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Small business focus: Celebrity crofter and football boss Donald Macsween listens to business podcasts while mucking out the henhouse

Donald Macsween
Donald Macsween

Each week, we ask small businesses key questions. Here we speak to crofter Donald “Sweeny” Macsween, who runs Air An Lot at Ness, on Lewis.

How and why did you start in business?

Taking part in Young Enterprise at school inspired me and I really wanted to run my own business – ideally, crofting, which I’ve always loved.

Instead, I found myself employed by the council to encourage young people to follow their own passions and set up their own businesses.

While enjoyable, I really wanted to practice what I preached, so I left to follow my dream and become a crofter.

How did you get to where you are today?

One day in 2014 I ordered 320 laying hens without any market research, not knowing the rules and without a henhouse.

I knew it would work, though, and reduced my hours at the council to three days a week for the next two-and-a-half years.

It did work and I took the leap into full-time crofting in spring 2017, knowing it would force me to become more adventurous and try different things.

I have freelanced with BBC Alba since it started in 2008, and this has allowed me to earn some extra cash on the side – all of which is invested in the business.

I had been using social media to tell my story and BBC Alba asked to follow my crofting escapades on TV, fly-on-the-wall style.

To date, we have made six series of An Lot/The Croft, and it’s been very popular.

 

Who helped you?

My parents gave me my first croft, for my 21st, which for many young people is their only route into crofting as they are expensive.

Tradition is also important. All my early memories are related to communal sheep activities, and I would never have got to know older generations without crofting.

As I get older I can see the way my grandfather’s generation worked the land was often better than today’s techniques.

It’s good to see the world swinging back to a low-input, low-output model.

Membership of the Federation of Small Businesses has also given me access to valuable information and support.

What has been your biggest mistake?

Not trusting my gut. I’m strong-willed and know what will work, even if it takes time.

But listening to others has sometimes stifled my ambition and held me back.

Successful, full-time crofting means seizing opportunities, and others can’t be allowed to get in the way.

What is your greatest achievement?

While nice, the awards I’ve won do not compare to keeping my head above water after nearly five years of full-time crofting.

There are many people who thought and still do think that I was crazy to even try.

If you were in power in government, what would you change?

I’d ban the word “remote” from descriptions of the Highlands and Islands. Remote from what? I’m at the centre of my universe.

What do you still hope to achieve?

I want to employ people, though I’m still not sure how, but I will definitely need to pivot away from pure agriculture.

People are moving away from plastics and back to more traditional forms of clothing, and generating more income from wool and tweed is important to me.

I’m developing my own Air An Lot online shop to do just that.

I’ve reinvested everything from the past five years in the business, so I’d also like to spend a little on myself too.

What do you do to relax?

What does relax mean? I love football and go to Scotland games whenever I can – I fulfilled a lifelong goal of seeing them at the Euros this summer.

I’ve been goalkeeper for my local district team, Ness FC, since 2001, and have recently been appointed manager.

I work on my own most of the time, so the social aspect of being part of a team is vital.

What are you currently reading, listening to or glued to on TV?

My Bluetooth ear defenders allow me to listen to podcasts even while I’m on the quad. I listen to all kinds, but the business-related ones give me ideas while I’m mucking out the henhouse.

What do you waste your money on?

Sheep. Anyone who has some knows what I mean.

How would your friends describe you?

Not as daft as he looks.

What would your enemies say about you?

As daft as he looks.

What do you drive and dream of driving?

I drive a pick-up, a quad and a Massey Ferguson 135 tractor, but I dream of a huge, brand-spanking-new tractor.


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