3 May 1996

Happy to return to his birthplace

EDUCATION and work are the reasons for people leaving Harris, and often the parting is permanent. Like many others, Angus John MacVicar headed for Glasgow to work, but after nine years as an engineering draughtsman, he returned to the croft where he was born.

"This was my mothers croft and I was born and bred here. I came back in 1979 as my parents were getting on in years. I had an interest in the animals and as I was the only one in the family, I thought it would be a shame if the place was to go," says Angus John, who lives with his parents at the croft at Borve, where he keeps cattle and sheep and runs a petrol pump, the last on the road to the south end of the Island.

He is also an assessor for the Crofters Commission and when an application is made for sub-letting a croft, or for a change of tenancy, he has to check the suitability of the applicant or note any objections. "Quite a few people have two or three crofts and sub-let them," says Angus John, who worries that so few young people want to take on the crofts today.

"The average age among crofters is 58-59 and a number are in their 70s and need others to help them out. It is quite hard to find youngsters to come in and croft, and even the ones who do work on the island take very little interest in animals and the land," says Angus John.

He runs seven cattle and 180 breeding ewes on his 5ha (12-acre) croft plus 81ha (200 acres) common grazing at Borve and has another 200 ewes on a croft he rents at Scarista. The sheep have poor quality grazing on heather all winter which is supplemented with feed blocks.

Gathering takes a whole day with the sheep spread over about three miles and sometimes through two or three different villages. "We never get them all in one sweep," says Angus John. The lambs are sold through a local co-operative or can be sent to Stornoway, Lewis, where three or four sales a year are held.

Until three years ago he kept 20 cattle – a large number for a Harris crofter. Now he has seven Shorthorn cross and Aberdeen-Angus cross breeding heifers. "They are quite hardy and good milkers," says Angus John. "I used to sow small oats and depended on them for feed but there seems to have been more rain here over the last 10 years and for the last two years I grew them it was too wet and I had to dump the crop. The weather has not been so bad the past two years but we dont seem to get three completely dry days in a row."

Usually he sells the calves at seven or eight months old. "But I think I will have to hold on to them at the end of this year and then we will have the problem of feeding them. We pay £200+/t for concentrates here. Even on Skye they get feed cheaper and a lot of people cannot afford to buy in bulk."

His last load of hay cost him around £145/t and he bought a full lorry load but now it costs around £200/t compared with £80/t on the mainland. "It will be June before we get a bite of grass," he says.

Angus John seems happy to have returned to Harris but has no illusions about the future. "Crofting gets harder every year," he says. TG

Pictures:Jonathan Page

Often when people leave Harris to work it is for good but Angus John returned to the croft at Borve after nine years of working on the mainland. He keeps cattle and sheep and his petrol pump is the last place for cars to fill up on the road to the south end of Harris.