Crofting Connections gives tradition new lease of life
Crofting is a thoroughly modern way of life. That may seem outlandish to urban Scots with a sketchy idea of archaic farming practices among the rural poor - but not to the hundreds of pupils learning that crofting skills will be crucial in the 21st century.
Crofting Connections is a three-year project, launched in August 2009, with a clear aim: "It's connecting children with their crofting communities, so that they can make the best decisions about whether to remain in, or return to, these communities," explains co- ordinator Pam Rodway.
The project - so far involving 47 schools in Argyll, the Highlands, the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland - coincided with a Scottish Government inquiry that demanded crofting be kept alive within communities, not merely preserved in museums and heritage centres.
Crofting Connections does not hinge on trudges around fusty displays, but on throwing pupils into crofting. To that end, Mrs Rodway says, Curriculum for Excellence has been "an absolute gift", giving the green light to explore local communities and encouraging an interdisciplinary approach intrinsic to crofting.
"There are now many opportunities for young crofters within our islands," says Calum Martindale, a pupil at Benbecula's Lionacleit School who is studying for an Intermediate 2 in crofting. "There is the opportunity to sell produce locally and the possibility to export the Uist brand."
Steve Carter, crofting teacher at the school, says it is a subject "different from the normal school diet, focusing unashamedly on the day- to-day work on the croft, with theory backing up the practical, rather than the other way around". It also taps into young people's thirst to learn about "all things sustainable".
If 20th-century industrial farming and fishing made crofting seem irrelevant, topical concerns are bringing it back into vogue, Mrs Rodway says: crofting reduces dependence on fossil fuels, provides hope for dwindling fish stocks and meets a rising demand for traditional food.
Crofting Connections patron Margaret Bennett believes the "sense of care and anticipation" with which pupils treat their own harvests could counteract another malignant contemporary issue. The project "offered the key to a way of life that could make a real difference in a world that threatens their generation with diabetes and obesity".
The first three Argyll schools to become involved in Crofting Connections were Inveraray, Furnace and Minard primaries. Their work has included producing crops at Auchindrain, using a runrig system - the first time that has happened in the area since 1847. They are also learning about the history of Auchindrain's traditional farming village, which was untouched by modern agriculture until 1962.
Crofting Connections, which is run by the Scottish Crofting Federation and Soil Association Scotland and has a wide array of financial backers, is not entirely restricted to the Highlands and islands in Scotland. A residential special school near Edinburgh is also involved.
"Some of our pupils are from the Highlands, but I don't think it really matters where you are from," says Alastair Davidson outdoor education teacher at Harmeny School.
"Growing our own food as a community in a sustainable way, learning about our country, its traditions, culture and language, and making connections with the natural world, could be a good thing for everyone."
Corrie, 13, a pupil at the school, says: "I spent time digging the runrig and preparing the soil. We planted buckwheat, barley and oats. I watered them and watched them grow. We also grew potatoes. I was pleased with how many we dug up. We made crisps on the campfire.
"I really like growing things. I am thinking about getting a job as a farmer or gardener."
Crofting Connections pupils learn traditional skills, such as spinning, knotting, dyeing, weaving, boat-building and fiddle-making. But they are immersed, too, in Gaelic and Norse cultures, through storytelling, music and place names.
Crofting Connections brings a modern twist by linking online what were once discrete communities with very different methods, and not just in Scotland. Pupils will exchange ideas with 11 schools in Kenya, involved in a similar project to keep traditional farming alive.
"A new generation of crofters is in the making. Just watch this space," says Lynne McLuckie, headteacher at Kilchoan Primary.
History of crofting
Crofting has supported families in some of the wildest and remotest areas of the Highlands and islands for centuries.
Crofts are typically on very poor land, a legacy of the Highland Clearances in 18th and 19th centuries. Tens of thousands of people were evicted from their smallholdings in the Highland glens, to make way for sheep. Some emigrated but most ended up on the coast, where landlords provided small plots of land in return for rent.
Crofters lacked security. Rent could be increased at any time and families evicted without notice. A potato famine in the 1840s made their situation worse, and crofters began to demand legal rights to land. The Crofters' Act was introduced in 1886, giving security of tenure and fairer rents.
Crofting did not change significantly until the years following the Second World War, but now there are fewer than 18,000 active crofting households, and the average age of a crofter is over 50.
The Scottish Parliament passed a Crofting Reform Bill in July this year, designed to tackle the threats posed by land speculation, neglect and absenteeism.