Probus club hears wonderful descriptiion of 1920s farming in Galloway

The Walker family at Big Balcraig in the 1920s
The Walker family at Big Balcraig in the 1920s

The Newton Stewart and District Probus Club were presented with a talk by member Jimmy Walker about farming in the 1920s at their most recent meeting.

Jimmy had recently been given his grandfather’s diaries after the death of a family member. He had no idea they existed but was amazed at the level of detail they contained about the everday minutae of a farming life almost 100 yers ago - long before mechanisation.

Jimmy’s grandfather had been factor to Sir Herbert Maxwell of the Monreith estate since 1891 and was granted the tenancy of Balcraig farm at Martinmas 1919.

Much later Jimmy was born in the farmhouse, son of Peter the youngest of his grandfather’s sons. It was quite common for the youngest son to take over a tenancy as by the time a farmer was ready to retire his older children were likely to have found employment elsewhere.

A detailed and priced inventory of all livestock, equipment, feedstuffs, crops and sundries was the starting point for the transfer of the farm. Even 539 cubic yards of dung at eight shillings (40p) per yard were recorded. The total valuation was £7969 excluding cash in bank.

Thereafter the new tenant kept meticulous handwritten diaries containing accounts of all aspects of his business. These documents now provide an authentic record of farming in Wigtownshire nearly 100 years ago.

In 1920 Balcraig comprised 465 acres plus a field two miles away called Botany Bay. The latter seems to have been given up after two years possibly because it was inconvenient to work at a distance.

The rent for the whole was £225 per half year. The land was worked by seven or eight regular men and there were nine horses.Dairy staff were additional.

At busy times casual labour, often family of regular workers, was employed. Three workers from Northern Ireland had a recurring arrangement for harvest time when up to two dozen people, women included, were required.

The regular men earned £1:15/- (£1.75) per week rising to £2.00 in May 1920. This was bolstered by substantial supplies of basic necessities, for example one ton of potatoes, four and a half tons of coal, forty stones of oatmeal and free housing.

Milk was charged at one old penny (1/2p) per pint. The Dairyman’s annual rate was £3:7/6 (£3.37) per cow for 108 cows, plus one shilling (5p) for every pig weaned, and two fat pigs of average weight. His allowances of the essentials above were also larger; his milk was free as were four pounds of butter per week.

His monetary income for the year was £392 while the total wage bill for all the other workers was £1087.

In 1920, 177 acres were ploughed. The normal crop rotation was lea fields ploughed for grain; the following year they would be used for turnips and a few potatoes; the next year would be grain again, undersown with grass seed so that the field returned to grass for the next five to seven years.

Ploughing would start in November and would be nearly a full time job right through to spring. Three ploughmen were employed.

A horse plough would turn over seven inches – today a tractor will be turning over nearly seven feet. It has been quoted that a horse plough could do an acre of land in a day. Maybe this was so in light land but Balcraig was not like that – the careful records show that at best it took eleven and a half hours and it could take as long seventeen, or nearly two days on a nine hour day.

There are two double furrow ploughs in the inventory but they must have been brutes to work in the stony ground even with three horses in front and there is little evidence of their use.

Four swing ploughs and three Oliver ploughs did the bulk of the work. The lea fields would usually be ploughed first, then the stubble and finally the previous year’s turnip ground.

After ploughing the diaries indicate that two men would be sowing grain, with women carrying the seed to them to sow 66 acres of lea and 46 acres of former turnip, or red, land, leaving 64 acres of ploughed stubble which would not all be needed for turnips so some of that would also be put in grain.

Work then started on the turnip ground with two men drilling. By the time the last turnips were sown the first of them were ready for thinning – a labour intensive task for which twenty three names are recorded.

They were paid two shillings and one penny (10.5p) for a ten hour day, or two old pence per hundred yards. Fertiliser was applied with a horse drawn spreader!

Peat cutting from Drumscallan Moss was next, followed by cutting about 40 acres of hay which, when dry enough, was gathered into ricks to dry further before a horse powered tripod rick lifter was used to transfer the rick to a cart and onwards to the stack yard.

In any spare time peat was spread to dry, and when the hay was finished the peat was brought home; 60 carts in 1922.

Some was sold locally at just five shillings per cart load, but there is no record of payment which caused some amusement when well known names were mentioned.

The grain harvest followed which in 1920 is recorded as late and difficult due to adverse weather. Cutting did not start until the end of September and the grain was badly laid.

The fields were opened by cutting round the outside with scythes, then the oats were lifted, tied into sheaves and set against the wall.

The first field had two reapers and a binder working. The two seat reapers collected the crop on the slates and the second man would rake it off every few yards for the lifters to tie it into sheaves.

In early October sheaves were sprouting in the fields. Cutting finished on October 26 and carting finished at 11pm on the 29th.

In a normal year there would be two stacks going up at the same time with one man guiding the builders and a woman on each stack handing the sheaves to the builder, six carts, two men forking and two women leading the horses in the field – at least fifteen people working. The stack yards were a source of pride.

After thatching they were trimmed and switched, that is they were shaved with a scythe.

Coal was needed for the boiler which provided hot water for the dairy, for the annual allowance to employees and for the travelling threshing mill which arrived on February 6 and thrashed three stacks.

Coal costs in 1920 were split Staff - £30, Dairy - £33, Mill - £11, House £21. A summary of sales shows clearly that dairy products were the primary source of income. Milk, butter and eggs contributed £490, cheese £2137, cattle £817 and pigs £1561 (plus £11 for sows visiting the boar).

The cows were hand milked in the winter but there was a milking machine which started on February 14 1921 and two days later had delivered 5x16 gallons.

Yields were much lower than today. In 1921 two cows gave over 700 gallons, nine over 600 and nine over 500.

The milk went to the creamery in winter and 4300 gallons went that way, at 28 old pence per gallon in January, down to 19 in March. The summer milk was evidently used for cheese which was the largest single income for the farm.

Jimmy was pleased to acknowledge the hard working present day owners of Balcraig, which continues as a thriving dairy farm.

Probus farming members turned out in force for this talk and the questions afterwards could have gone on all day.

They were brought to a halt by an appreciative vote of thanks from fellow retired farmer Russell McClymont.