The glories of meadowland
In 1780 Thomas Clark of Tonnon in north Unst made a hash of his meadow. He kept mowing it, to the extent that he “spoiled the most part of it”, something which did not go unnoticed. Degradation of land by overuse soon shows in shallow soils. It was noticed, and he lost his meadow. His landlord took it away, though later, in the end of summer communal mow Clark was part of the team and was duly credited for his labour.
Meadows are lovely places, appreciated for their beauty as well as their utility. They are grassland, and grassland management is more subtle than often thought. The ancient way of cutting hay in August allows time for wild flowers to seed, and produces good quality hay for winter fodder. Afterwards grazing in the autumn gives some manuring and then the land can rest. It makes sense, and it looks marvellous. William Mouat, writing in the 1760’s, commented that “the meadows and enclosed pasture land are beautifully enamelled with flowers…” - a vivid phrase, and in some places still true today. It’s not rocket science. And it’s not wilding, but it’s not a million miles away from wilding.
In the 18th century meadows changed hands quite often, thereby differing from arable rigs, which stayed in the same family for years, even decades, changing hands only when the township was reorganised. Meadows varied greatly in size, some, apparently, being tiny – “too small to tether a cow on”, says one document of the time. Though people could see well enough how ridiculous that was, in that instance they were arguing for rationalisation of holdings. If a group of tenants shared the meadow, they cut and cured the hay jointly, afterwards dividing it equally (in Uyeasound they often, wisely, got a woman from another township to do the dividing.) Some men had a regular job cutting meadowland to the laird – John Henderson in Gardon cut and cured the isle of Gruna each year, and James Simpson, during a brief stay at Snaburgh, cut meadowland for TM at Belmont in addition to delving and thatching work. The process of haymaking is hard work - so is all unmechanised agricultural work - but it is traditionally a satisfying task, gathering winter feed against the dark months to come, getting it in before the rain comes to ruin it, and altogether a far more congenial labour than the misery of chopping swedes for the kye on an icy November morning.
It is normally preceded, and doubtless always has been, by anxious weather watching, and a frequently agonised appraisal as to whether cutting the grass unspoiled by rain and wind is preferable to leaving it longer to grow a bit more, but then finding the hay much poorer after heavy rain. One wise old owl argues strongly that quality is better than quantity. Not everyone agrees, but the debate continues.
Placenames spelt as in the original documents.
With thanks to Afra Dyer for her stunning photos