October 19, 2008

Daft Laddies – The lost art of the scythe

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

Photo: An old daft laddie (Clive Dalton) deftly demonstrating the 'hack' method 50 years on.

The scythe generally struck terror into a Daft Laddie hired for the hay up the North Tyne and Rede valleys. I (CD) tried so hard and had so many mentors who tried to teach me, but all I ever achieved was to be able to “hack” and never truly “mow”.

It was an important craft to learn as you had to mow the dyke back after the mower in the hayfield, and scythe a roond of the cornfield to let the binder in rather than flatten good standing corn, with the inevitable waste. You may also be required to mow some reshees for theak to thatch the hay or corn stacks, and mow thistles on wet days.

Railway surfacmen
The masters of the scythe were the North Tyne railway surfacemen who maintained the permanent way up the valley. Each year a large part of their work in summer was to mow a strip about two yards wide next to the track. This was to reduce the chance of fire from the train’s het ashees and for general tidiness. The Cooncil roadman who tended his length on the road was also gey good at the art as his work was in constant public view.

What used to make me mad was that I spent hours studying experts like my workmate Jack Gibson and others, and I could never get the real shaving action they could. They could shave a lawn with a scythe like the best of modern mechanical mowers.

Jack Gibson used to remind me that when a scythe is gannin’ right, it’s the only farm tool where you use “ivory muscle in your body, an aall yor body parts should be swingin’ just nice an’ bonny from side te side with each cut”. I never achieved that state of physical euphoria, but then I wore underpants!

The Set
Like all bad workmen, I fell to blaming the tools. I knew that there was a lot in the “set” of a scythe. When you held the scythe ready for action, the tip of the blade had to reach the toe of your outstretched foot. I had nee bother sharpening it with lang flowin’ actions of the stone copied from the experts. I could even carry the stone in an owld sock on me belt like they did.

But my first blow was either a dig in with the point, or a dangerous sweep upwards cuttin’ air. There was rarely a nice swath of mown grass left at the side. All the verbal support of “relax man, just let hor flow – tek time, nuw nice and stiddy” was of little use. So I resigned myself to never being a mower, and being more of a hacker.

Two types of scythe
There were two main type of scythe, one with a single long bent ash shaft or sned, with two handles (nibs) along it, (American sned). The other was a two-piece Y shape with a nib at the top of each leg of the Y, (Scotch sned). I tried to use this difference as a reason for my confusion saying I would be better with the other one – but to no avail.

But every time I see a scythe in a museum these days, I have this terrible urge to have just one more go as I can still hear my owld mate the late Jack Gibson’s urging from up abun sayin – “just let hor flow man, let hor flow.”

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