Records of a Bygone Age by Ian Cooper
It seems at this time of year, with darker nights and a bit more time to sit back and reflect, that we contemplate and mull over the happenings of the past year. Who, a year ago, could possibly have imagined the events that have transpired since we first heard mention of a new virus affecting some of the population of China? It has certainly been a life changer in so many ways for us all and a time of tragedy for far too many.
We’ve been quite fortunate here in Orkney in that we’ve avoided to a great extent the full impact of the virus as felt in other parts of this country and in many other parts of the world. One of the sectors that has probably been least affected by the pandemic has been the farming industry and here in Stronsay we have been fortunate in that farming has gone on pretty much as normal. With the harvest all complete and cattle all in the byres, it’s back to the same old winter routine for our farmers and a time to ruminate on the past farming year, a time to give thanks and to celebrate another year of seedtime and harvest.
As a culmination of these reflections, here in Stronsay we would normally be having our annual ‘Harvest Home’ dinner/dance and celebration around now but, like so many other events, that has had to be cancelled this year I’m afraid.
I’ve been having a look back through the minutes of the Stronsay Agricultural Society, who have been hosting the Harvest Home since the early 1930s, and found that the Society in its present form started up on 11th June 1920, so not only are we missing out on our Harvest Home this year but also on the Centenary celebrations of our Agricultural Society!
The importance of a successful harvest and the holding of festivals to celebrate this have been going on for thousands of years all over the world and the slightly more recent Lammas Day and associated Lammas Market were also originally an opportunity to share in and give thanks for the first fruits of the harvest. The celebration of ‘Muckle Suppers’ and Harvest Home celebrations on a smaller scale were quite common in Orkney in the 1800s and early 1900s, being organised by the tenants or owners of the larger farms as a token of thanks to their workers and helpers. This would usually have been held in a barn or loft at the home farm and was often quite a memorable event. A newspaper report of the time gives a flavour of the type of event that was often held to celebrate the ingathering of the harvest on some of the larger farms, and is not unlike the Harvest Home of to-day. The Orkney Herald of 4th November 1896 carried the following report in its Stronsay news column:
HARVEST HOME – Last Tuesday evening Mr and Mrs Sinclair, Whitehall farm, entertained their numerous servants with their families and friends at a monster harvest home. In the afternoon the servants with their families, to the number of about sixty, sat down to a substantial dinner, which was done ample justice to. At 6.30 the friends began to arrive, and an adjournment was made to a spacious granary which was tastefully decorated for the occasion. Dancing was soon in full swing, and a glance around told that everyone was enjoying themselves.
Refreshments were served at intervals during the evening, and at 11.30 the entire company, now numbering about 140, sat down to tea of which they showed their appreciation. Dancing was again resumed and kept up with spirit. A few songs were given during the evening and added variety to the entertainment. At 3.30 a vote of thanks to Mr and Mrs Sinclair, the genial host and hostess, was enthusiastically carried, and the singing of “Auld Lang Syne” brought to a close a most enjoyable evening.
The servants and their families at just one farm numbering about sixty! How times have changed in the farming industry.
On a more formal footing, the first Stronsay Harvest Home to be held under the banner of the Agricultural Society as we know it today took place in the Community Centre (or the Public Hall as it was then called) in 1934, with the ladies of the local SWRI doing the catering, something they continued to do for a number of years. There were no Harvest Homes held during the war years but, on its resumption, the catering was taken over by the committee members (or more accurately, their wives or partners!) and this is still what happens today. Many of the visitors to the Stronsay Harvest Homes over the years have expressed surprise about and passed comment on seeing a number of the local farmers stepping out of their wellies and boiler suits and washing off the worst of the grease and ‘sharn’ to become waiters for the night! Originally limited to those aged over 15, the age limit was reduced to 14, then to those 12 or over and now it is open to all. Another fairly significant step was taken in 1982 when the event became a licensed affair, firstly with a bar set up and run by the Stronsay Hotel and then, with an extension including a bar area built on to the Community Centre, bar services were taken over by the Community Association. No more trips outside where ‘halfies’ would be pulled discreetly from coat pockets and passed around.
The tradition of having a meal followed by music and dancing still remains the same as when the celebrations were held in a barn or loft but the Agricultural Society introduced the concept of having guest speakers to entertain the diners as they sat and ‘swaged’ after their meal. This speaker was normally the local teacher, minister or doctor or a local farming worthy. In 1976 it was decided to try to get a guest speaker from further afield each year and this has been the pattern ever since, except for two occasions when weather conditions prevented speakers from attending and a local speaker was thrust into the void at short notice. Bill Carstairs, the North Isles vet who was based in Sanday, was the first non-local speaker and since then there has been quite a collection of the great and the good who have made the journey out to speak at our Harvest Home. Speakers were normally folk who had a heavy involvement in or knowledge of farming and the local community and, over the years, we’ve had 5 vets, 5 sales reps, 4 College lecturers, 4 Agricultural Advisers, 3 National Farmers Union reps, 2 teachers, 2 Radio Orkney presenters, 2 Orkney Islands Councillors, a Member of Parliament, a Department of Agriculture inspector, a Member of the Scottish Parliament, a Minister, a Police Officer and a Bank Manager as well as several ‘common or garden’ farmers, whose qualifications had been achieved in the University of Farming Life, sharing their thoughts with us!
There is no record of what was charged for admission to the first Harvest Homes but, in 1954, it was agreed that prices had to go up and ticket price was increased from 3/6d to 4/- (20p). To celebrate the new Millennium, a more elaborate three course meal was served at the Harvest Home, with wine and soft drinks provided on the tables, at an inclusive cost of £5 for the dinner and dance. 20 years later and the admission is now £10 – still pretty good value for money for a dinner and a dance!
Music, of course, always played an important part in any celebration and Stronsay has long been blessed with a host of talented musicians who were happy to come along and play for the dancing. More recently, bands or musicians from off the island were occasionally engaged to play to enable the local musicians to have a night off to better enjoy the festivities but generally it is still the locals who provide the music until the wee sma’ hours. It’s great to see the old traditional dancing still being the main stay of our Harvest Home dances here, thanks in no small part to some of the dedicated folk who have arranged and taken an active part in ‘dancing evenings’ where islanders young and old had the opportunity to come along to learn all the old dances.
In more recent years, the concept of and enthusiasm for Harvest Homes seems to have waned in Orkney, with many of these events having to be cancelled due to lack of numbers. I’m glad to say this hasn’t been the case in Stronsay so far and we can only look forward in anticipation to some form of normality returning before too long, to celebrating the Harvest Home 2021 in good style and to also celebrating the Stronsay Agricultural Society Centenary plus one!
Many thanks to the Stronsay Limpet for permission to republish this article in The Orkney News