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For Puir Auld Scotland's Sake
The Old Harvest-Field


‘In hairst at the shearin'
Nae youngsters are jeerin';
At e’en i’ the gloamin’
Nae swankies are roamin’
’Bout stacks wi’ the lasses at bogle to play.’

WE have it on the word of an ancient annalist that the harvest was collected in some parts of Gaul nineteen hundred years ago, by a decapitating machine propelled through the standing corn. The propeller was a bullock, the machine an open box placed on wheels, with a toothed apparatus horizontally fitted to the fore part of it, and the modus operandi was a sort of heckling. The projecting comb caught the stalks just under the heads, and, as the machine moved forward, the precious heads were torn off between the close-set spikes and fell into the receiving box. The whole of the straw crop was, of course, lost where such a system of reaping was in use. It seems to have been sacrificed to a greedily expeditious method of appropriating the grain. The haste which recommended such a method, and the waste which it involved, make such a harvest seem to us, with our traditions and associations of the stooky field, a thieves’ harvest rather than that of thankful men.

It was hardly likely that a method of reaping at once so rude and so wasteful should to any considerable extent supersede the hook and antiquate the primeval traditions of the harvest-field. It was thought by its inventor, no doubt, to be an improvement on the old-established method ; and it cannot be denied that it contained some idea of the modern mechanical reaper, which is threatening, with every probability of fulfilling the threat, to revolutionise the harvest-field, and to antiquate the ancient services of the hook, and the hand. In this view of the subject, that old Gaulish engine of ox, box, and heckle, may claim in the achievements of its modern representative, a long-delayed victory over the primitive but popular hook. But in spite of its disuse and disappearance, the hook will remain to all time coming the symbol of work in the harvest-field. The rising and later generations may have no personal knowledge of its services, but the sickle lives for ever endeared to the imagination in our popular literature. There it suggests a condition of life which is fancied to have been perennial in the world’s golden age, but which is with each pursuing autumn less and less likely to recur in human history. Art with her hurry and her hundred hands is rapidly removing from our waking life the fragmentary memory of the age of gold in those rural felicities which the sickle symbolises.

Science, especially since her coronation in the Crystal Palace in 1851, has effected many changes which are not in every aspect of them improvements. To some people she is breaking connection with the past too completely. She is bringing us much material good, and some /^/material, but not the less real evil. Her gains, though great, have not been cheaply won. She has given the scattered groups of mankind acquaintanceship with a wider brotherhood, but she has also slackened the ties of ancient friendships, and broken up, as Newton broke up the spheres of Ptolemy, many a cosy little world hitherto content to sit within the ring of its own homely wisdom and happy ignorance. She has multiplied in machinery the power that lodges in human arms in order to save the bodies of men from the indignity of slavery ; but she has set idle in the same proportion the skill that inhabits in human brains. She has sent into the domain of agriculture engines and automata that have neither a fear of God nor a care of man, that have abstracted half its beauty from the primeval industry, and reduced to the minimum the sense of filial dependence upon a special providence. She has forbidden song and excluded sociality from the harvest-field, dimmed the golden sheaves, and weakened the charm which filled the reaper’s imagination with the romance of Ruth and the poetry of Joseph’s dream.

Let me describe in a few rambling notes the harvest-field of fifty years ago. Old folks will not be sorry to have some of its phenomena recalled, and the younger generation who have no memories may find in the record glimpses of a life of which they can hardly now hope to have personal experience.

Oats and barley were the favourite field crops in Scotland fifty years ago. They were not only best adapted for the soil and the climate, but they were most immediately useful, and commanded a sure market. Wheat, which is now grown on perhaps every farm, was then very rare. Pease and beans were also a rare crop, about which the farmer had little or no anxiety. The white crop, more especially in the harvest season, absorbed the whole of his care. The black crop had his attention when there was nothing else to attend to, or when attention to anything else was unavailing. Wet days, which occasioned a suspension of harvesting work among the oats and the barley, were utilised for the shearing of pease and beans. The barley, then as now* was commonly the first crop of autumn. All farm seeds were sown in spring, excepting the wheat seed, which was broad-cast in October.

The principal work in the farm year preceding the grain harvest was the getting-in of the hay. There was almost always an interval, however, between the grass and the grain harvests. Advantage was taken of the interval to lay in a year’s coals, if coal-pits or coal-depots were within a reasonable radius. Then were to be seen long strings of carts making such a show and commotion in the villages through which they passed, en route to the coal-hill, as to bring weavers to their doors, and arrest even the games of children. The children would count and dispute about the number of carts, while the adult population would interchange opinions, and indulge community of sentiment on the number and names of the farms represented. The jocks, proud of their charges, and the interest which their passage evoked in the breasts of the town bodies, would augment the commotion and clamour by bawling to their cattle, and brandishing their brass-bound whips. Their return with loaded carts would be looked for late in the afternoon or at gloaming. Along with this driving of coals, went on the furrowing up of the turnips, which were a late crop. And meanwhile fed by dews and rains, and strengthened by drying winds and warm suns the stately grain matured and mixed—that is showed patches of yellow among the green— and finally was ready for the sickle.

The season of the grain harvest, everywhere distinguished as the hairst, usually commenced early in September. More particularly, it might begin in the latter half of August on lowland farms, and in the middle portion of September on upland or hill farms. Roughly speaking, we may say it lasted a month. Male harvesters were fee’d for four weeks, wet and dry. It was well anticipated that they would have lie time, as it was called. They were said to lie when they were not engaged in harvest work proper. This would happen in wet weather, or when the corn in some of the fields was not yet ripe enough to be taken. They were employed about the farm in other work. The female harvesters, on the other hand, were fee’d for the dry weather; and* when their services could not be used, would go home till there was a prospect of clear skies and dry fields. The time of hairst was of the same length on all farms, as a rule, no matter for their variations of size. If the farm was big, there was a necessity, of course, for a larger band of harvesters. But the ears whitened and hardened just as fast or as slow on a farm of four hundred acres as on one of forty.

With respect to wages, a man’s fee for the harvest season might be two pounds in money, and his keep for the term of engagement; a woman's, thirty shillings with maintenance. Reapers were not seldom engaged on this covenant for the harvest, were it longer or shorter than the normal month.

The reaper’s food was plain, but plentiful and wholesome. He began the day with work, and after two hours of it was revengeful for breakfast. It was brought to him to the field at eight o’clock, porridge fragrant as furze-blossom and new milk white as the petal of^ a mountain daisy. He supped with a stook at his back and his heels on the stubble, and probably with a horn spoon, out of a capacious, thick-walled wooden caupy which kept up a lasting, equable warmth unknown to crocks or pigs, and very comforting to the knees. With every mouthful he took down the fine relish of buoyant, sun-blessed air, which spiritualised digestion. He was not fed again till one o’clock. About that time a halflin—that is, a youth too young for man and too old for boy—drove a cart with a cask of ale and a basket full of scones into the field, and the workers had dinner. The browst, which was from the local brewer’s, was known as stna* ale, and a better slockening drink ‘the sun-burned harvester with August weary’ could not desire. Each reaper had a cogful. In a small field it was served out from pails. The scone was round and thick; its composition, now a lost art in our experience, required the presence of oatmeal and barley flour. There was no accompanying cheese or costlier butter, and yet it was palatable—that it was tissue-forming there never was doubt. Indeed, a shearer’s scone was as much a treat at harvest time and just as appropriate to the season as carvey cakes at Hogmanay, and shortbread on Hansel Monday. The reaper had three meals a day; the last, supper, was taken, never in our knowledge /artaken, in the farm kitchen at seven o’clock, and consisted, like the morning meal, of porridge and milk.

The harvester’s working day, it will thus be seen, was from six in the morning till seven in the evening, which, in September, is till dusk. The day was divided for meals and rest in the following manner:—Breakfast hour, from eight to nine; pipe-time, half an hour for a smoke and a rest, at eleven; dinner hour, from one to two; pipe-time again, half an hour at five. After seven the harvester was free. His work entailed much and often continuous stooping, trying to both brawn and breath, but it was agreeable, never lost the charm of novelty, and was conducive to the development of the social sentiment, all in such a degree that the typical reaper was a merry, frank, gamesome fellow, ready for a ploy or a prank before bed-time, and, if young enough, even for a dance on the shorn rigs at the meal hour. Tired though they were physically, yet a whole fieldful of harvesters would prove the abundance of animal spirits in their company on the squeak of a fiddle, and, like the peasants whom Goldsmith fell in with on the Loire banks, they ‘ would dance forgetful of the noon-tide hour. Evening, however, was the natural season for such amusements as music and dancing, and not seldom would one farm be visited by the harvesters of another in the neighbourhood, their approach announced by the strains of a fiddle and the laughter of girls, and reels and jigs engaged in on the shorn rigs plena luna imminente. The hardest driven of all harvesters were the farm serving-maids. Housework required them to be stirring before five o’clock in the morning; then they worked with the specially engaged harvesters all day; and after seven in the evening their services were still further in request till ten or even eleven. The full year’s fee of those healthy, and hearty, and happy but hard-worked girls was not more than six pounds, in some instances barely five pounds.

Perhaps the commonest name for the harvesters was shearers. They came for the most part from the villages and little towns in the neighbourhood of the farm on which they gave their services. They were mostly weavers and tradespeople of rural instincts and up-bringing, glad, therefore, of the change in their mode of life and occupation which the harvest season brought, and commonly finding service on the same farm year after year. It was. only required that they were willing workers and noways inclined to quarrel. It was comparatively rare that a whole body of harvesters found fault with their employer. The likeliest source of debate was the sour ale or the mouldy scones which were sent out to cheer the reaper’s heart at midday. The unhappy halflin, who immediately but innocently managed the commissariat, on such occasions ran a risk of being deluged with the damaged liquor or pelted with the faulty bread. His report would bring up the master of the farm, and the offence would be discussed, apologised for, discontinued, and forgotten. The benefits accruing to the village community from personal co-operation in the harvest field were physical, social, and moral. It afforded an opportunity to such sedentary craftsmen as weavers, tailors, and shoemakers to lay in a stock of health, observation, and good humour that helped to carry them happily through the next eleven months of the year. It gave ' neighbours the means of knowing each other more fully, re-knitted the ties of brotherhood, removed or minimised differences, and multiplied those little mutual obligations upon which so much of the happiness of life depends. It created also a freer and franker public opinion, which is almost always on the^side of a practicable and healthy morality. It should further be noted that the exchange of ideas among people of all ages, both sexes, married and unmarried, and following such different callings as those of blacksmith, slater, and schoolboy, in addition to what have been already mentioned, made up a fund of information and enlightenment on a great variety of subjects which must have ministered in many ways to the general good.

The harvesting implement fifty years ago, and for a hundred fifties probably before then, was the sickle. But there were two kinds of sickle—the toothed or saw sickle, and the knife or scythe sickle. The former was going out of use at the time referred to, very much to the dissatisfaction of the farmer, who preferred it to the knife-hook, because it made cleaner stubble. The knife-hook, however, was lighter to wield among the corn-stalks, and as it was mainly a reaper’s question, it carried the day. The toothed sickle performed its function of severing the stalks by being pulled against the handful in the reaper’s grasp, and the action required considerable exertion, as the stalks were broken rather than cut. The knife-hook lightened the reaper’s labour by cutting both when going in among the victual and when being drawn home. Of course it was a more dangerous weapon, and the learner was almost certain to slice a left-hand finger or two before he acquired a dexterous use of it.

There was naturally a division of labour when the operations of the harvest-field were in full swing. The master’s place was behind the workers, and his office was that of general superintendent He saw that the work was done clean; checked all injudicious striving among the reapers, which only brokkit the corn —that is, wasted it—and by his presence prevented laziness. A bandster—that is, a man who bound the loose bundles of cut corn into sheaves, and stood them into shocks or stooks at convenient intervals—kept six reaping hooks busy, the wielders of which were known as his bandwin. The bandwin included two men and four women, all shearing, and a woman doing usually as much as a man for less money. The man made the ropes with which the bandster fastened the sheaves, and did scarcely anything else more than the woman. Boys came to the field to make ropes after the scythe and the reaping machine made their appearance ; but now their services are dispensed with, science having provided the farmer of to-day with an automatic reaper that rolls to his feet bound sheaves out of the standing corn. There was no raking together of stray ears in a hook-shorn field. Gleaners came in, with tacit permission of the farmer, after the stooks were led away to the stackyard, and their little lapfuls and bundles, made up with patient and even painful industry, where bare feet reddened the stubble, guaranteed that no part of the bounty of Ceres was lost. The proportion of harvesters to farms of the same acreage varied, of course, with the area under crop. There would probably be two bandwin on a two-pair farm— that is, a farm which was worked by two pairs of horses. The horses had a holiday during harvest, and were put to grass till the 'leading' set in.

While it stood in stooks the farmer counted his field’s produce, and the reapers their work, by the number of threaves. The threave was a fixed unit of measurement, and, for oats and barley, consisted of two stooks of twelve sheaves each. Fourteen sheaves composed a stook of wheat. The sheaf was, of course, of determinate size. A sheaf of oats or barley required to be ten inches in diameter, measured at the band, and a sheaf of wheat twelve inches. When reapers were paid by the piece—that is, directly in proportion to the amount of their work, and not by the time for which they promised their services — their wages were calculated at so much per threave. Threepence was the ordinary allowance for harvesting a threave of oats or barley, and fourpence for one of wheat. The farmer looked to the straw crop to recompense him for the outlay that went in reapers* wages. If the straw paid the cost of shearing it was well.

Given a clear blue September sky, a warm sun smiling benevolently on thousands of happy farms, and a brisk cooling wind none the worse with a breath of the bracing north in it, and the hairst field showed to the best advantage. It presented to the passing wayfarer, who loitered to survey it, a busy, picturesque, and joyous scene. It looked like the progress of a dramatic game. The dress of the reapers, especially of the women, was delightfully effective to the artistic eye. It consisted of a petticoat, a short gown—more properly, a jacket — of white or striped cotton, and a white linen or straw bonnet, known as a crazy. But the girls were oftener bare-headed. Their

dress was light, and did not impede their movements; at the same time it showed off a neat ankle and a well-proportioned figure to the best advantage. The men worked in their sleeves, and whatever variety of costume they displayed, their work was not of a kind to soil it; it was always clean looking. Joking and jesting, love making and laughter went on in circumstances so favourable for both social and secret intercourse among the sexes. And with it all there was an air of repose resting on the field, and tranquillising the hearts of the reapers, which it is impossible to expect within sound of machinery. Burns incidentally but graphically describes this leisure feeling of the old harvest-field, in recounting some of his early experiences to the guidwife of Wauchope House. ‘I mind it weel,* he says,—

‘When first amang the yellow com
A man I reckoned was,
And wi’ the lave ilk merry mom
Could rank my rig an* lass;
Still shearing an* clearing
The tither stookit raw,
Wi' claivers an’ haivers
Wearing the day away.

The love-making, too, that went on in the hairst field he has described; it was there, indeed, that he first felt the charm of female loveliness, as he has confessed in the poetry of both his prose and his verse,—

‘On that hairst I said before,
My partner in the merry core,
She roused the forming strain.
I see her yet, the sonsie quean
That lighted up my jingle,
Her witching smile, her pawky een,
That garr’d my heart-strings tingle:
I fired, inspired,
At every kindling keek,
But bashing and dashing
I feared aye to speak/

His prose is even more confidential and expressive :—‘ I did not well know why I liked so much to loiter behind with her when returning in the evening from our labours, why the tones of her voice made my heart-strings thrill like an AEolian harp, and particularly why my pulse beat such a furious rantann when I looked and fingered over her hand to pick out the nettle-stings and thistles. A more beautifully idyllic scene than these perfect lines portray and suggest has never, perhaps, been represented by painter. One wonders that no artist in colours has yet appropriated the subject Who said that Bums could not write English?

At the conclusion of the barley harvest, which was first over, the reapers were treated to the bear barrel—not to ale, but the finer juice of bear, the spirit of John Barleycorn, whisky—a glass or two to each; and a choral dance thereafter in the barn. As the harvest of the year approached completion a strife sprang up among the reapers, which had for its object the taking of the maiden. The maiden was the last handful of the harvest which the fields had to offer; it was the last pickle, of two dozen stalks or so, to be cut down on the farm. The cry arose, ‘Wha tane the maiden?' and the name was received with cheers. To have taken it was a long brag among the younger shearers. Sometimes a small quantity of rooted corn would be concealed by design under a coat or a shawl, and by-and-by, when the maiden was believed to have been taken elsewhere, it would be publicly disclosed and appropriated by the deceiver, probably some modest, merry-eyed lassie, who had then the honour of having secured the true maiden. The maiden was tied up with ribands and presented to the farmer’s wife, who gave it the chief place in the principal room of the farmhouse, above the mirror and between the sheaves of peacock’s feathers on the mantel. There it remained carefully preserved throughout the succeeding winter, often, indeed, till the rape of a new Proserpine replaced it in the following autumn.

Then came the great harvest festival of the kirn. It was properly celebrated on the night of the day upon which the maiden was taken. The leading might be not only commenced, but well advanced on the occasion — one-half of the year’s produce in stack and the other half in stook; for shearing and leading could go on simultaneously in different fields. The kirn had nothing to do with the work of transporting the shorn grain to the stackyard ; it was the shearer’s feast, and was held when the last stalk was cut. Before sitting down, in their rustic attire, but tidy and clean, to the well-earned banquet in the farm kitchen, the harvesters’ hearts were attuned to the special cheerfulness of the hour by individual inter* views of a private nature with the farmer* They were called into his room, and were paid their money, with a pleasant remark from the master. Full purses, with health and a clear conscience, make light spirits; and by-and-by full stomachs would make light heels. The farmer himself, his commodious arm - chair dragged from the fireside to the floor, presided at the feast table; and first there was the rural delicacy, unknown to towns-folks, of ‘cream crowdie a?' Each person at the table including, of course, the harvesters, but also the wives and children of the ploughmen on the farm, was served with a mixture of fresh nut-fragrant oatmeal and delicious cream, drawn from the kirn or churn, by way of demonstrating the applicability of the name to the festival. This is a treat, by-the-bye, much more palatable than a stranger to its merits would infer from the recipe. A rough elementary plenty of rural fare covered the board, more than sufficient to withstand an evening’s attack even of hungry harvesters. The viands were beef and mutton, both boiled; oatmeal cakes, crisp and curly; barley-meal scones or bannocks, made supple with sweet butter; country cheese, both mild and ‘bauld/ the latter veined with blue; and for drink, there was whisky as much as was liked, and milk for those who preferred it. One sense satisfied, another claimed indulgence in its turn. When the palate had been duly appeased, the ear grew alert for regalement. Then songs were sung and stories told far into the night, interspersed with that species of small talk known to kindly country folks as haivering and joking. Occasionally the conversation would for a brief moment or two take a serious turn to the subject of the farm-victual just secured or the price of food. The fear might be expressed that the coming year was to be a dear one for meal, but the farmer was assured that the meal would be good, for the victual was got ‘ fine in ’—that is, in good condition. But the spirit of the hour was one of extreme buoyancy, and would soon recover itself to the indulgence of a dance, social or solo, or a rant, or both combined. Here is a bit of rant which strangely lingers in our memory after many years. The rant itself was of infinite length, and was half-said half-sung by a lean weather-battered vivacious old fellow, to his own accompaniment of hand-clapping, while his brother, a very Mercury of an aged carle, clattered and danced in the midst of the approving rustics. It is but a fragment we remember,—

‘Hey up, Shoosie Dick,
How, Jenny Shaw!
Black-dog an* Tear-’em
An' Towser an' a'?

Meanwhile a wan moon stared in through the upper panes upon the rustic revelry, or the wail of dark October winds was heard, in pauses of the mirth, in the desolate stubblefields, or nearer among the rowans sobbing on the west gable. Early next morning the shearers, except, it might be, the bandsters, were away to their several homes. The harvest season of another year was over. The bandsters remained to assist in stacking the still- out-lying victual, and making it ‘ richt an* ticht in thack and raip/ There were late kirns then as now—notably in 1839.1 Burns speaks from hearsay of an exceptionally late one, to which we have heard of scarcely a fellow in the lowlands in this century. It was in the harvest season of 1714. An aged carline is the supposed authority—

*The year afore the Shirra-muir,
I mind as weel's yestreen;
I was a gilpy then—I'm sure
I was na past fifteen:
The simmer had been cauld an' wat,
An’ stuff was unco green,
But aye a rantin' kirn we gat,
An' just on Hallowe'en
It fell that nicht.'

Hallowe’en, as everybody knows, is the last night of October, old style. But Burns also speaks of harvest being late in the district around Kirkliston, near Edinburgh, at the end of August 1787.

After the kirn had been duly celebrated, the leading-in was continued till the whole of the cereal produce was carted to the yard. The foreman of the farm built the stacks, as he had also sowed the fields, but the less difficult art of thatching could be performed by any of the ploughmen. On big farms there was usually one enormous stack or rick on which the foreman expended all the resources of his architectural art, and by which he established his claim to foremanship; it was his chef (f oeuvre, his diploma piece, so to say, and was known as the king. It served as a specimen or pattern to the under-graduates of the agricultural profession. To supply the straw necessary for thatching and roping the ricks, a few bolls of corn were often threshed out, fresh from the field. In wet weather the female reapers engaged for the harvest were employed in making the straw fit for thatching purposes—which they did by pulling it out and laying it in bundles straight and even. They also made straw ropes of about twenty yards each, by means of the thraw-crook. In wet harvests the ricks were built small with big bosses or kilns, to admit air and secure ventilation of the stuff in the stack. These bosses were known as fause houses in some parts of the country, such as Ayrshire. A two-pair farm might have a stackyard of three dozen ricks, the value of which, at the time we speak of, would run from ten pounds to twelve pounds or fifteen pounds per rick.

After the grain harvest was secured, potato lifting began. Then, after the stubble butter— the richest of all—was made, the land that had not been sown out in grass with the year’s barley was broken or stirred by the plough to keep down growth. Then turnips were pitted against the expected winter storms. Threshing went on now and then all through the winter— a stack was taken in/ as it was called. There was no idleset about the farm, nor yet monotony of work. Life was leisurely busy, and the world was not too much with the farmer.


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