The rise and fall o’ the milkan coo – Part 3

From his series ‘Records of a Bygone Age’ by Ian Cooper, first published in The Stronsay Limpet and kindly republished here with permission.

I was born and brought up on the farm of Midgarth in Stronsay where, in addition to a flock of sheep and a beef suckler herd, a few ‘milkan kye’ were kept. This meant there was always an abundance of fresh milk and its by-products available and I drank little but milk until I was well into my teens. I also enjoyed lashings of home-made butter on most everything and still think there is very little that can beat new tatties and butter as a tasty treat!

My mother often made curds (milk curdled with rennet) with milk still warm from the cow and that, sprinkled with a little sugar, was a luxury which just can’t be replicated with today’s bottled milk. Porridge with lashings of milk, rhubarb crumble and cream, pancakes with jam and whipped cream – the list goes on, all home produced, and with ‘air miles’ still not in anyone’s vocabulary! The final treat from those days was homemade ‘squeaky’ cheese (‘squeaky’ cheese was the name given to soft farm cheese that would ‘squeak’ between your teeth as it was chewed) on a buttered bannock – preferably my Auntie Meg Cooper of Cleat’s cheese as I thought her cheese was better than my mother’s, although I didn’t think her butter was nearly as tasty as my mum’s! It was strange to see how two people could use exactly the same procedure and recipe yet make a product with a different taste, texture and colour.

Although it would appear to be quite a simple process, butter making was a skill in itself and could go badly wrong, where it was quite possible to finish up with an inedible or rancid product. To help pass on this skill, the College of Agriculture ran courses of instruction on butter making in the early 1900s one of which, held in 1914, was attended by my grandmother Grace Fotheringhame of Hescombe where she was awarded a ‘First Class Certificate of Merit’ for her studies.

A quick look back to the days of the Stronsay Agricultural Society shows of the 1920s and 30s reveals that there were categories in these shows to be entered and judged for both ‘Sweet Butter’ and ‘Salted Butter’. It is interesting to note that the entrants and winners of these categories were all men which, I suspect, would have been a case of the women doing the work behind the scenes and the men willingly accepting the plaudits!

The taste of the milk and the butter could also vary throughout the year depending on the cow’s diet, with a distinct change noticeable if the cows started or later stopped getting fed neeps (turnips), if silage was fed in place of hay or when the cows were turned out of the byre on to a diet of grass.

Almost every farm would have had a ‘dairy’, a small room dedicated to the storing and processing of milk. This room had to be kept as cool as possible, preferably with a north-facing window to keep it out of the sun’s direct heat. At Midgarth, that room was called ‘the milk-hoose’ and had two long shelves in it – a wooden shelf where the cream separator stood and under which all the buckets, siers, milk filters, butter spoons etc. were stored and another flagstone shelf about two feet wide and ten feet long on and underneath which the milk, butter and eggs were kept, along with a big earthenware jar where the cream was stored ready to be kirned (churned) once a week. This jar was taken through to the farm kitchen each Thursday evening where it was left standing overnight beside the old coal fired Wellstood range to raise the temperature of the cream, which helped turn the cream into butter quicker.

Then next morning, when the farm chores had been done, the kirn (an end-over-end butter churn) was hauled out of the corner of the milkhoose, the cream was poured in and the process of kirning began. This involved slowly turning the kirn end over end by means of a wooden handle until the cream turned into butter, a process that, I seem to remember, could take anything from about 5 minutes up to 20 minutes or more. Why there was this difference in time I have no idea as there seemed to be little rhyme or reason to it! The kirning built up pressure inside the kirn and every few minutes a release valve had to be pressed to relieve the pressure. I can still remember vividly the soft sighing sound as the pressure was released!

Eventually, the swishing sound from inside the kirn would change to a plopping sound as the butter began to form. There was a sight glass on the top of the kirn and when it showed completely clear of milk then the butter should be ready. The kirned milk (butter milk) was then drained off and stored for use in baking and the butter weighed into pounds then made into rectangular blocks ready to eat or to sell. It was always my mother who did this part of the operation and I loved to watch her with the butter spoons, spinning the butter ninety degrees in the air and catching it on the spoons again as it was formed into the correct shape.

My parents at Midgarth usually had two or three milking cows and, as detailed above, used to make butter and cheese for our own use and for anyone else working on the farm. Any surplus was then sold and Dad used to drive to the Village every Saturday delivering butter and kirned milk. My sister and I would often go with him and enjoyed dropping off the produce, sometimes getting a sweetie or bit of chocolate from the customers!

One elderly lady customer received 2 large brown ‘Cidona’ bottles (who remembers them?) of kirned milk each week. She would empty these bottles into her own container before rinsing them out and, as she also liked to pass the time of day, this process could take some time. Her kitchen tap was turned fully on the whole time this procedure was carried out and Dad, who had to pump every drop of our own water from a well and hated seeing a drop wasted, told in later life how he so much wanted to go and turn the tap off!

Andrew Grieve from Glenfield, who had a reputation as an extremely good baker, was another customer who would call along to collect some milk from time to time. He would arrive at the house on his bike with a metal bucket, complete with lid, swinging from the handlebars. His bucket was then filled with kirned milk for use in his baking and off he would go with the full bucket still swinging from his handlebars. To me this looked like a recipe for disaster but he always seemed to get home safely!

I hated hand milking cows and made every effort to avoid it where possible. This aversion to milking wasn’t helped by one of the cows who simply wouldn’t let her milk down for me! We shared a fairly obvious mutual dislike and I would sometimes sit there on the ‘milkan creepie’ (milking stool) for 15 minutes squeezing away and only getting about a cupful in the bucket. Dad would eventually come along and take pity on me, take my place on the creepie and have a brimming pail of milk in about 5 minutes. Never a word was said but I’m not sure if Dad’s grin or the cow’s grin was bigger!

My first venture into farming, at the age of about 12, was to buy a young pig to fatten. It was fed very much ‘on the cheap’ as its diet consisted of small tatties boiled up in an old pot on the Wellstood range, supplemented with the surplus separated (skimmed) milk from the ‘milk hoose’. I got the princely sum of £12 from the local butcher when it was slaughtered, a veritable fortune in those days!

Later, with less demand for milk and butter, less time to spend on milking and possibly less need for the extra income the dairy products took in , my parents cut down to one milking cow, eventually managing to put the cow (and the milker) on a five day week! This was achieved by leaving her calf still suckling her and simply closing the calf in a pen overnight if we needed milk or leaving it with its mother if we didn’t. We were very fortunate that this would work as usually, if a cow had a calf waiting to come and suck, she simply wouldn’t let down her milk. This was a great arrangement but eventually in 1979 that cow was retired and the milkan kye at Midgarth were no more.

Few farms on the island would have been hand milking a cow by then – possibly only Hunton and Blinkbonny – and I believe the last milkan coo to have been hand milked in Stronsay would have been with John and Margaret Cooper at Blinkbonny who continued to milk a cow until the mid-1990s when their Jersey cow was retired from service. The end of an era!

Sadly, the entire island’s milk is now imported in plastic containers from Mainland Orkney or further afield. There would seem to be an ideal opportunity here for someone to start up a small dairy on the island but, like so many other small scale enterprises, by the time all the red tape is cut through, conditions met and regulations adhered to it simply wouldn’t be financially viable.

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  1. This reminds me of my Auntie Mary who made her own butter, but wasn’t very good at it! It was usually pale, a bit grubby and a bit watery, and…she left thumb-prints in it – which was a bit off-putting!

    As you say – same method – different result – Auntie Bridie made lovely butter, as mentioned here…..

    And…the memory of hand-milking cows – the warmth and smell of the cow-shed (this was in Ireland – so, not referred to as the byre) and the cows breath – I loved it. A very soothing thing to do, getting into the rhythm, sitting quietly, squeeze…. squeeze… squeeze – humming along – squirting a bit to the cat now and then. That’s a great memory you’ve brought back for me Ian.

    Another memory is the jingle…”There are lots of juicy apples in Cidona” and my nephew as a little boy thinking he was being grown-up drinking Cidona, as…… “It’s just like cider!”

  2. I was remembering churning the butter for Auntie Bride, and thought of this……

    And fetching the drinking water from the spring well about a mile down the road – I’d set off with a bucket – thinking it was a great treat to be allowed to do so. The freshness and the chill of that water.
    And even pumping up the non-drinking water by hand – a chore for those who had to do it, day in, day out – a holiday experience for a little girl from a big city.

  3. That article made me feel a bit nostalgic too… but with a difference: Unlike Scotland, in Bavaria raw milk is not banned. Hence I do not have to go very far down memory lane… we consumed raw milk fresh from the neighbour’s cows until 10 years ago when we moved to Orkney. And hand-milking… still very much practised on smaller farms (usually the ones with up to 10 dairy cows) in the Alps in Bavaria, Austria and Italy.

    Milking and rearing a calf at the same time has gained traction, especially in bio production. In Switzerland they have trialled a range of methods to try and find feasible methods (
    And obviously, “milk-sharing” between calf and humans was common in the past and is still common in many (less or not industrialised) regions across the world. Personally, I have never observed that a cow wouldn’t let her milk down for milking if she had a calf… a very simple udder massage technique always worked fine if any extra persuasion was needed, which was usually only necessary the first time or when the timing was not ideal. In fact, calves do tend to prefer “their favourite nipple” and a good observer kept the “neglected” nipples going for milking to the delight of the cow as anyone who ever breastfed can confirm… (I am not a cow… although some may think so) because it relieves pressure.

    A small dairy in the isles would be great. But I guess, regulations and strict hygiene rules would impact on viability. To some extent those would be needed for food safety reasons. However, sometimes we go a bit over the top with regulations… like banning raw milk completely and not noticing that in Europe people are not dying in their thousands when they consume raw milk.

    I definitely miss raw milk very much… it tastes far better and is so versatile… cheese, cream, butter… and if left at room temperature you get lovely soured milk (so refreshing in summer).
    Leave the stuff we get in the plastic bottles out at room temperature, it goes off… because all the good bacteria have been killed by the heating process whereas the bad bacteria apparently survive the process.

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