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!!

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