Letter from the Outer Hebrides

Introducing Jonathon.  He and Denise live in the Outer Hebrides.

In their own words: (nicked from their blog).

We live and work from our home at the southern tip of the Isle of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides – an archipelego at the Atlantic edge of Scotland. We live in an 18thC high-walled kitchen garden set beside the sea, where we grow most of our own food, spin weave and dye wool. We have a croft on the smaller neighbouring island of Eriskay (the two islands are connected by causeway), where we keep the native black Hebridean sheep, and flocks of geese and chickens

Now over to Johnathon –

Vive la difference!

Take your local country medical practice. There’s a lot more to it than prodding and prescribing. The doctoring is what it’s about, of course, but round and about the doctoring there’s a great deal else going on there besides! And farming? Well, we too have paperwork – but there’s so much more than administration that differentiates farming from agriculture.


There’d be no dog without the farm. And no walks on the beach – we’d live in town and have jobs. There’s so much more to farming than agriculture!

Feeding the pigs is agriculture – and so too is reading up on nutritional needs and calling suppliers for information on products and prices. But what about the county show where you get introduced to a breeder from a neighbouring county? You bump into them again by chance on a weekend break in the big city, and spend some time together over a drink or two … and later that summer you get a call offering you first pick of their new litter of pedigree piggies. Well, that’s not agriculture – but it is farming. It’s the farming life.


Piggy on the Parquet: It’s a farming life, Jim, but not as some know it.

The storm that strikes down your hay? That’s agriculture, isn’t it? Alas, yes. So too is checking the Met Office website at least once a day – and planning ahead for the weather that’s forecast. No argument there, surely! But the ritual silence around the breakfast table as the forecast comes over
the radio? And how about that same instinctive reaction whenever the subconscious detects the utterence of meteorological terminology, in the supermarket, at the local bar, even away on holiday? That’s not agriculture. That’s farming. It’s the farming life!


In most countries, farm diversification is officially encouraged. Especially for those farms marginalized by industrial agriculture: Traditional family hill farms, smallholdings, Hebridean crofts. Add holiday lettings, and you’ve added value to your farm – and your farming. Add a microbrewery,
turning imperfect pears into perry perfection, and the reputation of your pears is enhanced, and the value your farming is increased. Go organic, and add Woofers to your workers, and your land, your agriculture, and your farming life, they all acquire value(s) that can’t be added to any
balance sheet.


Self-catering guests? Natural dyeing students? Sheep wool customers? Friends from overseas? All of the above! And all part of what it is to be a 21stC Hebridean Crofter!

Sure, blog about the weather. Let’s see photos of those saucy pigs. Yep, we’ll celebrate with you when the bull gets a rosette, or the grain’s come in dry enough to go straight to the silo. But why not let your blog wander a little further afield: let’s hear a word or two from ‘him outdoors’, or share
your frustrations over dwindling ground water, or how inspired you were, away on holiday, by how the locals protect their grape vines from the incessant wind – and couldn’t you do something similar for your runrig allotment out on the machair? Every farm has a cast of characters, from heroes to villains, and leading ladies to hovering-in-the wings: let’s hear from them all, according to their parts!


No, farming is not the same as agriculture – there’s a distance between the two things. How far? In what ways? How is one prairie farm distinguished from its neighbour? Why does a Pennine sheep farmer prosper when his own cousin further up the dale does not? What makes each of us interested
enough to follow each others’ blogs? (And by follow, I mean read, mark and inwardly digest.) That distance, those differences. They’re what make life interesting, worth living, make it worth the striving and the struggles. There’s distance and difference between your place and those of others
that go to make you who you are. But the greater distance, the more meaningful difference, is that which you make for yourself, and which you put – not between you and others – but which brings
you and all of us together.

So, let’s raise a glass of home-made (ours is rosehip and blackcurrant – and yours?) for the farming life! Vive la difference!

As the winter storm at last gave way to weak sunshine, this blackbird appeared on the high garden wall, singing to itself, barely audibly.


A portent of winter’s end.


Johnathon and Denise blog at – The Big Garden and Croft



51 Comments on “Letter from the Outer Hebrides

  1. Pingback: Vive la difference! — The Big Garden and Croft

  2. I truly loved this post, and these words were most important to me: “But the greater distance, the more meaningful difference, is that which you make for yourself, and which you put – not between you and others – but which brings you and all of us together.” Well said!
    I’m a weather bug too. It does dictate the direction of the day – that and unexpected tasks that present themselves.

    • Thank you for your kind words, Littlesundog! [BTW it’s only thanks to Celi’s post of just a day or two ago that I know what a sundog is (though still not how it got that name – or why you call yourself that.] I didn’t find doing the guest post at all easy, but it was when I was writing those very words that you quote that belief in what I was writing kicked-in, my pupils dilated and my poor fingers couldn’t keep up with the flow of ideas, or contain them. But there were other demands on my time that couldn;t be put off, and I put the post ‘to bed’ rather disatisfied with myself and what I’d sent to Celi. If it had been for me, I’d have just left it to wither on the vine. So I’m pleased enough that even one person finds one thing that means something to them – but delighted that it should have been that line. I’ll comment more on the ‘message’ of the post a bit further own here, I think. Tioriadh an drasd’ agus oichde mhath m’tha!

  3. Pingback: Letter from the Outer Hebrides | A Small Country Living in the Outer Hebrides

    • [J] It certainly can be! It can also be breathtakingly beautiful. And it can be both at the same time! And whist there is a correlation between wild and winter, and summer with sublime, they do from time to time show their versatility by taking on eachother’s attributes. There is nothing, I say nothing, more sublime than a glorious winter’s day – after the raging storm the day before. Never were smiles broader, the offers to help eachother clear up or fix things more likely to be followed with action, and never does life feel more worth the living. Tioriadh an drasd’ agus oichde mhath!

  4. Never mind the weather I was totally amazed by those fence posts that you hammered into the rocky landscape. I do lurk on your site and enjoy both yours and Denises contributions. You are so right sitting here in the currently very warm southern hemisphere I definitely take away different things from the different blogs I read. Laura

    • [J] From time to time I do have that bizarre hairs-standing-up-on-the-back-of-my-neck moments whilst tip-tip-tapping away in the depths of night [something D absolutely … no, better not go there! ] and now I know what causes it. A lurker! And I thought it was D standing at the office door and reminding me – in the way that only a woman can, silently – that it is three hours past time for beauty sleep. Yes, your beauty sleep, I tell her, it’s wasted on me. ;~) Tioriadh an drasd’ agus oichde mhath m’tha!

  5. Lovely. What a difference a word makes. Farming. Such a lovely word. Thank you for this observation and for the wit and the warmth and the openness.

    • [J] I did rather overdo the Agriculture v Farming bit. I’m sure we all understand that there is a difference, it’s just that sometimes we get farming blogs with no agriculture, or agriculture but no farming. I’ll expand on that a bit further down. Tioriadh an drasd’ agus oichde mhath m’tha!

  6. “…Sharing frustration over dwindling ground water” resonates particularly for agriculture down here Down Under. Like you, we obsess over weather and spend long hours on the Bureau of Meteorology website, but perhaps for different reasons: here in the tropics, we’re in the cyclone corridor!

    • [J] Thanks for your comment, Kate. The dwindling ground water bit was prompted by a fascinating feature in NatGeo a few months ago – it was about the mid-west USA, but there’s similar problems elsewhere, of course. We don’t get cyclones here in the Outer Hebrides. But we do get hurricanes! And two or three, or maybe four, each winter, is by no means unusual. The worst we’ve had in our 15 years here brought gusts of 124mph (recorded near to us), average wind speed more than 90mph, and the storm as a whole lasted 36hrs. Scarcely a single building in the Outer Hebrides left undamaged. Tioriadh an drasd’ agus oichde mhath!

    • [J] Thanks, for your comment! There’s plenty of places I’d love to explore in Canada. Queen Charlotte Islands. That big island off the coast of Quebec – forgotten its name. Those little ones that belong to France. (Duh! That wouldn’t be Canada then!) But also places that I’ve learned about through reading and blogging: the Rideau Waterway (Colonel By RE was the kind of hero who inspired me to become a civil engineer) ; Pemberton Valley ; Ellesmere Island. No, not sure about that one, might be confusing with Ellesmere in Shropshire. ;~) Tioriadh an drasd’ agus oichde mhath m’tha!

  7. Great post, I have just been looking on your blog. Very interesting reading.

    • [J] Ah Fran, there’s the dilemma! All work and no play, makes Fran a very dull girl. We all need to filter. No special software necessary. It comes naturally. We all do it, all of the time. We’re so adaptive! It’s how humans came to be so successful. No ideas in, no ideas out. Find time in-and-amongst. Everything in proportion. I couldn’t find the name of your ‘other half’ in your (very lovely) blog, but why not get him involved. Reading and writing (WordPress style) will feel less like time stolen, and more life expanded. It’s true that it is me, J, that does the actual writing, editing etc etc etc (a lot of those if we count in the technical complications), but our blogs are a joint interest and effort, as much a part of our joint enterprise as is everything else. We each have our specialisms, but it’s a joint enterprise. Tioriadh an drasd’ agus oichde mhath m’tha!

  8. Lovely post. Thanks for sharing! I too would love to get out to your beautiful neck of the woods someday. And I love your pointing out the difference between farming and agriculture. Perfectly said.

    • [J] Ah yes, as I’ve rather apologetically written already, I did rather over-do that bit. There was however method in the madness – I will expand on that below, somewhere. Tioraidh an drasd! ;~)

    • [J] Apparently the word Paradise originates in an ancient Persian word for a walled garden. And I bet they were a lot of work too. Unfortunately, I suspect the Persian concept had two levels to it: Paradise was for the rich owners. For the labourers, the word was slavery. We have enslaved ourselves. But at least we get paid – in satisfaction. Oichde mhath!

      • Ah but Paradise is not a place but a state of mind…. and following through on your posting on Google’s maps, I can see your farming/agricultural experience could well supply that ancient circumstance in your walled garden. A wonderful post, I enjoyed it thoroughly and learned a few small things along the way, Thank you! ~ Mame 🙂

  9. I always love to read about different farm around the world. I come from a family of farmers Thank you for sharing.

  10. The writer Peter May introduced me to the Outer Hebrides. Then to my great joy his books became a TV series. How fortunate to live and work in such an amazing part of the world. Cheers Virginia

      • Hebrides – the television series of Peter May’s book was produced by BBC One. I found the DVD’s of the show at our local library. He also has a gorgeous coffee table book out on the Hebrides. Cheers Virginia

  11. Really enjoyed your guest blog, Jonathan and the other characters featured in your revelation. So interesting how the makings of each abode and life’s work blend together with the rest of the world’s to make the patchwork of our lives into a beautiful, warm soul-knowledge blanket. Thank you for the glimpse into your ‘weavery’. It sounds wonderful!

  12. Love that blackbird photo, and your comments about it! I’m taking that with me through February and whatever March brings.

  13. [J] I thought I’d add a little explanatory note to my guest post. [Yes it was all me – D is busy on her own side-project in another island group, blessed with rather more sunshine, for another week or so]. You know what, I didn’t find it easy. Context is everything. Writing for our own blog, there’s always something that went before, is yet to follow, or is hovering in the wings. There’s real life knocking on the door (except the weather, which given the chance will kick in the door and rip off the roof!), and a lifetime of hard lessons and unfilfilled dreams to steer the words this way or that. Not so when writing for someone else: you’ve only got what they write for themselves as a guide … no, in fact you’ve got only what they have actually already written (they’re not the same thing!!). Celi has a very free style, and a particular range of subject matter which she is quite the mistress of. (Oops! gendered words are so pre-21stC!. Let’s just say she knows what she’s doing, even if she doesn’t always consciously know how and why – the real marks of expertise! But I digress). Difficult to know what to write, or not to. I couldn’t possibly immitate her style! Apart from anything else there’s no Sheila. No pigs! No cows – or steers. And definitely no Boo. And I don’t have Celi’s fluency with photography – especially in low light. She makes it all look so easy! However Celi and I have something in common which is key: Sponteneity. What comes naturally off my finger tips, is what I work with. For Celi, the title comes first. For me I let that wait. But the principle is the same. Release the floodgate, then ride the wave! That said, she has her limits. I mean that in the nicest possible way. We all do. Check the websites of this little community. Go on, properly! Your own too, now: and with a critical, distant but not unfriendly eye. What are you looking for? Well, I’ll give you a clue. You won’t find it. You won’t find it because it ain’t there. You left it out. On purpose. No, no, you did just! On Purpose. Oh yes! Maybe it was a long while back, and you;ve forgotten: the decision has long since been finalized and fixed in stone. You don’t write about ‘him outdoors’, do you? Your neighbours are out of bounds too, aren’t they. And who wants to read about struggles with new computer? (Well, I might?) And are you really telling me that your entire day is spent either feeding the animals or weaving? And what about Denise and I? Don’t we ever get fed up of what we’re doing and decide to sell up and move where it’s sunny every day? Well we do, but you wouldn’t know that from our blogs, would you? (That is about to change!) And that reminds me, it’s farmers who are particularly susceptible to what are now referred to as ‘mental health issues’. The stereotypicall suicidally depressed farmer is of course the middle-aged man (probably a dairy farmer), but that’s just a prejudice left over from a previous era. Most farms – even in the West – are still smaller family farms, run by couples, with the women playing a much more physical and outdoor role than was traditionally normal (especially on a dairy farm!). But this is not reflected in the farming blogs we find on WordPress. Oh no! Almost exclusively written by women (well, apparently by women!), and the readers likewise. Why? Is it inevitable? Is that right? Is it good? Well, you’ll guess what I (and Denise!) think of that, though if you think differently, by all means lets get a discussion going. But what I would say, wouldn’t there be far more to write about, far less occasion to run out of ideas, if we let our blogs grow wings! Spread them out, gather up under them all that is dear and near, and let their stories be told, with warmth and with humour, with insight and inclusiveness. And above all with love! Oichde mhath mo Charaidean. Tioraidh!

    • Well there is a challenge! Though him indoors has banned me from talking about him or photographing him. In fact he spends the majority of his time off the farm. So no challenge there. He has no interest in the blog which is fine. More for me. Thank you Jonathan and Denise for being so involved in the lounge of comments as I am wandering across the world – i have loved reading all the comments . Quite delicious!

  14. Late on board as write from Eastern semi-rural Australia: tried to sleep tossing and turning whilst even the night-time temp never dropped below 30 C! Have never ever been to the Hebrides tho’ have always wanted to go . . . seem to have read a lot of books and seen more than a few travel episodes on TV. Even without being a crofter methinks the Met Office would be on the visiting list there also on most days. Thank you for a fabulously written postcard which will be filed and read more than once 🙂 !

  15. Just fascinating post. Can’t remember why but the moment I read Outer Hebrides, I thought of Virginia Woolf. I trust your capping off comments are Gaelic? I’d love a translation. Did try to guess, though. Do you speak in Gaelic or English most of the time?

  16. I am quite late in visiting- what a lovely blog you have and I’ll be back for sure! We live on 10.5 acres in the mountains of upper Northern California. We moved here from
    the Portland Oregon metro area five years ago. There has been a lot of adjusting to climate and although we are not farmers we are doing our best to improve the land
    by thinning trees and ridding it of invasive non-native plants. Vegetable growing has been an enormous challenge for me as I was able to grow anything with ease where
    we used to live. Not here. Dry hot winds and poor soil …. we’ve built a deer resistant fence and put in raised beds with lots of good manure from our neighbors animals,
    but I still have an uphill challenge! Celia’s gift of growing amazes me and now I can enjoy your stories. Cheers and have a lovely day!

  17. Pingback: Letter from the Outer Hebrides – SEO

  18. I visited South Uist in May. I’m pleased I didn’t go in December after reading the weather forecast you posted. It must be lovely to live there, but hard work too, with a challenging climate, but beautiful on a sunny day, and with lovely clean air and lovely scenery.

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