"See him sweating o'er his
Before he eats it."— The Task.
The entirely primitive
occupation of the lotman only went out of fashion at the opening of the
current century, and his name, ceasing to be used, is already all but
forgotten. The lotman was the thresher, and he was to be found erewhile on
every farm of the Lowlands. It was a small farm that employed but one. A
farm that was worked by four pairs of horses required the services of two
pairs of threshers. They were named "lotmen" from taking the stuff by lot—2X
so much per boll, the custom of the country-side regulating their charge.
The phrase is still common: farm produce—chiefly potatoes, but even corn
also—is still sold "in lots to suit purchasers." Though he thus worked by
the piece, the lotman's time was not at his own making: if a farmer wanted a
stack threshed— ("taken in," as it was called, i.e. to the barn from the
yard)—he wanted it done within a given limit; and the lotman had often to
work extra hours. He was occasionally the first astir on the farm, in order
to provide the necessary supply of straw for the day. In the case of a small
farm or large croft, where the threshing was done by a member of the family,
or, it might be, a fee'd servant, it was often the practice to make
provision for the day's use by threshing a few sheaves—or rather "thraves"—every
morning. Mossgiel, as leased by the brothers Burns, was such a farm. It
extended to a hundred and twenty acres, was worked by two pairs of
horses—the very natures of which are on record: witness "the red-wud
Kilburnie blastie"—and was managed by Gilbert and "three mischievous boys"
serving under the poet's superintendence. The three farm lads were
"A gadsman ane, a thresher
Wee Davoc hauds the nowt in fother."
The thresher here alluded to
was not a lotman but a fee'd servant, whose first and perhaps principal duty
on the farm was to keep the "town" supplied with straw and corn. The poet
occasionally helped him,. •especially when farm-work of other kind was "at a
stand." We know of at least one hard day's work at threshing in the barn at
Mossgiel in the winter of 1785-86, when Burns toiled like a brownie, and had
his reward in tired body and depressed spirits, followed by a glorious
Vision in the evening:—
"The thresher's weary flingin'-tree
The lee-lang day had tired me;
And when the day had closed his e'e
Far i' the west,
Ben i' the spence, right pensivelie,
I gaed to rest."
On a big farm the lotman's
work of threshing went on regularly from daylight to dark, and often both
before the one and after the other by lantern light, during the whole of the
winter. "Dichting" by means of fanners went on, of course, at the same time.
In his Farmers Ingle (scene—East of Fife, near St. Andrews) Fergusson very
properly conjoins the two occupations. It is "grey gloamin" of a November
day about the year 1770
"When Thresher John, sair
dung, his barn-door steeks,
And lusty lasses at the dichtin' tire."
These lotmen were not
farm-servants in the ordinary sense. They had probably been ploughmen, but
stiffened with exposure or matrimony, had taken to threshing. When a
ploughman married, and was not fortunate enough to secure the dignity of a
foremanship,. he thought of a more independent way of living, and when the
chance occurred caught at the kind of work implied in the occupation of a
lotman. It had many advantages, which either escaped the eye of the "single"
ploughman, or were ignored by him in a kind of bravado. There was, for
example, less exposure to-"wind and weet," less of that kind of toil called
"trudging," less "drudging" also at a variety of incidental duties; and if
wages were not on a much more liberal scale than a ploughman's, payment was
made at shorter and more convenient intervals. The lotman's house was in
most cases a cottage by the roadside ; but he might be a denizen of a town,
probably near the outskirts, going out to his work at the farm in the
morning and returning home in the evening. The Pleasance of Edinburgh used
to be, and may still be, the home of many people who earned at least part of
their livelihood by "day's work" among the neighbouring farms.
In summer time the lotman
changed his name with the necessity of a change in his occupation. He was
then known as an "orra man"—one who turned his hand to any work that was
"going about." He became a ditcher or a drainer, mended roads, or repaired
fences. Sometimes the farmer for whom he had "threshed the barn" in winter
found"him occupation in working his "faugh land"—as a field lying in summer
fallow was called. This he did by cleaning it of weeds and stones, ploughing
or " stirring" it, draining its sour hollows, and generally preparing it for
next season. Potato-growing has made summer fallow less necessary. Clearing
or "redding out" ditches was work done in the heat of summer, between the
hay-making and the grain harvest Draining was winter work chiefly. Burns's
famous Cotter filled just such a position, and discharged just such services
to the farmers in his neighbourhood as our lotman. Spades, mattocks, and
hoes were the emblems of his toil, and he was doubtless no stranger to the
use of the flail.
Flail, though a word of
French origin, was the name by which the thresher's tool was most generally
known. There was no absolute want of a native name; but probably "the
swinging tree," though well descriptive of the thing it named, was confined
to the west country. The instrument consisted of three parts: the handle or
staff, the "souple," and the "couplins". The last-mentioned were thongs of
eel-skin or leather, by which the souple was loosely fastened to the staff.
Eel-skin, as being tougher and more lasting than leather, was preferred. It
was in its way a special industry in some rural districts to catch and skin
those eels that were destined to flourish in a barn. There was a decided
prejudice against them as food : Jews could not have held them in greater
abomination. The souple, like the handle, was round, made like it of ash or
elm, but thicker. It was swung over the head, and delivered in such a manner
that the whole length of the souple fell prone at once on the prostrate
sheaf. A novice who had courage to venture a full swing as likely as not
brought the whole barn about his ears, or—which was the same thing— landed
himself a swinging blow on the chops. Yes ; it was one of the fine arts to
handle the flail as it deserved, and the art could not be painlessly learned
in a day.
The lotman threshed the whole
length of the sheaf, but especially, of course, the "crop" or the "heads,"
as the ears were commonly called. It was not only that some ears were in the
body of the sheaf, but the cornstalks made better fodder for being bruised
and broken. The threshing was done in the barn between the fore and back
doors, which were both kept open, at least the upper halves, to admit light.
The lower halves were closed in stormy weather. The threshers were stripped
to the shirt, but were of course out of the draught and quite within the
barn. They worked opposite each other on the same stuff when they worked in
pairs. The flails fell alternately with steady thump on the grain lying in
the cross-lights between the two doors. When sufficiently beaten on one
side, the sheaf of course was turned. The barn floor was commonly of clay,
but in most instances that part of it on which the com was threshed was laid
Another way of separating
seeds from stalk than by threshing was by whipping. By this process handfuls
of the sheaves were smartly struck upon a large cross-tree or beam fixed in
the barn, and in such a way that only the ears were shaken. The stalks
remained unbroken, and were serviceable for thatching.
Threshing-mills began to come
into general use pretty early in the century. There was opposition to them
at first, just as a century previously there had been opposition to fanners.
(Mause Headrigg's objection to them may be in the reader's memory.) But when
their superiority to the flail as a money-saving agency was established
their introduction became general and rapid. An old farmer of my
acquaintance ventured £24 for a "second-hand" mill, and declared he saved
the cost of it the first year. As late as 1832-33 the flail was still
thumping with its first vigour on upland farms on the Ochils. Even yet in
some crofter's barn the old-world implement fitfully smites the corn. These
eyes saw it last wielded—not many years ago—by an old man on his knees. It
is now almost entirely confined to the beating of carpets and the care of
In Andrew Meikle's invention
the loosened sheaf is operated upon by the beaters of a revolving drum. The
difference between the flail and his threshing-mill is the difference
between the oar and the steam paddle-wheel. Meikle's machine was invented in
1787; by the year 1830 most farms, even in outlying regions had a Meikle
mill at one end of the barn. The motive power was at first that of horses.
They turned the vertical shaft in a round red-tiled shed in the rear of the
bam. These conical sheds are still conspicuous on many farm towns. But they
have mostly fallen into decay through disuse: the idle and rotting beams
which they protected may be dimly seen through the openings in the low
walls; a nearer inspection reveals a tapestry of mould and "mouse-webs"
filling the angles, and extending along the beams to which, in old-world
days of this century, Bob, and Dick, and Demsel were yoked. The endless
recurrence of their white and brown and black hides in the shed opening, as
they pursued their monotonous round to the hushing hum within the barn, is
no longer one of the sleepy emblems of rural life. The principle of Meikle's
mill is still employed in the travelling mills which, drawn and worked by
steam-engines, now perambulate the country from stackyard to stackyard, and
supersede in their turn the mill in the barn-end and the sorely-tried
energies of Bob and Demsel and Dick.