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Autobiography of a Working Man
Chapter IV


There were usually three or four milk cows at Branxton, belonging to our master, and three more belonging to farm servants, and a few calves and heifers. They were grazed in summer by being herded in the woods, and on the patches of meadow ground which intersected the woods in various directions. Our family furnished the cowherds for six years before I was old enough for the office. James was the first, and when he was apprenticed to be a cooper, Peter succeeded him. When Peter was apprenticed to be a joiner, my sister Janet succeeded. When Janet was old enough to work in the fields, Mary succeeded, and I used to go to the woods with Mary, to keep her company. When she was taken to the fields to work, I became cowherd on my own account. My wages were sixpence per day for the six working days of the week, with nothing for Sundays, though I herded on Sundays also. It was considered good pay for a boy; and it was assistance to my father and mother of great value to have their children employed in bringing in something to the family. My father’s wages were at this time eight shillings a week, and having two sons apprenticed to trades, who had to be kept in clothes, and one of them (the joiner) provided with expensive tools, his struggle was a hard one at best. Yet we had none of that pinching poverty in the house which was common to us, and all working families, in the dear years of 1816 and 1817. We had always the provision of a year’s oatmeal laid in about the month of November. This was usual with farm labourers who had families. The hinds were paid part of their wages in oats, and their custom was, to have the oats made into a “melder” at the mill, and to sell as much of the meal as they could spare to village tradesmen and others, who had no melders of their own, or to farm servants who were not hinds, but who received money wages. My father received money wages, but he seldom bought meal. He bought a certain number of bolls of oats, and had them made into a “melder,” which was done thus:—

The miller sent his horses and cart and “lademan” for the oats. My mother got intimation of the “drying day" and went to the mill to “light in.” This was to throw fuel (dry furze, the shellings of oats, and such like refuse), into the kiln upon which our oats were drying, preparatory to being ground into meal. The next day, or the next: again, was appointed for “making the melder;” upon which she again went to the mill to “sift.” The miller kept a female servant, known as the “mill maiden/* for sifting; and each party who had a melder made, furnished an additional sifter for that day; the duty being to sift the fragments of inner skin or “seeds” from the meal as it passed through the mill. They began early in the morning, and had the melder made by mid-day. During the afternoon, the “lademan” brought home the sacks of meal piled upon his double-horsed eart, with probably my mother sitting on the top of the sacks. The meal was carried into the house by the man; he got a dram of whisky, according to custom, and drove homeward, eracking his whip with an air of importance peculiar to him and all millers’ lademen.

At night the family had “new mealbrose” for supper; which was a high treat—the old oatmeal of the year before having become damp and bitter. The new meal, a handful or two being put in a dish, and boiling water poured on it, being stirred with the handle of a spoon as the water was poured on, made us a substantial relish exceedingly agreeable in contrast with the old oatmeal. Each one would add milk to the brose, if the cow was then giving milk, or a piece of butter, or suet (or probably nothing), in addition to the salt which had been put in the dish with the meal before the water was poured on. In fact, the new meal, though made into “bare brose,” was so agreeable when it first came home, that to put anything richer than itself to it was deemed a waste. My father never omitted to ask a blessing to any repast before partaking of it; and to this the first new meal brose out of the melder, which was to last until next year at the same time, he asked God's blessing before supper, and returned thanks after it in sentiments of fervent gratitude, and solemn reverence for the great bounty of providence which had filled the house with plenty.

The meal was stored away, and firmly pressed into a large chest, which had been my mother’s “providing kist,” containing her blankets, sheets, and napery when she was married. This chest did not hold all the melder, but what it did not hold was retained in the sacks, and used first. However, the old meal, if not wholly used, Lad to be ended before we again touched the new; and having tasted the new, the old was by no means palatable, and I for one was glad when it was done.

Besides the yearly melder of oatmeal, we had one or two, or more sacks of beans and barley laid in, which were mingled, and sent from time to time, about a bushel at once, to the mill, to be ground into meal for bread. The cow, which was our own, and for the summer grass of which, and winter straw, we paid six pounds yearly to our master, gave us milk for about two thirds of the year; and as we were fortunate in having a very superior cow, my mother sold as much butter during the summer, for about seven years, as used to be sold from two ordinary cows. She was a treasure, that beautiful cow; and was regarded by all of us with sentiments little short of affection. The butter, besides its quantity, was of such a quality that it was bespoke in the neighbouring market town for two or three weeks in advance, and never was, in any case, sold in the regular market. My mother would sometimes say that she knew not how we could have lived but for the milk and butter. And my father, in speaking to some stranger who was passing where the beasts were grazing—for most persons who were judges of cows halted and admired the slender and handsome shape and swelling veins of ours,—would tell the quantities of butter and milk she gave; and with his venerable countenance radiant with satisfaction, end by saying, “Oh, man, but she’s a rare ane! ”

Such being our means and style of life, it was of great importance for all of us to be set to earn something as soon as we could get anything to do, and could do it. In my eighth year I herded the cows conjointly with my sister. In my ninth I was appointed herd in chief. It was a very lonely occupation. I was out soon in the morning, and never home till sunset or after it. The woods and open glades in which the cows found grass, were inlaid in every direction with com fields, and the fences were in many parts broken and decayed. Accordingly the task of restraining the animals from getting among com, or turnips, was one not to be relaxed.

I had one cow, she belonged to the master, and was called Bell, whose leading characteristic was to go through gaps in fences, and to make gaps. She was a proud animal, and in going out in the morning or coming home at night, would let none of the others walk before her. Several of her calves had been bred up as cows, and in their habits and nature resembled her. When I took them to any new place, such as one of the stubble fields after harvest, or into the woods during the first days of summer, the others would at once begin to eat and feast on the fresh pasture; but Bell would first go round the fences and look over them, if she could, or through them into' the enclosures beyond, if she could not look over. If the hedge was very thick and high, she would bore her head through it, rather than not see what was behind. Her colour was a light chesnut, almost of golden brightness, freckled with white spots. She was a beautiful animal, with short horns, short body, and short legs. The greatest quantity of milk she gave was a driblet compared with the “jaw,” or the overflowing “ mail” of ours; but it was rich as cream itself. When she was in a particular condition during the summer for a few days, nothing could keep her from eating clothes. The caps from the heads of the milkmaids would be snatched off while they were milking, if they did not tie her up by the head. This propensity did not remain with her as a habit, but all her progeny seemed to inherit the propensity as a habit, and were inveterate clothes’ eaters. If they saw linen laid out on a hedge to dry, they would sometimes run from me, and make for the linen, though it was at the distance of half a mile. They became so mischievous at last, and were so profitless as cows, that they were all fattened and sold to the butcher, which was an inexpressible relief to me.

The master had another, which was the reverse in every respect, called Flecky. She was short-legged but large bodied, with a white head, white back, and spotted sides. She was the most humble and gentle creature of the whole cow race, and was content even to walk behind Kidley— my mother’s cow, and Kidley was one of the gentlest j or drink after her, if they were drinking at a place where all could not get at the water together. If I lay down on the grass, apart from them, to make my watermills or windmills, Elecky always came and ate the grass around me first, and proceeded outwards by degrees. When she was filled, she would return close to me, and lie down and chew her cud with her head so near that I would lay the little pieces of timber I was shaping for mills with my knife, behind her horns, which familiarity she was always pleased with ; but in driving the flies from her shoulders she sometimes tossed them off and broke them. When Bhe felt them gone, she would put down her head and stop chewing her cud, as if desiring me to put my timber work on her head again. Her real desire, however, was to have her head tickled, in which I usually gratified her with my hand, when she became very solicitous about it.

The only other one that had any peculiarity about her, was Bess, a large white and black spotted cow which belonged to the grieve. When Bess felt her milk augmented to an uneasy quantity, she would start off homeward to be milked; and as she had such an influence over all the others, that they followed wherever she went, they gave me a good deal of trouble to get before them and force them back. Bess and I were never on terms of intimacy; which probably arose from the fact that after Bell was sold to the butcher, she became the leading cow, and paid no regard whatever to my authority as herd; nothing but absolute force would turn her or restrain her.

Coming down the avenue of holly hedges beneath the trees, whose branches are arches of natural Grothic, and out at Branxton gate upon the public road, it was the rule to turn to the right, and go to the woods on the lower part of the estate, one day, and to the left, to go to the higher part of the estate, the next day; and so on alternately. When I went down I took the road by the Butterlaw Bank, and into a glade of sweet grass, called the Rig, stretching along the bottom of the Hors eh ill planting. The cows had their first fill for the day in the Rig, during which time of eating I was at a place of work in the planting, where I had made a miniature farm, ten or twelve yards square, with barns, stables, carts, ploughs, and thrashing mill—the mill driven by wind; and the whole of it and other implements made with my knife and a few old nails, flattened at the points and sharpened for chisels. When the cows had got their fill in the Rig, they came up the planting to this place of their own accord, and lay down in the shade of the trees, and chewed their cud. You may possibly read this, my child, before you know what chewing the cud means; I shall tell you. All the ox tribe of animals, and some others which eat grass, have two stomachs. When they are grazing, the mouthfuls of grass pass into one of their stomachs unmasticated, where it remains until they choose to lie down or stand at rest. They then bring it back to their mouths, masticate it at leisure, and swallow it for digestion in the proper stomach. This act of leisurely mastication is called chewing the cud.

In the shade of the Horse Hill planting they lay at rest about two hours, then rose, stretched themselves, and prepared again to graze about twelve o’clock. I then put away my farm implements at that place, not to be seen until the day after the next, and passed on before the cows into the loaning, a roadway with grassy sides and a stripe of planting on one side, the whole about five hundred yards long.

In summer this was a beautiful roadway. On each side were rows of trees, a beech and a laburnum alternately, the latter covered with its yellow flowers, and the flowers visited by thousands of honey bees; while the delicate green of the beeches intermingled with the flowery yellow of the laburnums gave beauty to each other, and borrowed more to give. In this loaning, or in the stripe of planting by its side, the women who milked the several cows came and eased the generous creatures of their mid-day milk. As our little thatched cottage stood at the end of the loaning, my mother had only a few yards to come to milk our cow; and I could go into the house and get my dinner without being away from my duty of office. The dinner in the early part of summer was bread, milk, butter, hard cheese, made from skimmed milk, occasionally curds and cream; and broth and pickled pork once a week. When the new potatoes, cabbages, and other summer vegetables were ready, we had broth more frequently.

When the cows were milked in the loaning, and I had got my dinner, I passed on with them, leaving our house behind us on the left, our faces turned southward, down the Pond road. At the bottom of this road was a pond about forty yards wide, so deep as to have the reputation of being bottomless, with a sloping entrance only on one side. On all the other sides the water was deep to the very edge. Here the cows drank and cooled themselves by standing in the water. Here my mother now bleached her yearly webs of linen shirting, which were spun during the winter; for the Lady’s Well at which they had been bleached, as already mentioned, when I was a very young child, was drained away; the boulder stones around it had been blasted with gunpowder, the furze and brushwood of a thousand years had been uprooted, and the green brae side, with its millions of white gowans, was ploughed up, and rendered into good com land. But the pond water was better for bleaching than that of the Lady’s Well. It contained some chemical property which the spring water of the Lady’s Well had not. As the cows after drinking passed into the Pond planting, where there was always good grass, and not much temptation to go astray, I assisted my mother during the four or dye weeks that her linen was bleaching, to put it through the bucking tub, and wash it, and knock it on the knocking stone. This was a laborious process which she put it through every second or third day; and as she required and obtained my help, she did it on those days when I was on this part of the estate, with the cows. I also watered the webs for her during the hot sunny afternoons, after they had been again spread out to be alternately dried and watered. If it was her churning day, I also helped her to chum the accumulated cream of the week into butter. Our chum was a barrel on a frame, and was turned by a handle. During the warm weather the butter was usually got in about half an hour, so that it was rather a pleasure than a task to drive the churn for that time. When the butter was got, it required to be well washed in cold spring water, to take all the milk out of it. She would wash a small piece first of all for me; would spread it on a piece of our gray bread, made of barley and beans: would sprinkle some salt on it, and give it to me and hasten me off to the cows in the Pond planting, lest they might have gone wrong in my absence; and off I would go, eating it as I went with a relish and a gladness of heart which would have hardly been higher if I had thought there was no butter so good as ours, and no mother in the world like mine: perhaps I should do myself no injustice to own that I thought those things.

The Pond planting had wild strawberries in it in the lower part, which I gathered when they were ripe ; and amongst the furze and the ferns in the higher part, a little plant of aromatic fragrance called woodroof scented the air; while outside the planting, along an avenue of trees, the hedges underneath were covered with the creeping honeysuckle in profuse blossom, which ambitious creeper would get upon the trees, high and wide though its own hedges were, as if it had not room to display itself sufficiently; and there on the high trees it would go along, on every branch, and hang its elegant honey blooms over our heads in the avenue; making every thing to the eye seem lovely, every breath of air feel sweet. Here, too, the blackbirds and the throstle singers, and thousands of their feathery associates in song warbled. Soon after six o’clock in the evening the ploughmen from the farm fields passed up this road with their horses, on their way home to Branxton stables. One would sing; another would whistle; the young men would probably have the young women who had been working in the fields seated behind them on horseback; and they would halt to gather some of the honeysuckle flowers hanging overhead, and would move on, the man and the horse, just as the maiden had caught hold of the flowery branch, and was trying to break it; upon which she would, in the sudden fear of falling off, quit the flower, and cling fast to her young ploughman. She would reproach him for making the horse move just as she was getting such a beautiful branch, and say it was a shame of him, for she had nearly fallen off; and he would bid her try again, and would stop the horse to let her try again, which she would do. But once more he moved the horse on suddenly, to make her quit hold of the flowers and cling to him, as if he took a pleasure in her timidity; and probably he did.

Between seven and eight o’clock, when the sun had got behind the thicket of green beeches on the Rabbit Hill, I drove the cows up this flowery avenue to put them into the enclosure of the Rabbit Hill, and the meadow which lay in the deep woodland recess beyond it for the night. They usually ate more grass from four o'clock in the afternoon up to seven than in any other three hours of the day; and were at this time so full that some of them could hardly get along. Flecky, especially, with more milk than she could well bear, and her sides packed out with grass until her breadth was about equal to her length, waddled along to meet the maiden that came to milk her, in a manner comical to look upon. When I got them inside of the little gate at the Babbit Hill, and that little gate shut upon them, I returned down the avenue, across the Pond planting, up the Pond road, into the little thatched house, at Thriepland Hill gate, and found my bicker filled with scalded milk, or scalded whey, standing on the table waiting for me. It was only a few steps to the spoon box, from whence a Spoon was taken, and as the other members of the family had got their supper before this time, a shorter grace than that said by my father was said by me. My supper was soon over; after which family worship was begun, consisting of the singing of two or three verses of a psalm, the reading of a chapter, and an extemporaneous prayer. This ended, we went to bed; slept soundly, and rose again at four o’clock, to have time for family prayers before the daily labour of the field was begun, at the usual hour of five o’clock.

It was now my day to go to the upper woods with the cows. So, taking them out of the enclosures where they passed the night, by Branxton gate, I turned them to the left down towards Ogle Burn. This day’s herding was in most respects different from that of the day before. The wild rocks and ravine of the Ogle Burn, and the wooded solitudes above the rocks; with foxes crossing my path in the thickets; and hawks wheeling in the air over the precipices in which were their nests; the ravine becoming darker and darker as I waded through the pools, climbing over stony impediments, until I reached the linn where the water poured over a rock, and further progress was stayed; these were a few of the things seen in the early part of this day’s herding. I was not content, however, to he stayed by the linn, formidable as it was. Climbing aloft into the regions of the hawks, which bounded out with their angry screams at my intrusion, and along ledges of rock where adders were sometimes seen basking in the sun, and which I had a greater fear of than of the angry hawks, but which always retreated from me, I descended again to the watercourse of the bum above the linn, and found raspberries, blackberries, and other wild fruit in its season, where no human hand had gathered, probably for many years, if ever at all. I never harried nests; but if I saw one in any difficult place, I was seldom content to let it remain without a visit, particularly a nest of hawks. I learned a good deal of this climbing talent from the gipsies who occasionally encamped in those woods. I was so entirely cut off from all other society on the days of going to the upper plantings, that any companionship was welcome to me. But apart from that reason for Beeking their society, I actually liked them. I used to sit by their camp fire, help them to make heather besoms, help to tinker pots and pans, eat with them at their meals, gather fuel for them to burn, wander through the woods with the men, climb the dangerous rocks in emulation with their boys, run races with them and wrestle with them. They taught me many games and feats of strength and agility, which, when I went to school again in the winter time, served as so many accomplishments which introduced me to the “best society,” that is, to the good graces of the cleverest of my school-fellows.


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