October 23, 2008

Daft Laddies - Corn Stacks

Daft Laddies. Farming Tales of North Tyne and Rede 50 years on.

By Clive Dalton and Donald Clegg

An extract from the book - Daft Laddies. Farming Tales of North Tyne and Rede 50 years on (2003) By Clive Dalton and Donald Clegg. If you would like a copy, contact donaldclegg@btopenworld.com

Tidy little roond corn stacks
When the boss declared that the corn was riddy te lead heme, it was a signal for the hind and the daft laddie to git away and sort the stackyard. The sheaves of corn would soon be coming in to be stacked and there was more air of excitement aboot. It was another opportunity for the hind to show his skill, and any hind worth his crowdy secretly saw this as a highlight of his year.

It was also a time for the Daft Laddie to larn, and we remember being all eyes and lugs in the expectancy that one day we could maybe clim doon the lang lethor from the top of a completed masterpiece that we had built. Sadly, we were beaten by mechanisation in the form of the combine harvester.

The size and shape of the stack was determined by the grain, how fit it was, and tradition. There was also the point about the stacks being seen from the bus or the train, remember! Your stacks made a public statement about your standards and skills. Very dry barley would go into suw (sow) stacks about 5 yards long which were the shape of the an Ethel Bell's white loaf. Oats that had been cut on the green side to make good fother, and maybe wor not ower dry, would gan inti tidy little roond stacks about 3 yards diameter that really challenged the stacker's art. Here's an attempt to describe it.

The bottom
The stackyard sometimes had permanent stack bottoms made of flat staenes raised about 10 inches high, or on some farms they had permanent staene trrestles like a round table about 18 inches off the ground. But to start on the flat ground you made a 3-yard diameter circle of old fence posts like spokes in a wheel, or laid maybe 3 rows of draining tiles on the grund (that rats loved). This was for ventilation and to stop the damp creeping into the stack and causing mould. On top about a foot depth of bedding was laid.

On top of the beddin’ you made a stook with about 6-8 sheaves and wapped some twine arroond them te stop them collapsin. This started to raise the middle of the stack for when you started to build. Now if there was one rule that all the hinds and Daft Laddies will aye remember - it was to"aalwes keep your middle fuu!" The reason was simple. Like the hay stack, if the middle was full, then every sheaf you laid would have the straw sloping to the outside so any wattor that gat in wad rrun strite oot.

The sheaf
Now the key to stacking was to recognise and use the shape of each individual sheaf. The bottom or butt end of the sheaf was beaten at an angle by the binder (Fig 1) to make stooking easier in the field.

So when you laid it to form the flat outside wall of the stack, the sheaf had to be laid at an angle (Fig 2).

The forst roond
For the forst roond, you made a complete circuit of the stack on the outside and then came back around again with an inner layer in the opposite direction to tie in the outside sheaves(Fig 3). A ventilation hole was sometimes made up the middle of the stack by filling a poke with hay and then pulling this up the middle as the stack grew. Sheaves were laid around this hole (Fig 4), which added a fair bit of extra challenge. And remember the mantra - "Aye keep the middle fuu!”

Keep ganin’ rroond
Once the middle was sorteed oot, then start again on the outside layers as before, changing direction every round or every second one. You can see what a tightly bound work of art developed on the inside, while the outside looked quite plain. Any lang straas or butt ends that stuck oot were beaten in with a battor - a small flat board on a long handle (Fig 5).

Layin’ the sheaves
The stacker worked on his knees and wore proper knee pads, or sacks tied aroond the knees. Leather straps (Nicky Tams) tied below the knees were a help to keep your breeks lowse so they wouldn't drag doon and wear. The straa was gae hard on breeks because the sheaves were not just flapped doon - they were grasped, squeezed and rolled and pressed into place with your hands, then your knees. All this added to the binding of the whole structure. The person forking or pitching the sheaves to the stacker had a responsible job too, as the stacker expected the sheaf to land right at his hand just ready to pick up. You got a gollarin or two if it landed the wrang way, or you twisted some of the straws in the sheaf – or knocked his cap off.

If you were pitching sheaves, the target was always changing as the load you stood on got lower, the stack grew taller, and the stacker kept moving around the stack. On really big stacks there was a person called the stack heedor (header) who did the final pitching to the stacker. The pitcher on the load pitched to the header. Some of the women folk were experts at pitching sheaves and loved the job. They were good for a bit of fun anaal, while waiting for the next load if ye didn't mind gittin’ yor lug cracked occasionally.

Layin’ oot
This was the process of making the base or leg of the stack quietly grow so that when the rain ran off the pitched roof, the wattor wouldn’t run doon the side of the stack. If the vicar wasn't aboot you would explain this as “stoppin’ the stack pittlin’ horsel."

Layin’ oot was a kittle business as if the stack grew ower fast, then you may have the humiliation of gittin’ some props in afore she couped or went flat like a failed Yorkshire puddin’. (Fig 6). Funny thing was that stacks, like ships, were always referred to as “her”!

If you had to use props, then it was important not to put them in ower tight because when the stack settled you would never get them oot again. That was a real humiliation as these props lasted right through to the threshin’ when they would sartinly be noticed. So the first thing a hind did when he got to work the next day was te gan away and ease the props if they had been needed, and git them oot as soon as possible.

Layin’ the easin’
The "easin’" was the start of the roof and a layer of sheaves was laid to protrude slightly over the edge of the leg to shed the rain. The easin’ was laid when the leg was about 10-12 feet high and was done by laying sheaves on edge with the "lang ends doon" (Fig 7). At this stage, if there was a hole up the middle, it could be covered over with sheaves.

The top
Next came the tricky job of building the top or roof of the stack, remembering that the whole row of stacks had to be identical when viewed from all angles. Also remember the critics in the bus and the train, and the hind’s reputation! The top could be the same height as the leg, but stacks with tops taller than the leg always looked more dramatic and reflected your advanced skill. But mair roof meant mair theak and maire ropes remember – aall costing time and muney!

Layin’ in
The angled shape of the sheaf butt was also used to make the slope of the roof (Fig 8). This was “layin’ in” which was the opposite process to “layin’ oot”. However, the slope could be modified by giving the bottom of each sheaf a dadd before you laid it to alter the angle if it didn't suit you. The main point was that the sheaf was laid on its back and the same procedure followed to bind them all in as in the leg - ganin aroond in different directions and keepin the middle fuu.

Toppin’ out

Toppin’ oot could be a kittle business anall as there wasn't much room to work. A good dry stack had a fair bit of boonce which added to the fun. The easiest way was to top-oot with a forkfu’ or two of straw or bedding, to get a good round top to shed the rain like in a hay stack. You stood on the top until all was finished and shooted for the lang lethor. The top of hay was dressed with a rake to help shed wattor and tied on with some short ropes until the stack was covered.

Coverin’ or theakin’ (thatching)
If corn stacks had to stand a fair time before threshing, then they had to be properly covered or thaeked to keep out the winter weather. Covering was left to the end of harvest before the bad weather set in, and the key was to get some nice strraa or mebbe you would hev te gan away and cut sum reshees. The reshees were usually found on some wet bit of land or on the fell. They had to be good and long and without ower much grass in the bottom. That made them hard to cut with the scythe and meant mair work to clean them off.

The best reshees were those growing in deepish water, although cutting them meant wading aboot up to or ower yor wellie tops. Once a good area had been cut, the reshees were gathered up into sheaves, just like corn, except each handfull as it was picked up was whacked against your leg to get rid of the grass and short straws before layin’ it down on to the sheaf-to-be.

Next, two more handfulls were whacked then their tops knotted together to make a band which was wrapped round the sheaf, the ends twisted together and tucked under. All the sheaves were then carted back to the stackyard to be stored until needed.

It was great if some of the first stacks were threshed straight away to give some fresh bottles of straw to use as thatch for those threshed later. Straa was a lot nicer to use than reshees as it was very slippy when newly cut. It was best to leave straw bottles until the shine got off them. If the stacks needed protection for only a short period, and you didn't want all the work of covering them, then you could use a technique of letting some sheaves stick out in each layer so they hung down like thatch (Fig 9). It looked a bit of a rough job and wasn't popular with the experts.
Maekin’ the stingin’s or stobs
A “stinging” was a lump of covering or thatch that you pushed or "stobbed" into the butt ends of the sheaves in the roof. The thatch wasn't just laid on - it was actually pushed into the butt end of the laid sheaves so that the wind wouldn’t blaa it off.

To make a stingin’ you got a bottle of straa and pulled straa oot of it at both the ends with both hands. Literally drawing straws. You then put these together and maybe drew some more until you had a nice fat handful. You did the same with reshees.

Then you wrapped one end into a sort of knot and there you were, (Fig 10). You pushed this knot into the stack and let the lang ends hing doon. You had a short hazel stick to dress off any lowse strraas as you worked around the roof. The stingin’s were like tiles on a roof (Fig 11). When you got to the top, your artistic flare could then run rampant by tying the straw into a knob or a cock pheasant or owt you dare risk to impress your critics.


This was a delicate job and started with a girth or belly rope (Fig 12). All the other ropes were tied to this anchor. The ropes around the roof were called sweape ropes and started at one point and swept around the stack (Fig 13). When a series of these had been tied, the effect was that of a net (Fig 14).
When ready-made nets became available, then people opted for these as it saved hours of time as you just hoyed the net ower and hung a few horse shoes around the bottom until you got time to tie it down properly. Some of the old school considered nets to be almost cheating.

The final dressin’
The final dressin’ was where the real expert could win the day with some artistry. It was an art akin to dressin’ tups! Any lowse ends on the leg were again treated with the battor and then trimmed off with an old pair of sheep shears. Now the master stackers were not content with that. They got an old scythe blade and literally shaved the leg of the stack. The edge of the thatch around the easing was critical. If that was not level you really got your lugs chowed.

So now, all that there was te dee was te gethor up aa' the slaistor, ease the props and stand back and bask in a bit of self admiration. The highest accolade you would expect to hear was "Aye, gay tidy Jock, gay tidy."

Oh, there was one other thing. It was to hope that at that moment of the hind's glory or very soon after that the vicar, the bank manager, Bella big-gob from The Nettles and Hamish the hind from Mowdysike would just happen to be gannin’ past in the bus!

It always seemed sic a waste though, that these works of art, in only a few months, would aall be pulled te bits and swalleyd doon the drum o' Billy Irvine's thresher!

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