By Katie Macleod
Visitors to the Hebrides looking for a real taste of island life need look no further than Ness in Lewis, the location of Donald ‘Sweeny’ Macsween’s croft tourism venture, Air an Lot.
Air an Lot – Gaelic for ‘on the croft’ – offers tourists and locals alike the chance to experience the day-to-day happenings on an island croft, from feeding the animals to cutting peats. “It just depends how hands on people want to get,” says Donald of the activities available.
“Generally people will come and have a wee tour. If you want to just look at the animals and don’t go near them, that’s fine, but if you want to get stuck in and spend a bit more time, you can muck out the hen house, help feed the sheep, stuff like that.” By next year, visitors looking for a real taste of the islands will even able to stay on a nearby croft in the Port of Ness, where Donald is currently renovating a self-catering ‘Air an Lot’ holiday cottage for tourists.
Through Air an Lot, Donald also sells fresh eggs, meat boxes, and sausages, and is starting to branch out into areas such as sheepskin rugs and wool, too. “I enjoy working with animals on a daily basis, and I think it’s important that they’re valued as well. If that animal has had to die to produce food, then it’s only right that we make the most use possible out of that animal.”
Although Air an Lot is coming into its own this year, the croft tourism business has been more than four years in the making. After graduating from university and working as a journalist for the BBC, Donald worked for the local council on a European-funded project, one that helped provide opportunities for young people to stay in the islands through a focus on enterprise.
“When I was going round talking to these kids I was thinking to myself, ‘I’m telling them to pursue their passion, and I’m not doing it myself,’” remembers Donald. It was a realization that led him to “actively pursue” his own interests, working seriously on the croft and documenting the ups and downs of a crofting life on his popular blog, Air an Lot.
Thanks to social media and word of mouth, people started asking if they could take their children to visit the croft and interact with the animals. From there, it’s only grown. Bookings are coming in from families, school groups, and tourists, all wanting to get a taste of croft life and interact with the animals, many of whom, like his sheep dog Bud, only respond to Gaelic.
Donald and his family’s crofting experiences are even the subject of a TV series on BBC Alba, also named Air an Lot. The half hour-long episodes give an often humorous look at the life of a crofter, and the first series has been nominated for Best Factual Series at the 2017 Celtic Media Festival.
“The best feedback I’ve got from it is people saying it’s real, it’s just what it’s like being a crofter, and that’s what I wanted it to be,” says Donald, who has worked in Gaelic broadcasting since the launch of BBC Alba in 2008. “I want it to be a true reflection of what it’s like on the croft, and I think the editor and director have done an excellent job of putting that message across.”
The reality of crofting is often a difficult one, with early starts, late nights, and constant preparations for the future. “You’re basically spending your summer preparing to get through the winter,” says Donald. “You’re getting your hay to feed animals in the winter, you’re getting peats to warm your house in the winter, so our whole year is pretty much about survival.”
While a typical day on the croft usually includes checking on the livestock, making sure everything is clean, collecting eggs, and feeding the animals, it all depends on the time of the year, and of course, the weather. “With livestock, it’s difficult to predict things, particularly in the winter and early spring, the weather is a huge factor,” he explains.
For Donald, though, the hard work is worth it for the sense of satisfaction. He grew up in a crofting family, and was given one of the family crofts 12 years ago, on his 21st birthday. “I’ve always loved working with animals, so that’s a huge part of it to me,” he says, remembering the excitement he felt as a child during lambing time. “I’d be really excited, bouncing away back down the croft – and I’m still like that.”
It’s an enthusiasm that makes a visit to Air an Lot all the more enjoyable, and when it comes to experiencing the croft, Donald hopes visitors will “be slightly more aware of what it’s like to be a crofter, and significantly more aware of where their food comes from.”
“Everyone who’s come here has thoroughly enjoyed themselves, and they’ve been surprised,” says Donald of the reaction to the croft so far. “Something has surprised them in a positive way, in terms of opening their eyes to how tough it is, the food production, or just how accessible it is as well.”