How I Became a Writer – March 1919

As unkind circumstances forbade my attendance at Wednesday evening’s function when members of the agricultural world met to do honour to Mr MacNeilage as Agricultural Editor and Secretary of the Clydesdale Horse Society, perhaps I may be allowed here to pay a tribute to his open-mindedness in allowing the woman’s voice to be heard through me. This was, I think, something new in the farming world.

In the early days of The Scottish Farmer well do I remember hearing my father and brothers discussing the new paper, and slowly but surely the feeling deepened in my mind that in the Press, and in public meeting, and in discussion, the women of the farm were not recognised at all as partners in the industry. To read through, week by week, an up-to-date farming paper, one would think that the wives and daughters never did anything but cook and clean furniture.

As a member of an old fashioned Scottish farming household I knew the real facts of farm life: that the knowledge, and skill, and labour and brains of the women supplied half and often more than half the driving force in the districts with which I was most familiar. There grew in my mind a desire to speak out aloud on behalf of that large body of women so essential to the continuance of agriculture, in the hope that I might perchance be able to do something to widen and brighten their outlook, and at the same time awaken in the menfolk, a new sense of their value.

Accordingly, with some diffidence — for I was very much younger then than I am now, and conscious of not being at all an important member of the farming household — I asked the Editor of this paper if he could grant space for an occasional article on farm life from the woman’s point of view. To my astonishment he promptly replied not merely that he would do so, but he thanked me!

I remember well that letter beginning, “I must really thank you…” which in modest silence I passed round a dour, undemonstrative family circle, much given to thinking I was not of the true breed of our ancestors who tilled the soil, and talked of crops and beas’, and held toon’s buddies in contempt.

Now, an agricultural editor requires to understand the entire problem and the whole needs of the farming world in a wider sense than is possible to any farmer engaged in the industry. I think that will be recognised by every intelligent farmer who gives the matter a thought. Agricultural journalism has moved since the days when Mark Twain found it possible to make two continents laugh at his sketch of an ignorant townsman editing a farming paper.

To apply this truth to my own small department, all will agree with me that a farmer as editor would not have given me free licence to write on subjects unconnected with housewifery. That was how I interpreted a complaint that was made in the early years of the “Household” column to the Editor: to the effect that the writer spoke — or wrote — over the heads of her readers, and she was requested to come down to earth and give more space to recipes.

Now that farmer’s whole faculties would be so entirely engrossed by the arduous business of his calling that he had not the eyes to see that the writer was a lonely member of a plain family sitting in the centre of a farm household daily pondering all its difficult problems nor had he the ears to hear that she was speaking out of the fulness of her heart’s experience.

He had the common vision of farming women as creatures too busy and practical to have mind or heart for anything outside the activities of the house, the dairy, and the byre, according to their circumstances.

I do not think I was mistaken and I am proud to say the Editor has supported me in this in believing that one’s best thoughts are not too good for the great unknown public of women, living, and working, and loving, and suffering in thousands of solitary farms all over the world. One speaks over the heads of people only when one is not one of them and no one could ever make the mistake of thinking that I was outside the common family life. But I forgot for a moment! One reader — a man, of course! — was doubtful of my sex. He rather thought I was a man and he would have like to see me to assure himself of the truth..

I could tell some strange stories of correspondence I have had, but will content myself with one. I forget his name and address, but years ago I heard indirectly that he had left the country, and was then dead. His letter was really a priceless specimen of a certain type of narrow Scot. It was a gem of the most genuinely unconscious humour. In short, he wrote to give me a lecture and a sermon combined on the error of my morals. But it is not that I wish to relate.

He said that he “used to” admire me, and that when The Scottish Farmer arrived, he sat and read aloud my column — omitting the recipes no doubt! —to his wife, while she worked; adding, with delicious simplicity, “this saved time.” Apparently, it would have been a waste of her time if she sat down to read. No wonder the Editor, with a host of these patriarchal taskmasters in his eye, timidly suggested that I should keep more closely to recipes.

But I am by nature a revolutionary of the most peaceful domestic kind, and had no intention whatever of being influenced by rural patriarchal prejudices, except to overcome them by “sweet persuasiveness.” And probably no other Editor would have allowed me so much freedom of speech in that most conservative section of the British community — the farming world.

May I say a word about the conditions under which the Press matter is penned before it appears in print. Much of it is gathered in the auction ring, the show-yard, meetings of all kinds, sales etc., written in trains, hotels, at desks and tables, some in the office.

But not a word of mine was ever written at a desk. More frequently is it written on my knee in a chair by the fire side, with the family talk going on around me. Frequently seated on the hearthrug, with the little ones playing beside me building byres with wooden blocks. Sometimes lying in bed when laid aside with illness which has too frequently been my lot. At times watching by a sick-bed and the pad and pen have hastily been put down to administer stimulant to my patient or adjust the bed.

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