what they did in the olden days when they didn't have electricity. We need crofting so we can keep animals, so they don't get extinct and so people look after animals and look after nature and grow their own food," says Jordan Maclachlan from P5, which seems to say it all really.
Later at the evening celebrations, tables groan with lamb and beef, mackerel, smoked and fresh salmon and potatoes and vegetables from every corner of the highlands and islands of Scotland.
Jim A Johnston, headteacher at Farr High, makes a joke about choking on the tatties. Not a chance, they melted in your mouth.