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  • Writer's pictureHighland Croft

In The Beginning, There Were Sheep

I get asked that a lot - how did I as a German end up here in the Scottish Highlands? What on earth does a degree in Modern German Literature, Theatre Studies and Italian Philology have to do with rearing sheep and beef cattle? Sometimes in the summer, when I'm checking guests in the caravan, I tell this story - in a slightly abbreviated version - most days.

It is also the story how Tom and I met and how I left a life and a country that I was basically entirely happy with, to set sail for the unknown, the nothing-is-guaranteed, no-safety net world of travelling and working in agriculture. And yeah, there was a happy ending, only that it was rather a happy beginning as we are not done yet by any means!

Oh my, do we look young in this picture! This was shearing stud Merinos in Australia in 2012

After uni and acquiring said rather fancy sounding, heady degree, I craved a change of scenery. So I went to New Zealand for a year to do a work and travel - as you do. The compulsory Grand Tour of our age, to pretty much the standard location where most self-declared free spirits seem to end up. And, it turns out, many many Germans, fresh from school and in a right mindset for party and not much else. Now I was at that point a crucial few years older and I simply couldn't be bothered with any of my fellow countrymen and -women or even being associated with them. So more often than not, I didn't even give away I was German myself. And rather than bungee-jumping and boozing myself into oblivion, I started WWOOFing and then properly working on dairy, sheep and beef cattle farms. And somehow, even though there was no right lightbulb moment as such, I did get a sense that I wasn't destined to work in a publishing house or theatre. Well, I sort of knew the latter one anyway, as I had found my fellow theatre science students to be rather so exhausting, shall we say, that I could not picture myself spending the rest of my working life in their self-absorbed company.

I ended up WWOOFing with a dairy farmer who was also a shearer and he taught me as I, if there is such a thing, had fallen in love with a job - shearing sheep. I lined up a shearing course and work in a shearing gang in Scotland for the following year before I left New Zealand and went back to Munich, where I worked in an office job for four month. I had however been clear with them that I had a two months stay in Scotland organised so they agreed to let me go - a mistake, as it would turn out.

Tom was a shearer in the gang with which I was working, doing the wool and shearing the occasional sheep. But we were both in relationships at the time and had, though I can only speak for myself here, no interest in each other. We did however plant a hedge together and got on really well working. In fact, it took him almost to the end of my two months stay to finally make a move. So what now?

In short - I went back to my old office job, split up with my old boyfriend, moved in with my granny, secretly while at work booked flight tickets and ran to the printer before anybody could find me out, and four months later I quit. Flying back and forth for a few days to see each other was clearly not viable. "That bloody Scotsman", were my boss's words when I broke the news to him.

And so we went off to New Zealand - Tom shearing and me doing wool, working in different shearing gangs. And this is what we did for the next few years: Spending half of the year in New Zealand and Australia shearing and returning to the UK in the spring, doing a lambing job and then staring to shear here while building up a forever growing shearing run. So for a few years we didn't have a winter, and yes, that was kinda nice though Christmas at the beach will always feel wrong. On the downside, we lived in a static caravan and owned nothing, just a dog.

There was never even a discussion as to who would have to give up their entire life as it was and move. It was always assumed that I would move, and so I packed up everything and cut all my old ties - you know, proper job, health insurance, friends, the lot. Finding a haulier that would actually pick things up in Germany and bring them all the way up here was indeed surprisingly tricky. Turns out, I seem to have moved beyond the boundaries of civilisation.

In the beginning there were sheep and there must be something undeniably romantic about them as I know a few people actually that have hooked up over sheep. It was sheep that got us together and sheep were the reason for much of our travelling. But then sheep were also what lead us to this croft that we have been calling home for the past five years.

We used to go shearing here for the previous owner and we all liked this place particularly, as not only did they make delicious food for us - and plenty of it! - but also the entire mini bar found its way out to the shed. We were essentially all lying on a wool sheet in the sun and didn't want to leave.

Couple goals - partner look and shearing in sync.

However, sadly ill health forced the old crofter to downsize his sheep numbers the following year and the year after, they were all gone. All the lifestock was gone and the croft sank into a deep sleep for two years. Willie Hugh had moved into the village, but when it became clear that he wouldn't be fit to return, he was made aware of us, and approached us directly.

Tom and I had grown a bit tired of all the travelling and looking after other people's sheep. It had been a great experience, but now we felt like setting up on our own. Finding a croft to buy however is notoriously difficult as they are so sought after these days, whereas a few years ago they weren't worth anything and nobody was wanting them. To start out in agriculture from scratch you have to be of a certain mindset anyway, but that is the topic for another blog article.

The good places never end up on the market, and this was one of them. A chain of who said what to whom involving ceilidh dancing classes and neighbours led to Willie asking us if we were interested in taking this croft over. He wasn't wanting someone to just turn it into a lifestyle property or plant it all in trees. And even though we have ponies and a horse and have planted a few trees now, we run it as a traditional croft with currently 130 ewes and five breeding cows. Tom is supplementing the croft income with shearing and forestry work and I have diversified into tourism and meat sales.

So sheep are still at the heart of our lives, and although we don't go shearing together as much as we used to - due to having a forever growing number of children and other commitments - it is now our own sheep that we look after so we have kind of come full circle. We can now decide what breeds to have and try out different ways of stock management because the great thing about running your own croft is that it's like cooking a soup: you choose the ingredients and what works for you, though it might not work for somebody a couple of miles down the road or even your neighbour. You build up your flock, your genetics, you can try out throwing something funky like a Hebridean or a Shetland into the mixture, but it's great to be your own master and make your own decisions.

Who would have known all these years ago when I was picking up the fleeces that Tom shore off, one after the other, that one day we'd get married and me picking up the mess he has created would be a recurrent theme in our lives? That and sheep. Obviously. And even though sometimes they drive me up the walls - like when they ignore my fences and the grazing policy I have worked out for them and march right past my front door first thing in the morning - despite all the hours in any weather you have to spend tending to them out in the hill, any time of the day ... yes, despite all that I suppose I have to thank them somehow for bringing Tom and myself together and leading us to this wonderful place that is now a blossoming croft and a family home once again.

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