Donnie Mackay with his quadruplets and their mother.

 

AUGUST 2001 - NO. 118

Crofter rears first-class stock but what lies ahead?

Donnie Mackay’s croft in Portskerra undoubtedly carries some of the finest North Country Cheviot sheep in the district, as the photograph above shows, writes DONALD MACLEOD.

These are the same quad lambs and their mother whose photograph we published in May. They were still sucking when we photographed them last week and any of the four would make the top sales draw on many crofts up and down the country.

Donnie is rightly proud of the lambs, so far as he knows the first quads reared in Portskerra. He should know for he was born in the west end of the hamlet sixty-six years ago and owned a few sheep even before he left school. Portskerra and Melvich form one township of fifty-two crofts. Each croft comprises one to five acres of pretty good quality arable, the souming 10-15 yowes plus a cow and follower. The common grazings are dangerous because of cliffs, many over 150ft. high. In Melvich two crofters keep cattle. In Portskerra there are none left.

“Every house had a milking cow when I was young,” says Donnie “and there were in the teens of fishing boats.”

The boats, which were involved the herring trade, each employed four or five men. It was a hard life made harder by the absence of a good, natural harbour. “They had to haul the boats on to the beach,” he says. “Sailing boats first, then engines came in.”

The herring fishing lasted until 1948, but the last Portskerra fishing boat was not sold off until the 1970s. That boat, owned by the MacLeod family, is still in use down the east coast.
Today, with the cattle and the boats gone, crofting in Portskerra hangs by a thread. Apart from Donnie, now down to twenty-four yowes, the only other crofter is George MacLeod of the fishing family mentioned above.

As we speak, Donnie is surrounded by five of his grandchildren. The boys volunteer their interest and skill in working with sheep, but Donnie is not certain that he will avoid being the last crofter of the family in Portskerra.

Donnie’s wife of forty-five years, Elizabeth, must have been a very busy woman and Mo Dhachaidh a very lively place in the early years of their marriage for it was home to an aunt and uncle as well as the Mackays and their five daughters and one son. “Now there are just the two of us here,” he says.

All their children are now married. Dorothy is visiting on a 2-month holiday from Edmonton, her Highland lilt intact after twenty years in Canada; Rosemary lives in Rothienorman, Aberdeenshire; Margaret in Thurso; Anne lives in the next village to the west, Balligill (Strathy), while Kathleen and her husband Allan provide luxury accommodation at Bighouse, built on the estuary of the Halladale river as a clan Mackay mansion. Their only son Angus lives next door and works as an electrician in Dounreay atomic power station. Dounreay is only a few miles away, the concrete dome visible to the naked eye.

But Donnie fears his son will not follow in his footsteps, combining his paid day job with the croft. Not because he wouldn’t like to, but because it wouldn’t be worth his while.
“A few years ago, we were getting up to £42 for our lambs at Forsinard,” he points out. “Last year when you sold one, you were giving another away for nothing!”

This August, with foot-and-mouth still rampant in parts of the UK, an export ban in operation and no live auctions in prospect, things are looking bleak.

When we spoke, Donnie was just after receiving a letter from Hamilton’s and UA Partnership Ltd outlining the mart’s alternative plans for their Forsinard customers, involving a “video sale” and a “sale by description” later this month.

Donnie Mackay is fully aware that such devices are unlikely to match a live auction held at one of the best 1-day sale rings in the Highlands, but as with his forebears, struggling to survive among the rocks and wild seas of the north coast of Britain, you can be sure that this former snow-plough driver will have done his bit to weather the storm. But whether others will follow his example depends on a number of factors, including a sensible agricultural policy. I wouldn’t bank on it.

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