Past & Present

Crofts, Overcrowding and Expanding Cultivation

According to the estate records for the area, Scarp was home to around 50 men, women and children in 1794. They made a living from the land and sea. Their houses and barns clustered around the burn, although only the nearby graveyard is easily seen today. There was a small area of arable land around the township, but it presumably produced sufficient barley, oats and hay to keep the families and their stock through the winter. The small black cattle and Hebridean sheep were grazed out on the hills for much of the year, and there was always sea fishing on good days.

Times were shortly to change, as the demands on the land increased considerably. Rather than farming a communally-held area of land as before, the inhabitants were allocated a croft; a narrow strip of land where each family lived and tended their crops. The old houses were taken down and new blackhouses had to be built in an ordered fashion.

In 1802 there were eight crofts in Scarp. In the early 1800s, the Scarp people were deprived of their vital summer grazings on mainland Harris, at the same time as the villages in North Harris between Bun Abhainn Eadarra and Loch Reasort were cleared to make way for sheep. Around 1850, the land in Scarp was sub-divided into sixteen crofts. There were three groups of blackhouses on the Scarp croftlands – Am Bail’ a Tuath (North Hamlet), Am Baile Meadhonach (Mid Hamlet) and Am Bail’ a Deas (South Hamlet) - each set in a line facing the sea. All were on the green grassland that can be seen today.

The crofts could not fully support a family. With over 150 mouths to feed the people of Scarp needed more arable land. Through much hard work they created and maintained cultivation ridges out on the rough hill ground. Known as feannagan in Gaelic, these hard won cultivation ridges are incongruously known as lazybeds in English. To create them, the heather and rough grass of the hill ground and its underlying peat were turned over and heaped into ridges, some 2m-wide, running down-slope to aid drainage. Seaweed and manure were added to the heavy ground to improve its texture and fertility. Potatoes were planted in the first year or two of a feannag. In some sheltered areas barley could be grown too. For the next couple of years oats might be sown, but the ground soon lost its fertility and there was a need to regularly create new feannagan. When there was no wall or fence protecting the crop, it was necessary to ensure that the sheep and cattle did not wander into the growing crops and crofting families gave a day each in rotation for that purpose.

By Jill Harden, 2013

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