By Ian Cooper
This article is reproduced courtesy of the Stronsay Limpet.
More than 12,000 years ago, our nomadic hunter-gatherer ancestors discovered that, if soil was turned over and seed scattered over it, a crop could be produced and harvested. Ever since then, this concept has held good, although the manner of its execution has evolved considerably.
“As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest will never cease.”
So we are told in the book of Genesis, and a major factor in this process is the tilling of the soil.
This was first achieved by the use of wooden or bone hand tools to scrape and breakdown the ground. Eventually, around 5,000 years ago, the idea of a pointed piece of wood directed into the soil and pulled, first by man power and then by oxen or horse , took hold and the first plough as we envisage it today was born.
As time passed, iron was used to form the point , or ‘share’, of the plough but it still only scratched or broke up the soil, with the soil tending to move sideways rather than being turned over as the implement was pulled through the ground.
Then, in the 18th century, more modern techniques and readier and cheaper availability of iron led to ploughs of all iron construction being made and technology coming to the fore. The laws of physics dealing with pressure, force and counter-force and the application of mathematics to improve soil flow and reduce friction led to a plough that was much easier to pull and made a much better job of actually inverting the soil rather than simply moving it and, as a consequence, burying weeds and taking more nutrients to the surface for the following crop.
One of the most successful of these was known as the Scots swing plough (called a swing plough as it had no depth wheel as favoured by its English counterpart giving the ploughman more control over the depth and width of ploughing) and models based on this concept remained in use until being superseded by ploughs pulled by the tractor in the 20th century.
By the late 18th and into the 19th century this new type of swing plough was being used on a wide scale. They had long mouldboards that could cut neat furrows, and producing good, consistent, even and straight ploughing soon became a matter of pride for the ploughman.
This pride quickly took on a competitive element, firstly between individual horsemen on the larger farms and then leading to fiercely competitive ploughing matches where horsemen on the larger farms would be judged firstly on the standard of their work and also separately on how well their horses were groomed and harness presented.
This ploughing with the long mouldboard taking a furrow about 7″ wide and 4 1/2″ or 5″ deep was designed to invert the soil while disturbing it as little as possible to leave a sharp ‘V’ shaped furrow on which the seed could then be broadcast. In theory, the seed should then fall to the bottom of the ‘V’ and, when gone over with horse-drawn harrows, should be covered with a good layer of soil to prevent it from being eaten by birds and to encourage germination.If the furrow was too ‘open’ the seed would get buried too deeply and would not germinate.
Each district had its own variant of this basic plough model and indeed each blacksmith tended to put his own stamp on the design, with some of the more talented blacksmiths being favoured with orders for a ‘match plough’ which tended to be considerably more expensive but made a consistently better finish to the ploughing.
Having one of his ploughs winning a match or being regularly well place in the finish order also did much for the blacksmith’s reputation and led to more orders. Such was the prestige of being highly placed in a match for a blacksmith, laird and ploughman!
On crofts and smaller farms, ploughs still had to be pulled by a pair of oxen or possibly a horse and an ox although this was far from ideal, as the oxen had much less pulling power and required more rest than the horse.
Crofters with a horse would sometimes work together with a neighbour to team up their horses for the plough and this was a more satisfactory arrangement.
On the larger farms there would be a number of horsemen, each with a team of two they would be wholly responsible for. On these farms there would be a strict ‘pecking order’ in place, where, if the owner wasn’t actually involved in the day to day running of the farm, the grieve (the grieve was farming equivalent of a foreman or overseer) was in overall charge then, in order of seniority, came the 1st horseman, 2nd horseman, 3rd horseman etc. followed by the cattlemen, then the orramen who would be responsible for the more mundane tasks and finally, before the days of fences and dykes, posibbly a young lad (a ‘herdie’ boy) to stop the cattle and sheep from straying.
Staff were generally hired or moved to other employment on one of two ‘term days’ each year, with Whitsunday on 28th of May or Martinmas on the 28th of November, and around the end of the 19th century wages would have been in the regions of 17/- a week for a horseman, 15/- a week for a cattleman and 12/- a week for an orraman. A six day working week would have been standard, with stock still to be tended on a Sunday throughout the winter.
The horseman was expected to be in the stable at 5.00am to feed, muck out and groom the horses ready for a 6.00am start. They would then stop at 11.00am for 2 hours, not for the benefit of the horseman but to give the horse a rest! Work would then carry on until 6.00pm when the horses would be stabled but the horseman would be in the stable again before he went to bed so that he could ‘supper’ the horse. Tough times!
An acre which was originally set as an area 1 furlong (220 yards) long by 1 chain (22 yards) wide, was originally based on the area a pair of horses could plough in a day, although it soon came to be accepted as any area of 4,840 square yards regardless of shape.
As an aside in many of the more arable areas of Scotland and England, fields of ten acres (1 furlong in length by 1 furlong in width) were very common and, when horse racing took place, the distance was calculated by the number of fields the horses would pass in the course of the race – the furlongs – and this is still used today.
An article in the ‘Quarterly Journal of Agriculture’ of September 1839 reports on the inferior standard of agriculture, and in particular of ploughing, in Stronsay at that time:
Although there is no such implement now to be seen as the old Orkney side-plough, yet, with the exception of the best farmers and proprietors, the implements are still very deficient, and the lands very ill ploughed. Some of the soils are coming into better management and after being deeper ploughed, which turned up the fresh soil, produce good crops.’
Ten years later, an article in the ‘Scottish Farmer’ paints a very different picture, possibly due to a great extent to the local Lairds employing advisors from the Lothians and importing and utilising the latest farming practices from that area. We are now told that, in Stronsay, much is well farmed and Housebay and Holland in particular are singled out to be
‘uniformly of the finest quality of deep land, a good clay loam, and they are farmed in a style that cannot be surpassed anywhere in the kingdom.’
In the Orcadian of 4th January 1858 there is a report of a gathering that would have been a truly amazing site:
‘Stronsay, Dec.19th. On Thursday last, the 17th inst., the farmers in this island, to shew their respect and good will to Mr Balfour of Balfour, and Mr Calder, his factor, turned out, en masse, to assist in ploughing the fallow-brake on the farm of Huip. The day was fine, and forty-eight ploughs starting all at one time, was a sight most beautiful and imposing. The horses, and ploughs, and harness, were of the best description, the value of the former alone being computed at upwards of £3,000 sterling. The breadth of ground turned over was great, and the work, as it always is in Stronsay, was excellently performed’.
The number of horses, ploughs and ploughmen were gradually increasing and, by 1861, the Census of that time records that, out of a total of 310 directly employed in agriculture, 62 were listed as being ploughmen.
Many thanks to the Stronsay Limpet for permission to publish.Part 2 of this article will be in next months Stronsay Limpet.
Although they are currently closed you can still read about Orkney’s Farm Museums