Anne, John and I always enjoyed listening to our mother Kathleen Leith's stories of growing up in war-time Stromness but I can remember wondering what on earth I would find to tell my children about my uneventful childhood. It naturally didn't cross my mind that so many of the things I took for granted were about to disappear and that I'd be able to entertain them with tales of threshing oats, watering kye, hinting tatties, cooking on a peat-stove and only having one TV channel to watch. Only one of my four children shows any interest, and I suspect him of politely faking it, but I don't usually let it stop me.
They sensibly give no sign of being sorry to have missed any of these activities, but they were unlucky to miss the harvest. We played hide-and-seek around the stooks in the grimlings (twilight), built dens of sheaves and skipped with the cart-ropes, and even when we were old enough to work in the harvest field, we (mostly) enjoyed it. We may be the last generation to look back with such nostalgia, but we certainly aren't the first.
In 'Summers and Winters in the Orkneys' published in 1881, journalist Daniel Gorrie wrote, "Scythes and reaping machines and the march of agricultural improvement have well-nigh succeeded in Orkney as elsewhere in scaring away the romance, mirth and love-making of other times from the harvest fields. Happy the young men and maidens in farms remote who can yet shoulder the sickle and buckle to their work in company on the same rig".
J T Smith Leask, my great-grand-uncle, grew up on the farm of Coldomo in Stenness, and had a more accurate idea of what it was like bending all day to cut with the sickle, or "heuk". In one of the dialect chapters in his book, 'A Peculiar People', he wrote, "Boy, boy, id waas coorse, coorse wark, an' sair, sair api' da back, an' warst ava api' dem 'at warna wint (used) wi' id… tings wid mir (dance) afore me e'en"
I've only seen the scythe (pronounced sye) used to cut 'roads' into the field for the binder, to save wasting the oats the tractor would otherwise flatten, but in the nineteenth century three or four men with scythes would cut the entire crop. Women would work with them, gathering the cut oats into sheaves. Competitions between the couples, to see who could reach the end of the row first, were popular and heartily encouraged by the farmer. In comparison to the 'heuk', the speed of the scythe was astonishing and the first man to use one in Stenness was said to have drawn a crowd 'like a market'.
There was a knack to sharpening the scythe's long blade and there was a farmer in Stenness who hadn't acquired it, but he was a powerful man and used his brute strength to drive the blunt blade through the oats. A neighbour noticed this and helpfully honed the scythe to a fine edge one night - under cover of darkness and without telling the owner. His plan worked perfectly; next day the owner took his usual hefty swipe at the oats and is said to have spun around twice before he could stop.
By the turn of the last century, the oats were cut with a binder and one summer it was my job to perch on the seat high up on the back of the machine and try to keep the whole thing operating, as Dad towed it with our little grey Fergie tractor.
To my left, the teeth of the binder mowed down the stalks of oats as the wooden sails knocked them backwards onto the wide canvas belt that carried them up and over to the other side of the machine. One of the levers under my control could raise or lower the cutting edge so I had to keep an eye on this. Meanwhile, the oats were gathered into a bundle, the binder twine was wound around it, knotted and cut, and the sheaf was dropped off.
When a binder was first demonstrated in Stenness, one of the farmers examined a sheaf and pronounced it the devil's work, as no machine could tie a knot. Our binder only tied knots fitfully, so I was supposed to keep a close eye on what was being dropped off. More than once, I was so busy watching the cutting edge that several loose bundles were dropped onto the stubble before I noticed. When this happened, my father Peter would simply take a few stalks out of the bundle, wind them around the rest and tie them into a knot, as every generation had done before him. I have no idea how it was possible to tie them so securely that they stood up to all the handling they received before being threshed.
Once the whole field was cut and tied in more or less tidy sheaves, they had to be stooked; leant against each other in pairs. Three pairs standing in line formed a stook and the stooks marched in line down the field.
Of course, the weather was always sunny in the harvests I remember but my parents tell me this wasn't actually the case. Farmers admiring their slowly ripening crop feared an early autumn gale which, in just a few hours, could turn a fine upstanding crop into something closely resembling a storm at sea. Oats grew much higher than barley, making a flattened crop harder to deal with. Stooks might also have to be re-erected more than once, which was especially enjoyable when the sheaves were wet.
From biblical times, and probably earlier, women have worked in the harvest field alongside the men. I'm sure Mum isn't the only retired farmer's wife who remembers her husband kindly allowing her to go home several minutes early. This was so that she could rustle up dinner or tea for all the workers.
Catering wasn't as elaborate as for a peat-cutting but was complicated by the unpredictable numbers. Invitations were issued to a peat-cutting but harvests were more of an open house. Friends and neighbours would just come along when they saw help was needed. Mum's record is twelve for dinner and fifteen for tea.
The meals were cooked on a peat stove, which died down while everyone was out in the field. On the way back to the house one afternoon, Mum noticed some bits of old hen-house, with tarry felt roofing still attached, which she thought would be handy for getting the fire going. She shoved it all in, set the chimney on fire - and carried on making the tea.
Almost as important was the afternoon tea-break. Many years on, the taste of rhubarb jam in an Argo's roll can still transport me back to the harvest field. In the middle of the afternoon, the brown enamel teapot was wrested from my grandfather who, despite a heart weakened by trench fever in WWI, lived to a cheerful old age, sustained by a continuous supply of tea and ginger snaps. The filled teapot was wrapped in a towel, tucked securely into the galvanized milking pail and sent out to the field with a basket full of cups, milk, jam-filled rolls and home-baking. The baking had been done after everyone had gone home the night before.
No farm had a barn big enough to hold a winter's supply of straw and the cartloads of sheaves would be taken to the stackyard. Building the stack was a skilled job, as they had to withstand the winter weather until the sheaves were taken in to the barn and threshed. The perfect stack sloped gently out from its base for about half its height and then had a conical top half. We were just happy to get our stacks wind and water-tight but there were hard-fought stack-building competitions in the 1930s and there are pictures of rows of perfectly-built, absolutely identical stacks, trimly wrapped in fathoms of simmons (straw rope)
Most islands and parishes seem to have had traditions associated with the last sheaf or the last load, generally involving rough treatment of whoever brought the load in. A common fate was to have your trousers pulled down and to be roughly scrubbed with the end of a sheaf. My great-grandfather, John Leask, farmed at Barnhouse in Stenness and my grandfather Hardy said that at one harvest he, his brothers and the servant-men all refused to fetch what was clearly going to be the last load. In the end, John had to fetch it himself, safe from the indignity that awaited anyone else.
Although my literally golden memories of the harvest field are those of a child, even my parents' generation, who dealt with the hard work and bad weather, mainly remember the fun and friendship and the satisfaction of another harvest safely in.
The above article appeared in Living Orkney in October 2010
Harvest was a time when all hands had to be out, male and female. Reapers needed everyone behind them if they were to be kept going.
There also seemed to be more scythe work than what there is today. Like everything else there were, and I suppose are, good scythe men and more inferior ones. When there was a good standing crop, it was a pleasure to gather after a good scythe man and there was also a big difference in the gatherers. Again it was a pleasure to bind sheaves after a good clean gatherer.
I have now seen a Combine Harvester in Orkney and I have seen a few changes. I can remember my grandaunt Nellie cutting the corner of a small field with the hook to be ready for the scythe. I remember that she could fairly go at it. She would cut three gaps to the handful, lay them down, cut another three and so. Nowadays, there are not so many roads cut not even with the more modern scythe. I can remember when roads were cut round the field for the binder. Now if there is any road cutting, it is only the corners.
Barnhouse was the first farm in Stenness to have a Self Binder (as all binders were then called). That was in 1898 and the crowd round it was supposed to be "like a market". The older men were picking up the sheaves, examining the knot, shaking their heads and muttering, "Wark o' the Devil".
I don't remember anything about that as that was before I was born but I was told about it by one who was there.
I remember a binder coming to Housby in Beaquoyside in the early teens of this century (20th century) and then, also all the neighbours flocked to see it but by that time people were not quite so superstitious and there was no word of "Wark o' the Devil" I can't find any word of the first reaper but the first man in Stenness to use a modern scythe was Benjy Isbister of Kethesgeo. He also drew crowds round him in amazement. He died in 1880 aged 85 so the scythe cutting would have been several years earlier.
So far as house work was concerned, a few dozen oat bannocks had been baked and stored in the oatmeal girnal, (not so full by this time) as well as a few well cured cheese. With that behind her the housewife could get to the field to take her share of the work, going home in a hurry, before the last cut, to make the dinner or tea. With a fire on the hearth one could half rake it and hang the tattie pot with water on. This would be hot and with the tatties ready to put in it, the dinner could be ready pretty speedily. I have done it often myself. Of course, one had to get the best out of the fire.
The children would often be in the field and would have a house or shelter made of sheaves or maybe the wheelbarrow laid on its side for a shelter. We did not have a farm but my grandfather and uncle did. My mother and aunt used to take turns in the harvest field. Whoever had the youngest baby got the lot.
As soon as one was old enough to be taught how to make bands one had to make oneself useful. Sometimes, now, I think we would have been more of a nuisance than help. One job for the older kids would be to herd the kye so that the hird, who would be older, could take a place in the hairst rig.
Earlier in life, we older kids used to rumble together. We seldom seemed to disagree. I was oldest and when teatime and lousing time was nearing we would be sent in out of the cold. We could put a few clods on the fire but we must not touch the lamp. It was the old-fashioned paraffin one. I have seen it right dark before the others came in but I would never admit that I did not like the dark. When I got older I got more harvest work to do.
One harvest, 1917 or 18, the weather was bad. It was a case of rain, rain and more rain. Lots of folk had to diss. A reaper bound sheaf was harder to dry through than a binder bound one. But to get on with my story, I was one of a team of three who went out one lovely moonlight evening to restook a field. At the lower end of the field, which was rather damp and soft underfoot, we encountered "Leeneroo". Every sheaf that we lifted glowed and the earth that stuck to our boots glowed also. The effect was eerie but interesting. I have also experienced "St Elmos Fire" when the hair ends round my face lighted up as also did the scarf round my head. That was not so long ago maybe about 1960. The ground was wet and damp there also.
I never liked building loads of hay or straw but I always enjoyed building sheaves even in wind. This was always the horse cart. I could not tackle it now though. It seemed to be a simple matter to build a load on a cart behind an inanimate tractor when there was no fear of the shafts going up. I was then sometimes told that it would be a very badly built load that would lift the tractor.