The Wey Hid Wis

Grandma Leith

This section is based on things "in the minding o' me and me folk". In other words, events and activities in the last hundred years or so in Orkney that I or my parents or grandparents could remember.

There are articles I wrote for the local press and pieces based on notes my grandmother made about her work as a servant lass a hundred years ago.

Johina Jean Leith, nee Kirkness, was born at Newhouse, Knarston, Dounby on 15 February 1899. Her early life was very much the same as hundreds of other girls growing up in rural Scotland but Grandma was different, in that she lived into her nineties and left notes about aspects of her early life, especially the work of a servant lass.

These pieces are the work of three generations: Johina; her son and my father, Peter Leith, still around at 86 to be asked questions and me, old enough to just about remember a different way of life but young enough to need to ask questions.

The illustration is the cover of a book by Alexander Fenton, who also wrote The Northern Isles: Orkney and Shetland. He took the picture in the 1960s, of Grandma standing on the brigstones at the Leith farm: Appiehouse, Stenness

Grandma's notes were begun when she was asked to give a short talk to a Young Farmers Meeting, which began with this overview of how life was for the farmer's wife for hundreds of years. It really only changed after World War II, with mechanisation on the farm and the arrival of electricity and, even better, piped water.

My observations will be mostly from a woman's point of view! "Man worked from rise till set of sun but a woman's work is never done". I think that it must have been a small farmer's wife who said that.

I have often thought that the wife on a small farm that could not afford outside help was the hardest worked woman that one could think of. She had her family to look after, her house to look after, animals and hens to look after. She was also expected to take her place in the field whenever she was needed, at tattie planting, at tattie hoeing, turnip singling, hay-time, harvest, peats and so on.

The farm work had to take first place, the baking, washing and housework had often to wait till evening. Sometimes a rainy day could be convenient as well as inconvenient. The coming of tractors, instead of horses, has made a big difference in many ways to the wife as well as to the man. Tractors don't need the same daily attention and the man of the house now has more time for looking after the other animals

In the morning, a woman's work began with breakfast, in much the same way as it does yet, except that now as a rule she can switch on the electric kettle or gas cooker and have a cup of tea to start with. In winter one had to leave a warm bed, get a light and a fire. Filling the big metal kettle (if this had not been done the night before) it was hung on the cruik and one hoped that the fire would "tak sune" and burn brightly

The traditional Orkney fire was in the middle of the floor. It was a fire of peats built against a low wall and the smoke escaped through a hole in the roof. Even when chimneys of a more modern type came to the farmhouse, the fire on the hearth remained. Of course I think of peats.

Where I was born and brought up it was always a fire on the hearth with mostly three toed pots but I never remember the fire on the middle of the floor.

"Pittan on the fire was a work of art"


The night before, some partly burnt peats had been carefully covered with asse, or ashes, so that they would burn very slowly and be alive in the morning. One gently shook the asse off these peats called raking peats and set them up putting others round them. A yarpha peat, one of the thick fibrous kind that were cut from the heathery hill (nowadays I wonder how many people have seen a yarpha peat) was set up at the back and a few selected clods of good black peat were laid on top. It was considered very important that the fire should be kept on continually. There were no firelighters then and what was called "losan kenlin" was a serious affair. This happened if the raking peats had not 'caught life'. I have seen kindling carried from one house to another in a bucket. I wonder if there was any good or bad luck attached to the idea of 'losan kenlin'

If the fireplace was big there would be yarpha peats at both sides as well as at the back of the fire to keep the heat especially for an evening fire.

A well set on evening fire would still be throwing out a good heat at bed time.

The art of "settan on" a good peat fire will soon be lost as there are very few left. In fact the type of stove that was considered the height of luxury when I was young is rapidly disappearing although they could take a lot of beating when one thinks of the amount of cooking that could be done with them

I was very young when I got my first lesson on "Setting on a fire on the hearth". Scrape off the asse carefully and lift the half burnt kindling and set up two pieces "like a press (cupboard) and then fill in the middle with any smaller bits and gather the better clods round it while bigger peats were set round the outside.