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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin

A Farm Flitting in 1949
By Elaine Smith

It was a decree of farming in Scotland that entry to farms took place on the dates of Martinmas and Whitsun. Whitsun 1949 was a Sunday. Therefore it was declared that this Farm Flitting would take place on the Saturday.

Fifty years ago, farmers bought farms without looking at the farm houses. So I had to ask. Where was it? Could one go and see it? A big white house at Scrabster was the only clue, so I ended up at the light house as it was the only white house in view. From there I was directed to the house that was on the top of the cliff; it was black as it had been camouflaged during the war, by being covered in soot.

Prior to flitting, but after purchase of the farm, part of the unexhausted inventory was a large stock of turnips. Needing turnips at the Reaster farm, a telephone call to the elderly Grieve arranged for a tractor and trailer to go and collect a load. This was successfully done when there was another call from the Grieve – a gate had been left open. "Come back and shut it" – 12 miles! Such had been the discipline on our new farm. It had been run strictly and meticulously – if anyone climbed a fence to take a short cut they were sent back to walk all the way round; and in those days people obeyed. The new farm arrival was to end that era!

Included with the farm was a house with 32 rooms from basement to attic, which no tradesman had entered since 1890, plus a Clydesdale horse which had not been bought in the farm roup.

First Day - Saturday 27 May 1949.
89 dairy cows with followers and calves were shut in byres; 97 beef cattle with calves, followers and 3 bulls, plus 800 sheep and their lambs, were herded in pens; 500 hens, 24 ducks, 12 geese and 30 turkeys were closed up in poultry houses.

Three single farm ‘hands’ and 2 single young women were told to tie up their bedding with string and labels. House furniture was stacked in the garden. Dogs yelped and children cheered. Then it all started.

Stock lorries, tractors, trailers, implements, combine harvester, took to the road for a 12 mile journey, accompanied by roaring of cattle, bleating of sheep and wild clucking from the poultry. The old farm car took up the rear with family and a 6-month old crying baby. Fortunately traffic lights were unknown in the town as the mile long ‘caravan’ proceeded. It went along the narrow cliff top road between Thurso and Scrabster, which is now relegated to being a footpath. Eventually the procession ended up at Scrabster farm. Relieved stock and men spilt out into the fields of abundant grass.

As a matter of course, it was expected the women would have food ready. Women flung open doors in the house to discover the rooms and start fires - no central heating in that era. The sitting room had a pipe running into the middle of the room to a stove. The house had not been occupied for one year and the rancid fat was still in the frying pan from the last cooked meal. Furniture was pushed around and all was "arranged" before milking time at 6p.m.

The telephone mouthpiece on the wall never stopped ringing – people asking "Can we help? How are you getting on?" A handle was ‘birlled’ to ring out and a neighbouring couple asked to come. A big stout farmer was handed the crying baby and told to go to a large empty drawing-room and SING! Brrrr went the telephone again – did we have 2 little girls? They had been thrilled to find a sea-shore and had wandered along until they reached Thurso and also the unknown delights of swings and chutes. Someone from the house opposite the playground rescued them as darkness approached and asked where they came from – the answer was they didn’t know but it was a new farm!

Eventually dinner was ready and came up from the basement by a rope pulling a ‘dumb waiter’. A collie dog, who had probably missed his regular meal time, smelt the beef and jumped into the ‘waiter’ – crash – dog and food shot downwards and landed in a messy heap – that was our first meal.

Where was the furniture to go? Not in rooms overlooking the sea as farmers never made money from the sea. Looking like dolls’ house furniture in the huge rooms, it was placed looking out at the farm. During this operation, noises were heard in the walls, something was running around chasing something else – RATS! The solution – a CAT. In the past one lady in the house had bred cats, in a cattery, like rabbits, and on her departure the cage doors were opened and the cats were now running around outside, half wild. Being hungry, one was enticed into the basement and shoved through one of the many holes in the kitchen walls. The cat raced around inside the walls from room to room and squeals of rats ensued. This was the ‘lullaby’ for the first night.

I was woken by the sound of rushing water. I was not surprised as it was raining heavily and most of the rhones were broken.

I lay and began to worry, so I slipped out of bed in my nightdress, onto the landing and began to PADDLE. A child had been to the antiquated loo, pulled the handle enthusiastically and the overhead cistern had given up; all its ‘works’ lay on the floor.

Two ceilings were disintegrating with downpours of water. Back to bed for 4 hours of sleep before the 6am. milking.

We were happy, we had a lovely farm.

Day Two
While milking at 6am, the lights and the milking machine motor faded. No Hydro Electric here – it was a water turbine fed from the small farm loch and the water had run out. Down to shore to the site of the turbine house to shut down the machine to conserve the water when a figure loomed up in the darkness – the Harbour Master – who wanted light for an incoming ship (the previous farmer gave light to the harbour – but he did not have a dairy!). There followed a tug-of-war with the enormous 4 ft long runch which operated the turbine. Who was to get the water; farm or harbour? Hydro-Electric were telephoned immediately to be told they would have to install electricity in the district.

The telephone stopped ringing, much to our relief until it was discovered it operated with a battery that had run out. BT were called to install a new system at once. Operating again, another call came – your Clydesdale and a Shetland pony have arrived at a farm 6 miles away. (Shetland ‘sholties’ are renowned for mischief and this one had led the horse away). I jumped into the old farm van, leapt on to the back of the Clydesdale and led the sholtie home.

It was evening time and the elderly grandfather was asked to go and shut up poultry for the night. He followed the ducks until they spied the loch, a wonderful sight to them and they spent the next few days swimming round and round until they were retrieved.

The heavy geese ran across their field ahead of the strong gale force wind and found themselves lifted over the cliff; they landed on the shore. Swimming in the waves proved a great pleasure. When approached on the sand they ran quickly back to the sea. Having by now befriended the Harbour Master, he came at night with a strong torch and dazzled the birds when they were asleep on the shore. One by one they were carried back to the farm and had their wings clipped - no more flying.

Scrubbing began from attic to basement. Lots of buckets were found in the attics – good – the very thing required and useful on the farm. They were quickly deployed. A day of rain disclosed their true purpose – they were there to catch the leaks from the worn out copper roof!

Enjoying the evening of comparative peace, a series of sharp shots broke the silence. Who could be firing at this time of night and at what? A torchlight search took place inside and round the farm but nothing discovered and the shots continued all night.

FOG. It was the lighthouse warning – instead of a horn it was a gun signal being fired every 4 seconds. Now we would know.

End of week
Instructions from the farmer husband– you will look after the house, the children, the poultry, the dairy and the garden. And what are you going to do? I will look after the rest of the farm! Alright – except I know nothing about gardening. The 1 acre plot was a derelict, overgrown garden where even the doors were jammed with growth. I went to the labour exchange and was given a ‘tribe’ of Macphees, who dug and pulled for three weeks which was the limit of their enthusiasm. An old horseman lived in one of the farm cottages and he volunteered to garden but he could not bend as he had been shell-shocked in World War I. He filled the ‘gap’.

Hydro Electric arrived and put poles, etc. in middle of field to start erection. No permission was asked, so a bull was put in the field – would he be removed so they could get back to their equipment? – Yes, when they asked PLEASE.

Bath time produced entertainment. Farm water brought many companions; newts, tadpoles, and many vigorous, tiny wriggly creatures which swam with the bather. Water from the loch came via a reservoir that had not been cleaned for half a century. The Water Board were alerted to put County water supply in to the district.

A hole in kitchen wall had to be broken down to lure the cat out with saucers of cream. Rat problem was solved, at least temporarily.

End of week, we are still pleased with our lovely farm!

50 years on we still love our farm.

Serial could be continued in the same vein over the first year or more, but readers will be spared this.

Would you like to have done a Farm Flitting - 1950 century style?

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