The Isle of Whithorn Agricultural History

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The Isle of Whithorn

The Isle of Whithorn

Red Letter Days

Mill Days
In the 1930’s the steam mill came to the farm the night before with lights on. As a steam engine needed plenty of water the tank was filled up en route at Prestrie burn. The mill towed a wooden sleeping hut, and here the two mill men spent the night. When they rose they lit the fire to get the steam up and came up to the farmhouse for their breakfast. Sometimes mill staffs were “pooled” for example, Boyach and Arbrack farms joined up as it was fairly labour intensive.

One man forked sheaves from the stack onto the mill where two (normally women - described as handers) cut the strings and handed them to the millman who fed them into the mill. The oats came out at four different “shoots” depending on its quality - two shoots of good stock feed, one for hen feed, and the last with the rubbish! It took two men to deal with the oats, seeing the bags were properly filled, changing them and tying and moving the full ones.

At the other end the straw came out in “bunches” -these were forked by yet another busy pair of hands to the stack builder. From the side of the mill came “chaff” onto a large sheet made from two opened hessian sacks and this was carried away to provide bedding for the cattle. The farmhouse was also a busy place on mill days, not only did the mill men require all their meals, but everyone looked forward to the big pots of soup, home-made scones of all kinds and cakes.

The mill came usually once a month through the winter. After the war, diesel tractors replaced the steam traction engine, but with the advent of combine harvesters in the late 1950’s mill days became a thing of the past - not missed for the hard work they entailed, but for the fun and friendships lost.

The Clipping
The farm staff did this by hand. Again a labour intensive occupation, men gathering the sheep and taking away those that had been shorn. The sheep were caught and passed to the shearers. They originally worked with hand shears until engine-powered mechanical shears (similar to those still used), were introduced. The fleece was handed to another man who rolled it up and tied it with some of the belly wool that had been made into a rope. This was thirsty work, and the staple drink was “oatmeal water” - a couple of handfuls of oatmeal in a can of water. The wool was piled in rolls and taken to the loft for the next process (a wet day job) when it was packed into special hessian bags or sheets provided by the Wool Board. Often somebody would go inside the bag to pack it and tramp it in properly. These bags were then taken by train from Whithorn station to the Wool Board in Paisley.

Things have not changed too drastically as sheep are still sheared, but this is mainly done now by teams of shearers with mobile clipping units. Shearing was another busy day in the farmhouse kitchen, but today it’s more often pizzas, fish & chips etc. followed by chocolate biscuits and washed down by cans of fizzy drinks.

Show Days
Wigtown Show was the biggest day of the year for most farm workers when they could go and meet friends and family from other farms - for many perhaps the only meeting in the year. The show still attracts a large crowd and retains its happy atmosphere. Showing pedigree stock has not changed much over the years – the conformation of the “ideal” animal may be somewhat different, but the work and skill required has changed little. Stannock has always shown stock, so for both farmer and helpers it is a busy as well as an enjoyable day. Preparing stock for showing is a lengthy process, the animals have to be picked out many months, even years, in advance and watched carefully to see if they have “potential”.

As the show comes nearer, they have to be worked with so that they will be easy to handle amidst the crowds and noise. Just like anyone going out to impress, they need to have their hair trimmed, washed and set hopefully to catch the judge’s eye. Some animals really seem to enjoy this while others are just not suitable for showing. One old cow that had been a regular visitor to Wigtown Show stood dejectedly at the gate as the lorry went off without her - she definitely knew what was going on!

Local shows are good fun, if hard work. It is often a 3 am start to get the rest of the stock dealt with before the show animals leave. It is necessary to get them into the show field early so they have time to settle and to sort any areas that have got dirty on the journey. The men also take an opportunity to grab something to eat (thus the boxes and baskets of rolls and flasks beside each farm’s entries), probably not having had time for breakfast and anticipating a long wait before they can relax again when the showing is over. Rarely is there time for even a walk round the show field before it is time to set off for home to take up the day-to-day chores, but the people you meet make up for all the worries - and the opportunity to show off your stock to potential customers!

National events such as the Royal Highland Show at Edinburgh and the Royal Show in Warwickshire are different again. Then it is necessary to take the animals one or two days ahead of the show, and keep them there for the four-day duration of the event. This requires making sure that all the usual day-to-day activities at home are still dealt with. It is, nevertheless, a wonderful experience, mixing with fellow breeders from all over the country – and bringing home silverware from there is something you don’t readily forget.


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