Tuesday, 19 July 2011

One Man Went To Mow, Went To Mow A Meadow.

This horrid looking scythe is one that I bought for a couple of quid at a car boot sale. The young fellow holding it somewhat reluctantly is my extremely handsome Son George. I would not recommend holding a scythe in this way, especially with one hand in your pocket. However George was a bit grumpy this morning because I had asked him to come out and pose before he had his breakfast. I didn't want to upset him further by asking him to look interested in his mad Fathers latest daft project. Normally he is a very happy youngster, and he is a good help around the place. Thought I had better put that last sentence in.
The blade is in a terrible state and I have decided that it is not worth the effort of restoring it. But I am going to use it today to illustrate why it is important to pay heed to warnings about sharp implements.
Here comes another anecdote from my time with my stepfather Jimmy.

Come haymaking time and several of Jimmy's friends would turn up at the croft with their scythes, ready for a days work. They did not get paid for their labour. It was a common reciprocal thing in this area of Scotland. At haymaking or harvest time all the neighbours would help each other out. In those days before the ordinary man could afford machinery to do the work it was a good thing to stay on friendly terms with other local crofters and farmers.

Have you ever watched an expert working with a scythe? They make it look so easy, and even enjoyable, as the cut their way through the long grasses. But it is not easy. It takes a long time to become proficient at mowing a meadow with a scythe.
I was keen to have a go, but I was not allowed. Not because I might injure myself. Oh no. But because I might injure the scythe. More precisely, I might damage the blade. Jimmy treated his scythe with a reverence normally associated with religious icons. Indeed the whole business of looking after the scythe took on an air of ceremony. It had it's own special place in one of the outbuildings. Where it was hung from it's very own hook. It was cleaned and the blade sharpened, before being oiled and wrapped in hessian. Which hessian was also soaked in oil. When taken down for use it would have the oil carefully wiped from the blade and then sharpened again. All through the working day it would be regularly honed, so that it was always working at peak efficiency. It would be fair to say that Jimmy was very fond of his scythe.
It was fascinating to watch how he used the sharpening stone on the blade. This too was a great skill. His stubby hand holding the stone seemed to move at lightening speed over the whole length of the blade. It was without exaggeration, razor sharp. It fact it was sharper than a razor. He showed me how by lightly touching it with his thumbnail, he could send a ripple along the sharpened edge.
I was expressly forbidden from going anywhere near his scythe when he was not around, but I was mesmerised by it. It became an obsession with me. I wanted to have a go a scything the grass, but most of all I wanted to have a go at sharpening the blade, with the stone, the way that Jimmy did. It surely wouldn't hurt to have a go. It looked so easy. I waited my chance, till one day when Jimmy was at work and my Mother was busy indoors.

Mum became hysterical when she saw all the blood, and all she could do was scream and throw a towel at me. I was in a bit of a state myself, but wrapped the towel around my hand and ran down to the nearby farmhouse. Mrs Gilbert the farmers wife, had a stronger constitution than my Mum. I had cut my thumb and forefinger through to the bone. She cleaned the wound and staunched the flow of blood as best she could, before pouring on a good splash of whisky, and bandaging my hand tightly.
After a nice cup of hot sweet tea, the usual panacea in those days. I was able to clean up the scythe and put it back on it's special hook.
If Jimmy noticed anything amiss he never mentioned it. I just had to make sure he didn't see my bandaged hand for a few days.
Do you know, I never even felt the blade cut me, it was so sharp. If I hadn't looked down when I did I might easily have sliced my fingers clean off.
The scars are a constant reminder that I was young once, and thought I knew it all.

The even mead that erst brought sweetly forth
The freckled cowslip, burnet and green clover
Wanting the scythe, all uncorrected,rank
Conceives by idleness, and nothing teems
But hateful docks, rough thistles, keksie, burs,
Losing both beauty and utility.

    Shakespeare, Henry V
After 50 years the scars are still clearly visible on my finger and thumb.


  1. No wonder they are associated with the Grim Reaper!
    I remember farmers using them in Wiltshire when I was a child visiting my Grandmother.
    Jane x

  2. I had a boyfriend in my teens. He used to work for a factory that made roofing tiles. His job was to push the tiles through a machine to be cut. He missed one day and the machine sliced right through the thick gloves and his middle finger. He hadn't felt a thing! It was later that the glove felt wet inside. When he took it off to investigate, the top of the finger fell out and the glove was full of blood!
    He had surgery to reattach the finger...but it was never the same again. Maa

  3. Your extremely handsome son George obviously does not share your interest in old farm tools. We used to play with the old scythes my grandfather left in the tool shed. We thought we were big-time farmers.

  4. So why would you want to buy one and sharpen it??

  5. Because they are perfect for haymaking Diane. Much nicer than noisy machinery, and the wildlife has a much better chance to escape to safety. They also have a sculptural beauty, and I am still fascinated by them.

  6. My dad attacked the field behind our house each August with one. Amazing what they'll do in the hands of a pro.

  7. I've lived too much of my life in the city, and am not old enough, so I don't think I've ever even seen a scythe up close. I can remember similar childhood injuries though.

  8. Good God Man, good thing you didn't try to shave with it!