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 !!!.

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