October 19, 2008

Daft Laddies – Larnin te clip

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

Without doubt, the best option for a Daft Laddie was te larn te clip as quick as possible because then you gained the exalted status of a "clippor". Even if you were the slowest clippor in the North Tyne or Rede, it didn’t matter. The main thing was that if you could clip, you freed from the menial chores at clippin’ time. What were these chores? Here’s a few to remind you.

Catchin’: This was the first job for the laddie – catchin’ the yowes and dragging them to each of the clippors in the gang waiting spaced out on the clipping green. And Aa can tell ye, those owld yowes were gey fly as they'd been te far ower many clippin’s not to remember the struggles, the draggin’, and the final indignity of being cowped on thor arsees and feelin’ the cowld shears arroond thor lugs, belly and tits. Sheep have long memories and recent science has proved what ivvry heord and Dft Laddie has aalwes knaan!

In these struggles, you started off thinking the Blackies’ horns were grand handles te hing on be, but you’d soon lost the skin off your fingors draggin’ the add sinnors as they dug their front feet inte the clarts. They needed Eddie Bell from the War Ag and his Fordson Major te shift them.

Real fly owld bitches would forst pull back, and then give a muckle spang forrard to catch ye off balance while ye wor fummlin’ wi' the sneck o' the wicket oot o' the pen. The wicket would fly open, the old bitch would buck-jump ower the top of you as you spat oot the clarts, and at least three others would git oot ahint hor.

I can still hear the gollarin’ and feel the embarrassment. "How! How! HOW!! - shut the bluddy gait man! Hell's bells, bugga me days!" as the escapees louped and jinked their way like Gareth Edwards through the clippers on the green, upsetting their sheep.

Hope always rested in the words- "Moss cum away bye heor!" You prayed that owld Moss would be able to get up enough revs from his sleep to stop the escapee before the half-shorn fleece spread oot ahint hor like a bride’s weddin train and you had to drag hor back from the main road with the bus gannin past! It was such a relief when the boss declared that each clippor would catch his own sheep.

The hoggs. You dared not catch these young sheep by their horns as they could be easily brokken off. Ye beggor o’ Hexham, that was trouble! The hot iron brand couldn’t then be burnt on the horn to denote ownership or age, and you'd bugga’d the leuk o' the sheep inte the bargain. The correct technique was to hing on to the wool as the young demons louped up and doon as if they had spring interiors. But at least they weren’t the weight of the yowes, but could kick just as hard.

In-Bye yowes: These were always bigger and heavier than the hill Blackies. Some of them were crossbreds such as Mules (Hexham Bluefaced Leicester x Blackface or Swaledale). It was like catching and moving young hippos, trying to steer them towards the clippor before giving them the final cowp at his feet. Each catch and drag was like taking on Dessie Ward in the wrestlin’ at Bellingham show.

Blackface yowes ready for clippin. Photo by Helen Graham

Crossbred in-bye yowes had nee horns, wool right up to thor lug ruts and the wool aroond theor hint ends was usually aall caeked wi' daggy clarts. These sarely blunteed the sheors as you chowed through them. It was hilarious to see heords’s jaws gannin’ in synchrony with their shears when the going got tough!

The oot-bye hill yowes: These were lighter and had nice bare bellies where the heather had rubbed all the wool off as they raked the fells. But they often had much less rise, especially if they had reared twins so it was hard te git a gud bite inte the rise on the wool, and you could spend ages snippin away at then with the points of your shears.

The tups: The greatest battle was always with the tups. For a laddie larnin’ te clip, the forst skill was to learn how to cowp the brutes on to their hint ends in easy reach of where you’d left your shears. Then you had to oppen them oot roond thor horns and lugs which wasn’t so bad. But when you lent over to start and oppen up the belly (tekin’ great care not to nick thor button or the worm-like appendage on the end of their slightly protruding penis), their great antlers scraped your own belly, and they were a threat to your own crown jewels! Gittin’ forthor doon arroond their porse was another kittle area with a high risk of losing control.

The sods seemed te knaa when to kick, and owld tups were as cunning as wrestlers in knowing when you were off balance. They’d give a quick twist, a loup and they’d be gone with their clipped fleece getting longer by the second as it stretched in their wake. The resulting gollarin’, swearin’ and loud advice from the veterans sometimes browt the women folk oot the hoose. This was surely worth a bit keek and thank God video cameras were not invented –gobby comments about your inability to cope with the lassies in the eightsome reel at the local dance for the next few weeks were bad enough!

Laying your shears doon on the grund was not a good idea when wrestling a tup as cases had been known of their back feet getting caught in the spring, and the shears travelling like guided missiles across the clipping green and ending up in the rails of the pens.

But a real laddie’s cunning trick was to git a troublesome tup laid on his side as soon as possible, by sticking the end of his horn into the soft grund and get your knee across his neck. That anchored the brute for a while till you had to lift him back on to his hint end again te de the other side– a move he was sartainly looking forward to!

A really skilled clippor could get the fleece off even a muckle tup in about five minutes with the hand shears. The most a Daft Laddie could expect would be to emerge after half an hour with two thirds of the fleece intact, and only two calls for “bottle of dip or Stockholm tar” to put on cuts, the tup buisted in nearly the right place and himself covered in clarts, eke, sweat and pride.

"Rowin wool": Rowin’ up the fleeces was not the most exciting job - unless the sarvant lass or the landgirl was assigned to help. You laid the shorn fleece out flat, flapped each side in and rolled it up, starting at the tail. The real tricky part was to twist the neck into a band, which was then whapped roond the fleece to hold it in a nice tidy roll. You did this by kneeling on the fleece and at the same time you pulled and twisted to make the band from the neck. You had to be able to tell the neck from the hint end first, of course. If the fleeces were sair cotteed or like little ready-made rugs because the wool was all matted together, then you had to cut a band with the shears.

Wool waiting to be rolled. Photo by Helen Graham
The Blackies were always rolled with the ootside oot or the skinside in. In contrast, mules and crossbred sheep were rolled the opposite way – skin side oot. Nobody ever seemed to know why wool merchants required this bit of routine, or whether it mattered if you ignored it. Maybe it was used as a quick way to identify wool types in the store

Sometimes the rolled wool was packed on the clipping green into the packs strung up between two posts, using a stone the size of an apple in the corner to tie the rope around. But more often packin’ the wool was a wet day job in hay-time, done in the byre or the barn where the wool had been stored and there were plenty of handy beams to hang the pack on.

There was always the chance that the sarvant lass or landgirl might cum oot and help poss the wool in the bale before the top was drawn together with wooden skewers and then sewn in big stitches using a big packing needle and non-slip knots that you had to learn to do. It was so easy to get the needle stuck and then after pulling like mad, it would come through the bale and stab you in the chest! The sewin’ had to be well done as you would hear aal aboot eet if some of your packs borst oppen on the way to Hexham on Tucker's wagon.

"Buist": This was the shout you’d hear as the clippor took the last few cuts on the sheep. It was the call to bring the farm mark or brand which stayed with the farm, even after the tenancy had changed. These letter brands were made by the local blacksmith and the position on the sheep was recognised throughout the district and had been so for donkey's years.

“Buistin” was an important job for some poor soul. The buist was dipped in raddle and had to be placed in the correct position on the sheep so you had to quickly learn the geography of a cowped sheep while held by the clippor. The job was rich in hazards. You'd risk a gollarin’ for ower much keel, not eneuf, mekin’ a slaistor, puttin’ it on the wrang plaece, on upside doon, on the wrang side or buistin’ the clippor! There was the ultimate insult of "hurry up man - she'll dee o' hungor waitin’ o’ ye cummin”.

"Bottle or Tar": Stockholm tar was the cure for cuts or raw skin caused by the ravages of maggots or "maaks". The bottle was dip or strong disinfectant kept to kill the maaks and dowse the surrounding area. Then some tar would be applied. The buist operator usually did both the bottle and tar.

Great diplomacy was called for in this job. You had to guard against making such comments as "Oh yon's a nasty cut, Tom”, or "Is yon a tit yi’ve nicked theor Ozzie?” You had to be impartial and show no interest in the predicaments of sheep or clippor.

The bairns were a real menace - far too damnd observant and ower big i’ the gob. There was nowt worse, especially when larnin’ if a shrill, clear and excited little voice informed the entire clippin’ green that - "Uncle Norman’s cut the tup's widdler!” Or the question "Where's all that blood coming from, Uncle Hector?" Perfectly innocent bairns’ questions you may agree that deserved an honest answer. The solution, if you were "catched", was to give a great gollar - "Git these blowd bairns awae oot 'o heor, afore they gan and git thorsels hort!"

Is thor much rise?: This was always a great concern and topic of conversation at a clippin’. A good rise or growth of new wool allowed you to dig in the shears and taek greet gobfu's of wool with each cut. "Nee rise" meant a frustrating and slow snip-snipping with the points of the shears trying to avoid cutting the tissue paper-thin skin and the need for frequent application of the bottle and tar.

The trick, if you were catching your own sheep, was to learn to recognise these owld biddies with nee rise by the wool aroond their necks, hoping that somebody else was either brave or daft enough to grab them first. When you got really smart, you could feel for the ones with bare bellies as you went into the pen without being seen to be "waling" or sorting the good from the bad. If you were suspected of such a low deed, someone arranged that you ended up with some real nightmare of an owld bitch left especially for you when everyone else had finished.

But the final humiliation was when the the boss came along with a handful of grass for the sheep you’d been struggling with for the last half hour, wondering if she was maybe, "gittin’ hungry and needin’ a bite afore dark!"

Willie Robson told us that at the Willow Bog clippings in the 1930s, which lasted a minimum of three weeks, they all looked forward to the arrival of the “muggers’ from Copshawholm (Newcastleton). They went to all the larger farms at clipping time, to perform their show dressed in masks, told stories, danced, sang, played music – and supped his father’s whisky! What a wonderful “in-house entertainment” it must have been - far better than television, a video or DVD!

The modern handpiece used in machine shearing.
What would the old heords have thought about this 'newfangled clippor'?
Photo by Helen Graham

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