This article by Ian Cooper is from the November issue of the Stronsay Limpet
Below is part two of the transcript made by William Spence of Airy and Lower Millfield in the early 1970s which was passed on to me by Ingram Shearer. Here William tells of his early memories of the area around the farm of Holland and of his own farming career starting off at the small farm of Sillerha’ before moving on, firstly to Millfield and then to Airy.
Houses and lairds in Stronsay, starting with the Farm of Holland
Holland is situated in the south end of Stronsay, the land extending to roughly 500 acres.
The house itself is magnificently built and looks very lovely indeed. The stone for the house came from a quarry about a mile away called the ‘Stebb Hill’. The house looks out to the southwest, overlooking Auskerry, Copinsay and the lands of Deerness.
The land of Torness stretches to 110 acres and is down to pasture now for grazing cattle but I believe was under the plough at one time. There is a loch down towards the sea. It was very large at one time but the bankment was dug down and a pipe laid down to drain the water into the sea continuing to do so up to the present time.
The land under cultivation is made up of 13 different fields namely:
- Kirkyard Field
There are also three fields which no longer form part of Holland – Newbigging, Sillerha and Meura.
The land is mostly level and quite flat ranging from good black earth to some clay soil. At one time it grew mostly oats which was shipped away but that is no longer the case. Barley is grown now, most of it used on the farm for feeding purposes. The surplus is sold out of the island.
The first people I remember in Holland were the Stevensons, who originally came from Westray. William Stevenson was twice married, with 19 children in all. I don’t remember much about the older family but I went to school with the younger family. I can still picture William Stevenson going past to church in his four wheeled phaeton as they called it. He was married to a Caskey, a daughter of the minister in the old kirk. She was a very pleasant woman and much respected. I saw her a lot at that time as I was doing casual work at Holland.
As a boy I was fascinated with the steam engine driven by a coal fire which I believe used about 100 tons of coal in the year. The man feeding the mill had two people, one on the right and the other on the left, cutting the bands and keeping the strings. The lower barn was filled up first, two men hand tying and building it tightly in different rows in the barn. There were two carters working at the stacks, one putting a load on at the stack and the other unloading at the barn. A great number of mice were to be seen in the last stack to be thrashed.
Once thrashed down the straw was built in big stacks and used for early feeding in winter. To get these big thrashings done men were called in from the small farms in the district.
During the winter months two men looked after the cattle, feeding them with turnips, straw and bruised oats. This was the time to get the cattle fattened up for sale in Kirkwall or Aberdeen. The cattle had to walk to the pier, some of them were absolutely exhausted after walking the long distance from Holland farm.
The married families on the farm stayed very well, the young unmarried were always on the move getting to know the difference employers. The wages at this time were about £8 in the half year. A must with them was to own a watch. These watches being of very good quality lasted a long time. I don’t know what they cost but I’d imagine they were fairly expensive.
Now I come to the first of the tractors in Stronsay. This was in the early 20s at Housebay. It did a lot of good work in comparison with past machines. It would be something of a museum piece now. It was not until the late 30s before they began to come in again but during the war years, owing to the labour shortage, more and more began to come in until, now at the present moment, I would think they are up to their maximum number in Stronsay. In fact the coming of the tractor has made a new way of life on the farm.
Now as to the cropping in this period. It was standard practice to keep to a 5 shift system, 2 oat crops, next turnips and down to grass for 2 years. This was mostly the practice before the First World War. I would say this worked fairly well on good land but on poorer hill land seaweed was carted and spread on. But even with this, crops were sometimes poor and of inferior quality. I would add to this that on the good deep soils in a good year there would be good grain.
At that time oats grown were by name Sandy, a white oat and a black oat. In the district we were in we could grow nothing but black. I wonder what was wrong; was it too much seaweed and the land getting sour? For now at this time the same land is growing the better quality white oat or is it the better fertiliser in the land nowadays.
Now in the early 20s we had something which altered the fertility of the land completely. You will say what was this? It was a wild white clover. Small quantities of these clovers came on the market at the price of £1 for 1 lb in weight. This was tried out in seed mixture and proved a success. The supply of seeds got better and the prices came down to a more economical level. These clovers trap the nitrogen in the air therefore building up fertility. Of course it took time to alter these theories but when I look back the grass was practically finished by September. Look what a change there is today!
I can remember cutting oats late August or early September and giving it to the cows in the fields. In the older times we worked more to a fixed pattern but now cropping is cut down in most cases about one half. Take for instance, potatoes. Most places had around 1 acre and this was a chance to get the most out of the children. I suppose they reckoned they were nearer the ground and not so far from the tattie! When our own ones were finished we had to help the neighbours but this made it more enjoyable.
Grass is now looked on as the major crop on the farm and rightly so as the climate here does suit grass. If a field is needed for cropping or reseeding it is usually the one with the worst grass. As to its use you can either eat it down in the summer with your cattle and sheep or cut for hay or silage. An all year round crop you call it.
Now the use of manures have increased to a great extent from what I remember first and we have this advantage that we can have our fields tested to see if there is a deficiency. We can then correct it by using different manures but still it can be a tricky business. When we came to Airy in 1943 one of our fields was very badly run down and it is only now in 1971 it is coming up to scratch.
On the farm there can be dry land, wet land, clay land and black earth. It can make you ponder which is the correct approach and the weather can affect each differently.
To give an instance of the difference of the numbers of stock being carried. At Sillerha’ we had four cows, four yearlings, four calves and two or three sheep and lambs. I know at the present moment this has more than doubled. This would be much the same in general all around the farms in Stronsay. The kinds of cattle were mostly Shorthorn, big and strong in the bone.
One of the big events was when the cow calved. Usually in each district was a man with rather more skill than the ordinary, to be called day or night, if necessary. After the event the cow got a hot drink, the man got tea or possibly a refreshment.
Related story: Records of a Bygone Age
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