Croft & community

Only accessible by boat or on foot, Scoraig on the eponymous peninsula north of Little Loch Broom is off-grid and for Andrew Rivett and the other hardy and resourceful inhabitants, out of this world. It is also the inspiration for his novel The Priest’s Wife

A howling nor’wester was blowing off the Atlantic, across the tip of Lewis and straight down the loch. The wind turbine was whirling, and the rain was keeping the little Pelton wheel spinning. In the stone barn the 20 heavy lorry batteries that provided electricity for the croft would be charging well.

I turned from my desk-top computer—an old second-hand Mac—where I was writing, and gazed out of the window. A mile away, beneath Beann Ghoblach, the waterfall was falling upwards, the water driven in a skyward spray by the wind.How on earth did I get here? I had taken early retirement from my work with the (then) Health Protection Agency, and was working and learning on an organic farm just outside Forres, being paid in eggs and cheese, when I first heard of the Scoraig peninsula. The stories that came to me were of land that was going for next to nothing, if you could take the life. No road, no mains electricity, no piped water, no sewerage. But 50 or so people, they said, were making a living there, and I wanted to see it.I soon arranged with a couple on the peninsula to be their working guest for a week. ‘Be at the jetty at Badluarach at 10 o’clock,’ Steve told me. After two miles of single-track road, a lane on the right suddenly plunged down towards the lochside. I left the car in a little grassy car-park beside boat trailers and rusting outboards. The shingle beach smelt of seaweed. A concrete jetty sloped into the sea.After a few minutes a speck on the water grew larger, and then a small open boat was drawing alongside. Steve handed me down into the boat with my rucksack. We set off on the mile-long crossing of the loch.‘See that line, going up the hill there?’ In the stern with one hand on the outboard’s tiller, he pointed with his free hand. ‘That’s the deer fence. See how the land on the left is a darker green than the other side. That’s where trees are slowly re-growing, now the deer are kept out of the peninsula.’Scoraig doesn’t jut out into the north Atlantic: rather, two lochs cut into the deeply-divided coastline of north-west Scotland, separating out a long thin tongue of land, with Loch Broom to the north and Little Loch Broom on the south. Its landward end is barred by the Ben, making a barrier that the road never passed.With Steve and Jan I dug potatoes, tended the polytunnel and excavated a small pond. ‘In case there’s a fire,’ Steve said. Yes, I thought, the fire brigade aren’t likely to turn out for here. I explored, and met people, and kept my ears and eyes open for available land. Every croft, it seemed, had its own little windmill, a turbine perched atop a long slender pole guyed with strong wires. They made a whirring sound as they turned, this way and that, as the wind shifted and veered; home-built on the peninsula, by Hugh Piggot, master-builder of small-scale turbines, who was exporting his skill as far as Africa.I met Alan Beavitt, ‘Bev,’ as everyone called him, also with an international business, making violins in a croft-house surrounded by vegetable patches and flowers.My week came to an end and I drove back across the Kessock bridge. My partner Gillian was there to greet me with a hot meal, and that, we thought, was that.Christmas came, and New Year. And an email. A croft was for sale on Scoraig: were we interested? The days of ridiculously inexpensive land were well over, and now crofting tenures changed hands for significant amounts. Nevertheless, in no time at all, it seemed, we were once more driving west. But this time with no boat to meet us, there was a good walk before us. Three miles of footpath skirted the mountain, sometimes climbing over black rocks, sometimes edging past precipitous drops into the sea below. It was a wonderfully clear day in early January, cold but bright, and the walking was good.A tall gate let us through the deer fence, like a stockade round an ancient township, and there was Guardian Croft, at the landward end of the settlement. Not a traditional croft-house: it was circular, of modern timber construction with a geodesic roof. We struck a bargain there and then. We walked back through the gathering dusk, and Gillian whispered, ‘Happy…’That was the beginning of much happiness, much frustration and quite a bit of adventure. There was the day when the wild goats, undeterred by the deer fence, waited for low tide, walked round the fence’s seaward end and ate my potatoes. Lying in bed in the simmer dim of midsummer, listening to the cuckoos calling until nearly midnight. Coming up the loch in my little boat when the outboard failed and all my rowing couldn’t make headway against wind and tide. The community turned out in force then to rescue me, and I arrived home wet and tired, but safe.I became familiar with the community school with its daily attendance of anything from three to eight children. As they grew older they went as weekly boarders to school in Ullapool, less than eight miles away as the crow flies, and over an hour’s journey by sea and road. Meanwhile the school hall was the main community meeting-place, where the Grazings Committee would meet and occasional concerts would be held.For other entertainment we could go to the Dundonnell Hotel across the loch, or sometimes for an occasional treat as far as Ullapool, pulling the boat well above the tide-line at Badluarach and spending the night in the comfortable rooms of the Ceilidh Place.The idea for the book that turned into my first novel, The Seaborne, had come to me several years before, yet I wrote much of the first draft on the croft, where the landscape informed its images: the colours of moor and mountain, of waves breaking upon distant Priest Island, of lichens upon rock. Morag’s descent of the downfall on her way to Kimmoil in my new book, The Priest’s Wife, I had myself attempted down the braes and waterfalls less than a mile from the croft. The shingle beach, the sound of waves lapping the shore and drawing out with that evocative low rattle, found their way into my writing.And then, one evening, a phone call. ‘Can you see the Northern Lights? They say there’s quite a display tonight.’ We went to the door, and there, over the ridge of hill to the north, were uncanny transparent green curtains of light. Then rays and fingers of red. And behind them, through them, the stars shone out. ‘We say that they are warriors, running to battle,’ says Shinane in The Seaborne, reflecting an old Gaelic tradition. ‘We call them the Hasty Men.’Scoraig is not for the faint-hearted. If you can’t get a boat it’s at least an hour’s walk along a mountain footpath, and another 40 minutes along the track, the peninsula’s main artery, before you reach the heart of the community. Is it worth it? Yes, for the stubborn independence and individuality it fosters; for the wildness of the landscape, for the responsibility of taking only what you need from the land, and giving back only what it can take. For the adventure that is Scoraig.The Priest’s Wife by AG Rivett is published by Pantolwen Press as a Paperback Original at £9.99, out now