LOOKING back at old photos, the croft seems to be such a hive of activity. Black and white photos show groups of smiling people sitting in the sun, taking a break from haymaking, or returning from a fishing trip.

That’s deceptive of course – no-one was taking photos the day the haystacks went on fire, or the day they took a flight to Coll thanks to a particularly vicious westerly. No-one was taking photos when the horse died, or when the boat sank, or when my grandfather, working alone, ran himself over with his own tractor.

My great-great-grandfather’s generation may have had more knowledge in their ­little finger than I will gather in a lifetime, but I have a hugely powerful pick-up and a tractor and many more conveniences – not least the ability to buy in feeding with ­relative ease.

Knowledge aside, what I don’t have is a large family and community base to draw on for labour.

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People talk about how crofting has moved from being a communal ­activity, where people in townships worked ­together to shear and harvest – ­moving from croft to croft as a team – to an ­individual pursuit. Often, it’s framed as a choice. The truth is that there was very little choice.

The seemingly idyllic life in the hayfield couldn’t sustain such numbers. And so they dwindled. The large families in the photos emigrated. Two generations of our family emigrated to Canada to find a ­better life. Each time they left a son ­behind as an insurance policy – which is why we are still in our corner of Tiree – but it was a close-run thing on both ­occasions.

For those still who remained, the cost of living increased. Where they had once crofted and supplemented it when ­required, now they found themselves needing to find more ways to supplement.

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And so we ended up where we are now, where many crofters work full-time and fit the croft into their lives as best they can. If you are short of time, there is little choice but to buy the machinery required to make it as easy as possible to manage in the small windows of opportunity and light available.

Extra labour used to come in the form of those who lived in the cottar houses – houses usually dotted round the ­coastline and inhabited by people who didn’t have land. The houses were owned by the ­estate and the inhabitants paid their way in fishing and labour. Those houses were gradually sold off as their occupants died. In my end of Tiree, every single one is a holiday house these days. Homes for the landless are now owned by the landed.

Haymaking has long gone. Silage is much more forgiving – and doesn’t ­require anything like the level of ­patience and planning. In Tiree, a lot of us ­contract our baling out – not least because we are bound by dates for environmental schemes. The reliable weather windows for hay have long since disappeared – along with the community needed to make it happen.

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Time was that crofting and fishing were the only two sides of the ­Gàidhealtachd coin. Most islanders were involved in one if not both. Now, there are many ­communities jousting for space – the ­environmentalists, the early retired ­migrants, the returners, the tourism ­providers, the idyll hunters and more. Our traditional crofting and fishing communities are hanging on by their fingernails.

Gaelic is bound to both the crofting and fishing communities of the Highlands and Islands. And it is disappearing at pace in its heartlands. Last week, Kate Forbes MSP (below) spoke up about the twin plights of housing and Gaelic, calling for the issues to be viewed as a national emergency.

The National: Kate Forbes MSP, the SNP leadership candidate poses for a photograph in the library of the Sikorski Polish Club in Glasgow where after she met members of the Ukrainian community at the Glasgow branch of the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain

“We’ve invested a lot of time in Gaelic learning while forgetting about ­protecting the Gaelic communities that we have ­already,” said Forbes, urging that money be channelled to “the areas that have most to contribute in preserving Gaelic”.

The same could be said of the ­current trend towards rewilding. We are ­spending a lot of money working out how to ­preserve nature – while forgetting about the treasure trove of knowledge we ­already have.

Just like the HPMA debacle – where our creel fishermen would have been best-placed to make informed suggestions to improve the seas, some of the people who have the most to contribute to the climate conversation are crofters. Once again, though, it appears that they are among the last to be consulted.

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Crofters in Skye are coalescing around the question of a National Park. A ­meeting of crofters last Friday was ­almost ­unanimous in its opposition to the ­proposed National Park. The worry is that while investment could be welcome, the strings attached are unclear and ­deeply worrying. A word that keeps coming up as a cause for concern is “rewilding”.

Skye is not alone. Farmers in the ­Cairngorms staged a protest recently about the approach the Cairngorms ­National Park Authority is taking to land management and rewilding. Specifically, they were frustrated that decisions about the introduction of beavers were made without consultation. One banner read “Bring us on board”.

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Caring for nature, and understanding its importance is not a new activity. My dad was leaving patches of hay in the ­centre and perimeter of a field for the corncrakes, and popping baby leverets in his pocket to save them from the mower, long before the government decided to pay us to do it. Machair ground was deferred and allowed to grow over the summer so that nature could complete its reseeding long before the Government decided it should be an environmental scheme.

You only have to drive through Skye with an understanding of grazing patterns to see croft after croft sitting overgrown. That’s not a habitat – it’s a disgrace – and a complete failure of the current system of croft regulation. Crofts should be worked – not sold to the highest bidder as a large garden – whilst those who work the land daily are lectured from on high about the butterflies.

We saw the fishing community speak up with one voice during the HPMA saga last year. It’s time for the crofting ­community to do the same.

Yes, nature is precious and our climate is on a knife edge. But so too are the ­communities who have it in their power to help.

Crofters should be appreciated for the role they already play in ­protecting, ­preserving and supporting nature, and ­absolutely encouraged to do more of it. But on their terms – using their ­knowledge. That encouragement has to come with an understanding that their culture and community are being eroded, and some respect for the fact that they are so deeply connected to their place that they feel it in their bones.

As I have been taught to croft, so too I’ve learned how to work in partnership with others. Once I could drive a tractor, I was immediately pressed into service moving bales and working the ­wrapper. Three of us work round our various crofts in rotation, mowing, baling and ­wrapping. I’m the youngest of that group by a fair distance. The succession for the crofts is uncertain. I suspect it won’t be long ­before I too am contracting the ­baling out – and the last thing that I can still point to as true collaboration will go into the photo album.

If you don’t fix the housing – if you don’t go all in on supporting the ­vernacular ­language and culture – then you will also drain every last bit of generational ­crofting and fishing expertise out of the Highlands and Islands. Our traditional communities are their own ecosystem. It’s time to save them before it’s too late on every front.