Crofting is a form of agriculture practised in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Until the mid 19th Century the ‘runrig’ system of cultivation was used, whereby strips of land were allocated to each crofter and rotated annually so that each had a share of good and poorer ground in turn. The houses then were built in small groups, or ‘townships’. Evidence of this way of farming can still be seen in the landscape. In the mid 1840s the
land was re-organised and divided into small units of two to five acres each – the croft – on which the tenant could build a small house. Some of the houses had a small garden in which a few vegetables were grown. The crofter usually kept a cow for milk, a few sheep for their wool and meat, and some hens. He grew oats, to be ground into oatmeal, potatoes and hay for the animals.
Stooks of Hay:
(Photo: Gairloch Heritage Museum)
Because there were no fences between the crofts the cows had to be tethered, or put out onto the hill in the summer to forage for food. Groups of crofts (anything from 6 – 210) were encircled by a fence to keep the wandering animals from raiding the growing crops. These crofting townships, such as Lonemore and Melvaig beyond Gairloch, and Bualnaluib, Ormiscaig and Mellon Charles near Aultbea, are still recognised as separate communities today.
Until 1886 the crofters could be evicted by the landlord at any time and without good reason. Nor were they compensated for any improvements made to their land. It was only after extensive investigation by the Napier Commission that the law was changed to
give the crofter security of tenure. Now it was worthwhile to improve the property. So, the more substantial stone built houses now seen scattered (though sometimes derelict) through the local landscape came to be built. Even so, crofts were not large enough to sustain a family and the crofter had to find other employment for part of the year. Fishing, road making and masonry were some of the jobs available. With the men away the wives
and family worked the croft until the return of the head of the family.
The Croft House itself:
The crofter would have built it of unmortared stone, with the roof trusses made of any available timber, (frequently driftwood), and thatched with heather or straw. The floor of the house might well have been just beaten-down earth. The fire might have been central, although by the 1850s a fireplace with a wooden hood, as shown here, or a built-in flue, would more likely have been situated in the gable wall. The fuel was peat, and cooking was done in pots, frying pans or on girdles suspended over the fire by an adjustable
hook and chain.
The inside of a typical Croft House
( Photo: Gairloch Heritage Museum)
The furnishings of the house were very simple, perhaps a box bed, a dresser, table and chairs, with a long bench or lannsaid. Most of these would have been hand-made from any wood that happened to be available. However, the people liked to buy some manufactured articles from passing peddlers, (and eventually from catalogues). The ‘American clock’ was a fashionable and much treasured article, though many were produced and exported. The cruisgean, or crusie lamp, burned fish oil. Other typical articles which helped to make the home more comfortable included the spinning wheel, a cradle with a woollen cord to help prevent the baby from falling out, baking boards, porridge bowls and horn spoons. Horn was one of the first ‘plastics’, meaning that it could be moulded. These spoons were created by cutting the horn to form a block, then wetting it and pressing it into shape in a wooden mould. Almost all the textiles in the croft house were made locally, being either woven or knitted. The sheets on the bed are the exception. They were made from cotton sugar bags, bleached and sewn together.
There are still many of the original croft houses used today - but not many are still "crofthouses" as such. You can see examples of them all over Wester Ross. One or two may still have their thatched roofs still in place, but most are now slated roofs. The example here had an earthen floor until the mid 1930's, and a thatched roof about 50 years ago. Until very recently, the sole form of heating in the living area was one coal fire!