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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Historical Notes 1750 - 1900
D Omand - Moravian Field Club

Crops and Manure
Prior to the improvements the crops grown were black oats and bere, which were sown in late April or even in May. Between sowing his crop and harvesting it in September the crofter had to cut peats. This was done with a special spade called a tuskar. The peats were then dried and carted home to be built.into stacks beside the cottage. Harvesting was done in teams of three, one worker wielding the scythe followed by another who set out the crop in bundles and prepared twisted bands of the crop in order to bind the whole together. The third worker bound these sheaves and set them up in stooks (groups of six or eight sheaves).

Although drainage sometimes posed a problem to the crofter he could generally expect a good crop, partly due to the natural fertility of the soil and partly to the attention he paid to adequate manuring. Lime and marl (obtainable from the beds of shallow lochs) were liberally applied.

Seaweeds were sometimes strewn directly on to the land; at other times they would be mixed with turf formed into compost heaps and left for some months before application. Turf was removed with a long-handled spade called a flachter. During the fishing season crofters on seaboard locations collected the refuse of fish to which they added brine and earth making an odorous compost. It has been said that the land around Wick grew the best crops. Here the fertiliser recipe was 30 cwts. of herring to 1 barrel of manure, 20 barrels of the mixture being applied to each acre of ground. Manure was usually applied to the land by women who carried it on their backs in cassies with slip bottoms.

Prior to the use of the scythe oats would have been cut by a heuk (sickle). The reaper and binder (horse drawn) did not appear until the second half of the l9th century. Grain was separated from the straw by the use of a flail (a stick hinged by leather to a handle). Oats were winnowed in hand riddles or on hill tops called "shilling hills", or in barns so constructed that the wind could pass through them, e.g. Lhaid Haye, Dunbeath. The first recorded threshing machine in the county was that erected by the Traills at Castlehill in 1790. For a short time it was worked by horse power before water was used. Pennant had observed that following threshing, oats were kept in chaff bykes (stacks in the shape of a bee-hive) which, when completely thatched with straw would keep the crop in good condition for two years. References to small highland mills are made in the old. Statistical Account. It is strange that no definite traces of these mills driven by a horizontal water wheel have been found in the county. Were they destroyed when landlords built large mills for all the tenantry to use, creating the post of rapacious miller whom the crofters so often bitterly resented?

Published October 1974