Reflections of the hay field and the hay harvest in 1899

Newspapers sometimes print articles that reflect on contemporary activities and widder issues. These can be helpful in understanding what it was like to participate in framing activities decades ago.

On 29 July 1899 the Linlithgowshire gazette printed an article on haymaking in present days and in past years. It is an interesting account for the reflections on the haymaking season and the significant changes that took place in the hay field over the course of the second half of the nineteenth century. The late 1880s and 1890s was also a time of significant change in the hay field with the development of rick lifters and horse forks which came to have a profound impact on the amount of manual labour needed to make hay. The article is quoted at length:

Haymaking past and present

The weather has become peculiarly fine and warm, the haymakers are busy in every field, and the scent of the beans and the new-mown grass give a pleasing sweetness to the morning breeze. When we see the rising sun tinting the hills with gold, and kissing the brow of great majestic white clouds enthroned on the horizon, and listen to the carolling of the lark and the lambs bleating on the brae, we conclude that the long-looked-for summer has come at last. The mildness of autumn has got a knack during recent years of prolonging its stay to the early spring, and the bleak winds of winter continue to sigh through the naked hedgerows, and whistle through the gaunt boughs, long after the swallow and cuckoo have made their appearance, so that one can scarcely believe that the summer is with us. As we wander by hill and dale with the sun nearing the west, and shedding its soft effulgent light o’er vast cornfields fast coming to the ear, and watch the long grass bending in billows before the breeze, and the shadows flitting over the grassy lawn, chasing one another until lost on the russet brow of some silent hill away in the distance, round which the grey shadows already creep and anon grow deeper, until night close o’er it, and it is lost from our view, we begin to realise that the nights are again lengthening and the days creeping in. The years roll, and everything comes in season, and, oh, how quickly! When boys at school how long the time was in passing, how wearisome the Sundays, and how long the fair time was in coming, and how we used to boast of what we would do when men, and still find us beginning, and but children in knowledge. With advancing years time passed too quickly, and hay time and harvest come before we realise that they should be here.

But the hay harvest is now in full swing, and the click of the reaper is heard once more throughout the land. Broad fields are soon mown down with these labour-saving machines with an ease and lightness unknown thirty years ago. The hay is then drawn into windrows with the horse rake, for the tedding process is now seldom performed, for the mowing machines leave the grass in a broad thin swathe upon the field that obviates the necessity of turning it. Men and women come with forks and coil it roughly up in case of rain. Next day, if the weather is suitable, a horse sledge is drawn between the rows, and two men fork the hay from each side, while another builds, until a fair-sized field rick is formed, which is gently slipped off, and the process renewed until all the crop is secured. It is allowed to dry there for a fortnight, or such time as the farmer finds convenient, when it is drawn on the rick-lifters and carried to the barnyard, where it is, by the aid of the horse-fork, elevated on to an oblong stack, and thus finally stored until required for use. The whole process is thus easily and expeditiously completed by the aid of machinery and horse power, and the labour bill materially reduced.

But some thirty or forty years ago haymaking was a serious business, for a good number of extra hands had to be employed for the occasion. A band of scythesmen cut down the hay, which was turned over next day, as the swathes were heavy and thick. When at the proper stage of dryness men with forks gathered it into windrows, while others followed and coiled it up; and hay was coiled in these days, it was not throw into heaps like now. Women and boys then raked about and trimmed up the coils by pulling the hay from the bottom and placing it on the top, like a man thatching a stack, which sharpened them up considerably, and assisted materially in throwing off the wet, and made them proof against any moderate rainfall. After the field was all hand raked, which was no light task in itself, the hay generally remained untouched for about a week, or until sufficiently dry, when it was turn-coiled, and again trimmed as formerly. It was then load on to the carts after drying a day or two longer, and finally staked in the barnyard. This system, when carefully performed, was certainly hard to beat, but it required a large number of hands to complete every detail properly. Quite apart from the question of wages, farmers would be somewhat dubious of returning to this old style, for it required a certain amount of taste, tidiness, and inborn thrift not noticeable in the field labourer nowadays. When by the aid of machinery the same ends can be obtained with a lightness and ease hitherto unknown, none are sorry that the old system has disappeared never to return, although one certainly regrets that the mirth and social glee characteristic of the time have also gone with it.

I believe few people even at the present time contemplate the occupations of the hay field without feeling a very pure and elevated delight. But the gathering together of so many hands in these days fostered a warm sympathy and cheerful mirthfulness rarely seen now. The mowers moving gracefully in concert, the grass trembling for a moment, then swept into swathes by the scythe, its grateful fragrance, the maidens tedding the hay, the soft summer air peculiar to the season, all excite a sensible pleasure in almost every mind. A concerted movement implies a common will, and creates an agreeable sensation; and a scheme of utility completed also gives a restful pleasure and satisfaction. It was quite a common thing for a band of scythesmen to gather at a farm after their day’s labours were finished, and cut down a fair-sized field before darkness set in. Of course this was generally arranged beforehand, and the “guidwife” prepared for the occasion. It was grand to see a squad of stalwart men, the one a little behind the other, swinging their scythes from side to side, keeping “chap” and all moving forward in unison. Every cutter tried to do his level best, for the old and experienced sat at the rig end smoking, cracking, and criticising, while the young played around or stood listening to their remarks. On the task being completed the company assembled in the farm kitchen where curds and cream, tea, scones, cakes, butter not made by machinery, home-made cheese, and a bottle or two of Liddel’s best disappeared as if by magic. After the inner man was soothed, satisfied, or elevated, as the case might be, a retiral was made to the granary, which had been recently swept. Lasses gathered in from the neighbouring farms, and a concertina, fiddle, or perhaps a penny whistle being got hold of, country dances, strathspeys, and reels were set in full swing with much “hooching”. The mirth, laughter, and rhythm of the dancers on the wooden floor could be hears a long way off, for the heavy beat of some twenty pairs of “tacketty” boots descending in unison made the rafters dirl, and the old barn rock and sway to its very foundation. Thus the merry hours passed, swift-winged, with joy unfeigned; then each by slaps and stiles took off their several way, for the labours of the morrow commanded attention.

Through the great decrease of the country population, by emigration, and its large influx to great cities, by the introduction of machinery, and the advance of science and education, a pleasing feature of country life has passed away. Although a new order of things has arisen on the ruins of the old, which enables the farmer to cope with the world-wide competition prevailing at present, still it is sad to think that the clannish feeling, warm sympathy, happy labour, love, and social glee of the past has fled never to return. The emigrant lying on a foreign shore, with his raven locks now mixed with “siller threeds” must look back on these happy scenes as sunny memories of his youth, which link him with sacred ties to his native home.-Andrew McFarlane, Chalmerston, in the “Scottish Farmer”.