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..

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