Records of a Bygone Age: Stronsay

Many thanks to the Stronsay Limpet and to Ian Cooper for permission to publish this excellent account.

By Ian Cooper

This is the third and final part 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 how machinery has changed over the years then goes on to recall a variety of noteworthy events – the importance of hens to the economy, the coming of the gramophone, burning kelp, fishing, numerous shipwrecks and recounting how he was an eye-witness at the scuttling of the German fleet.

Farm implements

I am going to give a description of the difference in the farm implements on the field and about the farm from first I remember up to the present day.

On the smaller farms windmills where to be seen for power to drive the small threshing mills. This as you can imagine was not very steady as in blustery days one wondered if the small mill would stand up to speed.

Also there was the horse driven mills, the horses walking round and round on the mill courses as we called it.

Not forgetting the small hand mill driven by hand. I can tell you this could warm you up as I know from first-hand experience at Southbank in the evenings. I have also tried the flail but I can’t say I made much of it. It was something to see a man who could work it properly. It took practise. If you didn’t have the right rhythm you could get a nasty clout on the head!

Still on the barn work, one of the jobs I detested as a boy was helping to winnow oats. I will give an explanation of that. This is to separate the chaff from the oats. In this operation we used a round riddle – you see them around still. You needed a suitable wind to blow through the front and back door of the barn, the oats being shaken on the floor and the chaff to blow away. Not a very hard job but very disagreeable in the draughts!

On the larger farms we had the water power driven mills and at Holland at that time the coal fired furnace to get the boiler up to a good head of steam. After this the oil engines took over and are operating up to the present day. And, of course, the other major power on the farm was the horse and to a small extent the humble ox.

The farm horses

We must give credit to the wonderful work the horse did in its day. On every farm there would be one or two horses and up to five or six pairs on the larger farms. In the winter time it was steady carting, rain or shine, seaweed from the shore, turnip carting, dung carting, goods to and from the pier and between all this the ploughing with single or double furrow ploughs. Then on to the spring work, seed sowing, harrowing, rolling etc. Except on the larger farms, most of the seed was sown out of the sowing sheet by hand, filled out of bags of seed on the field, with a woman helper giving assistance. You had to get going as the man with the horses and harrows was coming up behind.

On the larger farms they had the broadcasting machine for sowing seed. Later came the corn drill for burying the seed. This was a skilled operation for any man. He had to drive his horses at straight as a die in the field from the first go to the last. If it wasn’t done properly it looked bad when the seed came up in stripes showing each width difference.

Following that came the work with the grubber, spring harrows, rollers and harrows in preparation for the laying down of the turnips, with this very big average laid down at these times. It was a big job. Lots of the dung on the farm was carted and spread in the open drill. There was a lot of thin tired looking horses after all this work. Now they were due for a rest out on the grass till harvest time.

When work started with the reaper on the smaller farms, another skilled job, mostly the man drove the horses and lifted the sheaves on the reaper. He had to gather the sheaves on the tilting board to the size he thought right and pushed it off with a wooden rake. In a medium crop this could be fairly easy but in a heavy crop it was hard work. You didn’t get any thanks from the workers behind who had to lift and tie these untidy scattered sheaves.

Now just a word about tying the band for these sheaves. This is a job we had to learn young. It looks so simple but just try it some of you young folks here tonight.

Kirbuster Farm

Spoon cubbie at Kibuster Farm Museum

Now the reaper was a big advance on the scythe but the scythe wasn’t laid aside. All fields big or small had to be opened out with the scythe right round before that reaper or binder came in. Now to the binder. This made a tremendous difference to the work on the farm as a labour saving device.

After a bit the black polled cattle came in and took over to a great extent. I will not go over the different breeds here in Stronsay at the moment, they are too numerous to mention but I think you all know what I consider best!

Then we had our sheep. As to the different breeds, they are not so much different from first I remember but they have had their ups and downs in number. I would think at the present time it is below average.

First I remember hens were a must on small farms. I have carried many a basket of eggs to the shops. In a way they were a form of barter. The shopkeeper stated his price. In most cases you got groceries for the eggs. They were a weekly income on the smaller farms and for a long time did well but as feeding meats got dearer, overheads rose sharply and we can see the results today in the very small numbers kept. Except for eggs I would say we are supplying more and more food stuffs from our farm but fewer and fewer people are on the farms which I am sorry to say that I regret.

But on the credit side we now have a much higher standard of living. Take for instance the old age pension. First it came out it was five shillings! This is a subject in itself. To sum up we have seen remarkable changes in this period.

Now to young men in farms today I say – feed your land, feed your livestock and you won’t go far wrong.

After a day’s harvesting some of the workmen when at tea in the farmhouse kitchen were discussing the price of the wild white clover. On overhearing the conversation the lady of the house remarked “Well a pound won’t go far”. One man replied “No madam, not in these times”!

About this time the gramophone came in. You bought different records to play the tunes. We owned one. Harry Lauder’s tunes were very popular. A retired couple, Mr and Mrs Miller, lived in Hill House and these tunes were a great source of delight to them. He developed cancer but nothing could be done about that at that time and he suffered badly before he died.

Some of the married workers owned a milking cow and the wife made butter and cheese. But when the calf was born it had to go to the employer in lieu of the cow’s keep on the farm.

On a farm the size of Holland they needed a lot of cattle. They went out and bought cattle from all the farms that had ones to sell. The employers on larger farms did no manual work, there was usually a grieve. This man would allocate the work, each man getting up at 6 o’clock and doing the work required. If he was a horseman he had to dress, groom and give feeds of bruised oats and at night time they spent about an hour doing the same again, I would say people were fairly contented and happy. There were lots of dances in the Hall or barns at different farms.

On Sundays the churches were well attended, the preachers giving long sermons. On Sacrament Sunday there was a mid day break. Work on a Sunday was cut to a minimum – anything that could be left until Monday was left, quite different from the present day!

Stronsay Kirk Bruce Fletcher

Stronsay Kirk photo Bruce Fletcher

At this time big sailing ships were going downhill. It was time for the steamships to take over. They could get to port on a certain date and please customers.


It was in the year of 1890 that a sailing ship “Festina Lente” lay to the southwest of Torness, coming ashore on Torness. The men launched a boat and came ashore but one man was lost. The ship broke up on the rocks and pieces of her timbers have been washed up for years. It was during the spring of the same year that the barn at Holland was burnt to the ground. The rafters used on the new barn which stands today were from that self-same sailing ship – the “Festina Lente”.

You can see the remains of another ship, the “Olga”, which came ashore on the Creuk Sands between Housebay and Holland and parts of it can still be seen buried in the sand.

I would say about 50 or 60 years ago a big steamer went ashore on the south side of Auskerry but all attempts to get her off failed. She was said to be going to ports in South America with an assortment of very trifling goods. In both these cases all the men were saved. The steamer concerned was the “Hastings County”.

Then we had the loss of the St Rognvald which ran aground in Odiness Bay coming from Shetland. All aboard were saved including a Shetland pony which swam ashore. The St Rognvald lay aground most of the summer, eventually breaking up during the storms.

As a boy I remember the “Edenmore” – a sailing ship – going ashore on Papa Stronsay. It was during the summer time that she went aground and she lay quite safe for a good while. She was eventually bought from the insurers by a Kirkwall man who took everything of value out of her. She broke up when the winter storms came. One of the items in her was marbles so we had plenty of them to play with as boys. Some of the people who lived at the Station managed to get some good furniture out of her before she was taken over by the insurance.

At this time there was a big contract job going on at Lyness on Hoy, the building of a pier in deep water requiring a great deal of cement. A lot of Stronsay men were employed including myself. I was one of those who saw the scuttling of the German fleet – a well planned affair, making a lot of work for Orkney men and taking a lot of money into the county.

Back home I stayed at Sillerha, working a lot in the tangles during the winter months building them up on banks to dry out there in readiness to burn up for kelp. The kelp was sold through Balfour (who owned most of Stronsay) carted down to the pier and shipped to Grangemouth. We got roughly £4 a ton for the kelp.

We owned a boat and did a lot of fishing off Auskerry for cod and haddock but the big trawlers came in and finished that. We could still fish plenty of cuithes and sillocks near the shore. I can still picture rows and rows of ‘tinos’ as we called them hanging up in the kitchen in Sillerha drying. They kept well for eating. I remember at the bught down at Torness one day getting as many as my father and I could carry, staggering home with them hung on a pole between us. Some task for the ladies to gut and clean!

This deals now with the farm work and houses we were in as a family. We spent 20 years in Sillerha’, then on to Millfield for a similar period. My father died from a stroke and as I was the oldest I took over with my mother and the rest of the family. I was in my early forties before I married. We then took over the farm of Airy and lived there for 30 years, In money matters we did well!

We left the farm when my brothers and sister died, rented this house ‘Lower Millfield’ and lived together here for almost 10 years. Bella died leaving me here at the present time where I am well looked after by a niece, relatives and friends.

If anyone has any other information or Stronsay related stories, Ian Cooper would be delighted to hear of it.

See also: 

Whitehall Stronsay

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