The rise and fall o’ the milkan coo, Part 2

By Ian Cooper from his series Records of a Bygone Age and republished here with kind permission from The Stronsay Limpet

During the herring fishing season in Stronsay, the population could swell by about 4,000 souls and all those extra folk needed to be fed. This was another golden opportunity for the milkan kye to come into their own! The herring season lasted from about the middle of May until August, coinciding with the time that the cows would be grazing on the lush spring and summer grass and producing at their best. This was a boom time for many of the local farmers, as any surplus produce was sure of a ready market.

Although many local farms and crofts capitalised on selling some of their produce to supply the local need, the farm that was the biggest supplier of milk at that time was Hunton. The Miller family at Hunton supplied milk to the folk in Whitehall Village for many years, during the herring fishing and afterwards, when the Village was a hive of industry and had a large and active population. Jim Miller of Hunton, now in Kirkwall, told of how his father Bobby, while still a young lad at school, had an exemption from lessons for a time each morning so that he could deliver the milk to the Village and Station. The milk was measured out with a ‘leem’ (earthenware) jug into the customer’s container, which was quite often simply a 1 pound or 2 pound jam jar. Bobby also spoke of there being about 100 folk living in the Lower Station when he was a lad delivering milk – now there are only about 15.

Also supplying milk during the herring fishing and later was James T Stout, the tenant of Papa Stronsay. He had moved with his parents to Papa Stronsay (known locally as Papay) to work in 1921 and it was there he met and later married Maggie Eunson. Together with some of the other workers, they hand milked up to 8 cows twice a day, at 7.00 a.m. and 7.00 p.m., supplying the needs of the Papay residents and up to 600 seasonal herring workers who were based on that island from May to August. When the herring workers left at the end of the season, more of the milk was made into butter and cheese and sold across in Stronsay. With no fridges in those days, the milk, butter and cheese had to be kept as cool as possible and, in Papa Stronsay, they used the coolest place they could find – the cupboard under the stairs in the farm house! A good percentage of the milk was also fed by bucket to those 8 cows’ calves until they were old enough to be weaned – a fairly labour intensive but necessary method of rearing calves!

There was a small but well stocked shop on Papa Stronsay, selling fresh bread taken across from the Stronsay bakers every day and, amazingly, also a small ice-cream parlour which was open during the herring fishing season. Blocks of ice were imported from Kirkwall twice a week to provide the refrigeration and Papa Stronsay milk used for the production of the ice cream sold in the parlour.

The Stouts and milk production were to go hand in hand for three generations covering more than 60 years, firstly in Papa Stronsay and subsequently in Stronsay. I’m grateful to a number of those Stouts – Isobel, Nan, Linda, Harald, Erik, Rhoda and Ingram – for being so willing to share their memories of milkan the kye and delivering the milk, both on Papay and Stronsay.

Jimmy and Maggie Stout took over the lease of Papa Stronsay in 1936 when Jimmy’s sister and brother-in-law Betsy and John Scott gave up the tenancy and moved to Skaill in Westray. Then, in 1944, the Stouts took on the lease of Whitehall Farm when Tom Pottinger, the previous tenant, moved to Caithness, and they moved there with their young family while Edward Seatter took on the tenancy of Papa Stronsay. Both these properties were leased from the Balfour Estates, and the Stouts went on to purchase Whitehall Farm from that estate in 1952.

Sadly Maggie Stout had passed away in 1948 and Jimmy Stout later married her sister Ivy Eunson. They went on to have four sons to add to the son and five daughters he already had.

Here at Whitehall Farm they continued to milk a few cows, still being hand milked, for the farm and their workers, with any surplus being sold, but gradually business built up until, in 1947, Jimmy started a milk delivery in Whitehall Village, delivering the milk himself in one or two pint bottles from his Ford van. Later that same year, the first steps into mechanisation took place when they bought a mechanical milking machine and converted a byre for the new milking line. Later additions were an electric cream separator and electric kirn (butter churn) which made the milking and processing much quicker and life much easier. The only downside to this was that, with no mains electricity on the island, the generator had to be started and run twice a day to power the machines.

Linda Gorn (nee Stout), one of the ‘Whiteha’ lasses’ recalls part of her duties when she left school until she left the island at the age of 19 in the mid-‘60s was helping in the dairy. Linda recalls:

“We would have had up to 10 milking cows. They were milked by machine and we would have had about 4 cans filled with milk. The cans were about 8 gallons. They were milked once a day I think and most of the milk was sold to the village. Left over milk was made into cheese and butter. The cheese was made in a large pot on the Aga stove, rennet was added when the temperature was reached and then, when it was curdled, it was put into cheese presses and, when cured, sold in the local shop, Stronsay Supply Stores”

She also told of how “The butter was made from the cream that was put through the separator. The cream came out of one part and the skimmed milk came out of the other. This was an electric separator powered by a generator. The cream was put into a Kirn (Churn). It was also powered by electricity. The butter was salted in a large metal trough and took quite some time to work the salt evenly into the butter. Once the butter was weighed into the appropriate size we took wooden butter pats and shaped them ready for sale.”

Nothing was wasted however, as she recalled “The left over milk was fed to bucket fed calves and the pigs. We would usually have about 4 calves to feed and on average 4 pens of pigs 8 to 10 altogether. The skimmed milk was carried in the 8 gallon cans quite a few metres to the piggery where the pigs got the milk plus bruised oats.”

Another of the ‘Whiteha’ lasses’ was Linda’s sister Nan Rendall who also worked in the dairy, doing two weeks working at home and in the dairy then 2 weeks in her father’s shop in the Village. She much preferred the two weeks at home and remembers David Rendall of Ebenezer Stores coming to the farm every day to pick up milk to sell in his shop, and also the chore of feeding the bucket calves and pigs. She also recalled how the milk was poured through a siar (strainer) containing a disposable filter and, when finished, the filter was thrown out of the dairy door to be devoured without trace by the farm cats, who also usually also got a treat of some of the surplus milk.

Nan married in 1969 and it seems that, with Linda having previously left the island and Nan also away from Whitehall, their dairying fell away to supplying little more than themselves and their staff.

This left a gap in the market and some of the local milk production moved to the farm of Clestrain. Stewart Shearer recalls his father Tommy Shearer of Clestrain milking cows and supplying milk to the Village for a few years. In 1970 Tommy bought a milking machine from Mr Peace of South Cara in South Ronaldsay and he had four good milking Shorthorn cross cows that supplied the milk. He delivered to many houses in the Village every day, measuring out the milk in a jug which was then used to top up the customer’s own containers. When Tommy retired from farming, he bought a house in the Village and took up his old trade of weaving for a number of years before moving to Kirkwall.

Tommy Shearer supplied milk for about four years and then, when he stopped, Tom and Isobel Stout at Whitehall Farm took over milk supply once again, firstly in a small way but gradually expanded their dairy enterprise until they were machine milking enough cows to supply the whole island with milk.

In the mid-70s Whitehall had four milkan kye, with most of the milk produced being for their own and their workers use, but very soon some was again being supplied to Whitehall Village. With farms getting larger and farm workers getting fewer, it was around this same time that many farmers found they simply didn’t have the time to deal with a milkan coo and demand for milk from Whitehall Farm gradually increased until, in 1981, the Stouts erected a new byre and small dairy specifically for their milkan kye and increased their dairy cows to around eight. In this same period, they started to deliver milk ‘up the island’ and employed someone to deliver it. Among those who acted as milkmen/maids delivering milk during this time were John Smith, Isobel Stout, Isobel’s daughter Rhoda, Harry Burden (whose wife Barbara also worked in the dairy) and Erik Stout.

Tom and Isobel’s daughter Rhoda remembers vividly the time she spent working in the dairy and bottling the milk, not all with fondness! One of her tasks was to collect empty ’40 ouncer’ whisky and rum bottles from the local hotel which, holding 2 pints each, were ideal containers for the milk. She recalls how she first had to steep (soak) them in water to help remove all the labels and then had to sterilise them, flushing them several times with boiling water to remove all trace of their previous contents. She hated the smell given off by the heated alcohol and thought that probably had much to do with her still not appreciating the taste or smell of alcohol.

This all came to an end around 1988, when new legislation meant that the government’s Suckler Cow subsidy paid on the Whitehall beef cattle herd would be lost if they had milkan kye on the farm and that, coupled with a raft of new hygiene rules to comply with and the need to pasteurise any milk being sold, meant it was no longer viable to continue with their dairy business and milk round.

Harald Stout reminisced that he and his wife seriously considered taking on the island milk production at this time. After looking in depth at the logistics of the operation, they felt that they could overcome most of the problems caused by legislation, had sourced milk quota to buy and discovered the availability of a small milk pasteurisation plant. To proceed, they would also have had to put up a building to house the cows, the milking plant and a milk processing area and, after doing their sums, sadly decided that the project simply wasn’t financially viable.

With this bringing an abrupt end to local milk production, milk now had to be imported from the Orkney Mainland, mostly from Crantit Dairy, in cardboard containers. For the next two years or so, Tom Shearer of Seafield delivered this milk in its cartons in a round covering most of the island until that too came to an end and, ever since then, anyone needing milk has to order and collect it from one of the island’s two shops.

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