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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin
1977 - April

LIFE ON A CAITHNESS FARM IN 1862
R. S. Stephen

Present day farmers, or farm managers, probably find time - between the filling in of official forms - to keep diaries, but it is doubtful if there is today any working grieve whose duties include the keeping of a farm journal similar to one giving an account of the daily work carried out on the farm of Sandside in the years 1862-3.

The volume, meticulously written up in beautiful copperplate handwriting was kept by John Campbell, a great-granduncle of the writer, and at that time sixty years of age. His spelling does not attain the high standard of his writing, being at times charmingly old-world and variable, but there is not a single carelessly-written or corrected entry in the entire Journal, which, in addition to provided a complete record of the work done by everyone on the farm, gives a daily account of the weather; while statements of pay, pages of petty expenses and accounts paid to local tradesmen, combine to give a fascinating glimpse of farm life in Caithness one hundred and fifteen years ago.

As we turn over the pages of slightly faded writing one fact strikes us more than any other, and that is the number of people who found continuous or casual employment on this farm.

Today, the arable land of Sandside is worked by one tractor-man and a labourer, assisted by the farmer when necessary: the application of fertilisers and sprays, also harvesting, being done by contractors. In 1862 the labour force numbered up to 18 during the winter months, rising to almost double that number at harvest time. The number of workers on the farm during the winter seems surprisingly high but it was obviously no time for relaxation for the almost daily driving of seaweed from the beach, and stones for the field drains always being made, kept both men and women fully engaged.

The regular staff consisted of the grieve and four plough-men (always referred to as the "Servants") also the laird's coachman and "Understrappers". These were all paid half-yearly, the rates being 8 for the grieve, 6 for the head ploughman William Macdonald, aged 44. 5 for Finlay Macpherson, aged 24, and 4 10/- for Kenneth and John Sinclair. The coachman, Hugh Macpherson, and understrapper Daniel Forbes received 5 and 3 respectively. Dairymaid Anne Millar had 3 and her assistant Mary 2 10/-.

All the other workers were known as "Hirers" and paid by the day. These included three labourers, George Macleod, at 1/10d, per day, the highest paid man on the farm. Alexander Sinclair aged 28, and Duncan Macpherson, aged 44 receiving 1/8d. All three were employed fairly continuously and could earn as much as 10 in the half year. Women received 3d. per day, also boys. Girls 6d.

The shepherds apparently did not come under John's command and their activities and pay are not mentioned in the Journal.

The volume opens on 16th November, 1862. A fair day with southerly wind. Four carts are leading ware to the Levach park. John and two men are thatching the corn stacks, two women serving them. A man and a boy go with three cows to the steamer, and in his expenses John records - "For a butter sey for the dairey - 3/6d." The following week brings three days of hard frost and the carts lead home Sandside peats. "Two men building the stack, four women serving them". They also lead home Betty Ross's peats to the Porter' s Lodge.

Week beginning 8th December - Ploughs daily at work in the "Torindoo". On Friday and Saturday six carts lead small stones from the beach for drains, while John and two women fill the drains; four women filling the carts at the shore. He also turns Vet. for the "young bull" is sick, and he treats him with a drink made from 1/4lb. tea and 41bs. sugar. This is an interesting entry as the cost is shown as 1/8d. or one day's pay for a labourer. Obviously the cup that cheers was an expensive item in those days.

On Thursday, 18th December, the grieve wrote - "This day being appointed by the Free Church for Thanksgiving for the Harvest, no work was done on Sandside, only sorting the horses".

Next day we can imagine them wondering whether their thanks-giving had not been somewhat premature for a terrific northerly gale had arisen, "This day almost blew a hurrican", and John and the servants were in the cornyard all day roping the stacks!

(During this gale six vessels, including two Wick schooners, a Norwegian brigantine and an almost new sloop from Tongue were driven ashore at Thurso.)

Week beginning 22nd December. Four carts daily leading ware. 3 men filling it and Duncan cutting. John is sparting the ware on the field. Jane Sinclair and Helen Macpherson spreading it. On Friday, a day of strong northerly wind and snow they lend dung from the folds to the Torindoo.

On New Years Day work went on as usual. At this time many people were still celebrating New Year on 12th January but on neither date is there any indication of a holiday. On the 2nd four carts take twenty quarters of oats to the mill, with one cart of peats for drying, and on the following Tuesday three carts bring back 26 bolls of meal. On the Friday one cart leads coal for the House, while the grieve and Johan Campbell pack the meal. Two new creels for "Carreying turnip" are bought for 3/- and two bottles of train oil for the cattle at 1/6d. Incidentally, the miller's charges were 5d. per quarter for oats and 6d. for bere.

In mid-January the grieve and two men spend four days repairing breaches in the harbour. (Was this a result of the "Hurrican"?).

February comes in "Wett and.Stormey" and carts lead home the Borlum peats, and two go to the mill for crushed bere for the horses. John and his ladies are "Humling and thrashing bere".

In general, the month is devoted to ploughing and making drains. These were of two types: "Cundey drains" with stone-built sides roofed over with larger slabs, and "Rumling drains" which were filled in with stones and the soil replaced When made by contract they cost 4-1/2d. and 3d. per yard. On 27th February four carts go to the quarry for shed-covers for repairing the shoemaker's barn. (This was probably done as a favour, the shoemaker, Willie Leed, being the brother-in-law of Wm Macdonald, the head ploughman).

John has now got a sick cow on his hands, and prepares a "Cordial drink" as for the bull but with only two pounds of sugar!

On Tuesday, 3rd March five carts lead slate from Shebster quarry, and a boy Alick Sinclair goes to Shurrery Cottage. On Friday and Saturday John is at the Arileave Burn measuring the meadow for Mr. Turbull, and Kenneth goes for more slate from the quarry.

On Monday 9th March, John writes that as it was a day of sleet and snow from the S.E., he and the servants were in the barn. This is the only reference in the Journal to outdoor working being affected by the weather, and indeed we only find snow mentioned on four occasions. Next day a cart goes to Thurso for cart harness. The women break oilcake and make simmons. Occasionally their production seems to have fallen behind as we find John purchasing 22 clues of simmons from a Robert Macdonald. Cost 11/-.

The weather improves and all are again working at stones and drains. Finlay leads "gravell" for the gardener, and Peter Forbes gets 4/- for killing four pigs

The sowing of oats begin on 25th March with four pairs of harrows in the Shore park, John and one man sowing, served by two women. They continue sowing most of the following week, but on Saturday John and the women "dress ryegrass". Monday finds them repairing the Mill Wait, but Tuesday is a fine dry day with a west wind, and John sows ryegrass in the afternoon, and on Friday we find him, with eight women "stoneing the clover".

On Monday 13th April, the ploughs are drilling the "tatieland", the carts taking away the weeds gathered by the women. George is repairing dykes, and Duncan trenches dung at Borlum. On Saturday they begin to plant the potatoes. (21 hands now on payroll.) A spring-cart goes to Thurso and John records, "Whiteneen for the Dairey. 2/6d."

On 22nd April the ploughs are "cross ploughing" in the "Torindoo", but Macdonald is off sick and George takes his plough. (This is the only reference to anyone being off work through illness.) They continue the potato planting, but on Tuesday 28th April, five carts go to Thurso for "Guano, dissolved bones and lintseed cake". Stabling for 8 horses cost 2/-. On Saturday the grieve goes to the harbour to thatch the old stores. Apparently more than thatch is needed for the following Tuesday finds two carts away to Thurso for wood while John and two men strip off the old roof. Wednesday, a cold, wet day find them "setting up the couples" and on Thursday six carts lead divots from the Arileave to the harbour. These had been cut by the miller, Donald Mckole McKay in 3 days, and Alexander Sutherland gets 3/- for putting them out of the moss to the road with his cart. Friday is a fine warm day with S.W. wind, so John goes to sow bere in the Tup park but is soon back on the roof again assisted by Duncan and Sandy. Johan and Jane serve them with divots. Four young pigs cost 1 18/-.

18th May. The ploughs are ploughing the turnip ground, George repairs the well, and John takes a day off to cut his peats, Sandy and 3 women assisting.

On Monday 26th May, Finlay goes to Scrabster for "Captain Macdonald's luggage", and a spring cart for the servants. (There was no railway at this time.) On Friday John pays the hirers, and three new girls are taken on, Catherine Mackay, Catherine Murray and Bell Macdonald. The two Catherines get 6d. per day, but Bell only gets 4d! (She is the ploughman's daughter.)

With the arrival of the Laird and his lady things have to be smartened up and we find 2 carts leading shell sand to the House, and George and Sandy are busy mettleing the road. George and Finlay go to Scrabster for Groceries, Beer and Flour and more of the Captain's luggage. Macdonald and John Sinclair lead dung from the fisher's houses.

They begin turnip sowing on 4th June. 25 hands employed. Four ploughs drilling and four carts mucking, with three men filling them. Five women spreading dung. John sparting and sowing. George sows guano with two girls serving him. A new boy, John McLeod, drives a cart, and no doubt was a proud laddie!

The following week they are sowing every day. Thirteen women spreading dung and weeding. There is good news for wee Bell, who gets a 50% pay increase, and receive a full sixpence.

On 18th June they go to Scrabster with thirty bags of wool from Borlum, and John takes a scuffler to the smiddy. With the turnip sowing ended the servants start leading home the laird's peats. These had been cut on contract by Alexander Sutherland, his account reading - "Cutting, tedding, and putting to the road 162 cart-loads of Sandside peats at 1/1d. per load. 8:15:6.

One afternoon John and the servants attend the funeral of the laird's personal servant, James Macdonald. The turnips must be receiving attention from the birds as Bell spends three days "rattleing."

The end of the month finds John engaged in yet another important task - the making of lime, and on Tuesday the 30th, the filling of the limekiln begins, two carts leading coal, and two leading peat, three women filling peats. Two additional hands, John and Roderick Fyfe fill the limestone, while John and two men fill the kiln. By Wednesday afternoon the job is finished and the kiln presumably set alight as on Saturday two carts begin leading home the lime. On the Monday and Tuesday five carts are similarly engaged. George trims the lime into the Limehouse.

An account shows a mason, John Macpherson being paid 6/- per rood for pointing the lime-kiln. When paid by the day he received 2/6d.

Three carts lead shell-sand "For making a walk for Lady Ramsey". George and Sandy make it. (Lady Ramsay, daughter of Lord Panmure, was the Captain's wife.)

On 10th July the women start singling turnips. Kenneth heaps tatties. John Sinclair goes to Shurrery with "Some things for the Gentry", and George repairs the "Servant's Byre". Boy John McLeod is "Cutting nettles and docans".

The following week the carts lead home peats for Finlay, Kenneth and Daney Forbes, while John and ten women are singling every day, occasionally tedding hay in the afternoon. Two men are cutting hay in the barn field. (Some hay is cut on contract by Granville Mackay @ 3/6d. per acre.) George cleans the mill wait.

Week beginning 20th July - The carts lead peats to the coachman and gamekeeper. The coal ship is in the harbour and they lead coal to Captain Macdonald's storehouse. A bottle of whisky is provided at a cost of 2/6d. John and seventeen women carry on singling. 27th July - Three carts lead hay. John, two men and eight women are rucking in the Barn field, with three women raking. On Thursday he writes - "This day being appointed a day of fasting and humiliation before the Sacrement of the Lord's Supper, no work was done on the Farm of Sandside". Saturday is also a quiet day, no hirers, apart from George and Sandy are at work. They spend the forenoon tedding hay and go to church in the afternoon. On the Monday the carts lead peats in the forenoon and they go to church again in the afternoon.

With the preacher doubtlessly droning on interminably on that warm August day, we can forgive John if his thoughts were straying elsewhere for a most unusual task awaited him. The carcase of a huge sperm whale had come ashore in a goe near the farm, and the blubber had to be salvaged. Next day they lead peats for Jane Sinclair and Widow Iverach, but on Wednesday Finlay is away to Wick for barrels to hold the blubber. Kenneth goes to Thurso and brings home "Yirnings for the Dairymaid. 2/6d."

By the following Wednesday John and six men are taking the blubber off the whale, with two men barrowing up the barrels. These were hired men, perhaps with whaling experience, but their names and pay are not given, apart from an entry in Petty Expenses which reads "'Eight bottles of porter to Walter Young when dissecting the whale. 4/-."

This whale, a bull. was said to have been the largest of its kind ever cast up on our shores, and the skeleton was later sent to a London museum, but as vertebrae, reputedly from this animal, may still be seen outside at least two houses in Reay, it would appear that the skeleton, when reassembled in the museum, must have fallen disconcertingly short of the record dimensions quoted by Captain Macdonald!

Finlay goes to Thurso for more barrels also "Barrel tacks and cards. 1/-", and on Saturday John and the women "flat hoe" the turnips.

The following week the carts lead home Sandside peats every day, while John supervises the whalers. On the Wednesday he is "Boiling spike at the goe" with Hannah Mackay. By Friday the job is completed and they are "storeing barrels". Six carts lead peats to Hugh Campbell, the blacksmith.

On Friday, 28th August they are busy building the haystack. Four carts leading, with extra hands Alexander Sutherland, Donald Spence and George Murray, the tailor, forking on the field. Hannah is raking while Janet and Mary Inn Sinclair (Kenneth's daughter aged 12) make simmons. John, with extra-hands Donald McKole and William Forbes plus eight women, build the stack.

The carts spend all the following week leading peats for various people including the gardener. John and George are "putting up a gate on Knocglass". A millwright spends three days "cogging the spurrwheel of the thrashing mill", and Sandy is sent for some "brasses". An entry in Petty Expenses reads "1/2lb. tea and 2lbs. sugar to the millwright repairing the thrashing mill. 2/2d." On Saturday, John and George "dress the haystack".

Monday 7th September. The harvest is ripe for the sickle and Finlay is despatched to Brubster for some shearers. Next day he goes to Strathalladale on a similar mission, and in the afternoon John and seven shearers begin to shear bere in the Tup park.

The following day fifteen women are at work with three men binding for them, and by Saturday eighteen, with four binding.

The carts drive the paupers peats, and put "mettle" on the road. (Broken by James and Robert Campbell who received 1/5d. per yard.)

Shearing continues almost every day for the next three weeks, while two or three men also mow oats. The carts lead peats for James Forbes, the shepherd, and go to Thurso for "butter and tar for smeering the sheep".

It is interesting to note that the women shearers were paid at the high rate of 1/3d. per day, and that the Sandside women - with the exception of Jane Sinclair - did not shear, and remained on their normal 8d. per day, while Jane, although shearing, only got 1/-. Obviously the imported ladies were experts with the "hook".

On the 4th October, they begin leading in bere from the Fresgoe park, and on the 21st they bring in the last of the crop - oats from Drummore.

Three days later they begin lifting the potatoes, four carts leading them home from the field; 18 hands lifting after the plough; one cart leading home divots (cut by George) and two men at the pit.

The following week is spent in leading tatties to the servants, the coachmen and the gamekeeper. Four carts lead earth from the roadside for a "midden steeth" at the Drummore. This was probably one of the "compound middens" referred to in the Journal. These were built up of alternate layers of dung, clay, seaweed, also all the fish offal from the harbour, which was regarded as the property of the farm. The various layers were later mixed by trenching the midden, and this was also done in the case of the ordinary "dunghills". One account shows a boy being paid 16/- for "32 days trenching a dunghill". A very large dunghill,or a very small boy?

As we enter November the year has completed its cycle and the ploughs are back in the field and the carts leading ware from the beach, and turnips for the tups and calves. On a wet day John, with two assistants "belts the cornstacks". A cart goes to Tongue with two tups, and the ferryboats bring the driver's expenses to 9/-.

The Journal ends on the fourteenth of November - a mild and misty day. One cart is leading home peats to "Mrs. Mackay at the Lodge". Willie, Kenneth and Finlay are ploughing and leading ware. John Sinclair leads some coal and Duncan Macpherson fills it. Jane Sinclair is tying simmons, Janet Ross is drawing straw, Johan Campbell is spreading ware, and Hannah Mackay is "mill shilling".

But where is the grieve himself? Ah! Here he is, assisted, as usual, by the indispensable George, busily engaged in "Thatching the Haystack".

John lies at rest in the old churchyard at Reay after, as the inscription tells us - "A long and faithful servitude of sixty years and upwards on the Sandside Farm, where he was much respected and his death was deeply and justly regretted".

His cottage, long since gone, stood on the upper road in the village, not far from the old Cross. He left no family.

Old records show his father employed as Barnman on the farm in the 1790s.

 

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