One of the best things about the Croft is the neighbors, Bella and Uisdean (pronounced, vaguely, "Hoostian"). Bella has lived up there, I believe, her whole life. She had six kids (including twins). Her husband, Willy John, who passed away about 15 years ago, was born on island Roan and she lives in a little whitewashed house with Uisdean, her son and a farm of cows, sheep, and chickens.
Bella is tiny, but she is tough and has a wicked sense of humor. She has no patience for fools or laziness. Every time we go to her house she stuffs us with biscuits, tea, and whiskey, even at 10am. It took me at least 5 years of going up there before I could understand a full sentence from her deep Scottish brogue. She is, really, my idol. She is the gold standard of the kind of woman I hope to be in my life; warm and welcoming, but no bullshit, always honest, and always with a sharp wit.
Uisdean is a prince. He is generally the guy who helps everyone and you don't even realize he's doing it. He looks after the Croft and he will light a fire to warm up the house before we even get there. This year, mysteriously, he showed up with a huge fresh salmon for us that had been caught that day and said "don't ask where I got it". He's a great storyteller, although again he's speaking something entirely other than English so it takes some getting used to. He has an impeccable memory for everyone who visits and he takes it on himself to make sure everyone feels welcome and taken care of.
|Sheep and lambs at Bella and Uisdeans|
|Uisdean with Roan and Tide|
The animals are always a big part of visiting them. They have a new herding dog called Tide who Bella picked out herself. The last one was sweet but Uisdean had to throw stones for it to chase to get him to run and move the sheep. Tide took his job very seriously and herded everything and everyone, including us.
Another addition was Princess Neptune. One of Bella's daughters, Ellen, had adopted a lamb and fallen madly in love. She washed and walked and hand-fed Princess Neptune, but eventually had to bring her to Bella's farm after Neptune had trashed all of her furniture and eaten all the flowers in her yard.
I am always amazed at these sorts of bonds that I've found on the farms over there. Mostly the livestock are treated well but impersonally, as food with feet, but occasionally some little creature will tug at the heart strings of even the most practical of farmers and, boom, there's a lamb under the kitchen table or a piglet being cuddled like a baby. The cows are routinely named after visitors (there's a Caitlin after my sister, and a Cecelia). Apparently Bella is always incredibly sad when they have to send one of the cows to be slaughtered and she's been a farmer for, like, 70 years.
|Tide and Princess Neptune|
|Feeding a lamb|
Roan got to feed Princess Neptune, which I think he would have preferred for himself.
Tide couldn't understand why Princess Neptune was separated from the rest of the flock. And, probably, why she smelled like shampoo.
|Wheelbarrow rides with Uisdean|
We were lucky enough to be there for the sheep shearing. Somehow in all my years of going to Scotland I have never seen one. I was like an overeager tourist at the zoo, snapping away with my camera, but no one seemed to care.
It's quite an operation. You have to get them all lined up in these pens and then they are sort of wrestled to the ground and sheared as they are rotated like a rotisserie chicken. Most of them seem to just zen out and resign themselves to the process.
|The red mark is paint to help the farmers identify their flocks when they roam in the open fields|
Bella was SO not impressed with these guys. She thought they were too slow and disorganized.
By the way, there is am AMAZING documentary about sheep herding in Montana called
Sweet Grass. It is so fascinating and you will probably never complain about your job again once you've seen it.
|Bella, having none of it|
|This one managed to escape shearing|
|Roan helped out. A little.|
In this photo Roan is seconds away from being taken out by a tup, an unneutered adolescent lamb. Sam lept in and grabbed him just before he was boxed across the field. That would have been a serious reality check for a Brooklyn boy.
|Sam, Bella and Roan with Lorcan and Tide|
|Everyone gets a rest and a cup of tea|
More than anything I was so glad that Roan was able to meet Bella and Uisdean and everyone else up there. We named Roan for this place in no small part because of the reverence we have for our neighbors up there. They don't just visit up north for a couple of weeks in the high sun of the summer. They are there walking the hills in a gale in the dark of winter. They keep the fires warm for all of us.