On being a country lass… (sort of)   


Recently watching an old fashioned harvest scene on Larkrise to Candleford made me remember that during my childhood in rural Angus (Scotland) in the 1950s, I witnessed what must have been one of the last manually gathered harvests taking place there.

My family owned a cottage in a rural village.    Our very large garden – really a small holding – had an orchard, and over the stone wall that guarded this, I used to lean and observe the cereal crop growing in the field of next door’s farm (whose son, the same age as myself – about 8 – I had already agreed to marry.    I can still remember his name and see his face from over 50 years ago.)

As I recall, there were three types of cereal grown there in the fertile Valley of Strathmore.    There was ‘corn’, which in Scotland means oats, with its feathery light head of seeds.   There was wheat, golden and stubby with its fat blunt ears.    But the most beautiful was barley, with a slight greenish tinge, and its soft, whiskery, drooping head.    I would lean on my wall beside the sycamore tree that I had planted, and watch every day, as that field went from ploughed, brown, striped, sexy earth, to straight green shoots straining heavenwards.    I watched it at all times of day, and I particularly loved it on moonlit nights, when visiting our outdoor toilet, I would pause and see how in the ever present Scottish wind it moved and swayed like a vast green ocean.     There comes a point when the upright stalks of barley bend towards the earth, as if bowing to the sun, and the field turns almost white, and then the harvest is ready to be gathered.   I observed all these changes, but I did not know what they meant.

I therefore had a strongly proprietorial interest in ‘my’ field of barley, so one day, idly leaning on my wall, I was horrified to discover that the gate had been flung open and hordes of people, so it seemed to me, were marching in, intent on despoiling my barley.

I think, examining my memories, it was a time between a fully manual harvest and a fully mechanised one.    There was a tractor with some kind of cutting mechanism – they were not scything by hand – but there was also a horse and cart, men, women, dogs…   From being a quiet and private field, it had become a place of frantic human activity.

All day long they toiled away, laying my lovely field bare.   The ‘stooks’ were bound with twisted straw in an expert and speedy operation, and stacked in ‘tents’ of eight sheafs.    At lunch, women and girls came down from the farm with food, and they had a short rest from their labours.   More work in the afternoon, and suddenly they were all gone, disappeared down the country lane, with the horse and cart bringing up the rear.   The field lay silent once again, but shorn of its crop, just pale stubble like corduroy, spotted with the little tents of barley.

Eugene, my brother, and I ventured in to the field.   You could crawl inside one of the barley tents, but the stubble was prickly and uncomfortable.   The farmer’s son laughed at my sense of loss and said the harvest was the whole point;  and though this was true, I forsook my promises and thought perhaps I would not marry him after all.

Decades later, visiting my parents in the wilds of Banffshire, I saw a gargantuan machine come trundling down the lane and enter a field, solitary apart from the driver behind his glass.    In a few hours the crop was demolished,  separated, the straw wrapped in plastic bales, and he was lumbering off to his next field.    Efficient, I suppose, but somehow a desolation in the sterility of operation.

I, of course, though I occasionally do an ‘I’m a country girl’ act, am just a pretender.   I never did anything agricultural at all, except observe.   I was quite taken aback once, watching a potato harvest being picked, to be asked by the farmer if I wanted a job.   He was quite disgruntled when I declined.   

But a little knowledge can be put to good use.   Laboriously touring some local farm on a school outing with Elisabeth, whose attitude to anything rural was total lack of interest,  I could see the farmer had dismissed me as yet another ignorant townie.    So as he leaned on his fence, admiring his prize animal, I paused beside him.     “A fine bull that one.” I offered.   The farmer – whose assessment of the extent of female ignorance resembled that of an Israeli visitor with his immortal phrase ‘The wimmins they know nothing’  – was quite impressed that I could tell a bull from a cow.    ‘Is it a Hereford?’ I asked.   The farmer almost fell off his fence.    “Why no, ma’am.   It’s a South Devon.”    (They are both brown, though the Hereford usually has white markings.)     “Ah.”    We both admired the animal.    Then I asked, “And why is this your breed of choice?   Is it because of its mild temperament?     Where I come from, the Aberdeen Angus is a fearsome animal.”    The farmer viewed me with faint alarm (I think he had sudden thoughts of cattle inspectors, roving lady reporters from Cattle Breeders Weekly, or other nightmare scenarios too agricultural for me to contemplate), but he duly gave his reasons why he had a South Devon and not for example, the rarely seen Sussex.    As we walked on, he asked me, cautiously, “How come you knows about cattle?”

“Oh,” I said airily, “I’m a country girl” before sauntering off to catch up with Elisabeth and before he could discover that although ‘the wimmins’ did not quite know ‘nothing’, in fact they did not really know a great deal.

PS     I consulted a friend and Sussex farmer, to see if my agricultural recollections were accurate, and he confirmed them all, except that the black Aberdeen Angus breed is not regarded as aggressive, just ‘flighty’.    Since I recall making detours to avoid a particularly animal, he must simply have been exceptionally grumphy or perhaps he didn’t like being looked at by little girls.     The Sussex breed of cattle was an ‘oxen’ type used for pulling ploughs and has not been seen much since mechanisation, but is apparently the ancestor of some Australian cattle breeds.   What do you mean, you’re only interested in cattle breeds up to a point?    It’s a fascinating subject….   there are many other breeds of cattle we could consider….


About adhocannie
I am a good natured woman with a long memory and a swift tongue. I like loooking at things and thinking about them. Also food, clothes, travel, reading, sewing. I try to see the ridiculous in things, but sobriety of reflection keeps edgting in. I have husband, children, grandchildren, friends... I feel rich in things that matter. I am a happy exile. I like writing. I do not like talking about me (though I do.). You willl be much more interesting.


  1. Elisabeth says:

    I remember this outing too! E x

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