We have been farming the island of Auskerry for 35 years. The stretches of water that separate us and the nearest islands are subject to strong tides, and we are often unable to cross for anything up to 6 weeks in the winter. Even in summertime it can be hard to find a day that is safe to take the two hour crossing in a small boat.
As a result we have had to be very self sufficient in terms of practical skills. We have extended our house from a one-roomed stone bothy to a four bedroomed family home as our family has grown.
As we are the only family living on the island we have had to provide schooling for our three sons. However 2010 will be the last year of the ‘Auskerry School’ as all three will be too old to attend after this.
Elsewhere, North Ronaldsay sheep are considered to be untameable but ours have grown used to us. We are constantly walking around the island to go fishing, check on the sheep or to look for driftwood, and so they carry on grazing regardless of our presence. The island has 250 acres of heather, native grasses and flowers - all of which are eaten by the sheep, but they mostly like to eat the seaweed. This is particularly true in winter when the seaweed is rich in protein. At low tide you can see our sheep as far out on the rocks as possible, vying with the waves to get at the freshest bits of living weed. As the tide returns, they jump over rock-pools or swim across gullies in order to return to the beach where they will graze the long fronds of washed up weed called 'kelp'.
We built our house on the relatively sheltered corner of the island and at night in the summer we can hear hundreds of sheep hooves shuffling the pebbles beneath our bedroom window. When the winds blast we are huddled by our peat fire whilst the ‘Rolies’ snuggle into the shelter of rocky crags and caves.