The end of an era in Skye crofting was signalled this week when Staffin man Iain MacDonald sold the last of his cattle.
Iain is widely thought to be the last Scottish crofter to annually swim his cattle to winter grazings — a practice which has been featured regularly in recent years in print and on TV, most recently on BBC Scotland’s ‘Grand Tours of the Scottish Islands’ programme.
Now 85, Iain this week sold his remaining 20 cows, 13 calves and a bull — and brought an end to nearly 60 years of cattle-rearing.
He was well known because every October since 1959 he has moved heifers across the short sea crossing from the Staffin mainland to winter pasture on Stenscholl Island.
Iain said he had decided to call it a day with the cattle after a recent knee operation had ‘slowed him down’. However, his crofting days aren’t over and he will continue to keep sheep.
“I’ve had a knee operation, and I’ve not been a very good patient,” joked Iain, who spent his early years in Glasgow before moving to the family croft in Staffin in his teens. “Old age has caught up with me now, and I’ve had to be on a quad bike most of the time. That’s the last of the cattle, after nearly 60 years. But I’ve got sheep now and will carry on crofting if I can.”
The annual cattle drive to Stenscholl Island would see Iain and local helpers herd the cattle down the beach, before he rowed alongside them for the 150-metre crossing. Always timed to coincide with low tides, the crossing took place in October and the cows would return to Staffin in January.
In over six decades Iain had apparently never lost an animal in making the crossing. But this week he lamented the fact that his careful stewardship failed to yield much of a return at the mart.
“I’m afraid I didn’t get a very good price for them,” he said.