A lifetime in crofting – Ena has seen monumental change

Ena and Angus with some of their prized Highland cattleEna and Angus with some of their prized Highland cattle
Ena and Angus with some of their prized Highland cattle
​There are few people as strongly associated with crofting as Ena MacDonald. She’s renowned for her commitment to working the land. Her dedication to promoting the Highland breed of cattle still endures.

​But there’s another dimension to Ena’s lifetime in crofting. Her many years as a campaigner saw her earn a reputation as a fearless advocate, criss-crossing the country to fight for a fair deal for crofters.

In recognition of all her achievements, she is often described as a legend. But what of the woman behind the legend?

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Ena was born at Ardbhan in Kyles on the west coast of North Uist in 1940.

Pictured more recently at the North Uist Agricultural Show with her trusted companion, RockyPictured more recently at the North Uist Agricultural Show with her trusted companion, Rocky
Pictured more recently at the North Uist Agricultural Show with her trusted companion, Rocky

Like most people of that generation who were born on a croft, from a young age, she and her four siblings were working hard.

“Everyone was hands on. We were all busy as there was so much to do,” recalls Ena.

“I was helping to milk the cows at the age of five, crossing the strand to collect peat in between tides, planting and lifting potatoes, taking home water from the well.”

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She admits to a dislike for jobs inside the house, preferring instead to be outside, working on the land and with the animals.

Ena receiving MBE from Prince CharlesEna receiving MBE from Prince Charles
Ena receiving MBE from Prince Charles

“I think my favourite task was going with my father, when he was planting the crops, and following with the horses, harrowing. I led the two mares pulling the harrows while my father planted the seed by hand.

“It was hard work, but we enjoyed it all the same.

“I think the weather was better then, the summers felt longer, and there would be hot spells. I don’t know, we hear so much these days about climate change, but for me it was warmer in the past. I was young and maybe recall it differently.”

Ena enjoyed her education at Bayhead School, five minutes down the road. But a year spent at Inverness Royal Academy, which she left to attend at 14, proved difficult. She felt the time long and missed being on the croft.

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From a bygone age: Ena harrowing with horses in 1952From a bygone age: Ena harrowing with horses in 1952
From a bygone age: Ena harrowing with horses in 1952

“I had thought about training as a vet, even a doctor, but the thought of being away from home was the problem,” continued Ena.

She sat the Civil Service Exam and stated a preference to work in the agricultural department. But with no jobs in that area on the island, Ena ended up moving to Glasgow. She stayed in a flat with her four sisters, who had moved previously, leaving her parents alone back at Ardbhan.

Five years spent on the mainland were followed by another five in Australia.

“It was a nice place and the weather was good. I had friends there. I was missing home so much though. I was home for a while for my sister’s wedding and my son Angus was born then, in Daliburgh. I went back, but soon afterwards came home for good.”

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North Uist had changed markedly in the decade that had passed. Homes were gradually becoming connected to the electricity supply. Running water was being rolled out across the townships. Horses had moved on, as tractors started to take over the heavy work of turning the land.

Ena settled into the familiar routine of working on the croft alongside her father, Archie, until he died in 1975. Taking over the croft herself, she soon entered into an enduring love affair with Highland cattle.

“I was travelling home from the mainland one time and managed to get mixed up about when the ferry was leaving Oban. I had to pass the time and went along to the mart where there was a sale of Highland cattle going on. Angus was with me, not yet 10. He kept encouraging me to buy one!

“They all looked so pretty and well-turned-out for the market. I was looking around but the price was so high. Then a heifer came into the ring, Flùran Òg from Ben Nevis. She was beautiful. I started bidding and got her for 240 guineas.”

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That was the start of the pedigree Ardbhan Fold of Highland cattle. Now one of the most prominent folds in the country, these days the progeny of the Ardbhan stock sells for far more than 240gns. Earlier this year, a bull consigned from the croft, Muran Buidhe, went under the hammer in Oban for no less than 10,000gns.

While the stock was being built up, Ena made her first venture into politics, being elected to Comhairle nan Eilean Siar in 1994.

“I bumped into Rev Alex Morrison at the airport one day and he asked me to call at the manse. He said he had a job for me. I stopped there the next day and he encouraged me to stand for election. I didn’t know much about it at the time and wasn’t keen on the idea. But he was so determined,” she explained.

“I didn’t particularly enjoy the experience. Sometimes it was fine. I was so shy at that time. It felt as though everyone was so good at speaking, apart from me. I was more comfortable working with the officers and managed to get some things done. But in the chamber it was a different story. I struggled to get across my points. I was happy at times but my confidence let me down.”

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However, her second stint in the political arena was to be different. Ena had been a member of the Scottish Crofters Union since its inception in 1985. Soon after the turn of the millennium, she was elected chair of what had then become known as the Scottish Crofting Federation.

“There was no word of being shy then,” recalls Ena.

“I understood the issues and the implications of decisions being taken. I was more assured speaking out and challenging.”

It is as though something clicked for Ena with her leadership role within crofting. Whether scrutinising the terms of agri-environmental schemes, pressing ministers to control spiralling numbers of greylag geese, or fighting for concessions for crofters during the BSE crisis, she found her confidence. In this role, she travelled widely, often attending meetings in Edinburgh, once even going as far Brussels, the heart of decision-making in Europe.

“I was in my element. You would never have seen me being so outspoken, or forthright, during my time on the council,” reflects Ena.

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It was during this time that she began to write extensively, with occasional articles published in The Scottish Farmer and a monthly column appearing in Am Pàipear. Her contribution to the community newspaper, an authentic mix of stories and opinion, has a loyal readership, keen to hear the latest take from Ena.

In recognition of her contribution to her local community and crofting, Ena was awarded an MBE in 2006, receiving the honour from then Prince Charles.

However, despite the efforts of Ena and others, crofting still faces challenges. Costs continue to rise, the support structure going forward is unclear, and there is always the question of new entry, whether young people will take on what earlier generations had worked. It is often cast as an industry and way of life in decline.

“I am still hopeful for crofting,” says Ena.

But she recognises that, as ever, new problems prevail, compounding those that have persisted over time.

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“I don’t like the practice of people selling crofts, where the highest bidder wins. There was a scheme in the 1970s where the outgoing crofter was given £1000 and the incoming tenant had to pay a small amount for improvements. £1000 was a lot of money at the time. I don’t know why there isn’t an incentive like that now.

“I’m still not happy a solution has never been found for the goose problem. Everyone says there is no resource to take the numbers down. If the issue had been tackled years ago, it wouldn’t be so bad these days.

“I also see a lot of bachelors, getting on in years, and wonder who will come after them. That worries me, looking to the future.”

Happily, succession is not an issue at Ardbhan. Angus, his wife Michelle, alongside their children, have taken on management of the croft. It is now a significant enterprise, with stock keenly sought by breeders around the globe, and five figure sales regularly make headlines.

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Looking out from her home, across the fields she once walked with horses, Ena observes new ways of working in practice and the latest generation driving forward change and improvement.

“It makes me so happy to see my grandchildren so taken with this way of life. I remember them running around with the hens and lambs as small children. Now they’re leading bulls around the ring on a halter and building up the name of the place. It’s fantastic to see they’re all interested.”

(Ena MacDonald’s new book ‘Born to Croft’ will be launched at the North Uist Tractor Rally on 1 June 2024. It features a selection of columns published over the last 20 years in Am Pàipear. ‘Born to Croft’ is available online from Linen Press, or from booksellers across the Western Isles.)