Friday, 11 June 2010

No 78. Diaries offer a look into the past.

No 78. Travelling Threshing Mills.

The earliest reference to thrashing mills on a personal note I have taken from the Diaries of William Tait of Ingsay, 1880 to 1939. These Diaries are going to intrude into my notes as time goes by. They accentuate much of what I have already written in Rain on My Window about yesterday.
William Tait, finally of Ingsay in Birsay, Orkney, was my father’s mother’s brother, bred off Caithness stock. His father was John Tait, born in 1820 in Grotistoft, Hill of Barrock, now a roofless ruin after being cleared in May 1843 by James Traill of Rattar. His mother was Janet Steven, born in Dunnet. They emigrated to Orkney circa 1850. These Diaries I knew about many years ago, had an occasional look inside them, but they are not mine. They possibly belong more to Archival History than to any one family, though Wm Tait’s grandson Sandy Scarth in Twatt in Birsay has present claim. But they are in my present care as I transcribe them into this marvellous computer age, making the contents available to a wider readership. I am now half way through the work, pencil written in old and old-fashioned farmers’ diaries full of much useless bits of information, such as M.P.s and the Right Honourable Members of the House of Lords !!! Interesting enough in it’s own way. The pencil writings are faint, but we are making progress.
Still much unfinished with 25 Diaries still to go by late May 2010, but at least over half of them are already done and are printed out and available for viewing and perusal in a green backed folder in Castlehill Heritage Centre. I am getting some help from them, so if anyone wants they can have a look into the past of farming in Orkney around 100 years ago, which was much the same as in Caithness. They still need a final editing but that is only a touching up to correct my typos. I will pick and choose from the Diaries from time to time, without apology, but this article at least introduces them to John O’ Groat readers.
The Diaries are nearer to me than I thought. Until I began transcribing them I did not know that from1894 to 1900 Wm Tait was farm manager at Rousam in Stronsay, farmed then by David Pottinger my grandfather and his brother-in-law. From 1907 to 1919 Wm Tait farmed at the Bay Farm next door to Rousam. So we have a span and a wonderful look back into 25 years of Stronsay farming either side of the turn of the last Century.

In Nov.1888 Wm Tait took over the farm of Work just outside Kirkwall as tenant. The system then was the in-coming tenant was bound to thrash down the crop for his out going predecessor. The straw was normally steelbow, a term to describe that the straw was bound to the farm and went to the incoming tenant for no payment. In the case of Work farm, as described in the Diaries, Wm Tait had to pay for the straw. This was balanced by reverse transaction on outgoing. And the thrashing down by Wm Tait in 1889 was done by a Steam Travelling Mill.
I have already written about barn thrashing mills and straw handling, but I wondered how far back our travelling thrashing mills went. I found a wonderful illustration on the internet of a horse powered travelling mill of 1881, easily downloaded if we cannot print it.
My first experience of travelling mills was at Greenland Mains. The ones I remember were owned by Wildy Allan from Mey and Donald (Injun Donald) Gunn from West Greenland, but there were many more. The excellent Museum at Kingussie is full of these old timers, the Mills I mean!! . But here in Wm Tait’s Diary for 1889 I came on the following entries, and the steam travelling threshing mill that thrashed down the crop.

I quote the Diaries, editing out most of the entries save on the Steam Mill :-
jan 30 wed Thrashing with Steam Mill - thrashed two stacks - stormy day.
jan 31 thur Orrow horse carting straw to Jas. Gunn - carting dung & turnips.
feb 01 frid Steam Mill thrashed two stacks.
feb 02 sat Very stormy - gathering up blown down straw in forenoon.
feb 04 mon 3 carts at Kirkwall with grain - catching up straw & 4 carts with grain
to Kirkwall in afternoon with oats - 28 qrs in all. (a Qr is 3 cwts, 150 kg. )
feb 05 tues Start the mill for a few minutes but was too windy.
feb 07 thur Steam mill thrashed in afternoon.
feb 09 sat Very stormy, taking in straw in forenoon, dressing oats in afternoon.
feb 12 tue Steam mill thrashed 8.1/2 hours - fine frosty day - ground covered with snow.
feb 13 wed Steam Mill Thrashed 8 hours - fine day.
feb 15 frid Two carts at Kirkwall a.m. with grain, 8 qrs. –
one with straw to Mrs Skea, 34 windlings - took in some straw a.m. -
feb 16 sat Taking in straw to the barn, a.m. - finished dressing oats today.
MEMO- 197 qrs & 1 bushel is all the grain of the crop of Work Farm.
Bought 4 qrs 2 bu. oats from R. Marwick, 32 lb. per bu. @ 11/- a qr.
[The Valuation Roll for 1888 lists Robert Thomas Marwick, farmer, as tenant of Work farm
hence the outgoing tenant. - M.P..]
feb 18 mon 4 carts carting oats to Kirkwall, 16 qrs.
MEMO:- Straw of 197.1/8 qrs at 6/- is £59.2.9d

So Wm Tait had thrashed down all the crop and dressed all the oats and carted all the sacks to Kirkwall for sale for the outgoing tenant. For that he had the privilege of paying the sum of £59.2.9d for the straw. Not too easy an entry for a new tenant, but those were the terms on that So in 1889 we know that a team of steam engine and thrashing mill was travelling around Orkney.

. Many farms had some stacks left after the winter ended and the cattle went out to grass, a very nice state of affairs to be in but not too often seen after a hungry winter. The outside of summer stacks was usually covered with chaff and bits of half eaten grain surrounding the many visible holes of the inhabitants. Rats could make a motorway of tracks zig zagging up the outside of the stack, an easy way of getting around rather than burrowing a tunnel. So before the rats and mice could totally destroy the stack over the long summer, thrashing down was required.

In Caithness we had the travelling mills which were taken round the county to the various stackyards and moved along the line of stacks to thrash them down. The thrashing mill coming down the road meant a busy few days, both outdoors and in the farm kitchen.
This outdoor thrashing meant building a gilt which was a long stack of straw, covered by stack nets when finished and left for another winter until carted in to the cattle courts as a layer of bedding. Or some other winter At least it used up surplus straw and made it into useful dung.
Or sometimes a gilt was forgotten about, left in solitary splendour at the far side of the stackyard forever !!!.

Friday, 28 May 2010

No 77. Straw from the Mill. pb 28.05.2010


Straw, such a normal aspect of farming that we might take it for granted and so it might get overlooked. Yet I have seen so many changes in the handling of straw over so many years, produced by the Biblical flail on a croft in Rousam in Stronsay to the monster combines of today.The handling of straw comes to mind, easiest is to quote what I saw from my own experiences.
First was the Mill at Whitehaa in my early days, rebuilt by Davie Davidson and mentioned previously. Mainly the high speed drum and the grain carrier through the thick stone wall at the back of the barn.
Equally important was the straw end of the mill on the ground floor at the far end from the drum in the sheaf loft. The newly thrashed sheaf, now just a mix of loose straw, good grain and soft chaff, made its way over and along the well named straw shakers to sift out and collect the grain, then the straw went down over the end. No change at all in that system to today’s combine harvestors.
There at the end of the mill lay the apparently simple task of carrying away the straw from the end of the mill. It could be and was hard work with a four-toed graip fork or a two-toed pitchfork. Keep the end of the mill clear of straw, stack it in the barn for future use, pitch it up to someone building the straw in bouts across the barn, or carry some away from the end of the mill direct to the byres and sheds. If the cattleman had some time available he would lend a hand. It saved him time later on, stacking it in handy corners for later use, or just chucking it over into the cattle courts to be later spread for bedding.

When we came to Greenland Mains straw was laboriously stacked in the lowish barn as per usual. Then our father had a straw blower installed at the end of the Mill by Davie Davidson of Scarths in Kirkwall. The straw dropped into a fairly high speed four-bladed blower and on into a round section pipe which went round various corners and across various spaces to deliver the straw at suitable points in the steading. Along the way were a succession of hatches at various drop off points, a short section of square box with a two way movable panel to intercept the straw, open it to deliver the straw or close it to let the straw carry on to the next drop off point.
There was the occasional choking of the pipe or of the blower, but handy slides allowed the blockages to be easily cleared. A safety feature was that a choke in the blower itself just meant the flat driving belt being cast off and no damage. It needed overseeing, but the changing thumping sound soon gave away a blockage.
The straw went many ways at Greenland Mains, straight ahead into the straw barn, right into the clipping shed under the main grain loft, left through the milkers byre to the far away sheds, a diversion into the Back Court where a stockade was erected to hold the straw, giving easy access for the cows.
The blower saved a great deal of straw carrying through narrow doorways and corridors. The blower was quite similar to the grain blowers we still have, but very much larger.

Next came the straw carrier. First one I saw was at Lower Dounreay, put in there before me, a shallow wooden trough about 5 feet wide with an endless chain and cross flights that dragged the straw along the trough to a convenient series of hatches to drop it where needed. The chain and flights returned above the straw. It worked straight ahead from the mill, and was made by Garvie in Aberdeenshire. We moved the whole assembly from Lower Dounreay to Isauld in 1956, adding a further length to extend it to 90 feet to carry the straw to a lofted area over the indoor silage pit. With all the hatches open it dealt unattended with the straw, as each dropping off point filled up to the hatch it just carried on to the next. Did very well though attention was needed to adjust the tension of the chains to avoid jumping a link. It did sterling service for many a year until the mill was superceded by the combine harvester, for us sometime in the 1960s. That straw loft was very handy as the straw just had to be pushed over the open sides down into a straw feeding passage on either side, no carrying at all. Bedding the courts could also be easily done from the loft, though the final spreading in the courts was with a graip or with some helpful cattle!!

Next came the buncher. We never had one, but a buncher was often used by various travelling mills, though not on the first ones I saw. This took the loose straw at the end of the mill and fed it into the buncher, just a larger version of the binder sheafing mechanism but a double assembly with two twine needles.
The buncher tied the straw into convenient sized bundles or sheaves. The action was similar to the binder, packing fingers and a pressure trip mechanism. It made handling the straw from the travelling mill a lot easier, especially on a windy day in the stackyard,
The buncher was also installed on various farms at the end of the mill. My brother Steven had one when he was in Baillie. The bunches still had to be carried though the steading to various byes and stables but were ready for the cattleman to carry, to use or to store in handy corners as thrashing went on. They were also handy for pitching over the cattle’s backs into the straw rack on the wall in front of them, saved walking up between every two cattle to fill the rack. Store some in the straw barn, carry some to the byres to handy corners as thrashing went on, it all depended on how many people were available, or if the cattleman had a spare moment. .
The bunches were close in appearance to the hand tied windlins we used to make in Stronsay to carry straw to the byres and the stable, and were most useful.
A quite extra use was to load it with a pitchfork like sheaves onto a cart to sell or to give a load to someone else, perhaps a neighbour, perhaps a crofter needing a bit of straw. It made for easier loading and building on the cart than loose straw which was a devil to work with on a windy day.
Today we have forgotten all these methods. The thrashing mill is an antique if it still exists. Some do, silently gathering dust in a forgotten corner of some steadings. We now have huge round balers swallowing up the harvested straw faster than the combine can produce it. Even the little square bale is seldom seen now though it is by no means entirely gone.
The big round straw bale is dumped into a machine that disintegrates it and blows it direct into the cattle courts. Untouched by human hand!!

Friday, 14 May 2010

No 76. Thrashing Mills pb 14.05 2010


I remember the advent at Whitehall of the high speed thrashing drum, the rising echoing humming song as it got up to speed on a thrashing morning. Made of steel, the drum 4’6” wide, 18” diameter, the grooves on the rasp bars angled each way alternately. Davie Davidson, of Robert Scarths in Kirkwall, came out to Stronsay to rebuild the old Whitehaa Mill, fitting the new high speed drum, speed around 1100 revs. He did various other wonderful things with the Mill, changing this and that, a magician with wood, flat pulleys, grain elevators, bearings, shafts.
He fitted a shaking box grain conveyor carrier under the cross beams - the couple backs - of the rafters over the straw in the barn and on through the back wall of the barn to deliver grain into the bruiser loft beyond. How the grain moved along was beyond us, but it did. The angles and the shaking speed were critical, a slipping belt meant spilt grain. Davie subsequently rebuilt thrashing mills for our father at Greenland Mains in 1947 and at Stemster Mains in 1949, putting in straw blowers to distribute the straw around the various steading buildings and grain carriers to the various lofts. That saved an incredible amount of work, both in carrying straw from the barn to the byers and at Whitehaa sacks of grain on the men’s backs from the Mill out the barn door and along the sometimes wet flagstone pavement and up the Stone Stairs and into the grain lofts. Real hard work.

The thrashing mills of yesterday were very crude but these were the times. The oldest mills I remember had big diameter drums with driven-in wooden replaceable pegs of hard wood to thrash the grain. Drum speed maybe 500 revs a minute, probably less, often driven by a water wheel where the land provided enough water to fill a mill dam, fed by a burn or even by connected ditches. At Forss Estate nr Thurso there was a magnificent trail of ditches criss-crossing across the face of the land, channelling the same water by a series of ditches from one mill dam to the next as it came down the hill, the same water used many times over by each lower farm.
Where there was no mill dam the mill was driven by horses everlastingly going round and round in circles in the Mill Course. They did a lot of work in their time.
The result of such thrashing was grain with many a bit of straw or chaff still there. The fanners in the loft were used to take that out and deliver a clean sample for selling or for the local miller for grinding into oatmeal or bere meal as case needed.
Lower down the scale in size were the hand mills, simple and worked by a man on a handle. Output was miniscule but they did the thrashing on many a croft. Some are still around in farm museums, I think one at Laidhay.
Even earlier than that was the flail. I saw one being worked on a croft at Rousam, serious hard work but not for the amateur. The swinging hinged flying arm could catch you a fair crack on the head if not swung with the expertise of the old timers. I know, we tried it !! Effortless when done by an expert, an easy swing, a sharp flick of the wrist on the down stroke, and the oats came flying off the sheaf. Usually two men in unison time about and opposite each other. What wood the flails were made of I do not know, but it was a real hard and heavy wood. The soople, the flexible joining of the two arms, was usually a woven leather rope but sometimes hempen. Took a lot of wear. Sometimes just a bit of good green horse hide did the job, easily replaced.

The thrashing mills were located in many a varied manner. At Lower Dounreay we had a stackyard high up on a sand dune above the shore at loft level. We backed the carts into the double loft door and just tipped the load of sheaves onto the floor ready for the threshing drum fed by Jamie Wares our foreman.
Most thrashing mills had a biggish sheaf loft with a sheaf window through which a man could pitch the sheaves from the cart while the horse stood patiently waiting. The sheaf loft was needed, indeed it was essential, as with horse driven mills there was neither enough horses nor enough men to take in a stack and thrash at the same time. So a stack would be taken in by a couple of men and stored in the sheaf loft ready for thrashing later when all hands and horses were available. It also allowed a stack to be taken in to the sheaf loft and thrashing to be done on a wet day when no outside work was possible.

With continuous thrashing as we did one cart was being loaded from the stack in the yard, a second cart stood outside the sheaf window. On that cart one man pitched the sheaves through the sheaf window to another man - or woman - who took the sheaves as they came flying through the window and pitched or placed them carefully on the sheaf table beside the foreman ready for feeding the drum. They had to lie just the right way, the grain head of the sheaf always pointing forward towards the feeder at the drum. Make a mistake and the sheaf as like as not came flying back to the pitcher butt end first. Not a nice experience at all, but it soon corrected a dopey pitcher. Nothing annoyed a feeder more than a sheaf the wrong way round.
I cannot recall any sheaf table not located to the left hand of the feeder. There must have been some the other way round, it all depended on the layout of the Mill in the barn. Take the sheaf in the left hand, slash the binder twine with a sharp knife, or in earlier days the straw band that held the sheaf together, and in one easy flowing movement from left to right spread the now loosened sheaf right across the mouth of the drum, giving as easy a flow of straw into the drum as possible.
We always had a leather glove for the feeder’s left hand with a short knife blade built in, better and safer than a loose knife which sometimes fell into the drum and vanished!! There were good feeders whose technique was such that you could not distinguish one sheaf from another. There were others where every sheaf went in with a bang, hard on everything.
. In the days when horses drove the mill from the Mill course it was imperative to maintain an easy feed to lesson any jerky loading on the poor beasts. Take good care when feeding, more than one man I knew had a hand taken off by the drum snatching the sheaf, and his hand with it.
Often there would be a louser who cut the sheaf band in readiness for the feeder, frequently a woman, placing the sheaf on the board just so to his hand. That made three people in the loft at the feeding end.

The incredible total one could have at a continuous thrashing was:-
One man on the stack in the yard, one man building the cart load, one man on the other cart pitching sheaves in the sheaf window, one pitching the sheaves with a short handled pitchfork from the window to the sheaf board, one lousing the sheaves, one feeding the drum, always the foreman, one bagging off the grain at the end of the mill. Two men to take away the thrashed straw and store it in the barn, at Whitehall usually one carrying from the mill end and forking it to one building the straw in bouts across the barn.
And the Boss, or the Grieve, was usually there keeping an eye on things like a slipping flat belt or a spillage where no spillage was allowed. Tails – light grain – were usually delivered from a side chute and had to be kept clear. Riddles could choke with rubbish, the grain could come over the end of the mill with the strumps, which were short pieces of straw and odds and ends not carrying on with the straw shakers into the straw barn. He was also useful in clearing the chaff as it built up at the end of the mill.
That was a lot of men to get the job done. But that was yesterday - today’s farming is not so labour intensive..

Friday, 30 April 2010

No 75 Dressing oats.


Recently I got temporary possession of 50 years of the Diaries of Wm Tait of Ingsay in Birsay in Orkney, from 1880 TO 1936. I hope to transcribe them before giving them back to where they belong. Repetitive they may be, but these were his times. Not every year is there but most. There is a fund of information from farming 100 years ago contained in these small tattered pencil-written black booklets, and by chance quite a deal of it refers to the Bu’ of Rousam, tenanted by my grandfather David Pottinger from 1893 to 1913. The family then moved to Hobbister in Orphir in the Mainland of Orkney before returning to Stronsay in 1919. William Tait was his brother-in-law and William must have worked at Rousam for a time, at least from 1896 until leaving Rousam for Stennaquoy in Eday on 26th Nov. 1900. Rousam was where our father spent his early years.

One of the most common entries was “Dressing oats”, or corn which was the Orkney name for bere, the Northern version of barley, so quick to grow, so early to ripen, last sown, first harvested. Dressing oats was a never ending task on many a wet day, and on many a dark morning till enough light crept into the eastern sky to harness the horses and off to the plow, or cart neeps. I think bere is now banned under E.U. rules!!!. At Rousam in the Diaries from 1896 to 1900 Wm Tait refers many a day to:- “Heavy rain, no outside work, dressing oats”

Prime loft tool for dressing oats was the Fanners. There is still a good one to be seen at Mary Anne’s Cottage in Dunnet, opening at the end of May
Made of good wood, ash or pitch pine, with metal parts such as a handle to turn it with and neat gears and wheels and shafts and suspending wooden hangers for the various riddles. Sitting on four short legs but easily moved across the loft floor to be strategically near the heap of grain to be dressed.
A grain hopper on top, a fairly high lift for a man, too high for we kids but we upended a box and managed to fill enough to have a wee shot ourselves when no-one was around. A fairly safe machine for children to play with in the loft on a rainy day. Ridiculous to look back on but those were the times. There were fanners also at Greenland Mains, now gone, occasionally used to touch up an already good sample for the Meal Dealer!!!.

The grain hopper had an adjustable wooden slide to let grain through at a controlled rate, different settings to control the amount passing into the works. Some varieties of grain were stickier than others, light bushel weight not so runny as heavy. Badly threshed grain - full of bits of chaff and straw, strumps we called it - needed a larger opening to run. Different oats had different slippiness, the old variety Black oats were very slippy, almost oily to touch. Or bere which was much more runny than oats. The fanners had various interchangeable riddles with different sized holes to spread the grain evenly into the flow of air from the wooden bladed fan, constantly being turned at a measured pace by the man on the handle. And out of the fanners the bits of straw and chaff were blown out of the open end, the lighter grain called tails out of one side chute, the heavier grain another.

The work was tedious. Fill the shoulder-high hopper from the grain heap, set the slide just so to let the right amount of grain into the fanners. One man turned the handle, usually a shared task time about. Another man filled the hopper and also took away the clean grain and removed the small amounts of odd bits and pieces, putting each on to it’s own heap.

Fanners were much needed to clean the grain from the more simple thrashing mills of former times. The first old mills I first remember had wooden pegs on the large drum to thrash the grain, pegs made of hard wood and replaceable. Drum speed was maybe 500, probably less, often driven by a water wheel or by several horses everlasting going round and round in circles on the Mill Course. Even earlier than that was the flail, I saw one being worked on a croft at Rousam, serious hard work. Sometimes these fanners were handed down through generations, long lasting if looked after well.

Another essential was square wooden grain boxes, lightly made, a wooden handle on either side and an angled lip which lay flat on the floor to scoop grain out of the heap. Near enough to a bushel measure, capable of scooping up just the right amount of oats in four full lifts, or to my memory three heaped full lifts and just a small amount to finish. It depended much on the bushel weight of the grain. Low weights around 38 lbs needed four very full measures, good heavy grain around the standard 42 lbs the bushel needed three and a half boxes - or “thereby” - to fill the one and a half cwt grain sack with oats, or 2 cwts. if with barley.

A necessary accompaniment to the fanners was the weighing machine, we had two. The first was just a balance with a platform tray either side. On one platform the sacks of grain were placed, the opposite platform had an assortment of iron weights, descending from a 56lb all the way down to ½ lb. The larger weights had either a handle cast into it as part of the weight, or a ring handle. Three 56 lbs made the 1.1/2 cwt needed for a sack of oats, four bushels for oats or 3 bushels for bere or barley. You can still see the 56lb weight being easily thrown over the bar at the Halkirk Games by Alistair Gunn, last Saturday in July!! The sacks were filled until the whole thing was tipping in balance, add a little, take out a little, just right.
The other kind of more modern weights had one platform with a graduated arm on which a sliding brass weight was moved along to the correct place. Still got one at Isauld, bought 55 years ago and as good as ever. The platform on which to set the sacks had two hooks or two clamps to hold a bag open for one man to fill, slower than with a helper but functional. Or turn the top of the bag down over the frame. We weighed many a bag on it.

It was amazing how near to full measure an experienced man could work, off by a mere few pounds from correct weight. An easy swinging shove into the heap, top it up to full with scooped hands, an equally easy lift and swing to the sack held open by another man to receive its four scoops. His helper would then, with hands and an easy knee-helped swing, set the bag onto the weighing machine, a very small topping up or taking out to level the weight bar to balance.

Bagging up was sometimes done at the same time as fanning, but the fanners were slow so the bagging might be done just now and then as the heap built up, clearing the floor. Many of the entries in my Grandfather’s day was dressing oats in the early morning, then off to the plow. Or to the Mill with 24 sacks on 3 carts, getting back 19 bolls of 140 lbs a piece from the last lot. That gave a yield of meal of about two thirds, the rest being lost through moisture, grop, sids, by-products of meal making. Some oats were good meal yielders, some were pretty poor. Sandy variety of oats were good.

A two-wheeled spanker or two to wheel full sacks here or there, still widely used today with no improvements needed to the old design other than perhaps rubber wheels instead of iron. Wheel the bags to rest just inside the outer door for eventual loading off the Stone Steps.

And in the long dark dreich mornings of Orkney winters the work would be done by the light of a few paraffin oil lanterns.

Friday, 16 April 2010

No 61. FOOD, or Pickled, Salted or Dried.

Young gannets, the grey ones, called guga on Sule Sgeir off Lewis.
Guga on Sula Sgeir. Via Malcom Murray
“The ile is full of wild fowls, and when the fowls has their birds ripe, men out of the parish of Ness in Lewis sail and tarry there seven or eight days and to fetch with them home their boatfull of dry wild fowls with wild fowl feathers” – Donald Monro, Archdeacon of the Isles, 1549.

No 61. FOOD FOR WINTER. Groat - 16th April, 2010

Today we come home from the supermarket, unload the boot of the car, take the packets of already frozen plastic wrapped plastic tasting food out of the insulated bags and straight into the freezer compartment of the fridge/freezer. Not so frozen bits go into the upper fridge compartment. But we had no fridges in my early days. We had never heard of “Sale by dates”. So how did we survive at all? Should we not have all been food poisoned into extinction? Certainly if one listens to all the pundits we should not now be alive. From my memory the list of things we stored and later ate is much too long, but we will give it a go.

Winter coming meant laying down food in summer for winter use. Prime one was making jam with home grown berries, or rhubarb from the garden with added ginger. An absolute special was jam made with ling heather berries from Rothiesholm Head, all too small in quantity but so exquisite in taste. It was a day adventure going there and collecting them, 5 long miles away. Jam making meant days of wonderful smells coming through the house from the large brass jam pan bubbling away on the stove, the rattling of jam jars being boiled to sterility in large pans of water, then set out round the sink or table for filling with a large soup ladle or a spouted jug dipping into the scalding jam. Cooled, a waxed disc of paper on top of the jam, a paper cover on top of all with a rubber band to hold it in place. Then into the pantry to be stored on the shelves or in the cupboards in serried rows of this or that with stickers on their sides telling if blackcurrant or rhubarb or whatever, and the year of making. Well made, it would last for years of need be. Different houses had different tasting jams, even with the same ingredients. I never worked it out.

Bottling fruit was also part of winter, the surplus of summer being sterilised by boiling and stored in spring clip topped glass pressure jars which when they had cooled down created their own vacuum. Difficult to prise open the lid later. Our mother dried apple rings but they were not home grown, getting a large case of apples from J. & W. Taits in Kirkwall. Peeled, cored, cut into thin rings and strung on a string in the open air on a sunny day. They lasted well, nicely chewy. And of course they were reconstituted and made into stewed apples, apple puddings and apple crumble later in the winter.
Butter of course was in surplus in summer, some was salted down in a medium sized brown earthenware crock. Practically uneatable but it was done, the bothy boys seemed not to notice. Hunger is the greatest of all sauces!! It was almost unspreadable as well. Best used for cooking.
There were numerous big brown earthenware crocks, glazed inside, stored in the cool dairy until needed. Sizes differed. There were smaller ones for butter, one to open, one to keep for another day. Once opened the butter deteriorated slowly. Very salty indeed, but in mid winter the cows were not milking much except maybe one or two for milk for boss and the men. No fresh butter available, nor long life milk, nor milk powder. The best we could come up with was Nestles Condensed Milk in tins from the van.
The newly made soft butter was worked over in the dairy on the butter working roller tray, backwards and forwards, how much salt I cannot remember. It was worked until a high degree of saltiness was achieved that the expert taster said was enough. Then it was packed into one of the brown crocks and a thin layer of melted white suet fat poured carefully over the butter. Sealed perfectly, store as cool as possible.

Cheese. Kept long enough. Rubbed down with salt for several days when new made, turned over each day on the flagstone shelves. The salt gave it a hard durable rind. Then stored on a high shelf out of reach of varmints. Green mould on an opened cheese was just scraped off, not thrown away as today as if it had turned to poison. A good cheese did not last long once on the table, vanishing in thick slices on bere bread or oatcakes. Or just a fly slice on its own. Again varying tastes or flavours in different houses.

Long years ago in the 1600s, and maybe not as long ago as that either, the Mertinmas beast was just that, the killing of an ox for whom there was not enough winter feed. Came November – Martinmas - and he had to go. So the meat was pickled with much rubbing in of salt on the flagstone shelves of the dairy, then sunk for the winter in salt brine in capacious 50 gallon wooden barrels. When taken out for cooking it needed a fair degree of soaking in many changes of cold fresh water for a couple of days before it was edible. Sometimes boiling with plenty tatties helped which took some of the salt out of it, throw away the tatties!! The last of the barrel was almost inedible came Spring but it was used.

We never did kill a cattle beast at Whitehall, though there was one half grown calf that someone hit with a too well thrown stone just behind the ear, killing it instantly. It was butchered on the spot and made good use of, shared out even to the thrower!! .

Sheep meat from a yeld gimmer, or a ewe hopefully not too old, home butchered and salted down for winter in the usual capacious barrel of pickle. We called it mutton but now it is unobtainable unless a farmer kills his own, which is getting a scarcer practice as time goes by and there are less people on the farms. Lambs were never home killed unless a casualty like a broken leg, tender but pretty tasteless when compared to mature mutton. It was not that long ago that mutton made as good a price as lamb but fashions change, and the wedder hirsels on the hills of Sutherland with up to 4 year old male castrated sheep are long gone.

I do know a couple, I cannot possibly say they are old fashioned, who got two Blackface sheep carcases from the Western Isles for their recent Golden Wedding. I was told the meal was very acceptably memorable.

Pig meat was normal, killing one every six months, but that I will deal separately as it was another big adventure.

Fish of course were plentiful, evenings out on the water with fishing rods called wands and fitted with white goose feather lures on the three hooks for cuddin, called caithes in Stronsay. Or mackeral. Or a long line with lures for bottom fish such as haddock, ling, skate, cod, occasionally a dogfish but not to everyone’s taste. Should have been called catfish as many found their way to the cats who relished any fish at all. These acceptable fish such as sillocks, caithes, saithe, ling, cod especially, were either salted down into a barrel of pickle or split and wind dried on a long line hanging on the cottage wall facing the sun. The firkin of salt herring (fourth of a barrel) was of course obligatory.

Eggs were set aside for winter, stored in a crock in either a heavy salt pickle or in isinglass, a gelatinous substance obtained from certain seaweeds, which sealed the shell. They lasted a long time in either medium but definitely did not taste like a fresh egg. Possibly used more for baking but at least it made good use of a surplus of eggs in summer.
This is just a taste of some of our winter provisions. In places like St Kilda and Foula and the Guga of Ness in North Lewis, or Copinsay in the days of my great great great grand father Edward Pottinger, split, salted or dried young sea birds were stored for winter. Fishy tasting I am told!! Taken just before being able to fly, going down the cliffs on long ropes to get them. Again, hunger is a great sauce!!!

Young gannets, the grey ones called guga, on Sule Sgeir off Lewis.
Guga on Sula Sgeir. Via Malcom Murray

“The ile is full of wild fowls, and when the fowls has their birds ripe, men out of the parish of Ness in Lewis sail and tarry there seven or eight days and to fetch with them home their boatfull of dry wild fowls with wild fowl feathers” – Donald Monro, Archdeacon of the Isles, 1549.

No 61. Food, = or = Pickled, salted or dried.

Friday, 2 April 2010