Manufacture of Straw Articles in Orkney: Part 2

By Walter Traill Dennison from Orcadian Papers 1905



Simmans (F Grahame)

This is a strong straw rope formed of two cants twisted together and spun by hand alone. When spun and ‘raked’, that is stretched, it is then wound into large clews the width of a barn door. The great use of the simmans was to thatch the crop and the roofs of houses. A newly-thatched cottage, showing the bright warm colour of the straw ropes, formed in an Orkney landscape an object, which by contrast of colour, was gratifying to the eye.

Very different is the aspect of cottages thatched with heather ropes, the eye being repelled by the grim dingy roof and huge peat stacks black as night. And yet, even here, nature is more tastefully ornamental than man, for on yon cottage, that seems roofed in a funeral pall, nature has done her best to compensate the ugly work of man’s hand by covering the hut’s low walls with her lovely green and yellow lichens. But if ever the Orkney peasant ever had any  love of the beautiful, that quality must be driven out of him by glaring white lime and cold grey flagstone roofs.

Bent Ropes

Most of the ropes and cordage required by the Orkney farmer were made either of hair or bent. The bent bands were made into ropes on a rude machine called the ‘tether-garth’.

Such ropes were used for tethering sheep and cattle and as cables to small fishing boats. These cables were called boat tethers. Besides these thicker ropes, finer bent ropes or cords were applied to a great many uses, such as flail hoods, sheep shekels, halters, and what are now called head leathers for horses; while all parts of the farm-horse harness, from the clavo-band to the click-band, were formed of bent cord.

The ‘sitherhips’ (breeching) were formed by plaiting bent cord into a thin, broad belt. The maze was made by working the cord into a net, in which the sheaves were suspended on each side of the horse when bringing in the crop. On reaching the corn-yard, the upper edge of the outer side of the maze was lifted from the horns of the clibber and the net unfolded, allowing the sheaves to drop out.

A very important part of the horse harness, that is the collar, or the ‘wazzie’, was formed by twisting four thick folds of straw together, and, when properly made I suspect the wazzie was much cooler for the horse than the modern collar with its absurd cape. The whole of the horse harness, except the breeching, and all the plough traces were made of bent ropes, which, if quickly worn, were easily replaced.



Large flackie rolled up used in place of door (F Grahame)

The next to be noticed are the ‘flackies’ – mats made of straw and bound together with bent cord. Such mats were applied to many uses. In beds they occupied the place of the modern palliasse and a small round mat was sometimes placed on the floor in front of the bed to protect the feet from the cold clay floor.

Large flackies were sometimes used n stormy weather as an apology for inner doors; and smaller mats were used as door mats in the more well to do houses.

Flackies were almost always used at kiln doors during the process of drying grain. Horse flackies were laid over the backs of the horse to protect his back from the friction of the clibber, and his sides from the rubbing of the creels. Flackies were often fixed on the rafters, before laying on straw, when thatching house roofs.

Next week the miels-kaesie and more

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