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The Crofting Calendar

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Who let the rams out? Tupping season gets underway here in Harris.

For most of us, the year is drawing inevitably to an end. As a result, the days shorten, and there is less and less light to spare with each passing day.

The colours of the island are fading too. Gone are the purple flashes of heather, with greens everywhere giving way to brown as autumn marches on.

But for local crofters, this time of year marks new beginnings, a critical point in their annual cycle of activity that may make or break the next 12 months.

Blackface ewes on a coastal croft.

For those who need a little clarity about what a 'crofter' actually is, let us try to explain!

Once upon a time, most of the islands of the Outer Hebrides were home to the great Scottish clans. Here in Harris, it was mainly was the Macleods who ruled.

In return for their patch of land, men and women had to help their chief when called upon. Usually, this involved picking up a sword and going off to help one's clan fight other clans.

It's November and the rams are ready and raring to go.

This system eventually collapsed, and the concept of the clan chief gave way to the landlord, and the promise to fight became the promise to pay rent.

People living here could no longer be guaranteed the security to live and work, and many were forced to move on to make way for large-scale sheep farming instead.

Then, in 1886 the Crofting Act was passed in parliament, and ever since, our island has been divided up into small parcels of land where local people can farm without fear of eviction.

The small parcels of land known as crofts can be found throughout the Outer Hebrides.

So, a crofter is someone who keeps a small piece of land, usually no more than 5 acres, to grow crops and keep livestock on a small and sustainable scale.

Ironically, most crofters today tend to keep sheep, the same animal which saw their ancestors sent packing in centuries past.

Every November, these crofters set out to redraw the circle of life once more, as the period known by some as 'tupping' gets underway.

Local crofters help keep old traditions of the land alive.

This is the big moment for local rams, finally, let loose after many months of staring forlornly at their Hebridean harem from afar.

The crofter will emblazon the breasts of these fine male beasts with 'raddle', a bright and colourful paste made from oil and pigment, before letting them run free with the females.

Their job (the ram, not the crofter!) is now to make woo with their women and mount as many ewes as they can over the next five weeks.

The rams are even partial to a bit of romance at this time, carefully nudging and pawing their mate-to-be until it's the right time to make their move.

An Outer Hebridean harem awaits the arrival of their ram.

As the weeks go by, more and more of the flock are marked by the ram's raddle, the transfer of paint a tactful indication that the dirty deed is done.

If all is well, then there will be lambs aplenty in April, and the ram as will be allowed to return next year as a reward.

So, as the crofting calendar begins anew, we raise a glass to the success of the tupping season, and may it be a fruitful and fertile one for all concerned!