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1992 Index Bulletins Index

Caithness Field Club

By the late Ian Munro, Little Clett, Brough
(by kind permission of Mrs. Margaret Munro)

Although sights and sounds are supposed to figure prominently as a means of evoking and stirring up memories of times (long since) past, what really rekindles the holidays I spent in Slickly are the SMELLS! Time and again, in perhaps a byre in Wigtownshire or a Bull Pen in East Lothian I have been stopped in my tracks and no matter my circumstances at the time I find myself reliving the past and breathing again the unmistakable sickly sweet, but with overtones of sourness, smell of the byre at Slickly. Perhaps it was because it was my first real contact with Mother Nature and I was very impressionable but the byre smell lingers on.

However it is a different byre smell which comes occasionally. One day I was sent scurrying up for my Uncle Will with a peremptory request for him to get to Uncle Sandy's croft forthwith. I was sent "into the house" with strict instructions to stay there. However there was a window in a bedroom which overlooked the byre door and I repaired there as soon as I thought they would be otherwise engaged and too busy to notice the astonished and spellbound little face peering through the lace curtains. And, with brutal bluntness I encountered the "facts of life" for the first time. This encounter has stayed with explicit clarity ever since. I have been a party to countless calvings ever since and have managed perfectly well with the help of a light calving rope and a great deal of patience but having witnessed the Slickly birth, I formed the totally wrong opinion that parturition required the services of two uncles - one tall and fairly fit, one shorter and somewhat asthmatic, a block and tackle and a powerfully built and ample house-keeper. I often wondered what would be the fate of procreation in Agriculture once these concomitants had been translated to richer pastures!

Thinking about Liz's shape calls to mind another smell - that of her coarse "brat" made of sacking which covered her clean floral wrapper. I seem to remember falling and scraping knees etc. or otherwise requiring comfort and solace, and disappearing without trace inside her very ample bosoms! This smell was an amalgam of scones recently baked (her hands usually still floury), animals generally, peat reek and probably most cloying fresh butter and cream.

The latter was laid out in brown earthenware bowls in what should be called the dairy, but as I remember it was a large flagstone shelf in a cool place. The cream was totally without additives of any kind yet was the richest really golden colour of any I have ever tasted. Apart from finger-dipping and butter-making, the supreme example of its best possible use was to smother the porridge (made from home-grown oats) and taken at 11.30 a.m. This latter meal was usually a substantial one. I always thought the performance I related above was solely for the production of cream and milk, and totally discounted the grass conversion factor and the end-product in the shape of a calf.

It was largely a self-sufficient economy. A highlight of the week was the arrival of the "VAN" - mostly with groceries and sweets but here again the practice of bartering was a skilled operation. Eggs and butter rapidly became transformed into flour and other comestibles and there was always enough left for a poke of pandrops! The question of maximising production just did not arise and Mother Nature had a much larger share than I.C.I. in the end products. The result was that everything tasted wonderfully having been matured slowly and naturally. I never saw a "Vet" in all the time I was there although there were probably one or two "cures" given by locals which, thankfully, have escaped my memory!

And so, I return to the concept that smells and tastes have pride of place in my memories. Certainly the oatmeal was more flavoursome and nutty, the eggs from "Scratchers" or what would now be called "Free Range" hens (although their "range" was bounded mostly by the midden and the corn-yard!) had rich golden yolks and their whites were practically already whipped. A boiling hen was boiled in a pot full of vegetables and the resulting "broth" had large pieces of chicken served along with it. And the flouriest of potatoes with a bowl of creamy milk was a banquet in itself - judging the size of hot potato to spoon into the cool milk to get the right temperature blend was an art in itself!

It was always wonderful weather, or so it seemed and field work was at full stretch. I learned to "single" neeps expertly, and so you can imagine my surprise when I went to Wigtonshire to see "singlers" on their hands and knees as if in prayer (for which I paid them the princely sum of six pence per 100 yards). I have since also seen a lone "singler" in a 50 acre field where an odd extra plant pushed out would not matter - here on a small patch every plant was treated with the respect due to something which would eventually form a major part of the winter feed. And so I learned to be expert!

I learned, too to yoke and drive a horse although I was never on "first name" terms with it! I discovered that the long "break" at the top of the day was arranged, not for the tired horseman, but to give the horse a "breather"! It was one of life's minor pleasures too after a day's work in the field to be hoisted on the horse's back and ride all the way to the steading - I found out quickly that unless one dismounted nimbly at the trough where the horse had its evening drink, the height of the stable door was such that one got shot off its rump as it entered the door!

Hay-making was an elaborate process. After cutting a series of swathes the ripening grass was often 'hand-ted" and then raked into small coles by a "Tumpling Tam". This was a one-sided rake pulled by horse which, when it had gathered its quota, tumbled over, leaving quite a sizeable heap. These were amalgamated until there was enough to make a cole big enough to be "tramped". Guess who landed the trampling job! This for some inexplicable reason was huge fun! The "tramp" coles were then pulled by chain to the stockyard to make the traditional round stack. This, too, meant more tramping and with forking as an alternative task, made the whole process pleasurable.

I hope to return to the farming activities because along with food (I was too young for Girls, and in any case the did not exist!) they formed the principle ingredients of a Slickly holiday. I cannot leave the horse without observing that there is no Ignition Key on a horse and catching, harnessing, grooming, feeding and watering, yoking etc. etc. is vastly different to jumping into a Jeep! A great deal of time was taken up with the horses.

The smell of baking filled the house all the time. So far as I can remember there were scones, bere scones, (large thick ones the size of dinner plates), oatcakes of indeterminate shapes but always beautifully curled having been toasted and finished off on the brander in front of the open fire. Treacle scones too and well larded with butter, and when appropriate, Rhubarb Jam. There was always crowdie made with caraway seeds. For meat I think there was a butcher but who would require one when there was an abundance of eggs, rabbits, etc. Although the only recollection I have of a pig was the sty quite near the house, I am sure there would be salt park, not to mention all the pig by-products - I can imagine for instance Liz up to her oxters in a mixture of bere meal and blood etc. to make the black puddings - bere was used for these and oatmeal for white puddings on most places. And no doubt all the offal would be put to good use!

The daily meal routine would be tea and scones or oatcakes etc. at 7 am and breakfast (already described) at noon. There might be a boiled egg at that meal also. The evening meal was substantial and if the main course was a bit "light-weight" there was plenty of soup and scones and crowdie and for me, anyway, plenty of lovely milk to drink.

The cow was hand-milked and the calves bucket-fed, so I used to join the calf-queue to get a bowlful of warm frothy milk and that drink beat any syllabub ever invented. Unusual treats included raiding the horse's food bin for locust beans. Their glossy chocolate coloured skins contained a sweet chewy white centre and were long-lasting when chewed. Linseed cakes which came compressed in the shape of a corrugated roofing tile were scarcely palatable but 'would do' in an emergency!

Holiday makers on their first visit to France are horrified by their experiences in the "pissoir", but for my part I found them positively palatial! Baring one's "hurdies" to a whistling draught and "hunkering" over the "grip" was, to say the least of it, a psychosomatic ordeal and one which it had not been for lots of "roughage" would also have proved a costive experience! So far as I could discover there was absolutely no sanitation - or at least none that I could find and I was too shy to ask!

In the short space of some twenty years I ran through the gamut of every invented form of harvesting. For example there was a flail hanging up in the barn and occasionally to thresh a sheaf of corn for e.g. the hens and about 1950 at Saltoun (another story) I hired one of the earliest Combined Harvesters. But Slickly was still at the "back delivery" reaper stage. This machine produced the cut crop in a continuous row behind it, and the stooks had then to have a band of the crop tied round them before they were stooked. The binder still had to make its appearance at least in Slickly! Because I had not been expert at setting up stocks, they would require resetting and, clutching a cold and always wet stock was an uncomfortable job.

What I do remember in harvest was the "half-yoking" which happened about 3.30 in the afternoon. Of course, we were always glad of the rest, and although there was always available a milk pail into which a quantity of oatmeal had been put and the pail filled with water, making a most refreshing drink (the trick was to give the pail a good swill and then, before the meal and oatflour had a chance to "settle", have a good "swill", that way you got the milky water full of energy) it took second place to the feed of scones, oatcakes etc. with tea or in my case milk to drink.

Hay had its own anthology of smells! It was usually "bog-hay" or foggage and had a liberal supply of red and white clovers. For some reason we called it "sheepie-maes" and the trick was to get a clover head and hopefully suck the honey from it. And what's more it worked! If there was a lull in the proceedings it was bliss to lie down in the cut hay and delight in the wonderful aroma. Of course there were no diesel fuel smells to ruin the atmosphere.

Another play I had was to extract the inner green tube from an oat plant. It was creamy and sweet to chew and if the stem had been partially split and held in the mouth to blow through, there was produced a strange "peeping" sound (I think they were called "peepers"). A mouthful could give you a presentable orchestra!

It is just as well that I did not require any "manufactured" entertainment because there was none! I think that the "Top of the Pops" would be the "Savoy Hotel Orpheans" but I never heard them in Slickly. The wireless was only on for the news because it was necessary to "hain" the "Wet Accumulator" which Father charged and David took out with him when he arrived for the week's quota of chickens and eggs for the Aunts in the Pentland Hotel. It was a "Model T" Ford Sedan he drove and often I drove it from Croxter Toll to Slickly and back to Croxter Toll. There was no fear of other traffic and, so long as one kept the wheels in the cart ruts, there was no need to steer!!

I've just remembered that Uncle Will used to entertain us on the "Boxie" which he played tolerably well.

I was invited to a nearby house one day and given to believe that, since they had South connections they would be rather "grand". You can imagine my surprise to find myself at dinner with a spoon and a big bowl of "stew and potatoes" in the middle of the table into which we all "spooned"!

There was a large deep well or ash-hole below the fire, a traditional "open" one with a swee which needed emptying say once a month. The "posher" houses in the those days had an external means of disposing of the ash but at Slickly the box cart was backed up to the front door and the ashes "barrowed" out to it. You can imagine what kind of a mess that made; everything was coated with a fine dust. The dust covered not only the living room but found its way into the bedroom and the dairy/larder and was unpleasant for days afterwards.

Birds were in abundance and it was there I learned to make a hide of sheaves and wait for the grouse to come in to feed on the grain. Then appear, like a Jack-in-the-Box and blast a barrel of the single barrelled shot gun hopefully in their direction - with a fair modicum of success!! This was an "art" I brought to greater perfection later in life in Orkney. But other birds were also in profusion and naturally their nests had to be inspected daily to mark progress. There must have been a great number because they were readily found! Egg collecting in those days was an "in thing" but the species were not very numerous and I had no heart for it anyway.

To sum up what it was really like at Slickly is difficult. To the grown- ups it was a life scarcely at subsistence level with the minimum of home comforts; with depressing news on the wireless if you had time to hear it; with a world-wide depression impinging itself on you unbidden; with your very existence dependant on the crack of the auctioneer's hammer (after all your only saleable assets were the lamb crop and a few calves, and dealers could be notoriously fickle; lambs being sold for 6d each i.e. 2.5p in Lairg in 1931) and on top of all that a young boy to monitor and entertain!!

To me there was a sense of wonder, excitement and enchantment, and initiation into a world where "every prospect pleaseth", with an occasional glimpse into the "real world" all of which has been stored in my memory and has remained there judging from these random notes!!

The following poem says it all in a far better way than I could and would have saved me a lot of trouble!

It is called:

"In an Old Album"

A passing glance at a well thumbed page:
Sepia mist on an old photograph,
A faded quiet smile, a weather beaten face,
Hay fork held in a gnarled fist,
Symbol of toil from a disappearing age.

The warm sweet smell of well-tossed hay,
Sweet and pleasant toil on a brown hillside,
A sudden roll of cloud across a sharp blue sky,
Flurries of Autumn rain on bare brown feet,
Grandpa's earthy voice, scurries of child's play.

A high bright song of a skylark
In constant harmony with the rustling waves
Peat smoke tossed from the squat chimney stacks,
Blistered hands, a secret smile of work well done,
Tumbling home to the small lights flickering in the dark.

The book closes on a time that is past
Winds of change blow hard on memories like this,
But my beginnings are part of my future
My heritage endures when nostalgia's swept away,
Time may change direction, but my identity will always last.
Moragh McKenzie.

P. S.

I thought I had finished with these "memories" but they keep crowding in on me. The important thing is to separate "fact" from "fancy"!!

The circular buildings often seen in the South of Scotland were called "Mill-Gangs" - they were either circular or semi-circular with elaborate roof-trusses, and were part of the Mill-working processes. In the North they were open to the air and since threshing often took place in fairly inclement weather, it was a wet uncomfortable job driving the horse round the raised circle. And because the "gearing' was not very sophisticated it was hard work for the horse and "rides" were restricted. I became very conversant with the immediate environs of that part of the steading as I trudged round encouraging the horse.

At a later stage of my career I came in contact with the original Mill which Lord Saltoun had sent James Meikle (in 1710) to Holland as a kind of early industrial spy to learn "the perfect art of sheiling barley" and I often thought that the original had landed up in Slickly - certainly it was "vintage"! Naturally the Mill with its accompanying "fanners" painted in that rather peculiar pinkish colour was an important part of the equipment.

One of the by-products of milling was the production of "sowens". Sowens were prepared from the mealy "sid" or hull of the ground oat steeped in lukewarm water for a few days. The resulting "pottage" was put through a sieve and the liquor drunk. It depended how long the sids were steeped

on the taste of the subsequent liquor. Assuredly fermentation took place which could make it quite potent. This probably accounts for the fact that I was frequently sent to Houston's Mill in Thurso and is also why Mother sometimes led a euphoric existence!

Potatoes were a staple food but they were not scientifically grown. I do remember however the varieties - "Beauties of Hebron, Long Blacks, Black Hearties, Fortyfolds and Ninetyfolds". They were however always floury and not balls of water as at present.

Again, it is a smell which evokes the next memory. Here at Clett Cottage we use a lot of peat and the fire has just "blown back". It either means that a spell of drier weather is imminent or else that the "lum" needs sweeping! Anyhow, the room is full of peat reek and I am reminded of the peat operations at Slickly. Time and Motion Men (had they existed) would have allocated at least one full month of everyone's labour to peat process. I was never at the peat-cutting that I remember but certainly was at the "setting up", carting home and stacking. It was a very stoory job with the peat crumbs getting inside your shirt and making you itch. The filling of the peat buckets for the fire was a skilled operation - there would be a bucketful of "small" for a quick blaze when needed, a bucketful of larger peats for general purposes and finally "fail" or mossy peats to "smoor" the fire overnight!


Published in 1992 Bulletin