A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Hooptedoodle #261 - Nellie

This is another farm at another time, but the farm I used to visit had an old
Ferguson tractor - I even drove it a few times. Two gears - one to go along
the road, one to work on the fields. Interestingly, you had to stop to
change gear!
 More ancient history - I last met Nellie nearly 50 years ago (there's a song in there somewhere!), but I was discussing her with the Contesse recently, and thought she might make for an interesting Hooptedoodle - at least I can be confident that I shall enjoy writing it.

Toward the end of my time at university (in Edinburgh) I was "going out" (did we really used to say things like that?) with the young lady who eventually became my first wife. She lived and worked in Edinburgh, but she came from the Borders country - her dad was a farmer. Eventually, as was the protocol in them days, it became necessary for me to visit the Borders to make the acquaintance of her parents, and so a trip on the SMT bus (to Earlston) was undertaken, and I duly presented myself for inspection.

I was completely out of my comfort zone - I was a townie, born and raised - an Englishman, what is more. Her father was nervous about my being from Liverpool - I think he expected me to steal the wheels from his car.

The trip went well enough - everyone was very kind and tolerated my almost total lack of social graces - but it was a real culture shock. The farm was out in the wilds, a few miles from Greenlaw, in Berwickshire - it was so quiet that they had to wake me up for breakfast, or I would have slept through most of each day. The food was a lot better than the Students' Union, as you might imagine, and the Old Man took me to the sheep sales at Kelso Market on the Saturday. Interesting, but all very unfamiliar, for me - like a trip to the moon.

I also had to get the hang of the fact that the locals would consider carefully what they were going to say, and then say it - very slowly. They were, after all, used to weighty matters such as whether it would be dry enough for the harvest in September, whether the shift in market prices suggested that next year there should be less barley and more turnips - that sort of stuff. I, on the other hand, was accustomed to speaking very rapidly, without any thought at all, so communication was something of a problem - I really had to work at it.

In fact, these are the workers' cottages from the farm in my story - I think that
Hector and Beth and Old Nellie lived in the second one along. There was an old
smithy just behind these cottages, but I guess it fell down decades ago.
This reached its most extreme form when I met Nellie, a lady from another age. Nellie lived in one of the farm cottages, with her daughter Beth, and Beth's husband, Hector Small, who was officially the tractor man but pretty much ran the whole farm singlehanded. Nellie was enormous - about 6 feet tall, and built like the proverbial brick outhouse - she must have been in her mid 70s, but she could still lift a sack of barley that I would have struggled with (I saw her in action when I came to help at the harvest). She had hands like millstones, her face was bright red - weatherbeaten, like a trawlerman's - and her teeth were terrifying - she didn't have many, and they were irregularly positioned, but what they lacked in numbers they made up in size - they were enormous - like horse's teeth. If I appear to be painting a deliberately unattractive picture, that's not the case - this is what she looked like. At harvest time, her standard working attire included men's overalls, tied with string below the knee, Nicky Tam style, to keep the mice out, and a man's flat cap, worn backwards. Scary.

This is an 1884 painting of Berwickshire farm workers - I'm sure it is, but
 I understand that the weird sun-bonnet is what is known as an East
Lothian Ugly, so these may be incomers!
Nellie and I really couldn't understand each other at all - not a word - but I didn't see a lot of her. Because of her age she only worked outdoors at busy times of the year; otherwise she helped the farmer's wife in the back kitchen. The house was early Victorian, and the layout was typical for a farmhouse of that period - the back kitchen, the dairy, the passage that led past the room which was called the kitchen (which was really the main living room, but was also where the cooking was done, on a massive range) to the hallway, these were all separate from the family rooms - and had no carpets, no fireplaces. Also the two servants' bedrooms up the back stairs - these houses dated from an age when the womenfolk who worked on the farm would perform manual work when it was the season, but otherwise would do domestic service in the farmhouse. Nellie used to keep out of sight when there were visitors, even wheel-tappers from Liverpool.

Workers near Earlston, Berwickshire, sometime before WW1 - those look more
like the traditional Berwickshire bonnet. Naturally this is long before any
experience of mine, but Nellie must have been a young girl around this time - this
is the culture she came from. We are always about - what? - two handshakes from history?
She spent her entire life working on the land. I'm not sure when the Bondager tradition actually died out in the Border country, but Nellie seemed like the last of a breed (the Bondagers are a worthy subject for a separate book of their own, but you will be relieved to learn that I am not an expert). She had never been to school - she must have spent her childhood moving between farms as the seasonal work dictated. She could not read. She knew everything there was to know about planting cabbages, and how to look after sick lambs, but little else. She used sometimes to travel to Kelso (10 miles away) in Hector's car; she had visited Berwick on Tweed (maybe 20 miles away) a few times, but the last occasion had been years before; she had never been to Edinburgh (40 miles away), though she knew of the place. Every year, when she took her holiday, she packed up an old cardboard suitcase and walked - yes, that's walked - to the village of Gordon, maybe 8 miles, and stayed a week with her unmarried sister.

The wonder of it all is that, in Hector's cottage, there was the first serious colour TV I had ever seen. It seemed enormous (this in the days when TV screens still had round corners), and Nellie was delighted with it. This medieval peasant woman who had never read a newspaper (and could hardly understand the radio) used to sit and watch not only the world news, but also the Martini adverts and the travel programmes, with glimpses of sophisticated living that she must never even have heard of. I still feel giddy when I try to imagine what on earth she thought she was looking at.

The farm was sold off years ago. Nellie must have been dead now for almost half a century; her kind has disappeared. The automation of farming and the better pay and conditions offered by jobs in the textile mills in the Tweeddale towns - all these things changed the economics and the lifestyles of the area. One legacy is the last vestige of a particular housing problem for the local authority; they are dying out, but there are still a good few elderly people who worked all their lives on farms, in tied cottages. When the last family member with a farming job moved off to the town in search of better things, the old folks were often left with nowhere to live. Once they have died off, that will be the end of an age.


  1. My mother left urban Barrow in Furness to work on a farm in central Lakeland at the age of 14 (were my father met and courted her) in 1925 , I shudder to think how a modern 14 year old would cope , a different era , the last vestiges of Victoriana , Tony

    1. As you say, a different era - apart from anything else, I think people had more humble expectations - life was tough, so it was a good idea to get the hang of how tough it was while you were still young and vigorous.

  2. A very interesting glimpse into history here. Thank you!

    Best Regards,


  3. Brilliant! I had to share this with my missus - seems she remembers the type in rural Ayrshire during her childhood. Sadly even that area's ruralness has disappeared now, under new towns.

    Nice pic of the tractor - what's the chap on the unicycle at the back doing?

    1. Hi Chris - I'm not sure about the man at the back. Maybe he used to clean up after the horses, and they guaranteed him continued employment after the tractor arrived? No? - I didn't think so.

  4. Hi Tony, I can assure you that the spirit of Nellie is alive and well out here in rural France. My nearest neighbor who is 94 still drives to market and fetches her own wood in for the fire.

    1. Good for her - my former father-in-law used to reckon that they'd have to shoot Nellie to get rid of her - I know she outlasted him...

  5. An enjoyable read Tony, quite sobering in these times when we seem to have everything, probably too much? That last image I find fascinating, looking into those faces one does wonder what went through their finds on a day to day basis, I sometimes wish I could clear all of the junk from my head and see the world in simpler terms, but alas it's not to be. And those clothes and bonnets, they look so bunched up and uncomfortable, so formal in such a rural setting. A most entertaining post, thank you for bringing Nellie back to life for us :)

    1. It's all a bit specialised, and kind of a local interest, but there are some websites about the farming traditions of Scotland - especially the Borders. The Bondagers thing was very like slavery - nothing that didn't happen elsewhere - the difference is that in Scotland there are people still alive who remember - ancient history seems to be more recent in these northern areas.

  6. What an excellent and interesting read .. thanks for sharing that...

    1. Thank you for reading my hooptedoodles!

  7. Two of my uncles had dairy farms when I was young but neither had labourers. In fact I remember that when my eldest uncle became old enough to qualify for a government old age pension he retired from farming since he'd never had that much money in his life. The dairy business had however been more profitable than the egg farm my retired soldier grandfather had tried.

    That old house, where my Mom had spent her teens, was always a wonder to me. On the summers when I got to spend a week or two there the house and the whole farm felt like something from a mythical world full of hidden treasures and mysteries waiting to be discovered. It is probably why I love my 150 yr old retired-farmhouse home so much.

    1. I try to catch myself being stupid - thinking in terms of some maudlin farming past when everything was better and people were more honest etc - it isn't true - there are people around who try to pretend that some Utopian past did exist, but people also died of TB, malnutrition - life was unbelievably harsh in those days - we would struggle to survive - certainly I would have struggled. I think an important message, as Lee suggests, is that when we think we are having a bad day, it does no harm to think what a really bad day must have been like - every single day.