Machair is a Gaelic word that describes an extensive low-lying fertile plain formed of shell sand from years of Atlantic waters grinding up the remains of prehistoric sea creatures. It is one of the rarest habitat types in Europe, almost half of all Scottish machair occurs in the Outer Hebrides.
On the Machair is loosely woven around aspects of the crofting lifestyle past and present. Crofting is a unique social system now only found in the Scottish Highlands and Islands. It is an ancient system of land management and a way of life involving small scale food production, fishing and animal husbandry which has ensured that unique environments and habitats have been protected.
Most crofters are tenants and present day crofting has evolved out of hard fought battles with (often absentee) landowners. In the nineteenth century sheep largely replaced people on the machair when thousands of families emigrated to Canada, New Zealand and Australia, forcibly cleared from the land or economic migrants in search of a better life. In North Uist, on the Sollas machair a plaque commemorates the time in 1849 when 33 constables were sent to evict the population of 603 and celebrates how the existing 10 crofts except one have been occupied by the same families for the last century ”around us the Sollas landscape provides a heritage of ruined houses and fallen dykes, a poignant and permanent reminder of nineteenth century feudal oppression, clearance and emigration”.
The machair supports the crofting lifestyles in terms of the plants, crops, animals and birds that can be found there. Over the spring and summer it is carpeted with wild flowers and the scent wafts over the islands on the wind. Where the machair meets the sea there is a chain of are glorious white sand beaches up the entire west side of the Outer Hebrides.
This piece includes a recording of a corncrake with sheep and an accordian player at a birthday party on the beach far across the machair one summer’s night in 2004; a mobile sheep sale which travels around the islands visiting small crofting townships and the voices of Lachlan MacQueen of North Uist recounting, in Gaelic, the story of his family being forcibly evicted from their land recorded by D.R. MacDonald in 1974 for the oral history archive at the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh, and my recordings of Donald MacSween of Ness, Lewis and John and Mary Maclean from Berneray.
On the Machair 10’03”