The landscape around Helen O’Keefe’s Sutherland croft spans ancient woodlands, glassy lochs, rolling hills, wetlands, moors and vast areas of grasslands.

Beneath her feet grow rare wildflowers like yellow saxifrage, in the sky overhead soar golden and sea eagles. Majestic Suilven looms over Elphin where she farms her five hectares, cares for her sheep and chickens, and tends to her market garden crops.

Covered with a layer of snow in winter, or blooming with wildflowers in spring, it could scarcely be less like Western Australia’s sun-baked Kalgoorlie desert, scared by one of the continent’s largest open-cut gold mines, pancake flat and where, until a few years ago was her home.

From the heat of Australia and the life of an elite sportswoman – she once trained as an elite rower – Helen is now either welly deep trudging across the rolling landscape gathering her sheep or driving forward yet another idea for teasing food and profit from her small corner of Sutherland.

“I hated the heat in Australia,” she confides. “Last time I went back, I couldn’t handle it. And now I can’t imagine being anywhere else. This feels like home.”

The 34-year-old Aussie’s switch from her former life as a mining engineer in Kalgoorlie, an eight-hour drive from Perth on the continent’s west coast, to Middleton Croft in the north west Highlands was crowned last week when she was named Scottish Crofting Federation’s Young Crofter of the Year.

The award recognised her remarkable effort and passion for crofters’ ideals: she has increased her flock of Shetland sheep from six to almost 100, has grown a successful meat business and sells fleeces and yarn.

Her chickens provide the occasional Sunday roast for her and her mother, Ann – who she persuaded to join her in Sutherland. The eggs are sold with fruit from the orchard and vegetables from her garden through the online community food hub, The Green Bowl, which she set up with a fellow villager and which now distributes meat, vegetables and fruit from growers from Elphin to Ullapool, Coigach and Assynt.

The embodiment of the multi-tasking crofter, Helen also runs a tearoom selling her own croft produce and baking, is the township’s Grazings Clerk, a Soil Association ambassador, and is embedded within the area’s crofting community.

It’s been achieved over just four years, after Helen arrived in Scotland on holiday, fell in love with the landscape and decided to embark on the ultimate lifestyle switch.

“Sometimes it’s been hard – mainly because there are times I feel I’m juggling so much and not achieving anything. But I love it – I’ve no regrets,” she says.

She is not the only one to be attracted to the crofters’ way of life. Traditionally handed down from one generation to another, crofting has undergone a mini revolution in recent years, with family crofts once left to drift now fetching six figure sums in certain highly desirable locations, sought after by a new breed of modern crofter seeking an alternative way of life.

And in many cases, agrees Donald MacKinnon, a young crofter and chair of the Scottish Crofting Federation, the stampede to the croft is being led by women.

“There does seem to be something going on there,” he says. “But there has always been a history of women being the crofter while the men used to go and work in the merchant Navy or fishing. There’s a symmetry there with the past.

“There’s also a general resurgence in interest in working the land. At one point in time crofts didn’t have a value. Now in Harris it can cost £100,000 or more to buy a croft.”

Research carried out by the Scottish Crofting Federation in 2018 showed increasing numbers of women turning to crofting: whereas women made up just 13% of crofters in 2014, within four years that figure had jumped to 26% with women making up one in eery four registered crofters in Scotland. While the rise in connectivity which enables people to work remotely, awareness of environmental issues along with demand for sustainable lifestyles and the simplicity of working with the land are all said to be behind a general rise demand from a new breed of would-be crofter.

But while swapping the rat race for a croft appears to be gaining momentum – with demand expected to rise in light of Covid-19 - there are concerns that not all who want the lifestyle will be able to afford it.

“I’m lucky enough to have inherited a croft,” says MacKinnon, “but there are people who have grown up in crofting communities who don’t have access to a croft.

“Our communities need people to move in, but we know there are barriers.”

It includes unworked crofts being sat on, potential land for new crofts not being released and difficulties for would-be crofters accessing financial support from banks. Rising demand from tourism has also led to traditional crofts being used for holiday accommodation.

According to the Crofting Commission, there were just 1339 crofters under the age of 40 in its Register of Crofts last year - almost the same number as the over-80s. The bulk of crofters, 5780, is within the 60 to 80 age group.

In Skye, former Glasgow-based primary school teacher Cheryl McIntyre is among a new generation of crofter who has traded city life for dirt beneath her fingernails and who sees a rise in the number of younger people seeking the crofters’ way of life.

“There are more and more young crofters coming up – in our community of eight, the shepherd is in his mid-20s, there’s another crofter who’s 32, same as me, and another one who’s 36.

“It used to be that if your parents were crofters, you would be too. But opportunities have changed. Now someone from a rural setting might want to go to the city to work but keep the option of coming back.

“And if you’re from the city, you can make a life like this.”

She was in her final year Glasgow University when, in search of “peace and quiet” she took a job at a croft near Fort William and fell for the way of life.

Eventually she found a five-hectare croft at Portnalong on the Isle of Skye, where she keeps her ten Hebridean sheep, six Highland cows, bees and grows vegetables and potatoes. There’s also a pig which has been known to break out and run riot through her front garden.

“It’s not without its challenges,” says Cheryl, who was shortlisted for the Young Crofter of the Year title. “If you have livestock, you have dead stock and that can be hard. But every day is a school day and things you never think will happen, will happen.”

Having studied Rural Skills at the University of the Highlands and Islands, she’s now the course teacher helping the next generation of crofters find their feet.

She warns them that it is hard but with rewards. “There have been challenges, especially when you’ve not got wider family around. For me it’s the cold - insulated dungarees that help.

“But crofting is great, because there’s community support and people always willing to give a hand.”

Speaking of the awards, Convener of the Crofting Commission, Rod MacKenzie, said: “It is extremely encouraging that there is so much enthusiasm, energy and innovation from the young crofters who were nominated.

“The Crofting Commission acknowledge the demand from young people who wish to occupy a croft and make a contribution to the sustainability of local communities, local food networks and population retention especially in remote areas of the crofting counties.”