Kevin Gaffney is our RHC for Central Scotland and he takes his responsibilities seriously. He’s recently undertaken the arduous task of visiting hosts in the Hebrides…
The scene is one of familiar comfort to me, as the Calmac ferry slowly eases out of Ullapool harbour, on Scotland’s North West coast. The vessel, the MV Loch Seaforth, quickly passes the remote and beautiful Summer Isles and wonderfully named Bottle Island. I have made this voyage many times over the last three years but it still amazes and delights me, like the very first time. As we dock in Stornoway harbour it feels like coming home.
I am heading to a crofting estate, where over the years there has been much laughter and joy and am greeted as always by the two Lab’s, Poppy and Meg. Could one ever wish for a more joyful welcome anywhere?
Host Leurbost 1 is situated above a tidal sea loch, where otters play and arctic geese and numerous seabirds make their home. As I ramble down to the loch side, I pass a flock of sheep quietly grazing the fields, while the wildflowers and grasses are botanically fascinating, as well as beautiful. The early marsh orchids and corn marigolds gently sway in the sea breeze. The machair, the low-lying grassy plain, can be cultivated, usually with a mix of small oats and barley, to produce feed for livestock.
Also, the Hebrides are still one of the few places left in the UK where you can spot the rare and beautiful Great Yellow Bumblebee, Bombus distinguendis. Traditional crofting practices, like rotation cropping, which leaves the ground fallow for two or three years and ensures there is an abundance of wildflowers to provide healthy forage every year, and the fact that there are generally no levels of herbicides or pesticides, help make the islands a haven for them.
All around me on the hillside are visible signs of lazy beds; rows of mounded topsoil, bulked out with seaweed, where the crofter would grow oats and potatoes: glimpses of the island’s past, and a constant reminder of the fearsomely harsh existence in times gone by.
Above me I’ve spotted a Sea Eagle and then a Golden Eagle, majestically high in that ever blue Hebridean sky. You’re never alone here. But, this is midsummer and so far the weather has been kind. I have known trailers to be lifted and spun in mid air by the sheer force of the gales, landing only inches from a croft’s front windows. That’s when you nervously await the shipping forecast and check your weather technology. Will the ferry sail? Will I get off the island? Will you get on? The work must still go on in horizontal rains and roaring gales. There are animals to feed and check, logs to spilt, dogs to exercise.
The Hebrides offer WWOOF a wonderful and unique range of hosts. The sense of community and respect for the environment are genuine and full of life. But, this is just scratching the surface. There is much to discover; more laughter and back breaking work, and much more to learn.