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Croft work and Harvesting

Roddy Macdonald’s croft is at Aird, in Benbecula, just outside Balivanich. It’s the family croft, passed on from his father, so Roddy knows the crofting life very well, and he’s seen many changes over the years.

One thing that’s different now is the practice of making silage. The old custom was to mow the hay in July, and it would take quite a long time to do the job. But now the crofters wait until August to make silage. It takes much less time now, and leaving it till later in the year gives some protection to nesting birds.

When the day comes the work is done very quickly. One tractor gathers the cut grass into rows. The next tractor collects it and rolls it up into a round bale which it leaves for a third tractor to finish off. This tractor picks up the bales one by one and wraps them in black plastic to prevent them from drying out. Roddy keeps a close eye on progress, and the whole process is complete in one day. The bales are now ready for storage as winter feed for sheep and cattle.

But when it comes to harvesting corn Roddy sticks to an older tradition. He still has a working binder that cuts the corn and binds it into sheaves. The sheaves are gathered into small stooks the same day by a helpful neighbour. Some time later these small stooks are gathered into larger ones. The wind will help to dry them. They are tied up to make sure they don’t fall over.

A week or two later the next stage is to build a large stack. Roddy collects the stooks on his tractor one by one, and takes them back to his yard. Neighbours help with this work again, and have already started building the first stack.

As more stooks arrive a start is made on a second stack beside the first one. Each sheaf is lifted with a pitchfork onto the stack, where it is carefully placed to add to the height. The teams working on the two stacks have a friendly competition to see who makes the best one. The stacks grow surprisingly quickly.

In the meantime Roddy remains busy fetching more stooks. This traditional cornstacking practice is supported by conservation bodies, as the seed in the stacks helps to support birdlife over the winter. However, Roddy’s own free range hens show little interest at this stage.

As the height of the stack grows it’s left to the youngest member of the team to stay on top. Roddy brings out hay to add as a covering against the weather.

The neighbours’ dog seems more interested than the hens were, but he’s not looking for seed. He’s still hoping there might be a mouse or a rat amongst the sheaves.

The hay is spread out over the top of the stack. The final stage is to cover it with a net. This helps to keep the stack’s shape as it settles. But when the first one is complete, that’s not the end of the story. The second stack is only half done, and they’ll have to do the same job all over again. And Roddy still has plenty more stooks to fetch.

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