Work Starts with Lanterns – November 1906

A writer in a local weekly expends some picturesque pity upon the early farm worker. He had been staying with a country friend for the week-end and before starting for an early train looked into the yard to see lanterns like “will o’ the wisps” flit in and out of various sheds and offices. He was much impressed with the “dreariness and eeriness” of the spectacle. He thought of the words of Caller herring.”:

 “When ye were sleepin’ on your pillows.
Dream’t ye ought o’ oor puir fellows?”

The gloomy picture he continues was not without a hint of brightness. The movements of the workers were not only brisk but blythe. A boy sitting on a doorstep waiting to start with the milk for the Glasgow market was actually whistling. And not merely a forced stoical whistle; it was a whistle that was not only melodious but enlarging. (I know that boy, lots of other boys). “It broke through the clouds of one’s mind and was a prophecy of the coming day.”

Unconsciously that worthy journalist adds a delightful touch of humour to the familiar picture. He paints his own town-bred face with its cauldrife shrinking and its pinched nose peering fearfully through the half open door at the cheerful bustle which vivifies the morning darkness. The one hint of dreariness lies in that alien face.

There are three essentials to full enjoyment of the winter mornings — good health, habitude and an active share in the work. Perhaps the fishermen enjoy their midnight wrestlings with the fish. I should be sorry to think they didn’t.

Some of the most exhilarating moments of my life which leave a lingering glow in the memory have been in doing battle with the darkness and cold, furious wind, stinging sleet or shrouding snow in assisting with the necessary morning work of the farm.

The sense of close companionship with men women and animals makes the darkness warm. The light streaming from the kitchen window, the numerous lamps moving about the buildings, dispel gloom, the clatter of pails, the tramp of clogs or heavy boots, shouts and pawings from the stable, the gentle clanking of chains as the cattle munch their morning meals, the shrill voices of lads and lasses raised in altercation. How can any human soul be dull amid such cheerful sounds?

There is one moment of perfectly pleasurable physical sensation. It is pitch dark and, as you struggle across the yard, the elements exert their utmost to beat you down or fling you with the whirling straws against the buildings. The byre door is difficult to open. It is happed with strawy dung to keep out the blast. You open it with fumbling, freezing fingers and it bangs behind you with such force as to send you stumbling over the heap at the foot.

But suddenly you find yourself in an enchanting world. All is still and warm and light and cheerful. The delicious swish of the milk falling into the pails is only equalled by the fragrant odour peculiar to the winter byre — an odour composed of steaming milk, meadow hay, fresh turnips and the breath of the kine.

With tingling ears and panting breath, just escaped from the storm, you enjoy for a few brief seconds that too rare sensation — that it is good to be alive. Would that a Thomas Hardy would arise to give our northern farm life that place in literature which he has given to Devonshire rural life. There is romance in its winter gloom.

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