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.

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