A war worker, somewhat wearied of the dirt of the turnip field, looked over the hedge at the fragrant hay being tossed into mounds and told me in confidence she thought she could manage that easily. I do not know whether she got the chance or not, but I have and don’t mind telling everybody that it is not as idyllic as it looks.
Farmhands are very short indeed and the sodger once worked on a tiny farm in far-away Ireland. To be sure, the schule-weans have got holiday, but only one of these has muscles of ten years’ growth.
The War Office is firmly persuaded that agricultural labour is not one of the skilled crafts. So some farmers perforce serve their country — and themselves — by working from 4 am till 9 pm for five days in the week, leaving off at six o’clock on the sixth day.
Now, if we wanted to get to the “toon” on market day, we had to help to get the hay into “queyle.” Coming out at the “en’ door” it was a fair prospect which spread in undulating folds of richly cultivated land to Rowallan woods in the east, Arran rising out of the shimmering sea in the west, and far to the south the hills of Cumnock dreaming in the noontide haze.
Rich clumps of dark green on many a knoll and slope betokened the farm-steadings and the irregular roofs of the ancient village in the deepest hollow risen here and there above the mass of encircling foliage. The square grey tower of the auld kirk on the higher ground, backed by deep green woods, reared itself in solemn dignity as if it had withdrawn apart from the common ways of toiling men and women.
In contrast to this luscious green of midsummer woods were the numerous lightsome fields of hay, some half cut, some in swathe, part in queyle, and many in rick — the lovely gay tints of it all defying the pen or the painter’s brush. The very ricks themselves, so gracefully pointed, at a little distance, appeared to rest as airily — not a shower had flattened them — on the soft green carpet as a group of country maidens attired for the dance.
As we walked down the easy slope of the first field, the poetry of it all seized the imagination as the scent of the cut grass entered the nostrils. But I had worked in the hayfield last year, and I knew.
We each chose our fork and our row. The horse-rake was going from side to side drawing the hay into lines. I determined not to look on how my “neebors” — more skilled and with harder musces than mine — got their hay into heaps faster than I could.
The natural and easy way is to “coil” it. I looked admiringly and enviously at the finished “coils” of the skilled workman; the humplock of hay folded over and round itself as firmly and gracefully as a girl I know coils her mass of hay-coloured hair.
The wind has no hold upon it. But the breeze plays tricks with mine in the building. I get a “coil” for a start, but it is merely a foundation, and it is then built up by one forkful above another — so loosely held on my fork usually that in the lifting the wind blows it over me and over the wrong side of the rising queyle.
Of course, I see well enough how the experts coil one layer after the other on the prongs of the fork, then lift it high over their heads and deposit it with a dexterous twist on the top of the half-finished erection, but my untrained muscles lack the power. Nevertheless, although rather loose, mine looked just as well as the others and I was not very much behind.
“Wull Ah help you?” asked the ten-year-old, having been deposed from the seat of ease and honour on the horse-rake, as he was not making the lines regular enough. Five minutes sufficed to prove that he had strength and skill beyond mine at the work.
He handled his fork — a four-pronged one — with the art of a professional, and our row of handsome queyles rapidly stretched towards the foot of the field. Then I said we had better each make a start of our own, and I was soon deeply engrossed, body and mind, in negotiating a difficult slope, where the hay lay thick and heavy.
Standing to take my breath, after completing this, I saw the four-pronged fork stuck idly in the ground beside the next swathed line of hay, and the owner of it not to be seen. Somebody else caught sight of the idle fork, and cried aloud, “Whaur’s that rascal?”
The next field curved steeply to a winding brook. Young stark figures flashed long its banks, drying themselves in the wind, after bathing in the pools. Was he one of them? Then our eyes caught sight of a small figure half hidden by the grassy shelving bank, with thin white arms bare to the oxter guddling between the stones.
The call, “Come on here, you bad boy,” wafted from the hay to the burn, brought him to his feet and the yellow head came tossing up the brae to where the fork stuck idly by the patient hay. “Ah wiz ginnlin’ troot for oor tea!” cried the saucy truant. And we almost wished we had let him stay to catch “troot,” so desirable was the very sound of the word to our hot blood and parched mouths.
One end of the field finished, we moved up to where the lengths were shorter, as a square was left in the centre meant for seed. Was I getting tired, or was the hay lying thicker here? I looked hopefully beyond to where the raker was drawing the hay into large heaps, so that all the forkers had to do was to pile each heap into a symmetrical cone.
But when I stuck my fork into the twisted mass, and tried to bend it over, I might as well have tried to move a stack. Clenched teeth and resolute pride helped me not at all. Not a wisp of hay could I disentangle. One of the lasses came up laughing and asked if I was beat.
Frankly and gladly I owned defeat. Although as small as myself, she stuck in her fork and tore out huge hard coils of hay. She could not carry out the intention of the raker and twist the heap round upon itself, so she had to begin by tearing it apart.
At this moment, I was comforted by an exclamation from another voluntary worker. “Ah’m awa’ hame! Ah can dae naething wi’ thae humplocks. Thae’se fur men buddies.”
Gladly I turned my face housewards. But first I looked towards the lovely village in the hollow. The grey kirk tower seemed to sink solemnly at the dust of generations of my forefathers sleeping under its shadow. Their dry bones stirred, and I fancied them laugh softly to each other at the awkward weakness of their degenerate child.
“Hphm. Makkin’ sic a sang aboot a pickle h’y. “ I looked across two or three fields at the places of my grandfather, great and great-great-grandfathers, and I thought I saw them walking about their fields in their knee breeches and Scotch bonnet, summing up a woman by her strength and dexterity in the kitchen, the byre and fields, and I heard them say, “Sully thing!” as they passed me by with half a glance of good-natured contempt.
As I walked pensively up the brae, something flashed golden beyond the haunted roof trees of my forebears. It was a stretch of sunlit sea, paving the foot of Ailsa Craig. Never once did I hear any of my own people, past or present, speak of the rich and soft loveliness of this Ayrshire coast, of the beauty of this fold of Scottish earth on which they toiled before they took their last journey towards that auld grey tower. Though inarticulate, doubtless many of them admired it as much as myself and loved it more than I do.
My companion broke my reverie — “Oh, we forgot the black currants!” which we had pulled the previous evening. “Never mind!” I said. “I’ll boil them while you’re at the milkin’” Fruit and hay ripen together.