‘I became the orraman, defined in the dictionary as ‘a farm worker kept to do any odd job which might occur’.’
Mona McLeod worked in Kirkcudbrightshire during the second World War. The girls were given heavy agricultural work in fields, with animals, carrying hundred weight sacks, sawing wood, felling trees, filling up rat holes. This unique memoir provides a valuable record of a time when women faced the rigorous physical challenges involved in winning the war at home.
Excerpt from A Land Girl’s Tale: Concentrating on Winning the War
By Mona McLeod
Published by Scotland Street Press
With a rainfall of fifty-eight inches, Galloway was ideal dairy country. Snow and frost rarely lasted and grass often grew for eleven months in the year. On adjoining farms the Armstrongs usually had over one hundred Ayrshire cows. At Littleton, the larger of the farms, they made cheese. My training started disastrously in the dairy which was staffed by the dairyman and his wife and daughter. Milking started at 5am, cheese making after breakfast and the second milking about 4pm. Most of the cows would let down their milk to machines but the ‘difficult’ cows had to be hand-milked. By the end of the week every cow I had tried to milk had gone dry. The dairyman suggested that I should be moved to the stables: the cows and I were equally delighted.
There I was much happier. Horses keep more civilised hours than cows and we had always got on well together. There were five Clydesdales at Littleton, three at Townhead, and it was 1944 before the first of the tractors which were to replace them appeared. The thistle-cutting part of my training became much easier when I persuaded the men that I could manage a proper scythe better than the inefficient hook which was thought to be more appropriate for a girl. But to the end of the War I depended on one of the men to sharpen my scythe.
One of the pleasures of a mixed farm is the variety of the work. I became the orraman, defined in the dictionary as ‘a farm worker kept to do any odd job which might occur’. They usually worked on their own. I did most of the carting – hay, corn, turnips, dung and lime – and simple operations like drilling with one horse or harrowing with two. The men did the ploughing and, with three horses, drove the binder. I have ploughed, but would not claim to be a plough-woman. In my first summer I was entrusted with the hay rake, a simple horse-drawn rake which gathered cut grass into rows. These were ‘coled’ – drawn into small heaps manually – and a few days good drying would turn the grass into hay. This would be built into small stacks for further drying. Given a week of good weather, these would be carted to the steading, built into larger stacks and stored for winter feed. Inadequately dried grass would heat and moulder, ruining the hay. Silage, better suited to the Galloway climate, did not reach the Armstrongs’ farms till after the War. A method of preserving grass which had been developed in the thirties, it required a pit in which to store the grass – the silo – and a tractor to provide the pressure necessary to exclude the air. Cut green, the grass was stored in the silo and each layer compressed by the tractor and sprayed with molasses. When full, the silo was covered with a plastic sheet weighed down by old tyres or earth. The smell was terrible but animals loved the end product. In the large black bags seen in the fields now, air has been excluded by the pressure of the baler. Silage has taken the place of hay as the main source of winter feed.
Haymaking in the west of Scotland will always be a gamble; so too is the harvest. Heavy summer rain can flatten the crop and lack of sunshine delay ripening. Wheat and barley were limited to the arable farms of the east. In the west the use of combine harvesters was delayed until efficient drying techniques had been developed, but the horse-drawn binder worked well, cutting and tying the oats into sheaves and throwing them clear of the machine. Before any reaping machine could operate, the old-fashioned scythe had to be brought into use to clear a path round the field. One of the men would scythe the crop growing on the head rig and two of us would follow him, gathering the cut corn into sheaves and binding them with their own straw. A squad of workers would then follow the binder, building the sheaves into stooks, usually eight to a stook. If the sun shone they might be ready for stacking in a week but too often it rained and the corn began to sprout. The increasingly bedraggled stooks then had to be moved, sometimes repeatedly, to let in dry air and the harvest could drag on till September. During hay and harvest we worked a sixty hour week – seven to six – without extra pay. From six to eight there would be overtime at ten pence an hour for a woman. Although we might have worked longer the horses couldn’t. Unlike tractors, they had to have food and rest.
A Land Girl’s Tale: Concentrating on Winning the War by Mona McLeod is published on September 30th by Scotland Street Press priced £7.99. The Scottish Arts Club in Edinburgh hosts the launch event on 28 September from 6-8pm.