Friday, 2 November 2007

No 3 By lantern light in the feeders’ byre.

RAIN ON MY WINDOW. Groat published. 02.11.2007
No 3. The Feeders Byre in the Morning.
By lantern light in the feeders’ byre.
Our bedroom window looked out across the porch roof and over the sea to the East from our old farmhouse and birthplace of Whitehall, Stronsay, Orkney. Rain spattered on the window pane in the early morning dark, the unrisen sun still lingering below the horizon. Wind whistled through the chinks, a burble of water gurgling from time to time. Yet it was morning, the farm was awake.
Sometimes we heard our father going quietly downstairs. So we - younger brother David and myself - got out of bed, struggled to find our clothes in the dark, and tiptoed downstairs to the kitchen where the “girls” were getting the day moving, the cast-iron stove stirred up, the kettle singing, the porridge simmering. Our own family breakfast in the dining room was still some time away but the single men in the bothy had to be fed.
We put on our rubber boots and headed outside. Sharp, breath-catching wind whipped round the corners, horizontal rain swept past. Heads down, we headed for the glimmer of light from the feeders byre, the nearest. The double door, upper and lower halves, let us in to the shelter and warmth of the cattle, and we shut it quickly behind us. The cattleman, Jock O’Soond, alias Peace, was just lighting the oil lanterns on top of the bruised oats kist - lanterns filled with paraffin oil and cleaned and polished at the end of the day, ready for the morrow. The oily smell drifted towards us mixed with Jock’s pipe tobacco smoke, strong Bogie Roll twist. Each square red lantern hung by a thin rope from a small pulley suspended from the rafters - a rope made in the farm loft incidentally on wet days - and tied to a hook on the wall. Meagre though the lantern light was compared to today’s electric floodlighting, we could see the whole byre well enough. Even the cattle byre itself is fading into the past as slatted floors and bedded loose courts take over in new buildings.
The cattle were all tied by the neck two by two in flagstone stalls, the tie chain, called an ask, attached to a slider that allowed limited movement of each beast to eat out of the headstall or reach up for straw or hay out of the rack, or heck, fixed to the wall in front of them. The stalls were raised above the general floor by some five inches, and about 7ft long, though it varied with each byre according to the size or age of the cattle to be housed. At their rear was a two foot wide sloping channel called the strand, or grip, which allowed drainage of the necessaries, the floor then returning to working level behind that. Few byres remain, usually just as stores for rubbish and the odd spare part which is seldom or never needed.
The two-year-old fattening cattle - feeders to us - stirred and a few got up, stretching. All Aberdeeen Angus crosses out of Shorthorn cows then, for which Orkney was justly proud and noted. With the lanterns lit, Jock spread the feed boxes - some round, some square - around the bruised oats girnel, or kist, scooped a measure into each, put a sprinkling of linseed oilcake on top, and, with two in each hand held between thumb and fingers, made his way between each pair of tied-by-the-neck feeding cattle, one box to each. Well trained, they parted company to let him up into their stall. Start at one end, finish at the other. We boys carried some but only one box at a time, it would be long years before we could emulate Jock’s strength of hand, if ever.

As each pair finished their feed, the boxes were removed, refilled and recycled up the byre. We would then try to help in our own way by scraping the dung down the stalls. After all the feed boxes were removed Jock went to the “neep” (turnip) shed to start the laborious, back-breaking carrying of wire speil baskets of swede turnips to each pair, again up between them. More than we could carry, but we could help fill them in the shed, turnip by turnip. Some cattle got sliced turnips, usually those whose teeth were changing from calf’s teeth to adult, and so were less able to break and eat the whole turnip. The open neep shed was cold in comparison to the byre, draughty, the quicker we worked the sooner we would be back to the warmth generated by the cattle.
As the feeders munched their way through their neeps, Jock accurately threw one “windlin”- a large armful of new threshed straw, twisted and tied in the straw barn with long-learned skill - over each of them into the straw rack on the wall at their heads. The windlins had been carried by Jock from the straw barn to the byre the previous afternoon, six at a time, one under each arm, two in each hand, and stacked against the back wall in readiness for morning.
There were times when hay was also stacked loosely-built at the back of the byre for the better cattle, carted from the stackyard by the horsemen and carried into the byre on a fork through the outer doors. The stalls were scraped down of their overnight dung while the cattle were feeding; it was then loaded onto a wheelbarrow and removed to the outdoor midden. This could be a hazardous operation in itself as the cattleman trod a narrow plank to the tipping point. ow and again a gale would threaten to overturn both him and his barrow into the unmentionable.
Finally there was a very light bedding of clean straw in the mornings, a better one at night. Sometimes, to save straw, he would give only a light dusting of chaff, especially in the mornings, saving the straw for the night bedding. There was nothing wasted - straw was highly valued in those days. Still is. Then Jock took a canny look-over to see that every beast was happy and content, nothing to suggest any ailment, before moving up to the adjacent yearlings byre.
The byre was also a haven for many more of God’s creatuires - some acceptable, some not. The farm cats were always around, waiting for titbits if we had any, and getting a squirt of milk now and then from the milking cows, courtesy of the dairymaid. One old cat had learned to sit, mouth open in anticipation, catching the stream with great skill. Cats were essential around the old farms before Rentokill arrived on the scene, and they’re still not out of date!
And there were the rats - thousands of rats. Some we knew by sight, grey oldtimers who dodged every attempt to eliminate them, wise in the ways of men, wary of every trap set for them. They could (and did) run straight up the walls in the corners, they scuttled along the straw racks, or hecks, ran along the tops of the byre walls under the rafters, and vanished into one hole only to appear again somewhere else. Mice were not so prominent in the byre, I think the rats took care of them.
In the rafters sparrows swarmed, waiting for daybreak. Sometimes there were starlings. The warm byre was a popular place.
As Jock blew out the lanterns, the morning work done in that byre but with several more byres to do, the door opened and closed, a blast of cold air heralding our father’s entry. “Boys, breakfast is ready, in you go.” But we had helped.
And so back to the house, wash and tidy, change our clothes for school, then hot oatmeal porridge for breakfast, with milk, and brown sugar for my brother David’s sweet tooth, then off to the North School, our Primary, half a mile up the road. At least the wind and the rain were on our backs going, and the sky was lightening over the sea to the East.

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