People of Tiree – Rhoda Meek
Rhoda Meek was born and raised in Edinburgh, moving to the island around five and a half years ago. She works remotely as a Director of Customer Service for a Software Company in America, troubleshooting problems within the programs, but also took on her family’s croft.
Not only has Rhoda taken on with learning how to manage and work the croft, but she has accomplished a variety of projects since joining Tiree’s community. She took the time to sit down and talk about some of her experiences, including her latest project with building hayricks using traditional methods.
What did you have to do at the start when you arrived here?
I don’t think I knew what I wanted to do when I got here; I just do the things I enjoy. The main thing is that I knew this house needed attention and it was my main focus.
Did you live here in your grandmother’s house at the start or did you live somewhere else?
I lived in here and did up the other side. I stripped it out myself then had other people come in to fix it up. I’m quite good at building functional things but they don’t look pretty so I had professionals put it back together. The house was my main focus to make it liveable and reasonably modern. I started taking lets for the other end of the house because there’s no point in it just being me.
What was after fixing up the house?
I actually started the vegetables before the house was finished; I needed a project to keep me busy. The house was very cold and had little hot water so I needed something to take my mind off it. I had to SEE progress so that’s why I started doing the veg. As the house came to an end I started working on the croft.
So it’s all gradually come along, but you’ve made it work! You’ve built it up from something that wasn’t in the greatest condition.
Yeah it was cold, damp, draughty and came with a collection of insects. Before I decided I was going to rip the whole place apart – which we did – we stripped it all down to the stone and dirt, I hired a damp surveyor from Oban. He was quite a while before saying I have good and bad news. He says, “Well you have wet rot, wood weevil, woodworm, condensationary damp, rising damp and penetrating damp, but you don’t have any dry rot.” That was the one bit of good news! So, I decided to just start again. The stonework is still the original. The house was built in 1891, it’s never going to be perfect, never draft free etc but I like it that way, I want the house to keep its soul.
So how did “Fresh Off the Croft” start?
It started out because I enjoyed being outside. I wasn’t doing anything with the croft when I moved here and I wanted to be able to do things. I can’t spend all day on the computer so it was nice, but I also can’t spend all day staring at vegetables. The first year wasn’t that great but on the second year I had a few extra and decided to start selling them to people. I had enough money to pay for the seeds for next year and I thought maybe I could start selling vegetables. That’s how it kicked off. Then I spoke to Jane Williams my neighbour and she decided to get involved. It’s fun and people seem to enjoy eating them. We keep spare potatoes, carrots, onions, leeks so we’ve always got enough for soup. Kale grows throughout the year and this time of year there’s cucumbers and tomatoes. There’s usually lettuce but the caterpillars ate them this year. A lot of work goes into it and I dread to think what the hourly rate would be, but I really enjoy it. I think one of the nice things about crofting in general is that you cannot win against nature. Nature will always find a way to do what it wants to do. It sort of takes the pressure off as you’ll never be able to achieve perfection. You always get to think next year will be better. It doesn’t matter how rough it’s been, there’s always a glimmer of optimism.
So no two years are ever the same?
There are no two years that are the same. This is now the 6th Summer I’ve been growing vegetables and the 4th Summer I’ve been doing it as Fresh Off the Croft and I haven’t yet had two Springs or Summers the same. Problems you have one year don’t appear the next year. Things grow perfectly one year, you do the exact same next year and they just don’t grow. You’re constantly trying to find reasons and coming up with theories but it is what it is. I guess I like that challenge of trying to problem solve. It’s never boring, and you never get the same problem twice which is infuriating!
What possessed you to make hay this year using traditional methods?
Well I had some really good grass at the top of the field; the field’s quite wet so the grass grew in nicely. I thought it’d be a shame to let it go to waste, so I decided to cut it. I thought it was a really good idea at the time to get a contractor to cut it and after it was cut it dawned on me I was going to have to turn it, and dry it, and store it. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. So, I went and got some advice from people, found some old pitchforks in the garage, and turned the hay by hand. I did it three times, then I realised it wasn’t drying fast enough. I decided to go up a generation and I borrowed a haybob and turned it with that. It started drying properly since it spreads out so it’s not quite as thick. I was feeling delighted with myself and my hay was lovely and dry and then the rain was forecast… I had a minor meltdown because I had no idea how to get that amount of hay secure. One of my neighbours, Lachie, gave me his time and he taught me how to build hayricks in the old style. The idea was that you would build these hayricks in the field with three fence posts, in a triangle, in the middle and you tie them. You go around putting the hay on loosely and carry on in a circle building it up until you get your hayrick. Then you put a little hat on it, which is kind of crisscrossed hay. The idea is that water doesn’t penetrate that and it just runs down the sides. So when you get a couple of good dry days the top and the side of your stack are all that needs to dry out and it keeps the rest of the hay inside nice and dry. What they would have done back in the day was get a buckrake, like a huge fork on the back of the tractor, and put it under the rick, lift it up and then take it into the stack yard. You would then fork the off the ricks, and rebuild them into a full haystack.
So you do your research on the history of crofting?
For me there is a lot of value in understanding the old ways. It doesn’t mean it makes the most sense to use them these days when there are easier methods but equally I think there are things to learn from looking at how things were done in the past. I’ve been looking at drains recently. You look at how my ancestors built them and they run perfectly and they make perfect sense and I can see exactly why they were built this way and I wouldn’t change them – aside from cleaning them! I’ve learned a lot by looking at just the way things were laid out.
Did you have help from other people?
I’ve had a huge amount of help from people. I honestly couldn’t do a fraction of what I attempt without people giving me their time so generously. I’m forever asking questions! I try to use my computer skills to help people in return. I will go as far as I can before asking for help. I’m naturally proud, but after I spent 3 days trying to hit a bolt, I asked for help and of course, when you ask someone with expertise, it gets done in 30 seconds, but I’m always determined to give it a good try.
Do you have any other big projects planned?
Loads of them but whether any will happen I don’t know. There are still two out buildings on the croft that need a lot of work; they need reroofed at the very least. I haven’t finished my building projects by any stretch, but I am going to have a pause before doing more, assuming winter doesn’t take any roofs off! I’d like to get some cows in the next year. I would also like to actually complete a crofting year feeling like I know roughly what I’m doing… I think learning is my biggest project at the moment.
So you’re still learning?
Definitely! Lambing this year, I’ve never felt so ignorant in my life. It was like a vertical learning curve. It was incredibly humbling actually. I’ve helped other people in previous years but doing it yourself is different. When I’m on my own and I have to make a decision, it’s 50/50 and 9 times out of 10 I don’t even know if it was the right decision. That was the really challenging bit for me – I hate not knowing things!
So, besides your family ties, what made you decide to move to Tiree and take all this on?
I’ve always felt like I had a connection with this place, I always wanted to come back. It just suits me. I think I benefitted not growing up on Tiree; from growing up in the city and coming to Tiree on holiday, the freedom was incredible. This was a paradise for me as a kid, and I think as an adult looking for somewhere I could just breathe, and somewhere which felt like home, Tiree became an obvious choice. My favourite part of Tiree is the silence, especially in the winter. I love the storms, lying in bed and listening to the storm battering the roof.
Thank you to Rhoda for sitting down with me to talk about her experiences!
– Rou Worsley, Editor