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Scotland's Larder: Helen O'Keefe, crofter from Elphin

We talk to Helen O'Keefe, winner of the Young crofter of the year, about giving up her sporting dreams to move to a croft on the other side of the world.

Published: May 11, 2021

Helen O'Keefe, has just returned from a mercy dash to the vets, with a difficult lambing.

"This morning was a lot more eventful than I prefer them to be, it is only the second time my sheep have needed an emergency trip to the vet," Helen said.

Elphin is a crofting township with a population of sixty, a few houses scattered along a lush valley north of Ullapool.

The limestone geology means that heather doesn't grow, instead it is surrounded by verdant green fields.

Helen O'Keefe owns three hectares of land, a bungalow and the tearoom, which was one of the original croft houses.

Middleton Croft, Elphin

Her life now is completely different from her one in Australia.

Born in Tasmania, she spent a good part of her childhood in Bridgetown, South West Australia.

The family lived on a hobby farm, they kept horses, chickens and sheep for wool and her parents grew vegetables.

A land down under

After school she studied mining engineering and finance at Kalgoorlie University (Western Australian School of Mines) before working as a mine consultant.

She said, "I really enjoyed it, it plays well to my strengths it is straightforward you have a goal, whereas crofting is not like that there is so much doubt and questioning."

Some of Helen's flock on Middleton Croft

In her twenties she moved to Perth and she decided to take up a sport.

Growing up she had watched Olympic equestrian events on TV, but afterwards they'd showed rowing, and somehow she believed she'd be good at it.

Despite being only 5ft 2, she was right.

Hard work and determination saw her training full time, competing at national level and trying out for the Australian Team.

However she developed post viral fatigue, "we didn't know what it was for a long time," she said.

The bonnie hills and heather

Although having no Scottish heritage, she came on a short holiday to Scotland, which allowed a particular mountain to capture her heart and led to her moving here permanently.

She said, "We were on our way to Durness and I was stunned by this one particular hill, Quinag. I really needed to go up there one day."

That hill stayed in her memory when she went back to Australia.

Ardvreck Castle, Sutherland, with Quinag behind. Picture: Getty

She attempted to row competitively again, but the fatigue came back, she explained, "my brain shuts down, I can't string a sentence together, everything, even breathing, becomes an effort."

That ended her high level sporting career and she faced rebuilding her life doing something else.

She said, "it was devastating. You run your whole life around this thing and your body lets you down, suddenly you can't do it."

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Learning to live with tiredness has been hard, "mostly it is fine, but it slows me down a bit," she said.

"I've got better at identifying when it is going to start and I stop and rest, sometimes you can get on top of it.

"It limits stuff I want to do on the croft and that is really frustrating."

She decided to come back to Scotland initially for six weeks, and walk up that hill as a reward for getting through her awful last rowing season, but she said, "when I went home back to Australia, it didn't feel like home anymore."

She had stayed in touch with some people in Durness, so decided to permanently move to Scotland.

A Crofters life for me

She met her partner, Brendan, who was heavily involved in the Assynt foundation, at the tenth anniversary walk up Suilven.

Helen said, "my colleague, rightly assumed that I would be up for a bit of hiking and a good night out."

Brendan worked in Elphin and whilst visiting, Helen found out the tearoom was for sale.

She said, "I just had this crazy idea that I could run the cafe and actually grow stuff on the croft and sell it through the tearoom."

Helen said, "I had this idea we could really showcase what a crofting community can produce."

Helen explained, "some people wanted the cafe, others just the croft - nobody really wanted them both, but I did."

The only snag was she couldn't afford it on her own, so she pitched the idea to her mother in Australia that she could sell up everything, and help her buy and run the tearoom.

Fair play, her mum was up for the challenge.

The sale was stressful, as they needed a fluctuating exchange rate to work in their favour, but six months later the deal was signed.

On the Croft

The croft was in a decent state, the fencing was alright and there weren't loads of weeds or rushes.

Although her mum had bred sheep in Australia, the weather here made it harder, and they had to learn how to deal with snow.

Her croft comes with common grazing rights, so the sheep graze on over a thousand hectares of hill ground for most of the year.

Dual purpose Shetland sheep provide wool and meat.

She said, "They are rounded up in November for tupping, in April for lambing, for shearing in July as well as at various other times.

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"I have got one hundred hardy Shetland sheep, mine are mostly bucket trained so they will come running for food which makes things a lot easier."

Her flock are dual purpose used for meat and wool she said, "they are a bit smaller so easier for me to handle and they come in all different colours and they have interesting personalities.

"They have got the best wool of all the native British breeds, their meat is slow maturing and they are easy to lamb apart from the one this morning," she said.

Future crofting plans

She has plans to breed for further wool improvements, as well as raising rare Scots Grey hens for their eggs and meat.

A successful grant application has meant her polytunnel should arrive by July, and she plans to grow more vegetables all year round.

Elphin is right on the NC500, Helen explains that is good for the cafe and for selling croft produce but she said, "lockdown has been lovely because the kids have been riding their bikes along the road and there will be no way that will be happening anymore."

The Tearoom opens April until the end of October, she said, "we try to keep going a little bit in the winter for the locals," and she tells me they sell the best scones in the north west.

The Elphin Tearoom on the NC500. Picture: Virginie Moyne

She is proud of her vegetable plot, growing; tatties, kale, broad beans, carrots, salad leaves.

She said, "I grew some amazing fennel my first year so I'd like to grow more, but we have a really short growing season.

"I have planted a small orchard with various soft fruit and a lot of native trees in the fields for food, biodiversity and as sheep shelter.

"I grow anything I can. I've got some oats and barley this year to do some trial plots."

Village people

Last year she cut her own hay and would like to do that again, she said, "not many people do that up here anymore."

Helen said, "we are quite lucky, a lot of the crofting townships are losing people or have lots of holiday homes but most of our houses have full time residents and we have families who have moved to the village."

And it is a cosmopolitan place, with French, Dutch, German, Scottish and English from all avenues of life.

Helen said, "everyone was really helpful when I first moved and really helped out when I got my livestock."

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Covid stopped village events but Helen explained: "there is usually a Burns supper every year, Christmas party and curry nights and of course the Elphin chicken day."

Helen is a force of nature and along with a neighbour Tessa Dorrian has created 'The Green Bowl.' which is a community online food hub, where back yard growers and producers from around Elphin can sell their food.

She explained, "I had this idea we could really showcase what a crofting community can produce.

"I got into crofting to produce quality food, I had my mutton and hogget and my neighbour has pork and beef to sell.

"This was what crofting was always about, I was thinking we could have a small farm shop in the tearoom, and people could make a bit of extra money.

"However the tearoom shut, due to Covid so we needed another outlet for our produce so that forced us to launch the food network page online."

Shop local

She said, "we invited everyone that grew in the village to join. However it is a work in progress.

"There are other local producers that we want to include and one neighbour has plans to get a butchery unit set up, so in the future we would like to make our own sausages and bacon and burgers."

Each of them has an online presence within The Green Bowl shop, it opens three days a week and customers order, pay online and it is packaged and then Helen's mum delivers locally to customers door every Thursday.

The Green Bowl was a lifesaver during lockdown, Helen said, "people appreciated getting local goods, everything we sell is from this village."

Are you glad you came all the way around the world?

"Absolutely. Even when things are going really wrong or I'm having trouble with the sheep I just can't imagine being anywhere else," she said.

Helen won young crofter of the year for Scotland this year, she said, " It is a pretty big thing, and I am proud to have won, particularly since I haven't been here that long.

"I want to try and raise the profile of crofting. The community side really does matter to me, it is such a key part of what crofting is.

"There is so much potential. We can achieve so much in places like this."

Crofter Helen O'Keefe
Helen O'Keefe. Picture: Virginie Moyne

Middleton Croft

Elphin 
Lairg
IV27 4HH

The Green Bowl

• READ MORE: Scotland's Larder: Iain Baillie from Tantrum Doughnuts Glasgow

Catriona is based in the Scottish Borders and works as part of the audiovisual team at the Scotsman but she reviews restaurants for Scotland on Sunday and writes for Scotsman Food and Drink in her spare time.

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